Mary Schmich’s “Wear Sunscreen” and the spirit of cycling

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” (Schmich, 1997)

The following essay by the American journalist and newspaper columnist Mary Schmich was originally published in the Chicago Tribune in June 1997. Although Schmich makes no reference to cycling, her outlook nevertheless captures the spirit of cycling perfectly. Every single time I contemplate riding my bicycle I feel scared, and every single time I mount my bike and cycle off, moment by moment for that entire journey I feel a sense of aliveness like none other. When I return home safe and sound, I feel a deep gratitude and satisfaction. Fear of living yet living in spite of that fear, and gratitude for seizing life: that’s the soul of cycling. Read on and relish Mary Schmich’s poetic words:

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Sing.

Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.

Stretch.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.

Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.

Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

Two years after this essay’s publication, Baz Luhrmann released an adaptation to spoken word song: “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”.

Guest post by Helen Russell: Top cycling tips for hill climbs!

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For many cycling enthusiasts conquering an ascent, whether it’s a local hill or an Alpine climb featured on the Tour de France, is the epitome of cycling. The winners of Grand Tours are often decided in the mountain stages and the title of King or Queen of the Mountains evokes the idea of an existential battle against the gradient to vanquish the mountain! Cyclists seem to be drawn to climbs but what is the best way to reach the summit? Here are my top tips for climbing:

1) Practice

The first thing to do if you are planning to tackle some of the iconic mountain climbs is to practice! It can be difficult to ride a long, steep gradient if you have never done it before. Riding the climbs of the Grand Tours will be a bit of a shock both physically and mentally if you are not used to riding hills. The climbs on the continent are long steady climbs rather than short steep inclines which are more common in the UK. If you can’t find a long climb close to home then just ride a decent hill a few times to get your legs used to climbing a longer distance.

2) Equipment

Make sure that your bike is set up properly for climbing. If you plan to take your own bike overseas to ride the Cols then the main question is – does it have enough gears? The standard 39/53 tooth chainring with 11-23 cassette is ok for hills that only last a few minutes but climbs on the continent can take over an hour to reach the top so you should think about changing either the chainset, cassette or both for a lower gear ratio. Of course that is easier said than done so the best way to ensure that your bike is suitable and avoiding the need to change your existing bike set up is to hire a bike with compact gears appropriate for the local terrain, at your destination. Lots of hire bikes have a traditional compact chainset with 50/34 chain rings and 11 speed 11-32 cassette – perfect for the mountains.

3) Technique

The most efficient way of climbing is to spin in an easy gear. We all know someone who claims to have climbed a mountain in the big ring but look at the gearing the pros use up climbs and you will see that they spin up. Unless you are doing a specific strength building session then select a lower gear and spin. Try and stay seated as long as possible. When the going gets tough move towards the back of the saddle to get some extra power and only stand for the steepest of gradients or just to stretch the legs.

4) Pace

The main point to make about pace is not to go off too fast. The climbs on the continent are a lot longer than those in the UK so you will need to conserve energy to reach the top. The most energy efficient way to climb is to ride at the same pace from the bottom to the summit and remember to ride within your own capacity. Also don’t be afraid to stop for a rest on the way up – you don’t have to ride it all at once. Actually stopping is advisable to take a look at, or a photo of, the stunning scenery on route!

5) Fuel

The mistake that many riders make is that they try to fuel the climb whilst on the climb. This is too late as your energy stores will already be depleted and what is worse it will be hard to digest whilst cycling hard and could make reappearance! Make sure that you have an energy bar about fifteen to or twenty minutes before you get to the climb. Energy gels are good for climbing as they are more easily digested and take affect quicker than solids. Of course keep taking small sips of drink whilst climbing. Some climbs have refreshment stops on the upwards slopes but that isn’t always the case so fill up your bidons at a café or shop at the bottom.

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Helen is a former age-group European triathlon champion and World and European duathlon champion. In 2015 she cycled the entire route of the Tour de France as part of the ‘One Day Ahead team’, which raised £1m for Cure Leukaemia.  You can follow her training and racing on Twitter via @helengoth. Read more about Helen in Anaemic On A Bike’s Hall of Fame page.

Anaemic on a Thorn Audax Mk3: my review

“I’m old school and I believe that many cyclists still seek a bike that’s made to last. I continue to believe that being durable is a positively good thing!” (Andy Blance, co-founder of Thorn Cycles)

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My Thorn Audax Mk3, ridden on my 40th, on the approach to High Bradfield in Sheffield.

I’m already the proud owner of a 2012 Ridgeback Voyage tourer, which has proven its worth both on day rides of long distances and steep climbs and as a commuter bicycle; it’s the latter which it has morphed into given its sturdy build and reliable handling, and especially now that my 40th birthday present to myself has arrived: a 2016 Thorn Audax Mk3 tourer. The Thorn Audax is a nippy bike in comparison. It is remarkably lightweight for steel (approximately 10.9 kg) and has a gear range which makes any high gradient ascent conquerable while allowing for fun cruise speeds on lower gradients and descents – as such, this is a touring bike which feels like a racing bike. On its inaugural ride (Chris’s Spin), it was tested up some of the most challenging ascents – Mam Nick and Monsal Head – and descents in the Peak District and managed superbly (with the help of course of its anaemic rider!) This is a highly versatile bike for rides into the hilly countryside, which is precisely what I bought it for. I was looking for something a little lighter and a little faster than the Ridgeback, and the Thorn Audax excels on both counts.

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And then there’s the whole Thorn experience! Thorn is a bespoke touring bike manufacturer based in Somerset. I ordered this bike via telephone and email. The detail requested and the attention paid by the folks down at Thorn was exceptional: what they delivered (literally in a box!) was a high-quality, perfectly fitted bicycle that translates into a majestical first-class riding experience. Very important to me is Thorn’s approach to cycling and bicycle production, its ethos, which is commendable. I’ll end this review with the following two extracts – “Steel is real!” and “Does weight matter?” – from the Thorn Mega Brochure:

I. Steel is real!

[…] If you race, you need a racing bike and, if you’re any good – not only will someone buy it for you – they’ll also pay you to ride it! If you don’t race, why on earth would you want a racing bike? Would you buy a twitchy and demanding track day car, such as a Caterham, as an everyday vehicle? It rains in the UK – why would you be prepared to suffer a wet bum and tolerate tyres which puncture easily – or do you stick to smooth but busy, “A” roads? […] In my opinion, high quality steel is the best possible material for a strong, comfortable, well equipped, and long lasting frame. […] All Thorn frames use high quality, heat-treated steel. I wouldn’t wish to build our bikes with anything else and I don’t want anything else for my own bikes! The final heat treatment process can double the cost of a steel cycle tube. Heat treatment raises the UTS (ultimate tensile strength) significantly – this makes the tubes stronger and more resistant to cracking. Heat treatment also makes the tubes more resistant to denting and greatly enhances the frame’s resilience. Resilience can be defined technically as, the ability of a material to absorb energy when it’s deformed and then release that energy upon unloading. In a high quality bicycle frame, it manifests itself to the cyclist as a tight, springy sensation. […]

OTHER MODERN FRAME MATERIALS

Aluminium frames

Cheap (thick-walled) aluminium framesThese frames are very strong, they could have the fittings required on a touring bike and they should last a lifetime but they are heavy, very uncomfortable and they have a “dead” feel. Have you ever heard of an Aluminium spring?

Expensive (thin walled) aluminium framesThese frames are less uncomfortable and they are quite light but they can’t have the fittings required for touring and they break! Dealing with a broken lightweight aluminium frame is easy – recycle it into bottle tops!

Carbon frames

Carbon makes a perfect spring; Carbon fibre frames can be very lightweight and very durable – as long as you don’t scratch them – a gouge in a carbon frame is a catastrophic failure waiting to happen. I’d have no hesitation using one for racing – if I raced – and of course, if somebody else was paying for it! Try Googling “cracked carbon” and see what pictures you get! It’s difficult to manufacture a carbon frame with luggage carrier bosses – I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, when I see a “cool” carbon road racing frame being used for lightweight touring – I see rattling mudguards, held on with cable ties, which have been known to suddenly jam in the wheel, precipitating an instant cart wheel, followed by a face plant. I see mega heavy alloy seat post-fitting (seat post breaking?) carriers with loads being carried, which are too high and too far back for stability. Alternatively, I see no provision for luggage at all; as the day warms up, the rider end up looking like a cricket umpire, with clothing tied around their waist – how cool is that – in both senses of the word? With most of these adapted road racing frames, I frequently see the dangers and difficulties associated with toe overlap.

Titanium frames

I hear it said that Titanium frames ride like steel frames. That’s true – in my opinion, a top quality Ti frame is almost as nice to ride as a top quality steel frame! It can be argued that Titanium can be used to make springs but until Samurai swords or GLOBAL kitchen knives are made from titanium, I will continue to believe that steel is a superior material for many applications. Titanium is two-thirds of the weight of steel – but even the top quality, cycle-specific tubes are much less stiff. To make a frame which is as stiff as a good, high quality steel frame, requires a larger volume of material, which erodes most of the weight saving! The majority of customers however want and expect, a weight saving with a Ti frame, therefore they end up with a frame which isn’t stiff enough – this not only wastes energy – it can sometimes give a scary ride down steep hills – particularly if it’s a short wheelbase frame with road racing geometry!

Low grade Titanium. Most of the titanium tubes used in frame building today are not only very low grade – they’re also “plain gauge tubes” which have been manufactured from a sheet of rolled and welded material i.e. it’s not butted at all and it most certainly does have a seam! If low grade steel is nicknamed “gas pipe”, these tubes ought to be called “cooling pipe”. Such tubes may be an improvement on “gas pipe” steel but they’re far inferior to top quality steel, unless, of course, they are actually being used in the cooling system of a reactor! If a new Ti frame costs less than £2000, then low grade, plain gauge, rolled and strip welded Titanium is, almost certainly, all that’s being offered! Spending lots of money is no guarantee of quality either – there are some unscrupulous people around! Such frames remind me of Hans Christian Andersen’s Classic fairy tale; “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

Top quality Titanium. Cold drawn, seamless, double butted, 6-4 grade Titanium is very, very expensive, it makes a very fine road racing frame – I’d prefer such a Ti frame to a Carbon frame – but once again, only if I actually raced and of course, only if someone else was paying for it! I don’t race, I want and need, a touring bike and it’s either impossible, or ridiculously expensive, to make a touring frame, with the required fittings, from high quality butted Ti. Furthermore, all high quality Ti frames, that I’ve known, have also broken! Titanium has a much higher scrap value than steel, which could be good news, because it’s usually impossible to make a repair, which has lasting structural integrity, to a cracked Ti frame. Try Googling “cracked titanium” and see what pictures you get! Perhaps there are some proper titanium road racing frames, being made today, or which may be made in the future, that won’t break – but I doubt it. It’s even less likely that anyone would commission a (heavier) cold drawn, seamless, double butted, 6-4 grade Ti tube set, with the slightly thicker walls necessary to make it less likely to crack, when it’s subjected to touring loads and forces. I certainly wouldn’t want to risk such a huge sum of my own money – when steel is almost as light, is much more durable and could be easily repaired if necessary. Steel rides better, is relatively inexpensive and a steel frame can have all the fittings you require – no wonder we say: STEEL IS REAL!

II. Does weight matter?

In the real world, what is the cost, in terms of energy expenditure, of riding a slightly heavier bike? If you disregard rolling resistance and aerodynamics (which I discuss elsewhere) the equation used for calculating energy is:

Kinetic Energy (KE) = 1⁄2MV2

Thus, a 75Kg cyclist, with 5Kg of luggage on an 11Kg bike, would use on average 202W of power to accelerate from 0 to 24Kph (15mph) in 10 seconds – if the same cyclist, wearing the same clothes and riding in an identical position, had a 6.5Kg bike and carried no luggage, they could reach 24Kph in 9 seconds, from a standing start, for the energy expenditure of 204W.

If you used all the bits from a 6.5Kg Tour de France bike on one of our medium sized Audax frames, you’d swap a 1kg frame for a 2.1Kg frame – you could use the same carbon fork. This would mean that our Audax bike would weigh 7.6Kg. The fact that the components would be unsuitable for use as reliable transport, is irrelevant to this comparison.

Let’s see the difference in energy expenditure between a 75Kg rider, with no luggage, riding from 0 to 24Kph in ten seconds on each of the above bikes. I will disregard rolling and air resistances, because they will be virtually identical in both cases.

A 75Kg rider, on a 6.5 kg bike, would use 181.1W.

A 75Kg rider, on a 7.5 kg bike, would use 183.5W.

That’s less than a 1.31% difference. Once up to speed, given identical riding positions and identical tyres, there’s virtually no difference whatsoever in the amount of energy required to maintain this speed – on a flat road – apart from the aerodynamics of the frame itself. A nice, slim steel frame is almost certainly more aerodynamic than a mid range, fat carbon frame – now there’s a thought!

The inaugural Bolshy Cycle Ride

“On an antiquated, ridiculously heavy frankenstein’s monster of a bike, I rode up agonising hills and down wild descents. I was last home and felt it for days. And here’s the thing: my mind, my imagination, my sense of history and somehow my spirit of solidarity were all reinspired and reinvigorated, just as my craving to cycle was. Best Sunday out in ages.” Dan Higginbottom

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“The ride was well worth the travel up from the Midlands. I ride a lot but what marked this out for me was not only discovering new roads and stunning views but learning about the bike and its role in social history. The long route was challenging but we were rewarded by spectacular scenery and it was a real buzz to ride some roads that had been used for the Tour de France and seeing the names of the pros still grafittied onto the roads. I will definitely do another Bolshy Bike Ride.” Helen Russell, Former World and European Duathlon and Triathlon AG Champion, and Rider of Tour de France One Day Ahead 2015

“I didn’t know how I would do cycling for 20 miles across the Peak District, but it was a stimulating, exciting, and rewarding experience. The combination of the encouragement of my comrades, the inspiration of Camila’s talks and the glorious sunshine made the day incredibly memorable! The history of cycling and its emancipatory role in the lives of women and the working class, of socialist politics and of environmental movements was fascinating, and the day was a perfect balance of nourishment for the mind, body and (apologies to the materialists) the soul.” Max Munday

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“The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume – your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the more you store up of your estranged life.” Karl Marx

For details, see my blog page: The Bolshy Cycle Ride

The political economy of cycling and doping as licensed fraud

“Political economy came into being as a natural result of the expansion of trade, and with its appearance elementary, unscientific huckstering was replaced by a developed system of licensed fraud, an entire science of enrichment.” (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, Friedrich Engels, 1844)

I. Brewer’s thesis

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Benjamin Brewer‘s paper, Commercialization in Professional Cycling 1950-2001: Institutional Transformations and the Rationalization of “Doping”, is superb and well worth a full read. Here I want to offer a presentation of his narrative followed by a Marxist understanding of the political economy of cycling and doping as ‘licensed fraud’.

Brewer historically (and geographically) contextualises the prevalent and sophisticated social organisation of doping in contemporary professional cycling, which includes new relations between medicine and sport, within the institutional changes made by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which brought about a deeper commercialisation of the sport, that in turn led to new competitive pressures and changes for teams and riders, and “fertile ground” (pg 277) for innovations in training and doping. Brewer sees the relationship between commercialisation and doping as “one of unintended consequences” (pg 296) – a point on which we differ (see my post, Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?, and part II here).

For professional cycling, Brewer makes plain, there was no “idyllic, pre-commercial past later sullied by the cynical demands of business and money making” (pg 277); instead, there is the question of degree and impact of commercialisation during its lifespan. Cycling has long relied on commercial sponsors, who expect returns from the money invested in advertising.

Writing on the classical period (1950-1984), Brewer notes:

“Major teams were almost always structured around a single dominant leader – occasionally two – expected to garner nearly all of the team’s results. […] Team leaders made enough money to support themselves training and racing year round, but very few cyclists attained any lasting wealth from racing. Most returned to low-prestige occupations upon retirement having saved very little money during their racing years. Pro cycling in this classical period was mainly a ‘blue-collar’ sport practiced by the sons of the lower classes for fans from the same milieu […]. Because only a small number of team leaders were expected to deliver the major results during this era, the bulk of racers cared very little about their own results. The resulting atmosphere was one of marked fraternity […].” (pg. 282-283)

On the history of cycling and doping, Brewer recognises that the two “were partners from the start” (pg 284), but, in the classical period, doping was “a loose system reliant on informed speculation combined with traditional knowledge” (pg 285). This would change.

Brewer moves on to what he defines as the transition and reform period (1984-1989). Greg LeMond’s arrival on the European scene signified a “profound shift in traditional team arrangements, principally in the area of salary negotiations and pay scales” (pg 286). Sponsorship changed in nature too, from “small-scale, ‘shoestring’ endeavours” to “more sophisticated marketing tactics of large corporations” (pg 286). Amidst this came the institutional reforms of UCI, notably, its Mondialisation campaign. In the classical period a majority of riders came from a small number of western European countries: France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. UCI’s Mondialisation drive – for the “global expansion of cycling” (pg 288) – introduced the World Cup and a computerised rankings system for riders; moreover, Mondialisation meant deeper commercialisation of the sport. Brewer states:

“The advent of the rankings system for both teams and racers, in tandem with the new rules for admission to the major races signaled a profound change in the political economy of professional cycling. The major races are precisely the reason major sponsors enter the sport since these events attract the bulk of media attention, particularly the highly coveted television coverage. Thus, entry into the major races directly determines which sponsors will realize the return on their initial sponsorship investment.” (pg 289)

The contemporary period of professional cycling, from 1990 onwards, institutionalised these changes. Brewer cites Australian cyclist Allan Peiper from 1992:

“The points system was fun to begin with, but then came the rule of taking the five best-placed cyclists from each team, and adding their points together for a team total score. The top 20 teams could ride the World Cup classics and the Tour – the rest would miss out. So points became really important. Points really became money. The old system of team leaders and domestiques was to be undermined.” (pg 290)

Brewer underlines the effect: “From the outset of the rankings system the most frequently heard complaint from the racers and team directors was the increasingly cutthroat nature of competition and the increased speeds in races” (bold: my emphasis, pg 293).

The new competitive pressure of the contemporary period has changed the team, from its classical time, into a less hierarchical structure to reduce the risk for sponsor investment (since risk is spread out across a number of key riders), and has laid fecund ground for innovations in training and preparation: if, Brewer states, “traditional doping provided an immediate performance ‘spike’, the new epoch of performance-enhancing pharmacology would be best represented by an upward curve punctuated by periodic (and regular) plateaus” (pgs 294-295). What Brewer offers is a highly persuasive, and well researched, argument; indeed, the independent report to UCI published in March 2015 provides further evidence to back up his thesis.

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II. Licensed fraud: Engels’ thesis

What has become of the professional cyclist, the worker, under such evolving conditions of existence? The Mondialisation campaign of UCI was a success in radically transitioning the sport hand-in-hand with global capital accumulation. While the professional cyclist and team have long been branded commodities to aid in the delivery of greater profits on related branded commodities, the commercialisation of professional cycling is much deeper and more expansive in its contemporary era. Brewer notes:

“The ‘value-added’ by sponsoring a team […] was confirmed by a vice-president for sales at the US Postal Service, sponsor of the team with which Lance Armstrong has won multiple editions of the Tour de France. Gail Sonnenberg stated: ‘Like any other sponsorship, it’s about building our brand,’ continuing, ‘This is not something we do because it feels good’ […]. Ms Sonnenberg claimed that in 1999 the team ‘brought the post office $10 million…more than offsetting the cost of being the team’s title sponsor.’ The Managing Director of Danish corporation CSC echoes this sentiment regarding his firm’s $2.5 million investment in a team: ‘We could have spent up to $50 million to have obtained the attention we’ve had so far. Cycling is perfect for branding a name’ […].” For a current example, it would be worth considering INRING//’s analysis of “The Finances of Team Sky”.

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The entertainment factor of professional cycling, and all of its apparent glamour (see my post, All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls), diverts us from something. To be sure, doping in cycling is illegal, but if we define ‘doping’ as the consumption of a drug to enhance the performance of an athlete, and we define ‘drug’ as a medicine or substance consumed with a physiological effect, and we know both of the close relationship between medicine and sport, and of the imperative of capital personified for endless self-expansion, then perhaps we can sense a truer reality. As Engels (1844) remarks:

“the first maxim in trade is secretiveness – the concealment of everything which might reduce the value of the article in question. The result is that in trade it is permitted to take the utmost advantage of the ignorance, the trust, of the opposing party, and likewise to impute qualities to one’s commodity which it does not possess. In a word, trade is legalised fraud.”

The Mondialisation pioneers may retort, “‘Have we not carried civilisation to distant parts of the world? Have we not brought about the fraternisation of the peoples […]?'”; and one might reply:

“Yes, all this you have done – but how! You have destroyed the small monopolies so that the one great basic monopoly […] may function the more freely and unrestrictedly. You have civilised the ends of the earth to win new terrain for the deployment of your vile avarice. You have brought about the fraternisation of the peoples – but the fraternity is the fraternity of thieves.” (Engels, 1844)

Guest post by Erik Nordlie: Cycling – rotten to its core?

Click here for the full, original piece, “Sykkelsporten – pill råtten?”, at the website SykkelErik (posted on 13th June 2014). The below is an updated, edited and abridged version courtesy of its author, followed by my afterword.

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When I saw Nairo Quintana win the Giro d’Italia in 2014, especially during his effortless climb up Monte Zoncolan, I thought that this must be too good to be true. Quintana had problems in the first week and struggled with a cold in the second week, but still he went on to win the whole race ahead of Roberto Uran by three minutes… On the face of it, this is as suspicious as the cock-and-bull story about Alberto Contador, who was chilling on the beach the week before he was asked to start the Giro d’Italia in 2008, which he subsequently won.

However, when I saw Chris Froome and Contador duel their way up to the finish at the Col du Béal during the second stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2014, in breathtaking speeds with countless attacks, the “this IS too good to be true” feeling was solidly affirmed.

Sir David Brailsford, the Team Sky boss, said during the Tour de France in 2013: “If people want the entertainment value of riders attacking each other, stopping, attacking each other again and again, then go back to ‘old cycling’, which will give you the capability to do that”. He did not say it in plain language, but between the lines you get the feeling that he was referring to doping. What we saw in the second stage of the Dauphiné was suspiciously similar to racing in the dark doping days.

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Froome with Quintana and Rodriguez. Are these pure winners?

Historical credibility problems

If it looks like it’s too good to be true, it has often been proved that it is actually true good to be true: Pantani’s climbing abilities, Armstrong’s famous ascents on Alpe d’Huez (and countless other Tour de France achievements), Landis’ frenzied 16th stage to Morzine in 2006, Rasmussen’s and Contador’s ravages in 2007, Kohl’s impressive polka dot jersey in 2008, Armstrong’s comeback in 2009… How many times have we seen performances that seem incredible, and that have subsequently been proven to be based on illegal aids?

These days everything is supposed to be cleaner and better than before – but we have heard this countless times. Consider the top 10 standings of the Tour de France from 1999 until 2013: Armstrong, Zülle, Olano, Moreau, Heras, Escartin, Gonzales, Leipheimer, Vinokourov, Mayo, Basso, Mancebo, Rasmussen, Landis, Klöden, Menchov, Rogers, Contador, Valverde, Astarloza, Kohl, Vande Velde, Fränk Schleck, Valjavec and Danielson – and, of course, Riis and Pantani, champions from 1996 and 1998. In addition, add a whole bunch of domestiques, sprinters and others who contested in the upper echelons of the GC with various medical aids. Some did it to win, others to survive (see: Paul Kimmage’s “Rough Ride”). And many of them are still involved in the sport. The history of cycling has little credibility to show for.

In 2004, Lance Armstrong said: “I’ve said it before and I will repeat it: I believe that I am the most tested athlete on this planet, I have never had a single positive doping test, and I do not take performance enhancing drugs.” In 2013, he laid his cards on the table, and we now know that he took performance enhancing drugs. A clean cyclist will not be able to say anything other than what Armstrong said, but precisely because of the Armstrong-era lies, statements such as “I do not use drugs, I do not cheat, I’m clean, I deplore the…” ring a very hollow sound.

Cycling can blame itself for its lack of credibility.

The new generation

The big names from the doping era of the 1990s and 2000s have gradually been replaced by a new generation of cyclists, and one hopes that the sport would be decreasingly plagued by doping scandals.

The new generation is apparently tired of talking about doping, and of being tainted by former cyclists’ history with doping, according to David Millar in 2013. Similar statements from other young riders are not hard to find, and more established riders are quick to say things like – “it was the past, we must look to the future” and the like. We often hear that cycling does more than any other sport to clean up doping (although one would wonder if that is anything to brag about). If a race is held and many participants are caught testing positive, we are told that doping tests work. And if no cyclists are caught, we are sold that the sport is becoming cleaner.

Considering that Froome has positioned himself as the moral guardian – “Armstrong cheated. I do not cheat. Period.” – his infamous inhaler stunt at the Dauphiné in 2014 is interesting, and so is his explanation (which bears some similarity to Armstrong’s explanation of the positive test from 1999): When Froome was confronted with the inhaler issue, the answer was that Froome, ever since his youth, has struggled with asthma, and so he uses the inhaler prior to the great efforts; and that he has often been seen coughing after races because of narrow airways (in general, and perhaps completely random and conspiratory on my part, coughing is said to be a side effect of xenon gas), and that he does not use anything illegal. Armstrong dismissed the positive steroid test in 1999 with the explanation that he used a cream for a saddle sore. Froome has been keen to point out the health challenges he has overcome, so it is curious that he, in his over 400-page biography “The Climb”, does not mention asthma once, and neither had he, up until the Dauphiné, mentioned asthma in any other context.

And now, in 2014, when the new, allegedly clean generation are starting to realise their potential, one might wonder how clean things really are among the young and hopeful: Quintana (at 24 years) wins the Giro d’Italia 2014 with an average speed the fourth fastest of all time (39,045 km/h), Froome (at 29 years) and Contador (at 31 years) fight each other at Dauphiné in a manner similar to when we saw Pantani, Ullrich and Armstrong battle in the Tour de France 10-15 years ago, and various cycling forums and related Twitter accounts are frequently on fire regarding doping.

In Froome’s biography it is noted that he rode up to Armstrong’s test ground of Col de la Madone in a record time of 30:09, just before the Tour de France in 2013. Froome’s ride on the Col de la Madone was 36 seconds faster than Armstrong’s best. Hamilton rode up in “only” 32:32 (see: “The Secret Race”, page 106). Can Froome really be a freak of nature who can excel and surpass what the doping-fuelled guys did before? It seems too good to be true.

The Danish writer Kim Plesner has written an excellent article about a number of potential cracks in Team Sky’s image that is well worth reading. There are simply too many things amiss with Sky. With their zero tolerance for doping, it is striking that Sky has hired people with past associations with doping: Bobby Julich, Michael Barry, Steven de Jongh, Geert Lein Childers, Michael Rogers and Jonathan Tiernan-Locke have all created headaches and have subsequently been released.

All in all it seems that the new generation is very similar to previous generations. The same guys are still largely involved in the sport today (in different roles), and cyclists and the field seem to move just as fast as before…

Froome = Armstrong 2.0?

One of this generation’s great cyclists is certainly Froome. There are some similarities between Armstrong and Froome, although Froome tries to distance himself from Armstrong: both emphasise that they come from humble upbringings, both grew up without a real father figure, both have defied diseases and other challenges on their way to the top, both had/have at their disposal dominant teams, and both had/have proved to be superior in the Tour de France.

It may be that I have not followed cycling as diligently as I ought to, but for me Froome was completely unknown until 2011 when he took second place in the Vuelta a España (at age 26). Before that, his palmarès was nowhere similar to cyclists he now rides alongside: Nairo Quintana won the Tour l’Avenir at age 20, Lance Armstrong was World Cup champion at 21 years old, Jan Ullrich won the junior championship at age 20 and the Tour de France at age 24, Andy Schleck took 2nd place in the Giro d’Italia at age 22, Alberto Contador won the Tour de France at age 25, and Edvald Boasson Hagen won stages in the Tour l’Avenir at 19 years old and has been highly regarded for a long time. Out of seemingly nothing, Froome has emerged as one of this generation’s great cyclists (apparently, his various diseases have hindered him, of course).

It may even look like Froome has learned from Lance Armstrong’s mistakes – he is on good terms with the French newspaper L’Équipe, unlike Armstrong (L’Équipe revealed his positive test in 1999), and he appears to be polite and articulate unlike Armstrong’s confrontational style. Robert Millar goes so far as to describe Froome as a “politician” (in contrast to Bradley Wiggins, who is a “rock star”). And then Froome has ensured that David Walsh, Armstrong’s “troll”, also plays along with him. The Godfather lesson – “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” – is clearly not lost on Froome.

Walsh’s credibility is seemingly high on the basis that he was involved in exposing Armstrong (one of his books, “Seven Deadly Sins”, is being made into a film). In 2013, he wrote “Inside Team Sky”, where he claimed that he could not see anything to indicate that the team cheats. In 2014 he was the ghost writer for Chris Froome’s biography “The Climb”.

What’s more, Walsh said in an interview in Canadian Maclean’s in 2007 that because Rasmussen climbed the Col d’Aubisque in 2007 faster than Armstrong ever did, and because Contador managed to follow Rasmussen the entire way, Contador must be a cheater (this article is no longer available on Maclean’s website, but is referred to in a number of discussion forums – for example). Froome rode up Mont Ventoux with an average speed of 21,86 km/h during stage 15 of the 2013 Tour de France, which is slower than Iban Mayo’s record of 23,10 km/h in the Dauphiné Libéré in 2004. Walsh implies that because Froome rides 1,14 km/h slower than Mayo, then Froome must be clean (see “Inside Team Sky”). A crucial detail Walsh does not mention is that Mayo’s time was achieved in an individual time trial up Ventoux while Froome rode up after a 243 km long stage. And that Froome was flying up Madone faster than Armstrong ever did is ignored by Walsh.

So one may wonder if Walsh is critical enough of Froome, or if he takes whatever Froome says at face value. There are two flaws in “The Climb” which I also find curious:

  • Froome claims that he saw the Tour de France in 2002 for the first time, and was impressed to see how Armstrong and Basso fought each other, and that Basso was his first and last hero. The fact is that in 2002 it was Joseba Beloki who was Armstrong’s big challenger, while Basso took the white jersey, won no stages, took 11th place in the GC and was over 19 minutes behind Armstrong by Paris (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2002_Tour_de_France).
  • And an acclaimed journalist like Walsh ought to have found out that Froome has asthma…?

Either Walsh has bet his credibility on Froome being a clean cyclist, or he has decided to cash in on Froome’s marketability while he still can. Regardless, Froome has a public relations advantage with Walsh on his side, unlike Armstrong, who degraded Walsh with the infamous “troll” status.

Neither I nor others can prove that Froome is a cheater, and I am not saying he is, but I find it very striking how he came from out of nothing to become so superb. Really, what makes it hard for me to really believe in Froome is not one single thing, but the sum of all the little things that don’t add up:

  • Froome’s magnificent time up the Madone does not make sense.
  • Asthma has troubled Froome since he was a child, but it’s not been known or mentioned anywhere until June 2014. The bilharzia parasite and knee pain, however, has plagued Froome till 2011, and once these two things were taken care of, his career took off.
  • From 2011, when he was 26, he went from having won hardly anything of significance to suddenly taking 2nd place in the Vuelta a España. Other major overall riders distinguished themselves at a much younger age.
  • Froome complains that he and others are not tested enough, but Team Sky has been very resistant to making available Froome’s training data, and when they have done so the distribution was limited to selected media.
  • Team Sky, who are obsessed with “marginal gains”, have no desire to publicise Froome’s training data, they have not tested his V02max, his functional threshold power is a secret, and they have not tested or tuned Froome’s position on the bike in a wind tunnel despite his painful riding style (just look at how he rides). Why the lack of transparency?

Conclusion

To trust that cycling has become cleaner seems as safe as to believe in the notoriously unfaithful wife or husband who promises to behave, but who still hangs around with the same people in the same places.

Cycling deserves its bad reputation. The risk-adjusted return for cheating is appealing, there are plenty of PEDs on the market, anti-doping agencies don’t seem to have a clue, and one wonders if the new generation of cyclists is morally any better than the last. One of this generation’s dominating teams, Team Sky, has a few question marks hanging over its head, and there are certain similarities between Armstrong and Froome. And lest we forget, Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo Bank have had their share of negative stories in 2014-2015 too.

I will obviously follow the Tour de France this year, as I do every year, but I have gradually come to enjoy cycling more as entertainment than as a pure and clean sport. And regardless of how many cheats time will reveal, I will always find the same joy and pleasure from riding and competing on my bike. I hope that applies to you as well.

Afterword by Anaemic On A Bike

On 23rd June 2015, a report by Anti-Doping Denmark (ADD) was released which concluded that former professional cyclist-come-cycling team owner, Bjarne Riis, had knowledge of doping on his team (Team CSC, now Team Tinkoff-Saxo) and failed to act. This follows the damning findings in a report by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission to the UCI, published in March 2015. In my blog post, Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?, my argument is that the capitalist political economy of cycling creates the conditions of existence in which doping and cheating proliferate. The problem is a systemic one. For professional cycling to stand a chance of being free from doping and cheating, a critical mass of cyclists and fans need their own democratic organisations to exert a pressure to reform and/or revolutionise this political economy.

Erik Nordlie is right when he suggests that professional cycling is ‘entertainment’ rather than a pure and clean sport. I’ll add (see my post, All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls), the political economy of cycling fuels a dehumanisation of its participants that takes many forms: with capital as cycling’s real dope, the very bodies of talented athletes and others, such as podium girls, are merely branded commodities to entertain and yield profit.

Erik’s comparison of Armstrong and Froome fascinates me, because of the commercial dominance of their respective teams. Individual personalities aside, in a US news interview with Tyler Hamilton, he inadvertently touches on where cycling’s ‘competitive edge’ actually comes from: “Although the majority of us were doping at that time, it certainly wasn’t an even playing field, due to your financial situation, due to having connections, it took a lot of finances, it took a lot of connections…”

All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls

Marx, the Wood Theft Law, and commodity fetishism

While editor of the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, Karl Marx wrote a series of articles (in 1842) about a proposal in the Rhenish provincial assembly, on behalf of the forest owners, to stop the traditional practice of gathering (dead) wood by the peasants. Here, in debating the Wood Theft Law, an early Marx came to recognise the role of the State in protecting the interests of private property over and against general interests, the intersection of political, social and economic relations, and the fetishism of the commodity form:

“Can the forest owner present private demands where he has no private claims? Was the forest owner the state, prior to the theft of wood? He was not, but he becomes it after the theft. The wood possesses the remarkable property that as soon as it is stolen it bestows on its owner state qualities which previously he did not possess. […] The wood thief has robbed the forest owner of wood, but the forest owner has made use of the wood thief to purloin the state itself.”

“In direct contradiction to those writers of fantasy who profess to find in the representation of private interests ideal romanticism, immeasurable depths of feeling, and the most fruitful source of individual and specific forms of morality, such representation on the contrary abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.”

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Marx goes on to state that the Cubans identified “gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They [the Spaniards] celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it and then threw it into the sea.” With such insight, he reasons, had the Cubans been present in the debate in the Rhenish provincial assembly, they would surely have seen wood as the Rhinelanders’ fetish?”

In later works, Marx develops his concept of ‘commodity fetishism’. In Capital (Volume One), he concludes:

“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of [human] labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.”

Cycling, commodity festishism, and podium girls

Commodities take various forms. In professional cycling, for example, there’s the bicycle, the attire, the paraphernalia, the rider, and the podium girls. In one sense, it’s all laid bare. This year’s Tour de France (2015) will show the bodies of cyclists littered with the advertising logos of Team Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, Astana, Etixx-Quick Step, Giant-Alpecin, Movistar, FDJ, Ag2r La Mondiale, Orica-GreenEdge, Cannondale-Garmin, BMC, Trek Factory Racing, Lotto-Soudal, Katusha, MTN-Qhubeka, LottoNL-Jumbo, Europcar, Confidis, IAM, Lampre-Merida, Bora-Argon18, and Bretagne-Séché. Such logos will be an unavoidable, integral sight for those wishing to enjoy actual cycling and France’s spectacular landscape. The decision-making of teams and riders will be steered by the fused competition of sport and capital. An independent report to the UCI (in March 2015) noted:

“It is interesting that riders are […] aware of the general pressure to keep sponsors in the sport, not just their own team’s sponsor, but more widely. The Commission was told that sometimes riders would agree to lose stages to another rider whose sponsor might have been considering withdrawing from cycling. In this way, the sponsor would have a stage win and podium exposure, perhaps putting off the withdrawal decision. […] Since cycling’s earliest days, riders have agreed race or stage outcomes with other riders. It is often seen as part of team and individual tactics in the peloton. A good number of today’s top riders and former riders openly discussed these practices with the Commission. They were described as part of the cut and thrust of professional competitive cycling […] Bartering can take place not only between riders, but also at team level with team managers negotiating deals.”

Professional cycling seems almost desensitised to the dehumanising effects of commodity fetishism. The hiring of commodified labour-power, as seen below, makes for an absurd and an outrageous spectacle, and yet it is also a logical extension of an über-commodified world of male-dominated, professional cycling. Here sexism and capitalism blend: this is entertainment, which creams profit from its workers, whilst confounding them with the products of their labour. It’s demeaning to cyclists, and to all lovers of cycling – women and men.

A necessary struggle for gender equality in cycling should also entail a struggle to free cycling from its dope, capital. The representation of private interests, of capital, “abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.” Free the body from commercial-imperative so that we can dress and undress as we like, and so that we can cycle as we like; free us from social relations between things to social relations between human beings! Ride on.

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