Those Magnificent Men in their Racing Machines

Aug 10, 2009 in Photography

watkinsglen1.jpgOn Friday I trekked southeast to the Watkins Glen racetrack to catch the first day of a 3-day weekend NASCAR racing event. First I swung by Hahn Photographic to pick up that wonderful anti-vibration Nikon zoom lens. Except perhaps for Formula One I don’t care much about car racing and it saw more as a fun photographic exercise.

I made it to the Watkins Glen village by about noon so first had lunch, walked around the town a bit and then drove the final 4 miles to the track switching the Mini Cooper engine to the Sport setting as warm-up for the afternoon and evening. While your ticket is scanned and checked only once in order to get on the grounds, there’s security at the entrance to each of the stands who want to look in your bag. Executing my plan to shoot from many different places and angles around the track this meant that my backpack was checked about 12 times. This got a little tedious after the third check. Curiously this seemed to mean that they didn’t care – from a security point of view – what happened on the camp grounds, the pit areas and vending areas.

watkinsglen21.jpgWalking around I was amazed to see that many families apparently follow the racing circus around in their campers. Some even built their own stands around the course; a few quite elaborate. I guess there worse ways to spend one’s summer. As a racing course I like Watkins Glen. Similar to European circuits it has right turns as well as left turns.

Much of the pit area was open to the public. This was fun as it allowed you to see many of the teams working hard on the cars. In the afternoon the area also hosted a driver autograph session. Guess which team table was by far the busiest…?

Pictures in the gallery.

And just when the sun started shining again for Dutch cycling

Jul 01, 2009 in Cycling

This year Dutch professional cycling seemed in an uplift again. After a long period of few successes since the heydays of the late 70-ies and 80-ies, bright prospects returned. Robert Gesink rode well in the Tour of California and in the Dauphine Libere, Sebastiaan Langeveld did very well in Omloop het Nieuwsblad, Niki Terpstra and Stef Clement both won stages in the Dauphine Libere, Lars Boom is a very promising young rider, Skil-Shimano has been invited to ride the Tour, Thomas Dekker seemed on the way up again with a very good time trial in the Tour de Suisse.

Only then to be tested positive for EPO.

The timeframe of Thomas Dekker’s alleged use of banned substances is either interesting or worrisome. His urine samples from December 2007 has found to contain traces of EPO. Thomas Dekker rode for Rabobank at the time. Although the team management denies knowing of Dekker’s use, the Rabobank did leave Dekker off the Tour squad in July 2008. At first the team stated this was because of lack of form on Dekker’s side but later it came out this was as a precaution due to unusual blood values.

In July 2007 the Rabobank suffered great embarrassment over the Rasmussen affair. Since then Bernhard Kohl has also be found to have used illegal substances. Kohl himself has stated that he started using these materials during his time at Rabobank. He and Thomas Dekker rode together on Rabo’s youth education team. Just before the Giro last May it was announced that Austrian authorities want to talk with several Rabo riders. This desire comes out of their interviews with Bernhard Kohl. Rabobank stressed that these conversations are voluntary and that they are fully assisting in the request.

I just can’t help but worry how many more snakes are hiding in the grass.

I have not fully checked this but I believe that Thomas Dekker is the first Dutch rider so far to have tested positive in this era of blood doping. Recently retired riders like Steven Rooks admitted to have used EPO arguing that it was not a banned substance in their time – which while strictly correct is a bit of a lame excuse. That Thomas Dekker now tested positive does not surprise me. He moved to Italy on his own at a very young age, training under the advice of Cecchini, a doctor with a questionable reputation. Dekker only reluctantly broke off relations with him. Then last year’s odd falling out between him and the Rabobank.

Bernhard Kohl, Patrick Sinkewitz, Jorg Jaksche all testified to, or made accusations of, structural doping by riders and teams. While current riders react aggressively in interviews when asked about Kohl or Sinkewitz or Jaksche I do believe there’s at least some truth in their accusations. First of all, Sinkewitz and Kohl made those opinions in formal interviews with law enforcement which lowers the chances of them making just it up or lying. Second, it is just not likely or believable that all those athletes who have tested positive did all this on their own. Where do you get the material? How do you know what to take and when? How do you know how to have the best chances of testing negative? I just don’t believe each rider works that out all by himself. Team doctors, who test and examine their riders frequently and who of their race results and progress, must at least be aware or suspicious. The same for team directors. Most of them, if not all, are ex-riders and some admitted to drug use during their careers. They know what’s what – they know where Abraham gets the mustard to use a Dutch expression. At the very minimum team doctors and directors must be very good at looking away.

Last year hope was emerging that dope usage would be declining, that it was a leftover from an older generation (Zabel et al) and thus would be purged from the peloton. I think by now we know better: the ghost is alive and well. Over the last year Dekker, Kohl, Schumacher, Rebellin, Ricco, Pfannberger, Hamilton, Astarloa, Caucchiolo, De Bonis, Elvira, Serrano, Mas, Ramos, Piepoli all tested positive and I’m pretty sure this list is not exhaustive. The names here are young riders and older riders, from many different countries and many different teams.

Kohl’s recent statement that doping is (still) widespread and systemic sounds not so impossible, does it?

The Future of Pro-Cycling?

Jun 26, 2009 in Cycling

futurecycling.jpgThe banning of radios in two Tour de France stages next month got me thinking about what pro cycling may look like in a few years time. While I very much look forward to those two stages, I am convinced that this ban will not find much following. In sports, in life, in business technological progress cannot be stopped.

The last ten, twenty years have already pushed the sport forward. Among other things:
– (almost) faultless indexed gearing
– from 10-speed bikes to 22-speed bikes
– the aerodynamic advances evident during time trials in bike design, helmets, wheels, clothing
– the emergence of GPS
– and those radios of course, enabling direct and continuous communication between riders and between rider and team director

Riders like Lance Armstrong have also modernized training regimes and team tactics. Teams like Saxo Bank, Silence-Lotto and Rabobank now prepare differently for multi-stage races like the Tour and the Giro than before the Armstrong era. Trek, at Armstrong prodding, provides the team with different bikes for the flat stages vs the mountain stages, let alone the time trails of course.

Both technology influences and human influences are further professionalizing the sport. Let us freely speculate where it may go from here.

Perhaps begin with a more controversial topic: doping, an aspect of professional sport that has seen its own professional advances.

From the 1950-1980 era of steroids and testosterone to EPO and other forms of blood doping. The test regimes are getting better with also more structural defenses like the recent introduction of the so-called blood passport. But it will continue to be a cat and mouse game, a catch up effort. As anti-doping labs develop tests to find usages of one type of doping, other labs find the next form of doping. AFLD, the French anti-doping organization, applied new test methods at last year’s Tour de France and the IOC applied these methods also to samples taken during the Peking Olympics. Several cyclists (and other athletes) were caught cheating. One, Bernhard Kohl, has been quite vocal since his finding out. He makes at least one quite interesting point: he tested positive only once even while he was extensively doping. Through the use of the blood passport the UCI recently announced the names of 5 cyclists suspected of drug usage due to unusual values in their blood passports. This may show that a blood passport is an effective means to evaluate whether an athlete uses substances or methods that s/he shouldn’t but the announcement also implies that doping usage continues. This raises a question for me, what about the period before the athlete is required to maintain this passport? Will we see in the future athletes nurtured from a much younger age and so coming into the profession with established blood levels nullifying the impact of those passports?

In swimming and in speed skating performances are improved by faster suits. In support of my opinion stated earlier that technological advances cannot be stopped, the international swim foundation after some discussion and controversy recognized the records achieved with the new suits. In time trials we already see racers in long sleeved skinsuits, covered shoes and aerodynamic helmets. I wonder how long it’ll be before we start to see more of that in the flat, fast stages. And maybe even in mountain stages where there could be an aerodynamic benefit in the long descents.

It seems that with Campagnolo’s new 11-sprocket cassette a cyclist has all the needed gears and not much more can be gained there. Shimano, and I trust Campagnolo and SRAM too, is working on electronic shifting. This itself will not give a speed increase but fewer moving parts is still better than more. Did I see first Sylvester Szmyd and then Alejandro Valverde mis-shift in the final meters of the Dauphiné Libéré’s Mont Ventoux stage?

For me the most interesting developments are in what has been started by the introduction of the radios and the emergence of GPS-enabled bicycle computers like Garmin’s Edge line. For my own cycling I love having a GPS on my handlebars. Knowing where I am, where I want to go, having all that data to play with afterwards: delicious.

For years racers have been putting bike computers to good use. Knowing the time difference between the peloton and the break-away group it is easy to calculate what average speed to ride to catch them. And the current GPS-enabled devices already provide additional benefits: see the geographical profile of the route ahead, know exactly where you are with regards to the remainder of the course. But certainly from a team director point of view much more is possible. GPS radios can inform the team director exactly where all the team riders are and where they are in relation to each other. Biometric information can be sent along so that the director can also have an idea of the remaining fitness levels of each team member. And so Eric Breukink of Rabobank could decide to send Pieter Weening after an escapee instead of Joost Posthuma judging the realtime reporting of wattage, heart rates and lactate levels of both riders.

Team leaders like Lance Armstrong who have a direct interest in team strategy as well could have much of the same information projected on heads-up displays integrated in their sunglasses.

Team directors of the future need not be in the team cars anymore. Not be distracted by the driving and the discomfort of being in a car for the many hours of a race. Instead, they’ll be in a central (nicely airconditioned) team command post with plenty of displays and communication devices around them conducting the cycling battle like a modern general. Ignoring a team director’s instructions will become harder and harder for the riders, continuing the increasing control of the team director over the team tactics during the race.

It still frequently occurs that a rider looses a race due to poor eating or drinking. Alberto Contador lost this year’s Paris-Nice because of this. Robert Gesink had a bad day in last year’s Vuelta due to not taking in enough food and also Lance Armstrong has fallen victim in the past. I expect these decisions to go away from the athlete. In the future a rider may have biometric devices embedded that monitor the rider’s blood levels and, carrying a future-version Camelbak, have the appropriate nutrients inserted directly into the bloodstream.

Over time where races are held may also change. Already for some years races like the Amstel Gold race, certain stages in the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España have become more dangerous for the riders due to the so-called traffic furniture that is installed to make the urban areas safer. Instruments like round-abouts, speed bumps, road dividers are put in to slowdown daily traffic and minimize accidents. For a fast moving peloton of 150+ riders these actually create greater risk for bodily harm. Just as car racing – for the exception of the famous Monaco Formula 1 race – by and large has moved to dedicated circuits, also bike racing may increasingly move to rural courses and avoid the cities making the traditional circuiting of the Champs d’Elysées a memory of the past.

Skate The Bay

Feb 10, 2009 in Life

skatethebay.jpgThis Saturday saw the successful launch of the Skate The Bay speed skating marathon on the bay at Webster, NY. It was a close call; it seems the weather gods are not fully behind the event. Last year it was planned and organized for the first time but then a week before thaw set in. This year the race was held but only just. It starting thawing the night before. Luckily there were 16“ of ice so if one ignored the slowly increasing layer of water one could race just fine.

I missed the first half of the 50km marathon. Its start time of 9am overlapped with the broadcast of the Allround World Championships speed skating in Norway and I couldn’t resist its pull to see/hear how van Deutekom and Kramer et al would do. For several of the marathon racers the distance was quite a distance. There was one very brave soul riding on hockey skates. After the marathon the 1km community race took place. It was a lot of fun to see the young kids sprint away. I put under the steel for a little while as well. Not easy. Natural ice is so much harder than the artificial ice at ice rinks and having had no maintenance for the last 12 years or so my skates aren’t exactly sharp. Still, it was fun.

Originally I planned to also watch the Sunday events but with the high temperatures I didn’t think that was going to be much fun: soo much water. But still, it was great that on the second try the race did take off and together with the organizers I hope this will become a regular stop on the calendar.

Pictures in the gallery.

Rochester Omnium- Criterium

Aug 10, 2008 in Cycling

bruce2.jpgYes, we met!
Bruce and I have known of each other for quite a while – fellow Rochesterian bloggers, cyclists, bicycle forum participants, and photo takers – but never met in person. I missed last year’s BikeJournal Reunion here in the Finger Lakes area and just last week again in Colorado. But now, near the Full Moon Vista stand (where else?) we met.

It was a Saturday filled with cycling stuff. I replaced the 53 chainring on Charles, the BikeFriday, and put on the blue handlebar tape, I just caught the end of the Olympic road race and then it was off to the Omnium Criterium.

With the camera cards freshly formatted I took photos at the Women’s Pro/1/2/3/4 race (rough deal when you’re a Cat 3 or 4), the Masters race, Men’s Cat 3/4 and finally mostly blurry and dark pictures during the Men’s Pro race. There was severe rain during the Cat 3/4 race and later during the Pro race but for the rest the weather held together very well. Had a few brief chats with fellow photographers that oddly all followed a similar patterns:

after a few exchanges:
“Where are you from?”
“Are you with a Dutch team here?”
“No, I live here.”
“Oh, how interesting.”

and the next conversation:

“Where are you from?”
“The Netherlands.”
“Are you shooting for a Dutch magazine?”
“No, I live here.”
“Oh, how intriguing.”

Anyways, I saw Betsy and Paul both race and put in great efforts. I asked Paul afterward how it went. “It was tough,” he replied. Yes, it definitely looked that way.

The Pro race was preceded by a Scottish marching band. Bruce and I couldn’t figure out what the relation was with Rochester or with cycling. Then Mayor Duffy gave a short speech and fired the race into action. Which I guess went better than last year when he ended up shouting “Bang!” after the starting pistol failed.

The imagery is presented for your viewing pleasure in the gallery.

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