Scope out the views

Although I’m now officially an old man, I’m still trying to prove otherwise. On Sunday I biked from San Jose to the top of Mt. Hamilton, site of the Lick Observatory. (On a clear day, you can see the domes from Silicon Valley). It’s about a 20 mile, 4200 foot climb to the summit, and 20 back again. It wiped me out. But the Tour of California did Mt Hamilton and Sierra Road on a 120 mile stage into San Jose. Those guys cannot be human.

The ride was worth it though. I finally got to tour the grounds and see the old telescopes: the 36 inch Great Lick Refractor and the 120 inch Shane Reflector. Elegant instruments, from a more civilized age…

The only time I’d been up there was 19 years ago, at night, when the place was closed to visitors. It was the first week that I was in California as a summer intern at Intel. I arrived with two other Canadian graduate students from MIT. We “Three Amigos” had just gone out for dinner with our manager when I caught sight of the domes reflecting the setting sun. I had the bright idea of driving up to the observatory, even though I had no idea how far away it was.

So the three of us piled into the rental car and I drove up the steep switchback road to the summit. It seemed to take hours, and when we finally arrived at the summit, there was nothing to see but “No trespassing” signs. On the way back down, I had to stop while poor John got sick on the side of the road. That was our first ill-advised adventure of the summer, and set the tone for the next few months…

Lick Observatory - Wikipedia
Lick Observatory - Wikipedia

Dopers on wheels

A month ago, Prof. John Hoberman wrote a scathing review of drugs in professional cycling for MSNBC. As the Tour de France collapsed in scandal this week, it’s worth reviewing Dopers on Wheels: The Tour’s sorry history.

Hoberman says that drugs have always been a part of professional cycling, beginning with caffeine and cocaine fuelled six-day races back in the 1890s. These were dangerous experiments on the limits of human performance and the effect of drugs. And little changed in the sport until the Festina drug scandal during the 1998 Tour.

According to journalist and Dr. Hans Halter:

“For as long as the Tour has existed, since 1903, its participants have been doping themselves. No dope, no hope. The Tour, in fact, is only possible because — not despite the fact — there is doping. For 60 years this was allowed. For the past 30 years it has been officially prohibited. Yet the fact remains: great cyclists have been doping themselves, then as now,”

Hoberman is especially critical of the International Cycling Union and cycling teams that publicly condemn drugs, but privately ignore institutional doping. Race organizers might arrest and make examples of individual cyclists, but do little to procecute doctors, trainers and other co-conspirators.

The UCI’s so-called doping controls have been inadequate or even fraudulent, depending on how one views the integrity of its officials.

The UCI leadership, whose doping controls did not produce a single positive before the disaster of the 1998 Tour, remained in office. What’s more, average rider speed has increased steadily since the introduction of (presumably) stricter drug-testing to prevent the use of blood-boosting drugs.

Swiss rider Alex Zülle explained the pressure on cyclists:

“As a rider you feel tied into this system. It’s like being on the highway. The law says there’s a speed limit of 65, but everyone is driving 70 or faster. Why should I be the one who obeys the speed limit? So I had two alternatives: either fit in and go along with the others or go back to being a house painter. And who in my situation would have done that?”

Cyclists earn less than most professional athletes, yet must train constantly, endure incredible hardship and risk deadly crashes every day. They may never get much recognition, and must support the team leader who gets all the glory. All this to hold on to a spot on a team, the only job that many of them know. It’s no wonder so many are willing to risk so much for an edge over the competition.

Like Charlie Brown and the football

For the past week or so, I’ve been avoiding water cooler conversations at the office, so as not to spoil the surprise. I really don’t want anyone telling me how it all ends. I have to cover my ears and scamper back to my desk, shouting “I’m not listening to you, la la la …”

I’m sure others around the country are doing the same thing. We’re all caught up in this together. No, I don’t care what happened to Tony Soprano or Harry Potter. I’m referring to the Tour de France.

I’ve been recording the Tour on a friend’s DVR, and watching a couple of stages every few days or so. Which means I’m always a few days behind the news. That’s bad enough when there’s a major upset in the race. (Like Vinokourov coming back from the brink to win the Stage 13 time trial, and to conquer the mountains in Stage 15).

It’s a lot worse when there’s a scandal. And boy, do we have a scandal now. First Vinokourov fails a blood doping test. Not only that, but his entire Astana team was forced to withdraw from the Tour. (Taking out a couple of other top riders with him).

Well, that’s a shame. I had been rooting for Vinokourov for a couple of stages. He had come back from a bad crash, rode hurt, cracked in the mountains on Stage 14, then come back from defeat to win a really tough mountain stage.

I cheered him on – just like I cheered for Floyd Landis last year when, after a tough loss, he came back from behind to win a mountain stage, and eventually the tour. At the time, it seemed impossible that he could recover so much time, and reclaim the lead. Maybe it was. Only a few days later, Floyd failed a drug test. And the 2006 tour has been without a winner ever since.

So once again, justice was done. And the Tour caught one of the few cheaters.  Just one bad apple, right?

It got worse. The next day, the Cofidis team withdrew from the race when one of their riders tested positive for synthetic testosterone. And today, the other shoe dropped. Michael Rasmussen, the tour leader, was dismissed by the Rabobank team for failing to take drug tests this past Spring.

What happens now?  The Tour continues, but it’s a shambles. It’s hard to imagine how professional cycling can recover any credibility, after the past few years of drug charges and two disastrous tours. It’s hard to imagine sponsors will continue to fund the teams. Already T-Mobile is rumored ready to pull their support.

And it’s hard to imagine fans will continue to watch, wondering who is juicing, and if anyone is riding clean.

Just a few more bad apples? A few isolated cheaters? Doesn’t seem that way  anymore. And now I felt cheated, for having cheered on these guys. Fool me once, fool me twice…

Just keep buying lighter bikes

I met a lot of other cyclists on my bike ride last Sunday. There were the club riders, barrelling down the road in their matching outfits. There were the kids and casual riders, in tennis shoes and baggy shorts. And there were also some pretty serious riders making good time on the hills.

Surprisingly enough, a lot of them were riding well despite carrying a few extra pounds. (Let’s face it – I could lose a few myself). I’ve often noticed that overweight people can still be good recreational cyclists.

That’s the lesson of a New York Times article on The Bicycling Paradox: Fit Doesn’t Have to Mean Thin.

“When I first got into cycling, I would see cyclists and say, ‘O.K., that’s not what I perceive a cyclist to be,’ ” said Michael Berry, an exercise physiologist at Wake Forest University. Dr. Berry had been a competitive runner, and he thought good cyclists would look like good runners — rail-thin and young.

He came to realize, he said, that cycling is a lot more forgiving of body type and age than running. The best cyclists going up hills are those with the best weight-to-strength ratio, which generally means being thin and strong. But heavier cyclists go faster downhill. And being light does not help much on flat roads.

And fortunately, you can keep riding well into old age. Your recovery time might get longer, but sometimes you can still teach those youngsters a thing or two.

Tour time

California hosted the Tour of California during the last week of February. And like a small town kid when the carny comes to town, I had to play hooky to go see the elephant. I caught up with the riders on Stage 3, a 95 mile ride from Stockton to San Jose. Fortunately for me, the toughest Category 1 climb of the tour was just a few miles away on Sierra Road in San Jose.

Using the live web coverage to estimate their arrival time, I left work and drove to the tour route. In spite of the crowds, it was easy to park right next to Piedmont Road, and to hike a half mile up Sierra Road to the first tough climb. I could tell I was at a good spot when I noticed a bunch of costumed characters waiting for the riders. And that’s not just the local bike teams. One guy in an afro wig, superhero suit and cape has shown up on the toughest climb of each stage.

Sierra Road fans

We all waited impatiently for the tour to show up. People were speculating about who would be leading the pack. Local boy Levi Leipheimer was the favorite, but people were also routing for Jens Voight from CSC.

Finally, an army of tour cars and motorcycles announced the arrival of the cyclists. A small lead group made a determined bid to stay ahead of the peloton, but the main group, including race leader Leipheimer, was only a few seconds behind.

Sierra Road leaders Sierra Road peloton

It really was amazing to see some of the world’s best cyclists up close like this. Where else could you stand a few feet away from elite athletes struggling through such a challenging event?

The tour is a strange mix of the sophisticated and the ordinary. There’s hundreds (thousands?) of people working for the tour, but most of the course is manned by volunteers. Millions of spectators came out to watch and cheer, but nobody charged admission. The team cars carry millions of dollars of high-tech bicycles and equipment, the squads are well funded, well drilled, and well equipped, but ultimately, the race comes down to a couple of men, on a fairly standard bikes, fighting the course, the weather, and each other.

I had time to walk back down the hill and catch the riders as they looped back along Piedmont Road. Eventually, the five strongest riders beat the peloton up the mountain and formed a break-away group: Levi Leipheimer, Jens Voight, Chris Horner, Robert Gesink and Paolo Bettini. Leipheimer, Voight and Horner fought their way to the finish line next to San Jose’s city hall.

Piedmont Road leaders Peloton finish

A friend of mine waited for them at the finish and took some great photos. Voight won the stage, but Leipheimer retained the yellow jersey as race leader. After a brief awards ceremony, the riders posed for photos and interviews. Off the bike, they all seemed quiet, unassuming, and except for Big Jens, rather short.

Stage 3 winners Levi Leipheimer

But the riders weren’t the only stars. Floyd Landis was in downtown San Jose, smiling and signing autographs. He has been following the tour, and giving speeches in each of the stage towns. Apparently he needs to raise more money for his defence against charges of doping in the 2006 Tour de France. (It’s incredible that they still haven’t officially declared a winner of the 2006 Tour).

Floyd Landis

Whatever the outcome of that trial, I hope that professional cycling can clean up its act, and eliminate drug use among elite riders. The years of charges and controversy have almost ruined the sport, just as it is becoming popular in the U.S.

Old and new

Back in 1989, I bought a Bianchi Volpe to use as a touring bicycle. It was a sturdy steel bike with a mix of road and mountain bike components. (Including an ultra-low gear ratio). It served me well for many years. I rode it fully loaded on a couple of long bike tours. In the last couple of years, we climbed most of the hills in the Bay Area, and completed 3 century rides.

Unfortunately, Bianchi originally equipped the bike with mid-range Suntour components. After SunTour ceased production in 1995, it became very difficult to find replacement parts. Last season, my freewheel finally gave in. On a tough hill climb, I ripped the teeth off one of the cogs. I tried finding replacement parts on eBay, but without much luck. I was faced with the prospect of replacing the entire drive-train on an 18 year old frame. Oh, and probably the wheels too.

It was time to shop for a new bike.

I visited all the local shops. I was amazed both by the new technology and the sticker prices. After test riding several bikes I narrowed it down to a couple of Trek models. I finally settled on the 2006 Trek Madone 5.2. It felt good climbing hills, quick and responsive, but still pretty comfortable for long rides. Buying last year’s model saved me a couple of hundred bucks. I bought the bike on President’s Day. The folks at Chain Reaction Bicycles spent a couple of hours fitting it for me. They must have swapped out 4 different stems. (They say I have an odd-shaped body. Tell me something I don’t know.)

This weekend I went riding in Palo Alto and Woodside. It felt really good. I didn’t tackle any tough hills, but the bike was fast and responsive on the flats. Maybe I’ll miss my old granny gear – especially climbing Hicks Road. But I’m really happy with the Madone. I hope we can log a couple of thousand miles together this year. Who knows, maybe I’ll get 20 years out of this one too.

Trek Madone 5_2 (carbon)

Drinking problem

This week in “Everything good for you is really bad” news:

Lately, I’ve been carrying water on some of my longer runs on Los Gatos trails. Wary of the dangers of dehydration, I try to drink about a liter of water an hour while exercising. So I was surprised to read an article in the New York Times warning about drinking too much water. While drinking too little water causes muscle cramps and headaches, drinking too much water can actually dilute your blood. Which can kill you dead – in a very messy way.

Water rushes into cells, including cells of the brain. The swollen brain cells press against the skull, and the result can be fatal. The resulting condition is known as hyponatremia – too much water.

Hill work

On Sunday, some friends and I rode from Los Gatos to Boulder Creek. It’s a more than 50 mile ride, made tougher because it’s hills all the way. According to the folks at Almaden Cycle Touring Club, the route has over 4000 feet of climbing. It’s good practice for our upcoming High Sierra Century in September.

The nice thing about turning around in Boulder Creek is that it gave us an excuse to get coffee and pastries at the cafe in town. Refueling and caffeinating made the ride back much easier.

Hwy 9 profile from ACTC


The New York Times has an article about how some people use heart-rate monitors, GPS, and power-meters to quantify their exercise. And some of them obsess over the data . These people are not necessarily elite athletes like The Lance. They are active people, who just want to know exactly how many calories they burned or how many watts they can produce in a workout.

Doctors warn that this behavior can do more harm than good. Some people keep checking their heart rate monitor, and expect the rate to increase with each workout. Then they over-train and burn out.

Of course, the simplest training device is the lowly pedometer. Health experts suggest taking 10,000 steps each day as a way to get fit and lose weight. A friend of mine did this for an exercise study. Everyone wore pedometers and kept an activity log.

The researchers were surprised that one very overweight woman seemed not to be losing any weight, even though she walked 20,000 steps a day. After a couple of weeks, she finally confessed that she wasn’t really doing the distance. She would just hold the pedometer in her hand, and shake it for hours while watching her soaps.

Wharf to Wharf

On Sunday I ran in the Wharf to Wharf race in Santa Cruz. Yep. Just me and 15,000 of my closest friends. It was a fun 6 mile race from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk to Capitola.

I ran pretty well, but unfortunately, I made one critical mistake: I did what I was told. The race organizers told us to line up before the starting line according to our pace. I figured I could run a seven and a half minute per mile pace, so I lined up next to the “Seven Minute” sign. Makes sense, right?

Wrong. I spent the first three miles fighting my way through huge crowds of slow runners. Puffing, out of shape people in new running shoes. Groups jogging four abreast, chatting amiably about last weekend. Even people walking in front of me, fer crissakes!

It took me a full 2 minutes after the start to actually walk across the starting line. It took me 12 minutes to finish the first mile! My split times could only get better after that – 2 miles at 8 minutes, 2 more at 7:30, and 6:55 for the last mile.

In spite of the crowds, it was fun run. It was cold and foggy in Santa Cruz when we started out – perfect running weather. People lined the entire route to cheer us on. And there were bands of all types every few blocks- rock bands, surf punk, drum teams, even bag pipers. It made for a real festive event.

Just the same, I think I’ll look for a less popular event for my next race. And I’ll know better than to listen to the organizers.

Peter at the finish