Thursday, 20 September 2012

Was Lance Clean and Did He Need To Cheat?

What an emotive subject Lance Armstrong is. He has inspired millions, whether they are cyclists, armchair sports fans or cancer patients his story has touched so many across the world. The man who dominated cycling to such an extent that it's probably better to describe him as crushing rather than dominating his opponents. Lance was everything the sport needed and he was everything that was needed to win at the sport. His nationality and mother tongue made him perfect for the media and his dynamic personality filled inches after inches of sports columns, hours and hours of TV coverage and flogged products to their readers/viewers. So was it all a sham, did he take drugs and that was why he was so good? Well the answer to the those two questions is "probably" and "no".

First of all let's rewind to before Lance had cancer, he was a strong rider from a young age and was the youngest rider to be road race world champion. Then cancer hit. Armstrong hit back at cancer with everything he had, he researched cancer to the nth degree and went about it in a way that he would be famous for attacking cycling when he made his comeback. He was methodically, looking at everything at the heart of that was nutrition. Coming out the other side (if you want the whole story read his excellent autobiography) he must have then analysed cycling with a new lust for life. I imagine him saying "right what do I need to do to win the Tour de France" and then researched it massively. This is where the grey areas start to come in. The Tour at that point (late nineties) was a dark place, running a two speed peloton - those who took drugs (doped) and those who didn't. There wasn't yet a test that could detect the most popular drug EPO and so it was rampant amongst cyclist. This description from explains how it works

"EPO artificially boosted the body’s red blood cell count . Boosting an athlete’s red blood cell count (and thus the efficiency with which oxygen is transported around the body) in order to improve performance, is done by injecting erythropoietin – a hormone produced by the kidneys that stimulates production of red blood cells – and it gives a massive advantage in performance."

The only cyclist and those on the staff who had been caught were those caught in possession of the drug rather than through drug tests. So before we go any further those who claim that because an athlete has take "hundreds of drugs tests" it doesn't mean they're not taking drugs. There wasn't a test for the third generation of EPO until May 2008, three years after Lance won his last Tour.

So back to Lance and his outlook in 1997/8, all the top cyclists were doping. Evidence? Let's look at the three winners before Lance, they were Pantani, Ullrich and Riis. Bjarne Riis has admitted he took drugs, Jan Ullrich has been done for drugs and, if you have the stomach for it, you can read The Death of Marco Pantani, a biography that uncovers his drug aided career from start to cocaine overdose finish.

Faced with a Tour that was fuelled by drugs it is feasible that Lance thought his only way of winning the tour during his generation was to use EPO.

However, Lance wasn't just EPO good, he was amazing. This is where the non-drugs side to Lance comes through. He was the complete rider. Let me explain in more detail.

He trained hard, he was one of the first riders to bring in reconnoitering the major stages of the tour before hand. Knowing how the route was gave him that extra edge, knowing exactly when to attack, knowing which side of the road to be on when descending. It all added up.

His diet was followed strictly, unlike Ullrich who would crash diet before the race Armstrong would turn up to the tour looking lean and but would stay lean aiding his training. Why is that important? Before cancer Lance had a lot of upper body weight in the form of muscle (he used to be a tri-athlete), the new slimmed down version meant he was a lot lighter and that aided him when climbing mountains. As you can imagine the lighter you are, the less weight you have to drag up a mountain.

Everything for Lance was down to the little detail, he wouldn't walk around in bare feet in his house as that was a way to catch colds. Everything was thought of. You may have heard David Brailsford talk of marginal gains to do with British Cycling and Team Sky but it's Lance that really brought that thinking on a step. He looked at everything, I've mentioned nutrition, training, health but his team also looked at his bike making sure he gained every advantage where he could.

Tactics wise he was spot on, at the start of his dominance he seemed easy to read, he would attack on the first mountain summit finish and then just keep eating away at time after that. Yet, it wasn't that simple. First of all, knowing when he would attack wouldn't help if you could keep up with him but he controlled the whole race from start to finish. He would carefully choose who would have the race lead by allowing only certain breakaways to have success (by his team not chasing them down) and would then hold them at a certain length so they weren't a danger to him but meant he wouldn't have to defend his lead too early. Team Sky are still learning from Lance today. They looked at how he never got in any crashes - something Bradley Wiggins didn't avoid as he went out of last year's Tour with a broken collar bone. Again it seemed easy to read him, just stay at the front and you don't end up in a crash. Yet when 200 riders want to be at the front for that very reason it actually causes the crashes so how did Lance do it? He got his team to ride a fast pace even on stages where there was nothing at stake, this stretched out the peloton and meant that the scrum for the front was no more.

Drugs may have helped with the implementation of his tactics but it didn't help form the original thought. That really sums Lance up, it may have helped his implementation but he was head and shoulders above the other drug takers. Does it make it right? No but he's still the best rider of his generation. That I'm sure of.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The get-to-work-on-time trial

Following the barren cycling years in his twenties, John Sills and his wife bought new bikes about a year ago, and have been impressed with how nice they look sitting unused in the garage. John works in London and lives in Buckinghamshire, and is best described as 'amateur', particularly at cycling. John recently started to contemplate cycling to work, and this is what happened. 

I've got a reputation for being tight with money. This is grossly unjust, and I'll bet anyone a fiver that I'm not. However, when the email dropped into my inbox announcing that it was time to hand back my company car and take some cash instead, it did get me thinking...

I pay nearly £1000 a year just to park my car at the station, and that's before I start to add on Insurance (I'm sure it was cheaper when I was 17), Petrol (I'm sure that was also cheaper when I was 17), and general servicing, as well as actually buying the car (this would be more expensive than when I was 17, as I just stole my Mum's).

So I was all set to get a Scooter - cheap to run, free to park, and I'd get a tan like one of models in the adverts, freewheeling along the A40 in three-quarter length trousers and espadrilles. But my mind got whirring on a 40km ride with my wife to watch the Olympics - it really wasn't that hard, and the fitness felt great. I work in London and live a bit too far out to ride the whole way, but I could certainly change the way I got to the train station.

After excessive deliberation, a plan was hatched to do a trial week on my bike. I asked for advice from everyone I knew who was a serious cyclist, and got plenty - including 'Get a good lock or a sh*t bike' - as well as taking tips from a few websites, most of whom seemed to be sponsored by Wet Wipes.

The Friday before, I trundled into work laden down with a suit, shoes, shirts, ties, hair wax, and the all-important deodorant. My colleagues looked on confused as I commandeered the coat rack as my personal wardrobe, debating as to whether I'd been kicked out of home or was planning to sell off my unwanted wares. The shirts were delivered to the dry-cleaners (£2.95 per shirt, ironed and hung), and over the weekend I planned my route. The idea was to aim for High Wycombe station rather then my usual Beaconsfield, as the route was shorter and flatter.

Oh, and I live up a massive hill.


I'm up on time, Banana devoured with gusto, and the ride goes well. Surprisingly well - I arrive at the station 15 minutes before the train is due to go (any regular commuter will tell you that 15 minutes is a lifetime in a world where we try to eek out every last second in bed). I feel very worthy getting on the train, loving the comfort of travelling in shorts and t-shirt, watching as it fills up with unfit and uncomfortable-in-their-suits businessmen. At work I manage to sneak into the Disabled toilet unnoticed, dousing myself in a double dose of deodorant. A minor crises strikes as I realise I've forgotten my cuff-links, but is averted easily as a new pair is acquired without fuss. I'm conscious I might smell, so decide to go on the attack, loudly proclaiming to my colleagues that I'm doing this test and it's their responsibility to tell me if I smell. I receive a muted response.

On the way home, I put my cycling gloves and glasses on a few minutes early, looking effortlessly cool to the rest of the packed train, who are in no way focussing on my old baggy shorts and ripped ageing trainers. I make it back home in good time, conquering the hill in front of a small group of kids who have presumably heard about my task and come out to watch (whilst also playing football). This is only the second time in history this feat has been achieved, with the first time rendering me unable to speak for nearly an hour.


A great morning - I change my route slightly to go on a back road (past a
Pub called The Sausage Tree), remember to take cuff links and socks, and the train journey is brilliantly relaxed. I'm wide awake and full of energy at work, with no visible signs of retching or recoiling from my work-mates. This is easy.

The ride back is not so great, carrying my laptop as I attempt to put the hill to the sword again in front of my adoring supporters. A fumbled gear change sends the chain flying off the cogs, which I manage to fix with all of the guile, speed, and professionalism of a man building IKEA furniture. I return home covered in oil, which it turns out is not particularly easy to wash off. After 39 minutes of scrubbing, my mind begins to wander and I realise that going from High Wycombe could cost me £400 more per year in train fares for 7 minutes more each way. A low point.


I worked from home today, had a couple of successful Video calls, and made a superb Steak and Pepper dinner. This is wholly irrelevant to the cycling test.


I set off in the morning, flying down the hill and enjoying the feeling of the fresh air rushing through my visibly-thinning hair. It's at this point that I realise I've forgotten both my glasses and helmet, and the approaching A40 suddenly seems more daunting. To make things worse, the bike isn't behaving - skipping around as it pleases and constantly wanting me to ride in top gear. I test my brakes.

However. I make it safely and have a moment of epiphany as I finally realise why there are always lots of bikes locks attached to the bike stands. It's not, as I presumed, the work of cunning but conscientious thieves leaving their leftovers, but cyclists not bothering to carry their locks home with them, lightening the load.

On the way home, a quick Google search tells me that my Bike is 'Ghost-shifting', and can be fixed easily. I do as it says, turning some small thing on the gear shift left. It works, but I don't know why. Whilst powering up the hill, narrowly avoiding a plastic sucker accidentally fired at me from the spectators, I realise that I could win back the £400 by riding to Beaconsfield instead. It's a longer ride and up a big old hill, but I'd be cycling in the right direction and I'd have seven extra minutes to play with.

I fill up with pasta and fix my lights on my bike, then take a quick look online for advice on climbing hills. Lance Armstrong's website gives some good tips.


I set off for Beaconsfield, taking my time up the hill, and arrive at exactly the same time that I've been arriving at High Wycombe. I'm both confused and suspicious, as this means I've got up a hill and gone 1.5 miles further without losing any time. Although I'm much, much sweatier, this does mean I can get on the earlier train and get to work with more time to get changed. I also seem to get more space on the train, with the seat next to me remaining unusually empty. Probably because it's a Friday.

Aside from a small issue at work where someone else has cheekily got into the Disabled loo before me, I get home without issue, enjoying the long downhill stretches whilst curling into an aerodynamic position to enhance my professional look. The hill to my house is a struggle, but I make it and put my bike to bed for the weekend.

Buoyed by my success, I immediately get online and buy SealSkinz socks, DHB triple lens glasses, an unnecessary laptop case, and a hi-vis Hump backpack cover for a back-pack I don't yet own.

So in conclusion, it seems that if I'm happy to get up five minutes earlier and get home five minutes later, I can get fit, save the environment, have a more comfortable commute and save a fair amount of cash. I've felt wide awake and full of energy at work, and my suits should last longer too. I'll need some car-lift favours from my wife occasionally, when I need to be in early or home late, but in return she'll get a fitter and slightly sweatier husband. The big unknown is the weather - it was fine for the whole week, with barely any wind or rain, but I'll keep going until either my colleagues subtly move their desks away, or I have to be rescued by the Buckinghamshire Ambulance service, peeling me off the bike that I'm frozen to, covered in oil and muttering about improving my cadence.

After all, I can't let my fans down...