Yesterday I reached 1000 km of riding indoors since the moment I started working from home due to Covid-19 in March. I hadn’t ridden much outdoors since moving to Manchester in early February, and I’ve not only ridden much more than I have in ages, but done most of it in… Zwift. This is a significant change: between 2015 and 2019 I rode only 10 times on the trainer, for a total of 106 km…
Paul Fournel, author of Need for the Bike (beautifully republished as Vélo, with illustrations by Jo Burt), and the most unlikely of indoor cyclists, describes two extremes: one his complete bikelessness in Morocco, the other his reaction to the paradoxically bike unfriendly San Francisco. Visiting the latter, Fournel resorts, against type, to ride inside on a static trainer. He won’t go to the gym (I won’t spoil the punchline). I haven’t found the UK lockdown as bike unfriendly he found San Francisco, but I have thus far had no desire to ride outside for pleasure, only utility: to the supermarket with a trailer. To queue.
I couldn’t really afford a smart trainer, but the day after my last day of commuting by train and Brompton for the foreseeable future I ordered a Tacx Flux 2 (more on this later) given my growing realisation that much or all of my cycling is going to be indoors, either because of Covid-19 or because I’m going to be looking after a newborn from late July as well as helping look after my sons post-lockdown.
I fully intended to explore different virtual/augmented reality platforms when it arrived, it after a brief dalliance with Tacx VR I had a go with Zwift, and despite some early confusion found a surprising level of engagement. I’m sure many of you have seen that Black Mirror episode (15 Million Merits), which satirizes the gamification of not just cycling, but life itself), and I for one have been pretty dismissive of virtual cycling and especially virtual racing.
Simulation Zwift simulates some aspects of cycling, but others are real. You still sit on a bike. Resistance changes. You get tired. Your butt hurts. You get bored. You can see and interact with others (albeit in an impoverished way)… you can even fall off.
Racing I have only raced my bike once before riding in Zwift in nearly 50 years of cycling. In the last month I have ridden three races, one of which I was DQed from for being to powerful for my entered category (see below under ethics and anti-cheating). My only real life race was over 1700 km long; my longest race in Zwift was 32 km long.
Data I usually ride with cadence and HR sensors and log everything in Strava. In Zwift I get a real, rather than virtual measure of power in W, and crucially W/Kg and 95% 20 minute max power (see below on why this is surprisingly important)… this has been revealing, as it has helped me not overtrain as well as maintain higher work rates when I want/need to.
Power I now have a good idea of my FTP and strengths/weaknesses. I can also see how my HR is not a good measure of effort (but is a good measure of how fatigued I am).
Equipment If you don’t have a smart trainer, HR monitor and a set of scales you won’t be able to race with any sense of real comparison with others. Your desire for such benchmarking may vary. In game purchases (currency = drops) can get you lighter or more aerodynamic virtual frames/wheels, and you can personalise your look. My smart trainer, a mid-range Tacx direct drive model, sounds unwell, is a bit flaky and I fear it’s demise, but I daren’t send it back due to current shortages and transport restrictions.
Heat and wind There is no wind indoors unless you have a fan. If you have one it won’t make you go faster if it is behind you.
Ethics and anti-cheating measures I was canned from my first race in ZwiftPower for being fractionally over the listed W/Kg limit for Category D (calculated for 95% of 20 minute max): this makes even thinking about winning tricky as you need to work just hard enough, but not too hard, or resign yourself to the bottom of the next highest category, as I have done. But unless you register accurately with ZwiftPower it is impossible to tell whether you are winning or losing, and to distinguish between more or less factual representations of effort. There is also ZADA (now CEVAZ). The easiest way to cheat is to under-report your weight. And sandbagging… sigh.
Fitness I am now fitter than I have ever been. And because of isolation, haven’t been ill despite riding nearly every day.
Hills, mountains and dirt It is harder work uphill and on gravel.
Injury Staying in the same position is tough on the body, and I have had reason to switch saddles.
Isolation you are never alone. Unless you want to be. or you get dropped.
Socialisation There are group rides, where the leader has a yellow beacon and the sweep a red one. Some are very organised (AHDR for example, or HERD/PACK), some less so. You can invite other riders to ride socially with you.
Identity and representation Some choose to make their avatar like their real self, some don’t. I shortened my avatar’s beard when I trimmed my real one.
Distance and duration It is possible to ride long distances, but you have to take care of positional issues, and remember to eat and drink. My longest ride was just over 100 km, and it hurt. There are even audaxes (ZHR)…
Efficiency You can find solo or social rides/races 24/7 to suit fitness, training goal and time pressure.
Active and passive You can chat or be silent (using discord or the built-in chat). You can organise, or just participate.
Laziness You don’t need to steer or brake, and if you have a smart trainer, you can freewheel downhill
Fun I have had immense fun.
Epicity If you want it, it is there for the taking. If not. that’s fine too. Or not.
My first contact with the Netherlands as a tangible concept was through the writing of J. M. Coetzee. In his book, Dusklands, he writes two narratives, one centred around the Vietnam War, the other around a hunting expedition in South Africa. In the latter, the bounded and manufactured environment of the Netherlands, where the narrator (Jacobus Coetzee) grew up, appears as a narrative and symbolic contrast to the unbounded nature of the South African veldt. At one point, alone and more than slightly mad, Coetzee (the character) describes how he becomes just an eye, swamped by the visual information that envelops him.
Only the eyes have power…. I become a spherical reflecting eye moving through the wilderness through the wilderness and ingesting it. Destroyer of the wilderness, I move through the land cutting a devouring path from horizon to horizon. There is nothing from which my eye turns, I am all that I see.
The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,”Dusklands”, J. M. Coetzee
Of course, the mythical flatness of the Netherlands themselves have perceptual consequences, but this flatness is real only as a stereotype. Where I lived in Nijmegen in the late 1990s had both flat polder and dike as well as hills and forest. And as I have just discovered, the terrain of Limburg (apart from Weert) is about as flat as the hilliest parts of Yorkshire.
So, this is an essay about a race, and for once, not a race I watched or read about, but one I entered, started… and finished. All of these things are new: I haven’t competed in a bicycle race in my entire history of cycling:
I’ve ridden two Super Randonneur series since returning to the bike after my kids got a little older (in 2014 and 2015), but I have been riding long distances and cycle commuting since my 20s. I ride on and off road (but mostly on), rode a fixie in London in the 1980s, have toured unsupported in England, Wales and France (including the big climbs of the Alps and Pyrennees), and currently do a few solo DIY audaxes as well as calendar events, I spent a year working in Nijmegen in 1997/8 and loved the cycling (the route also passes near Wassenaar, where I ran a conference at the NIAS in ’98), and brought my bike on a shorter stay in 2004. My passion is to ride far, and look after myself, and I think it is time to race 😉
So for want of a better structure I’ll pick some themes that seem important as I write this after two days back in my reality of trying to be a normal person with a job, a family and a house.
Turn left at the Google Data Centre
The Race Around the Netherlands (there’s Facebook group here with much discussion and many photos) is an unsupported fixed route bike race with a time limit of eight days: you basically get a gpx file (about 1670 km, which I added turn-by-turn to) and after that it’s all yours. Navigation is just following the route and deciding where and
when to stop. The mesmeric nature of some of the long, flat straight and car-free surfaces was perfectly illustrated by the northernmost left turn, at one of Europe’s largest data centres, which is home to much of Google’s data, as well as many of the other big IT names. My saved can of Fanta (keeps your sandwiches cold in your musette I find) went down well on the approach, and shortly after the turn I stopped at a bus stop to change my tracker batteries and eat something.
Well what can I say: I had planned to do more camping (both wild and tame) but decided just a few days before the race to try using Airbnb as an alternative (every night but one in the end).This was a risk as I had never used it before, but it just looked like a good solution, and I could always sleep rough it if went wrong.
I discovered very quickly how this was both extremely practical and emotionally uplifting. I decided roughly where I might stop for the day each evening, and then about mid-morning I would book my place. All my hosts were fine with a late night arrival and an early
disappearance, and some even allowed me to bring my bike inside (or had a shed, garage or back garden). And wow, what lovely people I met: so thanks Jochem, Roelie, Elies, Esther, Annet and Klaus, you were great to meet, however briefly! A special mention goes to Annet, who, through her son’s expert translation, established I wanted to leave before 6 am, and made me a packed breakfast and loaded up the coffee maker in advance, but all did something to make me feel looked after.
The one night I camped was at a fantastic campsite (a natuurkampterrain) in Weert, just off the
route, called Camping Wega. I emailed ahead the day before, and ueed my green card for the first and only time. It was one of the best sites I have stayed at, and after a good shower and some eating I whipped out my bivvy and slept under the stars.
I’m not sure about camping as a solution every night, but here they take check-ins until 2100, and of course I was off early, just before dawn.
If you’ve read any other posts on this blog you may know I have a position on drugs. Well, reader, I brought some with me, and used them. I had half a packet of paracetamol, half a pack of ibuprofen. I used all the ibuprofen (but below the max dosage) to keep the inflammation in my achilles (from about day 4) under control. I really don’t think I would have finished without medicine, the pain was intermittent and never too awful, but I think it kept it under control. I certainly wouldn’t recommend prophylactic use of ibuprofen but it did its job as a response to the battering my underprepared body was taking I guess.
At sea with Onno
I rode most of the race on my own, if you don’t count my attempts to catch and pass Dutch kids on traditional bikes: I was so destroyed by the first day that the final 20 kms into Enschede were aided by yo-yoing behind a girl and her younger brotther who were much amused by my inability to maintain any kind of speed as the light dimmed in the evening and the temperature fell. However, I did ride side by side with two fellow victims of the race, Onno and Marc, both for long enough to find out a little about their motivations for racing and their life outside cycling.
Given the importance of wind direction and strength for riding in the Netherlands it seemed particularly apt to ride for a bit with Onno on my second day of racing between Enschede and, in my case ter Apel and my second Airbnb, given his life at sea. I had had a late start, having to stop at Bagels & Beans for a “power breakfast” on my way out of Enschede. I think we had both had a rough start to the race, and Onno had not had much sleep, staying in a hostel. It was a welcome change chatting with someone, and although I couldn’t quite match his pace and had decided to make a short day to compensate for the ugly start and my lack of pre-race fitness, the brief time we had together was a priceless reminder of why I do this kind of thing. It’s the random nature of the focused human interactions, against the background of being alone. Onno was to maintain and extend his lead over me, despite an achilles injury (which seemed to be catching, as two days later my left achilles started to hurt).
It’s not about the bike
It really isn’t, although some aspects of my setup desrve a mention, like the excellent wheels purchased from bikediscount.de (xt hubs, front dyno, dt 466d rims), faultless charging and lighting from B&M, and the completely flawless Vittoria Corsa Control 28 clincher tyres, run with inner tubes, no punctures and run at low pressures for smooth riding. Less satisfactory was my decision to use xt spd pedals and RT86 shoes: the slight rocking this setup allows contributed to ankle and foor pain, and I would use spd-sl pedals and more supportive shoes (probably my Bonts, which I have completed a 600 in). I did very little walking and the achilles problems I suffered nearly ended my race. Similarly, I had considered either using my race bike (with the same tyres, they just fit) or transferring the di2 onto my Whyte: after the first day (cold and wet then hot) my hands were covered in splits which just got worse over the course of the race. By the time I reached Limburg on the penultimate day I could barely change gear it was so painful, and braking became an issue. I had very few other physical issues, and unusually for me, my back and neck were pretty cooperative throughout.
The race podium
Although I felt pretty disconnected from the pointy end of the race, the podium deserve special mention. I chatted with Colin and Tjerk a little before the start and they both seemed pretty sorted (Colin is a TCR finisher) and experienced. I didn’t speak with Joris, but I remember looking him up before the race and thinking that he looked one to watch. I was interested to see how the real differences in finishing
time seemed to derive as much if not more from rolling average speed, but from time on the bike. This is not an unfamiliar pattern for races of this kind, but it’s a lesson for anyone who wants to try to win. I was sleeping for about 6 hours a night and taking photos, and even if I had been better prepared (i.e., not ill for 3 weeks before the race and able to ride) I think I would have struggled to continue at such a speed with less sleep.
There was scandal at the front of the race. That’s all I’m saying…
Full value with Marc
The other rider I spent a few hours with was Marc Wismans, who was riding in support of Forza4Energy4all, and lovely to talk to. Marc was struggling at the beginning with back trouble, but was keen to get full value from the ride, meeting with kids his charity works with along the route, and having a clear plan to use the full 8 days. It was a pleasure Marc!
Eating and drinking
I did much of my eating on the bike, often purchased from service stations (although I did stop at a great sandwich shop somewhere or other and even an Aldi which did a nice pizza slice):
I cooked for myself once at Elies’ Airbnb (pasta with honey), having had a lucky encounter with a late-night Turkish convenience store. I did eat two McDonald’s meals, one late in Scheveningen after a long day prior to meeting Esther, my host for the night; one in Malden, on the outskirts of Nijmegen where I felt the need for cooked breakfast and coffee on the final day. I did eat some ‘proper’ Dutch food (uitsmijter twice, hamburger speciaal (!!) and appeltaart (yum)).
The service station food was a mixture of squeezy yoghurt, sandwiches and a variety of snacks. I had a musette with me which was useful for stuffing full of all the food I could buy at each stop for easy access – and I could fold it up into my back pocket when empty. Getting water and food on the two national holidays was bit of a worry, but I never actually ran out of anything.
Rain and sun
There were really only two kinds of weather on the race: cold and wet on the first morning, and increasingly sunny and hot for the rest of the race. The temperatures reached the 30s celsius on the penultimate day in Limburg, and the winds varied from strong and gusty (only really a problem on travelling East prior to Limburg) to just a breeze.
I saw sheep, goats, rabbits, was raced by hares and was surprised by wild horses: I actually slept next to horses one night on Elies’ farm, they were literally in the next room and I could hear on of them snoring! I was also serenaded by crickets and frogs! Oh and geese!
A special mention has to go to the organisers, especially Mark and Michael, who set us off and welcomed us with such good cheer. The organisation was pleasingly low key and clear, and I am keen to see what their other events turn out like. Adventure Bike Racing seems a good thing, and this particular race was a really great stepping stone for me into the world of unsupported racing. Also it was nice to start from such a fabulous venue in Amerongen, the Cafe de Proloog.
The Netherlands is famous for its built environment, and much of it is below sea level thanks to Dutch engineering prowess. But we were routed through to near wilderness areas: the Hoge Veluwe and the Dunes of the West coast. Both were magical, and although I have ridden in the former before, it was 14 years ago, and the bike paths weren’t as good!
What can I say. My major goal was to get to the start, and get back for my younger son’s birthday, so actually finishing the event within the time limit was great. It is particularly resonant given that the previous two seasons have been plagued by unfinished and unstarted events, and some really horrible physical and mental collapses. I really didn’t think I was going to start until a few days before when my cough began to subside, and given I hadn’t ridden a bike for three weeks until I rode from Schiphol to Amerongen (about 70 km) the day before the race. Maybe I could do it a day quicker, although I’d have to be fitter and stop less!
Cauberg and Co.
Just before the turn onto the Cauberg
I was really worried about the Limberg climbs (we did three of the Amstel Gold ones) due to my achilles: I live in one of the hilliest parts of Britain, so normally I wouldn’t worry. It was a relief to find that 36:36 bottom gear was enough and my achilles actually hurt less than on the flat into a headwind!
The Cauberg was a shock to the system and the Keutenberg was a pig, but the third big one (Camerig) was really beautiful, worth the previous kilometres on its own. There are some great views to be had in Limburg, I will return.
Ah, the Afsluitdijk, one of the moments I was really grateful for aero bars. 32 kms of straight, two-way flat cyclepath, next to a main road… in blazing sunshine. With a plague of buzzing midges which came at me like black clouds. Quite the strangest piece of cycling I have done, and when I finished shaking the bugs out of my helmet on exit, I really felt I had been in the Netherlands.
The sea was an often present feature, sometimes bizarrely unseen, behind a dyke, at other times the dominant visual feature:
And where there is sea, or rivers and canals there must be crossings:
Although I didn’t ride for three weeks before the race due to illness, and hadn’t ridden more than 160 km since the previous September, I did ride about 160 km per week throughout Autumn and Winter (at a fairly brisk pace (for me, anyway) at times), including a completed Festive 500. I actually think three weeks off the bike was a blessing in disguise, although it was touch and go… It will be interesting to see how I fare on June 16th on the BRM600 I have entered.
The scene of the crime
One of the nicer aspects of the race was passing by my old workplace and street in Nijmegen, I spent a year here as a Postdoc in 1997-8 and came back for some research leave in 2004.
Some things stay the same
And returning to the polder and the hills around Mook was a curious mixture of seeing how little time touches places, and how much. The dyke roads were unchanged, but the addition of huge cycle infrastructure investment was really apparent on the outskirts of Nijmegen (as well as the new McDonald’s in Malden).
The map is not the territory … The only usefulness of a map depends on similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map…
Science and Sanity, A. Korzybski
The kindness of strangers
The proprietor of de Proloog who lent me his jersey to ride the race in (mine was mothed); the Turkish shopowner who insisted on giving me free figs…
Being followed and encouraged on social media was a fantastic experience, thanks to all of you wonderful people, but I think Herbie takes the prize for obsession, with some stiff competition from Robert:
Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus
no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force
On Strategy, H. Von Moltke
Through the woods with Julia
Julia Freeman had a painful couple of days on the race with injuries before very sensibly calling it a day. I was touched that she came to see me finish, and guided me to Schiphol via train and a lovely wooded route.Tot ziens Julia and dank u wel!
I stayed in a rather posher hotel at Schiphol than I had wanted, but it was probably for the best. And there was a moroccan buffet, and Belgian beer. Inevitably I had one too many, but I managed to get up for my plane, and had time the next day to take pictures of jets for my aeroplane obsessed older son.
I couldn’t have done this wihout the support and encouragment of my partner, Alison, who kept me positive when I felt like self-sabotaging before the start. And it was great to return home to see my younger son becoming a year older!
This post is a review (of sorts) touching on three films about cycling. All portray amateur efforts to overcome physiological and psychological limitations, and two of the three end up, by chance, being about topics rather grander (and darker) than the original intentions of the film-makers. The final film of the set is no less complex, but, for me at least, speaks of a less troubled and more positive version of cycling obsession, possibly only because of the reality that unfolded, but serendipity aside I think we could all do with something constructive and life-affirming right now.
The three films in question are Icarus, The Journey to the Other Side, and Brevet. All play with the truth about cycling and what it takes to challenge expectations of human capacity.
Because I have to start somewhere I will start with Icarus because it is the film which deviates most from its initial authorial intention, indeed wandering so far that one ends up wondering whether the shift in subject from frustrated amateur cyclist and film-maker, to Russian (anti)doping czar is also a shift in authorship. The slip from being a film about doping to being THE film about doping is both fascinating and troubling.
But the hidden narrative here is that the director started making a tired and formulaic replica of stories by others about amateur self-doping, and was saved by his access, granted by Don Catlin (oh yes the man with the freezer of doom), to the greatest orchestrator of doping fraud (no not LA), Grigory Rodchenkov (and just how charismatic is he?). What gets lost on the way is that this starts out as a redemption film for the director, who is trying to push himself to place higher in the Hautes Routes event, and who knows that the people above him are probably doping and getting away with it (although he is careful not to say this explicitly). Hilariously, his doping regime improves his physiology, but seems to have a negative psychological impact, and cannot offset the mechanical issues which cost him time (although see this interview, which I read after seeing the film). This is a film about failure: everyone in it is a failure, from WADA to individual athletes and indeed Rodchenkov himself. And like all car crashes it is a joy to watch, but does little to make me feel positive about the future of sport of cycling, or my place in it. I too am frustrated by my inability to succeed in cycling as I wish to, but there isn’t anything here for me except the fascination of the ethicist confronted by mendacious and talented scoundrels.
Given that I have publicly enjoyed following three editions of the Transcontinental Race (and written about it here and here), and ride relatively long distances, often solo, you might imagine that The Journey to the Other Side would float my boat in a more direct manner, and maybe even provide some helpful pointers to becoming a better long-distance cycling. This film is an unofficial documentary covering the first edition of the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, which has a similar format to races like the transcontinental, but is actually closer to some of the unsupported US races that follow a fixed route, such as the Trans Am. I was troubled by some of what I saw of this race, and the approach to risk being taken by riders, but generally I accept that although I would do differently, that is a personal choice. Watching the documentary made me feel less comfortable, and I wrote most of the next two paragraphs last year, well before this year’s edition of the race was cancelled in response to the inquest into Mike Hall’s death.
There is no doping here (as far as I can see), but there is death, and there is a rather unpleasant if not unsurprising fatalism which I found completely surprising, and somewhat shocking. The obvious and painful contrast between the ‘winner’ (who does not win) and the ‘loser’ who dies is present right from the start, before anyone (unless you live under a rock) knows the outcome. Mike Hall looks troubled and unhappy, whereas Kristof Allegaert looks carefree and talks endlessly of fun. I followed this race as it happened, and watched a duel which looked honourable. This film my made me deeply uncomfortable, and I question your empathy if you can watch it without discomfort. But that isn’t the fault of the documentary which has an honesty and directness that Icarus lacks. The catch sequence made me feel physically sick. I haven’t been able to watch it twice, although I have dipped in to check my memory on some issues.
In short and this is the bit I have struggled with, I have come to the conclusion that being “more Mike” isn’t necessarily an embrace of life. It is, as is so often with extreme sports (such as mountaineering), an embrace of risk and marginality which is far from where I think cycling should be going. Nearly every recent race of this kind includes a fatality (most recent editions of IPWR, TABR & TCR all had fatalities), and the only attempt to properly estimate the risk of entering a race of this kind suggested it could be as dangerous as BASE jumping. If I discovered that the fatal accident rates were as high on Audax rides I would never start. There, I’ve said it, and take no pleasure in it. I found it extraordinary that when the lanterne rouge of last year’s Transcontinental expressed a similar view he was asked to delete the offending tweets. He’s now gone from twitter, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I have much more to say about what I found in this film, but I’m not ready to share. Suffice it to say I am not aligned with the majority of the YouTube commenters on the film.
PBP is an amateur race that isn’t a race, a de-fanged version of itself, run for randonneurs, but raced at the front, whilst everyone else rides for their own time, their own finish. I am very different to the three riders they followed: two were younger and very competent faster riders, the other an older, slower but much more experienced rider. Yet there were elements in things they said and did that resonated deeply with why I started (and have returned to) long distance riding. In a sport where I have experienced much bullshit, there was little here to upset me: no cutting corners, lots of cameraderie, and the risk-taking seemed within bounds. These were people pushing limits, but not so far that they seemed self-destructive or cruel. The film simply did what it set out to do. And the smiles seemed truly genuine: for one it was the satisfaction of continued flow; another the satisfaction of challenge met; and for the third a joy in life which I am sure helped her complete the most recent Transcontinental Race. I bought the full version, with English subtitles. If I ride PBP in 2019 it will be because I watched it.
Shortly after writing the first draft of this piece four cyclists on the Flatlands 600 (a ride I considered entering this season) were struck by a hit and run driver.
The strongest criticism that I’ve heard about ultra-distance bike races is that they encourage people to cycle on public roads in a state of reduced alertness. Race organizers have a minimal influence on this, so participants need to manage their rest sensibly. There are not only personal goals and safety to consider, but also the safety of other road users and the future viability of this format of racing.
Finally, this has become rather more real to me as I have entered the inaugural Race Around the Netherlands. I am minimizing my risk by entering a race on Dutch roads and cycle infrastructure, and by building a schedule that includes plenty of sleep. I know I can ride 600 km on 2 hours sleep, but I am certain that I will need much more than 5.5 hours to ride 1600 kmt! In other words I am playing safe. I cannot do otherwise. I don’t expect you to watch (although you can if you want), and I don’t really care what you think of me (although that’s probably a lie). It’s not about you (?).
And it’s not about Mike Hall, who I admired as the creator of the TCR and promoter of long-distance unsupported riding, and as a talented racer who I could never emulate even if I wanted to: I don’t want to be more Mike, I want to be more… me. And If I cannot reconcile the risk, or overcome my fear (those are two different things) I won’t start.
Why is it that British success at the Tour de France (or anywhere on the Continent) seems so dissonant? Why is it such a shock to many of my fellow British that it might be built on deceit and immorality? Is it that “foreign” cyclists and cycling tap into a rich British desire to both lust after the exotic, yet believe it to be dangerous and disreputable? There is nothing new about the ITV coverage of the Tour de France focusing on British riders, but once upon a time you knew none of them would win, and that somehow made it all right.
In these days of explicit and horrid racism, of insane and pathological isolationism, it is hard to remember the curious relationship Britain had with Europe in 1980s when I first started watching cycling. I can still remember the huge cultural shift signalled by the disappearance of duty on the ferries and the sudden feeling that we were European (oh happy days). But we never were: cycling was yet another sport that signalled our deep otherness: don’t race on the Continent you’ll end up on drugs, or worse liking foreign food or speaking Flemish. And of course, the Tour de France IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT FRANCE (see Roland Barthes). If there is nothing more foreign than fritjes with mayonnaise (and cyclocross racing being popular) there is nothing more spectacularly French than le Tour. British riders can compete, but must fail tragically to win or even finish. They must decry foreign practices like race-fixing and doping.
Of course this is all fantasy. The domination of that race by Belgian, Italians, Spanish, Germans and even Americans (not forgettig bit parts played by Swiss, Dutch, Luxembourgeois, Danish… and an Australian) developed its internationalisation over a long period. But we still think we are better, have no real sense of our connection with continental Europe, and retain a false belief in our post-Imperial exceptionalism. That’s why Wiggins, Froome and Co freak us out so much. And why Chris Boardman’s epic failure does not. To win the Tour de France is demostrably un-British, and removes a necessary distance from our exotic object of desire.
I spent an hour and a half yesterday listening to Lionel Birnie and Richard Moore interviewing Dave Brailsford. The two main topics were TUEs/Corticosteroids/Tramadol (related to Fancy Bear(s) and the JTL accusations) and the contents of the medical package delivered by hand to Wiggins at the end of the 2011 Dauphiné Libéré by Simon Cope. Here I’m going to focus not on facts but on their presentation, and what Brailsford’s language betrays about thinking at British Cycling and Team Sky. This is probably sensible, since on actual medication, doping and the contents of that jiffy bag Brailsford said almost nothing. That he spent over an hour doing so is relevant in itself, as we shall see.
There were two main elements to Brailsford’s narrative, regardless of the efforts of the interviewers to ascertain facts:
Brailsford took personal responsibility for what he regards as a Public Relations failure; and
he takes no responsibility for any possible failings in regard to Anti-Doping that may or any not have occurred.
Leaving aside the question of whether Sky or BC have been implicated in the misuse of medication for sporting enhancement, it is notable that in his narrative there is a clear boundary between what is outside the sporting arena (whether legal or not) and how it is presented. This is congruent with the view of sport as a goal-driven activity: a medal factory where the extent to which a practice is permitted is judged only in relation to its success. In such a world the use of medication is governed by what is permitted and might enable a competitor to perform at their best. Outside this box lies the world of how a team would like to be seen, and the world presented by Brailsford was one in which the following words were repeated knowingly and frequently:
Within the first minutes of the interview, given the opportunity to tell us how Sky have lived up to their initial mission (to win the Tour clean with a British rider; to do so without employing those with connections to doping) Brailsford claims that they have been consistent in applying their values but have learnt from mistakes. His description of their behaviour, however is at considerable variance with this. Sky employed an ex-doping doctor and many tainted team staff (only to ditch them later); and they sought to do everything within the rules to maximise performance. The only part of their behaviour which is coherent with their initial mission is the outcome: all else has been a moveable feast. Brailsford continually apologises for being too open with the press, leading to a lack of control over the narrative, but nowhere apologises for the approach Sky have taken to the use of corticosteroids or tramadol (whether as extensive as the interviewers suspect or he will admit). All these medical decisions were made and confirmed by experts employed by the team and the authorities: he simply trusted these actors to be correct. The gap between his view of sporting governance and sporting doctors and the reality exposed by scandal after scandal in amateur and professional sport is enormous.
In order to understand why Brailsford (and the paraphernalia of Sky and BC) display such a dissonant narrative a diversion into organisational theory is helpful. I don’t want to oversell this approach: Brailsford could have constructed this narrative of subservience to authority simply to get out of telling us what was in the package, but there is nothing much new here in his approach, it follows a familiar pattern.
I’ve sat through many dull days listening to management and leadership educators telling me about the theories of Argyris and Schön, and I won’t bore you with detail. Moreover, I am not an expert in organisational psychology, more of an end-user. However, the gap between behavior and narrative we see here is characteristic of an organisational malaise which is rather well captured by their thinking. Brailsford’s narrative here represents Sky’s “espoused theory”: a set of beliefs which are presented as governing values. These differ from the implicit theories or “theory in use” that govern actual behaviour. Such a gap is common in organisations which exhibit what Argyris and Schön call “single loop” or Model I learning/behaviour: learning that only reflects on behavior rather than the contexts for that behaviour. Model II or “double loop” learning steps outside current thinking and is able to consider higher level solutions.
To illustrate the trouble single loop learning can get you into Sky are a perfect case: the theory in use is one in which success is valued regardless (British Tour de France victories achieved) and all efforts and practices are permitted as long as they are considered by the authorities to be within the rules. This is not the same as a win at all costs approach, but it is not necessarily compatible with being “clean” as competitors, staff and regulators often cheat or manipulate the system in a goal driven culture. If there is a gap between the goal and its acievability a Model I approach will never question the obvious source of this gap: the lack of an obvious British Tour contender. Everything else follows on from this error. A Model II approach might have responded to Wiggins 2010 disappointments by maintaining a “clean” approach and resetting goals, instead Sky employed a set of experienced old school staffers, focusing on psychological and physiological preparation. Regardless of questions around their espoused ethical stance and their practices, this approach was catastrophically tested in 2011, when Wiggins crashed out of the Tour. The attempt by Sky later that year also demonstrated the single loop: Wiggins was favoured in the Vuelta despite the clearly better performing Froome; all focus was on the rider destined to be the first British Tour winner until well after it became clear that Froome was the stronger rider. There are, admittedly elements of double loop here: the readjustment of goals from Tour to Vuelta, for example. But these were always tactical, never impinging on the strategic objective.
Compare the approach of Brailsford at Sky with Vaughters at Slipstream: the lesson Vaughters learnt from USPS (and Millar at Cofidis) was that a singular focus on performance was not conducive to incentivising an ethical culture. Instead of winning clean, the new value hierarchy was to compete clean and celebrate wins where they occurred. Although this goal has not always been clearly exhibited by Vaughters’ team it enabled the team to employ staff and riders with histories of doping without creating an environment in which this knowledge would need to be deployed to bridge a gap between aspiration and reality.
To finish, do go and read this piece summarising the theories I touch on here, especially the characterisation of Model I and II approaches. The Sky approach is not entirely Model I, but where it fits it explains how they have reached such a dissonant and unhealthy pass.
I realise, to mix metaphors, that there is a huge elephant in this room. But I can’t tell you what Wiggins was sent just before travelling to a final altitude training camp. Nor can I tell you how much corticosteroid or tramadol use there was out of competition at Sky by riders on that team. On the basis of the interview it is entirely plausible that Brailsford may not be able to answer these questions, although this seems hard to believe and even harder to accept. What we do know is that there was a TUE granted in 2011 for a powerful drug that most experts seem to regard as performance enhancing and medically excessive drug at just the optimum time for its non-medical use. Whether Froome or Wiggins are “clean” British winners remains to be seen, but the culture of their team could certainly do with some more honest and open critique from within.
Here’s the paradox. Professional road cycling offers easy access to a wealth of direct experience: you can touch the riders if you want on the climbs, and catch their empty bidons. If you have favourites they will hear your cheering; if you have despised riders they can feel your spit or worse (and vice-versa). Even when we cannot be there the forms of mediated experience offered to us via television, radio (and the new media offerings of Velon or Dimension Data) seek to minimise our distance from the travails of the riders.
There is another way of experiencing the racing, however. Many early followers of cycling could only learn the exploits of riders through newspapers, and until fairly recently (for me at least) photographs and reports in the glossy magazines. In some ways this distanced and reduced level of information impoverishes and narrows the experience. However, where information is scarce our imagination takes over, and we become creative in our piecing together of scraps of intelligence from any source we can get: social media has had a strangely distorting effect on how we experience racing: it is immediate yet often primarily text-based; it can link to other media; it can democratise the collection and dissemination of previously professionalised journalistic data. Our ability to not be there and yet capture details unavailable to the physical spectator increases the personal nature of the experience and decreases control by third parties. Anyone can set up a tumblr to focus on a corner of racing or livetweet/Storify what they see/others see. One of the first pieces of writing I finished for this blog reflected on the experience of following races via the tweets of those watching a pirate Internet stream, a curiously modern, yet atavistic way of seeing the familiar through others’ eyes. The fog of mediation creates a space for interpretation, as well as personal connections with sources that are people whose perspectives are as much a source of interest as the events that they report.
I have spent some considerable time following the third and fourth Transcontinental Races from Belgium to Turkey, via a combination of live GPS tracking, twitter and Facebook. I have seen pictures and videos, and interacted with riders and other followers. This year these have been supplemented by Lydia Walker’s excellent blogs, and Francis Cade’s beautiful videos. I’ve even talked with friends about it in real life! In some ways the lack of direct connection with the race is also supplemented by my experiences of riding long distances with little sleep and no company, despite the huge difference in scale between my riding and the finishers. Moreover, unlike a grand tour, I could enter next year…
I have been struggling for a while to decide how to continue to write about cheating in sport given its state of anomie. Scandal after scandal in athletics, soccer, tennis (and even cycling) have helped normalise the view that sport is actually inherently fraudulent, whether or not that is in any sense ‘true’. Nonetheless, two developments in sporting fraud have emerged which suggest a post-humanisation of sporting fraud. Neither are entirely new in concept, but both engage with human performance in ways which question the boundary between technology and the body, and create a gap between our inquisitive nature and what we can comprehend as either human- or machine-like.
The ability of products to manipulate the inner workings of our cells isn’t all that new, and many journalists have latched onto the warnings about dangers (turning something on doesn’t mean you can then turn it off) or the potential for such products to be both potentially undetectable and incredibly powerful. One such product which has never exited testing or been brought to market is Repoxygen, which causes an alteration to cells which then produce higher than normal levels of EPO. Whether this exists as a black market product is unclear but it is certain that athletes, coaches and sporting authorities believe that to be likely. The crucial difference between Repoxygen (or a similar product) and rEPO is that whereas doping with rEPO decreases the production of EPO by our bodies whilst boosting red blood cell production, Repoxygen acts directly on the cells increasing their production of natural EPO. The trick is to do so without creating chronically and dangerously high hematocrit levels. That does not happen with rEPO – which suppresses natural production of EPO and is therefore relatively short lived in effect.
The second development, which although highlighted by recent events at the U23 Cyclocross World Championship event, has been posited for much longer, is the use of small concealed electric motors to boost cycling performance by a marginal, but significant quantum. There is a suspicion amongst some that Femke Van den Driessche used such means to achieve her gains on the climbs at the 2015 Koppenbergcross – a suspicion that may have helped motivate what looked to be a targeted operation to detect the motor using an EMR application in the pits at the World Championships.
What links these two techniques is their invisible testing of our assumptions about what it us to be human. Of course, all cycling is technologically enhanced, but whereas an illegally light bicycle is only quantitatively illicit, the motorised bicycle is qualitatively illicit. We assume the power input which the drive train converts comes from the rider and if this is no longer the case we are watching a motorcycle race, not a bicycle race. With gene doping it is not the undetectability or effectiveness which chills, it is the categorical shift from human to… not human. In both cases there is an uncanny valley effect where in the absence of better preparation, whether natural or pharmaceutical, the athlete goes beyond what is possible for their physiology. The results of doping can look odd to the naked eye, but the result of gene doping or technological fraud create a categorical shift. This is no longer enhancement by degree, but a new sport which goes well beyond the metaphorical Lance-as-cyborg narrative.
Human beings are fairly inquisitive: I’d guess around .7 on the cat scale. Their desire to gather and interpret data is not always matched, however, with the intellectual capacity to come to conclusions that bear much relation to reality. Whether it is rappers thinking the Earth is flat, or the mistaken belief that there is a causal link between autism and the MMR vaccine, our desire to explain what we observe can outstrip our ability to interpret. Of course, it’s worse than this: the desire for an explanation may not drive us to seek information upon which to ponder; and it can be manipulated by the unscrupulous. It may drive us to select information which reinforces our existing beliefs; or to reject information gathering and rely upon solipsistic deduction of a kind Sherlock Holmes would be distinctly uncomfortable with. And sometimes, the explanation is so seemingly crazy it can lead to madness…
The detective novel plays with this desire for explanations, and also the pleasure we gain from being just one step ahead of the detective (or one step behind). And although we often look to be searching for the smoking gun, its discovery often disappoints as well as befuddles. The reveal undoes the setting up if explanations, unless through shock (Seven) or unexpected confusion (Usual Suspects) it itself sets up a new set of questions. It takes a deft artist to tell a tale which simultaneously unfolds into a rational state of closure yet still leaves us questioning: perhaps this is why the confusing “reality” of time travel narratives, whether hysterical (Interstellar) or creepily whole (Predestination) are so fascinating.
So where does this leave the inquisitive cycling fan? All sports fans have some degree of fascination with the causes that sit behind winning. However, many of these factors are hidden, either because they are forbidden by law or rule, or because they are too complex for any but an expert to really grasp. These ghosts in the machine of sporting excellence lead many of us to express our inquisitive nature in fantastic, ill-evidenced speculations worthy of the X-Files. The truth is indeed out there, however, and it isn’t our fault that the UCI have to use ghost detectors to combat technological fraud. Who can blame us for retaining our tin foil hats when if turns out that a form of cheating much derided as fantasy turns out to be both actual and invisible, yet needs only the right tool (a free EMR detector app) and a tip-off to find.
Many have argued that anti-doping requires increased funding to improve its impact. This argument, although tempting, may not present value for money, even if it is valid. Although recent empirical studies suggest that the prevalence of doping in sport far exceeds current detection-levels (see e.g., Striegel, Ulrich and Simon, 2010), and an increase in the funding for (and frequency of) testing might increase the hit-rate, I have yet to see a business case to demonstrate the cost of raising the hit-rate to an acceptable level, or even a clear statement on what such a rate might be.
WADA and the NADOs have other tools at their disposal, such as reliance on law-enforcement approaches (which they do not directly fund), and athlete education, but the majority of anti-doping effort (and expenditure) still goes on analytical approaches and creating the legal and scientific basis for a testing and punishment regime. Take for example, as an example of a NADO which has been applauded for its educational programme, UKAD: the budget from 2011-2015 was set at £29m: out of this only around 2m was assigned to educational activity, as opposed to 7m on athlete testing and a further 7m on results management. Similarly poorly off is the scientific activity supported by UKAD, set at 1m; even intelligence efforts are pegged at only 2m. Just under 50% of the UKAD budget (14m) goes on testing and results management (although the latter would also include management of non-analytical positives).
In order to better understand what an increased spend on anti-doping might look like, and why things are not that simple, imagine that all athletes covered by WADA are tested for blood and urine across a range of banned substances every time they compete, and at some agreed level of random out of competition testing. In addition all other efforts ramp up proportionally. Now imagine this has a much lower level of false negatives (i.e. approaching 8x as effective in detecting doping). Leaving aside the enormous cost and practical issues this might bring it is certain that this would not eliminate doping, merely reduce it, and would bring with it an increase in false positives. Would this be an end worth aiming for?
Of course, testing and punishment are not designed to catch everyone, they are intended to be sufficiently sensitive and draconian to offset the potential gains of doping. Anti-doping is intended to scare cheats into compliance, or at least to reduce incidence to such low levels as to be acceptable. I would speculate that current levels of sensitivity are insufficient to achieve this, but it is not clear that greater sensitivity would ever eradicate doping, even with the penalties currently imposed.
It is instructive to turn to another area of applied ethics to better understand these issues. In some universities it is expected that every piece of assessed work by every student be checked for plagiarism, both using automated and human techniques. Estimates of the incidence of plagiarism vary wildly, but Park (2003) argues that around half of a given student population might be expected to cheat in some way during their studies, and plagiarism is the most common form of cheating. There is a large investment in software to help detect plagiarism, and additional and substantial investment in ensuring that plagiarism is not a result of any misunderstanding of good academic practice. Penalties for plagiarism vary between institutions and are often nuanced to reflect the perceived seriousness of an offense: a first offense might receive a warning, but a second offense or aggravated example might to lead immediate expulsion. These measures demonstrably reduce the incidence of plagiarism.
Despite all this, students still plagiarise, sometimes with full conscious awareness of what they are doing and the probable consequences if caught, sometimes out of ignorance. This is probably because whereas for most students the decision to either intentionally cheat or fail to attend to instruction is driven by a fairly rational cost-benefit analysis, there is a minority that can both be identified as fitting a particular type of personality and will probably persist in repeating similar offences even if caught and given a minor penalty, additional academic support and education about the consequence of re-offending (Caruna, Ramaseshan & Ewing, 2000; also see Park, 2003 for a broader consideration of personality considerations). If this is true, then the most intent on cheating simply need to be identified and removed from a social context to which they are unsuited. This does not mean that the efforts to identify the remaining ‘strategic’ cheats are best replaced simply by better pro-active education. The fear of being caught and punished is for this group a significant motivation to comply as long as the detection rate is sufficiently high. Moreover, such detection techniques can themselves be used to educate students about good academic practice.
Even with all this effort, the detection rate does not nearly approach a zero rate of false negatives. This is why many institutions have actually chosen to downplay efforts to directly combat plagiarism and instead work towards education about ethical practices, embedding this within all educational activities. Students sign up to agreements which positively identify work as their own, and more general agreements on good conduct (honour codes, student contracts, partnership agreements). Such approaches seem to be effective in reducing the incidence of academic misconduct of all kinds (Park, 2003) especially where such efforts are the result of a partnership between students and faculty, but there is an implicit assumption that there are two types of offender – one that will respond to pro-active or reactive influences, incentives or penalties; and one that will wilfully continue to offend.
I am becoming persuaded that although detection and deterrence are important, and can play a role alongside education, pro-active positive identification and reinforcement of ethical behaviour is more fundamental. It is for this reason that we teach students about good practices in attribution before we teach them about malpractice, and I hope that this is why I see few cases in the work I assess. Of course, as with doping, it is near impossible to judge how good our efforts are without accurately judging the incidence of academic misconduct, and this is as yet unclear, partly because the incidence of plagiarism is related to an institution’s efforts to combat it.
How does this help us with competitive cycling: I wonder whether personality-screening should play a bigger role in anti-doping. There are ethical issues to overcome, but a voluntary approach such as that proposed by the Clean Protocol might go some way towards thinking outside what seems to be an unwinnable war of post-hoc detection and punishment. Alongside education about ethical values there is an opportunity here to work with the psychological aspects of cheating long before someone first dopes or tests positive.
I have written a lot about doping here, especially in relation to competitive cycling. Since I do not race, this is fairly neutral territory, and I can at least maintain a degree of objectivity. Recent discussion of the use of strong pain killers such as Tramadol, and of medical interventions for asthma and other respiratory issues in professional cycling, and my recent encounter with pain and injury has brought this all a little closer to home. Any medication can enhance performance, and the ethical issues here are complex: many athletes could not compete at all without asthma medication, and there are many situations where anti-inflammatory medication or an analgesic would be perfectly reasonable to enable someone to continue with a minor injury. I would suggest that there are three issues that limit such medical intervention in competition, notwithstanding chronic conditions which require maintenance:
the injury or condition should not be made worse by the use of medication;
the medication should not enhance the athlete’s performance above their baseline without such medication; and
the medication should be within the rules of the sport.