Transcontinental Race: a paradox of mediation

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 will leave you with the haunting singing of Alexandre Bourgeonnier, who was second in 2015 and scratched this year. It will stay in my memory for a long while…

Polocini coffee-shop ride

Having failed to contribute my efforts to 30 days of biking due to other commitments it seemed apt for me to accept my punishment in the form of a ride to the wonderful Polocini coffee shop in Romily (and back). Over 2700 metres of climbing and about 140 kilometres of chilly riding later I can truly say I have been punished. And I liked it.

Thanks to @waterrat77 for the wheel and the sense of direction.

The paradox of internal blood testing

One of the more mysterious aspects of recent revelations about the prevalence of oxygen vector doping is the role of internal testing of blood values. One might ask how it is possible such testing failed to identify the level of blood manipulation that is now becoming clear from evidence provided to the Puerto trial. The decision by Armstrong not to enter into an official internal testing programme with Catlin during his comeback is often seen as a signal that his interaction with Catlin was just a public relations game. Of course, Catlin is well aware how internal testing programmes can be perverted into early warning systems that actually facilitate doping, and still possesses in his infamous fridge the evidence that would demonstrate how dirty US athletics had become at at a time of intense internal testing. Of course, there is no paradox here, individuals and teams use blood testing to ensure they do not get caught by the official testers. Rasmussen’s recent interview on NOS (here in English with Dutch subtitles) confirms yet another purpose for such internal controls: to manipulate and maintain internal hierarchies within a team. As we know from the Hamilton book, and from Voet’s book on Festina, access to doping products is often controlled in such a way as to create a hierarchy of performance enhancement, with a group of favoured riders entitled to dope. Of course riders can choose to dope without the support of a team, but this presents logistical problems, and may be seen to be a deviation from a script. This where the Rasmussen interview becomes interesting. He notes that CSC stopped him from racing because his haematocrit was too high, and implies that one reason he switched to Rabobank was to be permitted to manipulate his blood as he saw fit. Indeed his difficulties at Rabobank revolve around discussion of how the team management retained control of blood doping to (probably) ensure that performances did not become too suspicious. In this way, internal testing becomes the enemy of anti-doping, not its friend.

Edited 09032013 to clarify testing of blood values, not for specific substances.

Beyond the car crash: Armstrong testimony

Most of the people I follow on twitter, whether professional journalists, or unattached commentators, seem extremely keen to dismiss any attempts by Lance Armstrong to belatedly confess his doping infractions. This is despite reports that he is prepared to testify against officials that facilitated his cheating. This reminds me of the vitriol hurled against Joe Papp, whose testimony to USADA and federal agencies in the US resulted in a reduced ban and a non-custodial sentence.

Many focus on Armstrong’s desire to control the Media, and indeed the role a confession might play in mitigating his exposure to civil, criminal or sporting litigation. My view is that his motives for revealing some of the institutional factors in professional cycling’s darkest times are fairly irrelevant. There is little enough incentive for elite sportspeople to be honest about the factors leading to exceptional performance: it is not enough to expect them to be honest because it is the right thing to do. That is a naïve position and will not advance efforts to control doping.

I will not applaud Armstrong for testifying to USADA, but I welcome it nonetheless. If we are serious about combating doping in sport an understanding of institutional factors and how they interact with personal motivation is essential. The Armstrong/USPS case presents an opportunity, and without his testimony, will always remain incomplete and inconclusive.

Salmon in the Rain

Yesterday’s ride included some of the most torrential rain and hail I have seen. None of this crazy weather was predicted, and despite misgivings I chose to take my very best 80s ride, painted and built by Daniel Salmon. Crimped 653 tubes, Mavic, topped by a Flite: ‘trés nerveux’ and stiff for steel. It, and I, survived: but next time I think I will trust my eyes and wear my overshoes.
Salmon is still making bikes and, probably more famously, manufacturing alloy mudguards (fenders). Here are some really nice photographs (not taken by me) of his shop from 2003; much of his work is now in carbon, but there is some steel still in evidence. Check out this innovatively racked randonneur.

USADA and anonymous witnesses

According to velonation Lance Armstrong’s legal team are apparently attempting to discover the names of witnesses to his and others’ alleged doping, facilitation of doping and conspiracy to cover up after the fact, a step which is being resisted for fear that the witnesses may be intimidated or subject to smear tactics:

A letter sent by Armstrong’s attorney Robert Luskin to USADA this week shows that the Texan and his legal team are pushing for information that they could use in defending against the USADA claims.

They are trying to compel USADA to reveal the names of the witnesses who gave details of what they said were doping actions carried out by Armstrong, Bruyneel and others. “We cannot protect Mr. Armstrong’s rights without knowing who is saying what and what events that allegedly occurred over the course of a decade and a half,” Luskin wrote in the letter. “Even at this preliminary stage, your reliance on secret witnesses making deliberately vague charges is unconscionable.”

“In this case anonymity of the witnesses at the Review Board stage is also important to shield them from the retaliation and attempted witness intimidation that cooperating witnesses have faced in other matters related to the USPS Conspiracy,” it wrote.

Earlier in the letter, it outlined what it said were examples of such behaviour which had been used in the past. It was listed as point six on the list of points that would be made by witnesses should things go to a hearing. This was said to be “the use of fear, intimidation and coercion to attempt to enforce a code of silence (or omerta) by team members and employees to prevent detection of the Conspiracy or the prosecution of co-conspirators for anti-doping rule violations.”

velonation , 2012

I have written three times on this blog about the need for those involved in the practice of doping to be supported in supplying evidence to the authorities. I do not normally recycle my material, but I do think that what I wrote last year is worth revisiting. First, I wrote here in March 2011 about the need to embrace those that are prepared to tell what they know about doping, and the obstacles that stand in their way, taking whistleblowing about academic misconduct as a model:

I hope that Michael Shermer (2010) is right that the balance can shift in favour of telling the truth about doping in cycling. But the cost for those that do is often unbearably high. We should worry that it is only those who can leave cycling behind (e.g., Kimmage) or have been abandoned by it (e.g., Landis) that are prepared to reveal all (see e.g., the nyvelocity transcript, 2011).

Maybe we should welcome those who tell the truth about cycling, whatever their motivation.

Second, I wrote this in May 2011 about Tyler Hamilton’s decision to come clean, both to the authorities and the press about his experiences of doping:

the tipping point from omerta to openness requires the engagement of law, not just sporting regulations, and it is clear that this may end badly for many, Papp included. In the long run though, cycling must engage with the fact that blood doping has fundamentally changed the sport, and needs to be eradicated for its physical and mental health. Some still doubt the honesty or motives of those who testify in front of juries about what they have seen or done in their work as professional sportspeople: what has become clear only recently through the Bonds perjury case is that juries will convict those who have lied in their testimony about doping (and do care about the image sporting heroes present to the world), and that alone may impact positively upon efforts to challenge institutionalised doping in sport.

Lastly, I wrote here in September 2011 about the tendency of some to scapegoat those who testify in anti-doping and criminal cases against those that take, supply or facilitate performance enhancing short cuts:

 The danger here is that if individuals who come forward are pilloried as ‘snitches’, and every time their evidence is used they are attacked for perceived character flaws, this serves as a disincentive to others. I suspect that what actually underpins the criticisms of those like Papp (or Kohl, Landis, Jaksche) is a tacit belief that doping is a personal failing, and they therefore treat those who are caught (especially if they try to help themselves) as scapegoats. What professional cycling and its followers needs to understand is that doping is an institutional problem, and that scapegoating individuals will never solve these institutional problems, especially if it removes the possibility that they can help address the issues at a more systemic level (e.g., exposing practices and supply chains).

I am relieved to say that USADA seem to be making some attempt to support and protect those that come forward to tell their stories. That does not mean the witnesses will not face sanctions in the future (both Joe Papp and Tom Zirbel were sanctioned but received some mitigation in similar circumstances), but it does mean they can have  chance to contribute to the efforts to dismantle the systems that support doping. And that is the defining and distinctive characteristic of the recent USADA letter: this is not about individual acts of doping, but about the ways in which individuals might conspire together to facilitate and cover-up these acts.

They shoot horses: performance enhancement, risk-taking and the rage to master

In the last few days both the cycling and mainstream press have reported on the usage of presently undetectable performance enhancing drugs in cycling (see e.g., this article in de Telegraaf; this article on José Been wrote an excellent post on her blog about two of these products, and following news of the arrest of Alberto Bèltran in El País, updated this with news that he had been caught with both AICAR and TB-500, making the link back to the arrest of Wim Vansevenant on the eve of last year’s Tour de France. Here I consider the implications of turning to such ‘new’ drugs for cycling in particular and sport in general. Continue reading