Wednesday, 23 January 2013


I've been thinking it over, and I have decided I have nothing nice to say about Lance Armstrong. I once believed his story; the one about coming back from cancer and winning the tour. It is a true story, after all. But facts, alas, remain boring facts and say nothing about we should what to do with the information.

For instance, if I told you someone died, this would not in itself a shock, for we all know people die every day. More information is needed. How old were they? Did they have heart trouble or inoperable cancer? If I told you they were murdered, this would now grab your attention. If I said they were someone I knew, this would certainly lead to a lot of questions, and would certainly result in you stopping in your footsteps. Therefore details matter.

If I told you I won a bike race, then I'd be congratulated. If I told you I won it by using a car, or a shortcut, against toddlers, or there was no finish line, this new information would eliminate all respect for my story. More specifically, you'd be correct in stating I was not even in the bike race if I was driving. Such a simple and obvious fault. Likewise if a race takes place over a circuit (as in running or skiing), cutting a shortcut for yourself is not only frowned upon, if discovered leads to an absolute disqualification. There is no mention of your racing time, no mention of how fast you went before you cut around the course. No, just a DSQ listed beside your name.

I got a DSQ once, in grade 10 in XC skiing. I was at OFSAA, and accidentally took a wrong turn thanks to a confused official, who thought I was not in the race, pointing for me to turn a sharp left. I obeyed, and ended up taking a longer -not shorter- route to the finish, another official noticed and had my name scratched. I was pretty sad finding out that I had not even been counted in the final results. Otherwise I had a decent race going on in me that day. But according to the strict rules, I had not followed procedure.

I have heard it said it is impossible to make a global definition of a game. If you say a game is for fun, then I can show you war games that are no fun. If you say a game involves at least two players, I can point to all manner of video games and Solitaire. If a game must be won or lost, I show you Spin the Bottle. But there is one thing they all have in common: there is always an agreed-upon set of rules. In the "game" of war, even here there is the implicit rule after enough people are killed someone must forfeit. Terrorism does not quite obey this rule, but I would argue terrorism by definition is when sides have not agreed upon the rules, and the "sides" themselves are poorly defined and therefore is not a game (unlike, say, Waterloo).

I digress, with reason. Point is the use of drugs in sports is not morally wrong, in itself. If everyone agrees up front that one should win at all costs, then so be it, for that particular sport. Let the Tour de France, or some track or field event, become DeathRace 2000. Do anything to win, or whatever to yourself (We seem to frown on hurting/killing others to get ahead in sport, so I guess that option is still out unless counting boxing or tackling in football). Once cyclists or runners, etc agree they are willing to enhance on any self-inflicted level, then perhaps doping is an option. At least that's the excuse you hear more than any other, that "everyone else is doing it". If rampant cheating is truly the case, why should we not agree that drugs are available for all, in full view of spectators? Post-race interviews could involve bragging about their cocktails. I'd like to watch someone dope in real time. This why I love the documentary "Bigger, Stronger, Faster", as it in fact does show people doping in full view, and with candid honesty. I guess since these drugs are illegal they are less candid. But hell, there is no shortage of people candid about smoking pot, an also-illegal substance.

I also understand there is no reason to believe taking EPO or testosterone will cause your body irreparable harm. It's irrelevant to argue the hard done by doping. I'm not interested in citing studies but acknowledging those who take enhancement drugs are only adding single-digit percent gains to their performances. They are not necessarily losing life years from these dosages, though perhaps by pushing their bodies to new heights the odd heart attack is more frequent. Otherwise there is a small gain, just enough. Just like the argument of the illegality of doping, the danger of doping is a red herring. Neither reason is the real reason why drug users don't talk about it; they keep silent because they know they're not playing by the rules, hence upsetting the definition of the game.

Consider this also: why are there no athletes performing on their own, showing what can be done with unlimited drugs? I'd like to see someone make a youtube video of themselves doping to high heaven, then running a 9.5s 100m dash. The reason you don't see rogue athletes is because although drugs instilling a sense of goofy confidence, the do less than being part of an organized training system. Most sports don't let you play if you're candid about drugs. Some exceptions I know of are powerlifting, baseball, and football, where the players do play at all costs, and the fans have more or less decided the "sport" is a freak show operation, an occasion to drink beer and think "better you than me". After watching the pros at work, a real sport -or game for that matter- is one that makes you want to go out and play it yourself.

Lance helped turn the TDF into a "better you than me" kind of sport. Toughness, which can be admirable, had been replaced by pure basic stimulus-response. Worse yet, I took this quote from Lance's book It's not about the bike to illustrate how completely dishonest he was in the game of racing:

In a series of raids on team cars, French police found trunkloads of EPO and anabolic steroids. Team members and officials were thrown in French jails, everyone was under suspicion, and the cyclists were furious at the tactics used by authorities. Of the 21 teams that began the race, only 14 finished. One team was expelled and the other six quit in protest. Doping is an unfortunate fact of life in cycling, or any other endurance sport for that matter. Inevitably, some teams and riders feel it's like nuclear weapons–that they have to do it to stay competitive within the peloton. I never felt that way, and certainly after chemo the idea of putting anything foreign in my body was especially repulsive. Overall, I had extremely mixed feelings about the 1998 Tour: I sympathized with the riders caught in the firestorm, some of whom I knew well, but I also felt the Tour would be a more fair event from then on. 

To quote a New Yorker article by Michael Specter, "speaking of apologies: sorry France, you were right all along. The guy’s a creep".

I like to think of every sport as a separate country. Each chooses the rules to follow. Some sports involve more cheating than others. What always surprises me is how little drug use is found in swimming. You would expect swimming to be tainted with steroids but instead I find swimmers the most technically minded people in the world. Read Swimming Fastest to see a level of science not found in many sports. Distance runners have been pretty good about obeying the rules, but sprinters less so. Oddly enough sprint cycling appears cleaner than endurance kind. To me, at least, this means each sport can be individually faulted. And to effect a cure the sport must be ruthless in changing its image, both bottom-up and top-down. Example: When I ran XC for McGill, casually we (the guys) agreed -after hearing about doping in CIS football- that if anyone on our team showed evidence of cheating, we'd call them out and ostracize them for good. It never had to happen, but I would have done it.

In that vein, Lance needs to disappear for good. Casting him to oblivion is the only thing that would matter to him, and would be a way to restart the potential of cycling to be interesting (The sport can be interesting, but only if the victories matter). Were Lance a fellow athlete, I would call him out (and consider changing sports). Were he a family member I would not come to his funeral. Hopefully, in the future, his will be an unmarked grave.

Sports is interesting like many things are interesting because we hope to learn something from them. If sports is about watching people get hurt and enjoying the feeling, we have a problem. It has to be more than about pushing through the pain. Smart sports planning is listening to the pain, and treating it like valuable information. Sports is about symbolism, and seeing the best personalities shine through under the hardest circumstances. Sports is a of things; winning is only interesting if it's both beautiful AND meaningful (for instance if Ussain Bolt runs an amazing 100m against a field of women, it may be pretty to watch by hardly meaningful as a "victory"). Sport: so simple, yet so easy to fuck up.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Tour De Something

Here's a plot of the total distance covered by Tour de France bikers since its inception:

Ever since the "break" during WWII, the TDF distance has been steadily decreasing. It is in the 1920s we see a maximum. The longest outing was in 1926, totalling, 5745 km. Check out what a 1920s tour looked like on the map:

In 1924 for instance, the race actually went around the whole of France! All 5425km of it. Compare this to a modern tour:

By comparison, a complete mess. The 2009 tour was 3459 km. Not only is new TDF smaller, but look how scattered it is over the countryside. The entire northwest corner of France is missing. Now we have the tourist's version of France. 

The difference is more than just the miles; modern bikes weigh less, are maintained by an army of on-the-road helpers, and team strategies mean guaranteed pack riding with less wind resistance. Not to mention the doping. The average speed has almost doubled (from 24 km/h to over 40 km/h). And would you believe the 1924 edition had only 15 stages? That's over 361 km per stage! In 2009 riders averaged 164 km per day. Keep in mind that untrained cyclists can handle 180 km per day (for a few days, at least. Consider the Rideau Lakes Tour). Will the 2050 TDF held on tricycles?

I expect the explanation to be modern riders have busier schedules and can't place as much emphasis on a single race. Here I like to think runners have higher standards. Imagine if the marathon kept shrinking due to "modern" demands (it has been exactly 26.2 miles since 1924). If anything, races have been getting longer. For instance I'm happy to hear that Canadian universities are adding longer XC races for the women's division (long overdue really). Ultras are as popular as ever. 50-something women brag about how many marathons they do in a year. I don't want to let this degenerate into runners are better than cyclists; it's clear any distance is tough if you push yourself. 

Instead I see the ever-shrinking TDF as a symptom of the riders having too much say. It's power in the wrong hands. More than that, specific riders are controlling the race. Up-and-comers will want to push as hard as possible, but established ones would prefer to repeat without too much discomfort (not specific to cycling). That means all the problems rest squarely in the laps of the riders themselves. They let this happen.

One reason Lance may have done so well on his 2009 comeback was so few actual competitors exist in the tour (that year he came third to his teammate Contador, also a dope), and how unusual it was to have a rival on your own team. Or to see what I mean about weird team commitments, I pulled a quote from Wiki the 1986 tour regarding LeMond:
The managers of his La Vie Claire team ordered the 24-year-old LeMond to wait for Hinault. Instead of staying in the lead group and riding to win, LeMond let the leaders pull away and dropped back to aid Hinault. At the end of the stage LeMond was frustrated to the point of tears. He later revealed that team management and his own coach Paul Koechli had misled him as to how far back Hinault had dropped during the crucial Stage 17 mountain stage. Hinault won the 1985 Tour, with LeMond finishing second, 1:42 behind. LeMond had ridden as the dutiful lieutenant, and his support enabled Hinault to win his fifth Tour. In repayment for his sacrifice Hinault promised to help LeMond win the Tour the following year
For some that's team tactics. To me that's just plain fucked up. Reconsider the tour: Instead of viewing the race as 200+ individual cyclists all directly competing against one another (as is common in most cross country, marathon races), see it as a groomed selection of 20 teams, each choosing one person to be the leader. Team discipline is everything in the tour. Recall the year the competitors biked a non-competitive leg to protest the pervious night's (apparently justified) police doping raids. These are war games minus the drama.  

As every team already knows who is going to be the front runner, it also means it is much easier not to get into accidents/bike crashes when you have a shell of people around you. Otherwise there is no "skill" in avoiding crashes, just pure blind luck. Armstrong's skill of avoiding crashes is at best because of his "dutiful lieutenants" and fewer miles raced than ever. 

There's no point in mentioning the doping problems in cycling, as everyone knows what. After my test to see if the tour was as undemanding as I imagined I found it indeed is, compounding its already dishonest and petty qualities. Hard work? I can find that anywhere. But I was looking for something more, not less. I recall a Lance quote about his NYC marathon being the hardest thing he ever did. That is rather telling, now more than ever.

I used to watch the tour back in the Lance days on OLN. I followed stages online, watched recaps, and had a good time thinking I was watching raw talent. (The spectacle was real enough, I guess, in the same way The Rock was punishing Mankind in a WWF I Quit match. Fake but yet brutally real. No I take that back; the wrestlers were way more impressive). 

Until 2007 I even believed that doping was a minor problem in cycling. Thankfully I have reasonable bullshit detector, so once I saw the evidence it was sold. But I don't like bullshit and obviously there is too much of it in biking. Worse yet watching as these goofs are too scared to race as much as they did in 1919 makes the TDF mostly a band of sissy bullshitters. Sad people behaving like the worst of us. I can watch reality TV instead. Why waste time and pretend you're a real sport? 

Suffice it to say I'll continue to enjoy running (and also do actual, perhaps even useful, aerosol research). But I'd rather drink a litre of Armstrong's urine than waste another minute watching these bozos on TV. The tour has lost me on a lot deeper level than mere hatred disgust. Cycling is completely dead to me.  I wish avoid particular parts of France in July. 

Is there hope? Perhaps things can improve, but there is no bandaid solution to be found. Cycling will need a scorched earth policy towards the current crop of cyclists, akin to modern Germany and the Third Reich. The tour has made a step in the right direction by declaring no winners for recent years. Indeed, they acknowledge only losers took part, as likely is the case. No statues should be found of these people, and those that already exist must be destroyed. If this does not take place I recommend booing the racers as they go by, or simply turning one's back. Furthermore, the tour must become more demanding like the old days, and no longer bending to pressures -somebody's, I don't know who's exactly- to keep allowing the tour to be shorter and easier. Every. goddamn. year. The one's who dope should be dying of heart attacks en route. When a tour rider tries a marathon, they should be saying "wow, compared to what I did this summer that was a walk in the park".  Guess I'll leave it at that. Cheerio.

UPDATE: I received an email (from my dad, an avid reader of cycling history) giving some more background on the early days of the TdF, and wanted to share:
The Tour de France in the 1920’s and thirties was not only the longest it’s ever been, but at the time the rules only allowed bikes that were essentially like modern fixie bikes, with a maximum of two gears allowed: one fixed gear of 20 teeth on one side for the flats, and one freewheel gear of 24 teeth on the other side for the hills. The front sprocket had usually 44-46 teeth. It was necessary to choose which side to use on any given stage, unless the rider was willing to stop and flip the wheel. This was considered to be part of the strategy. I would say it makes the races of those days even more impressive.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Oh Taleb

I started to read Nassim Taleb's Antifragile. 150 pages in, it's an amusing read. Right now I'm playing a little game as I go called "how many pages can Taleb go before sounding like an asshole?" I think the record still stands at one. A random example, his footnote on page 123 in response to those who do anything they do not enjoy:
  A friend who writes books remarked that painters like painting but authors like "having written." I suggested he stop writing, for his sake and the sake of his readers. 
Oh Taleb.

What I actually wanted to share was on page 46-47, that succinctly contain his views on exercise. Backstory: after having written Black Swan he "received all manner of threats" (aside: From who? disgruntled bankers planning to beat him up on the street? Never mind). He decided to act; he hired a 280lb bodyguard, or 127 kg (which is not 130kg, as Taleb's math seems to arrive at).

Anyway Taleb was so taken by Lenny's physique he decided to train like him.
He was into 'maximum lifts' type training and swore by it, as he found it the most effective and least time consuming [form of exercise]...The workout was limited to trying to exceed that mark once or twice, rather than spending time on un-entertaining time-consuming repetitions. The exercise got me into naturalistic form of weightlifting, and one that accords with the evidence-based literature: work on the maximum, spend the rest of the time resting and splurging on mafia-sized steaks.
Looks like Taleb discovered elementary theory on early improvements in increasing maximum lift strength. After four years he has worked his way up now to 330 lbs (150kg). Not bad, I suppose. Taleb claims to now have physique of a butcher. I smiled a bit here, as I recalled a passage from another book of mine, Keith Livingstrone's Healthy Intelligent Training, where he describes strength training for skinny runners. At his peak body weight of 140 pounds, Keith could also half-squat the same 150 kilos as Taleb ten times. He went on to say
If that sounds heavy, it is, but it is nothing compared to what a trained power lifter of the same weight can lift.
He is correct; the WR deadlift (similar records as for squats) is -for a 140-lb individual- 237kg. With a 3,000m PB of 8:04, Dr. Livingstone is pretty well-educated and well-trained individual who also, incidentally, advocates practising maximum lifts ("I'd have been better off halving the number of reps and lifting a bit heavier"). This is all to say what Taleb here claims, that training dead lifts helps improve maximum strength is true, but neither the complete truth nor not much of a discovery for someone of his education.

What Taleb's proof of practice does show is how lousy a weightlifter he is. Spending four entire years on the practice and having the "body of butcher" only gets him a measly 330 lbs off the ground? At the age of 13 (and at 144 lbs) between May and August I went from being able to clean & jerk 70 lbs up to a total of 140 lbs in my basement using plaster weights. I lost interest thereafter, I was just wanted to try to lift my own weight. I wasn't even that strong in grade 9. And considering that deadlift world records are roughly double clean & jerk, I was pretty close to Taleb as a skinny barely teen.

Taleb has in fact shown how little gain there is from concentrating on only one type of exercise. Assuming Taleb with his butcher-build weighs at least 90kg, at age 53 his 150 kg lift pales to the 50-54 masters female record; the record for a 165lb/75kg woman of that age being 170 kg. The men's record for his age, however, is a soul-crusing 305 kg. You are almost half-way there Taleb. The secret, of course, is that weight training is a complex art and you find yourself quickly maxing out unless you change stressor types. That means working on improving deadlifts one week, abs the next, squats, curls, some aerobic strength (yes, even for weight lifters), and so on. Rounding yourself a little takes care of strengthening smaller support muscles. Complex lifts like picking up a boulder will not improve max strength as much as a leg press machine, and a leg press machine will not work minor muscles as much as lifting a boulder. So you need both sorts, duh.

The other observation I had to make was his claim of earning himself the right to eat "mafia-sized steaks" after these powerlifting sessions. Let's do the math to see how many calories Taleb burned in a bout of deadlifting, assuming that is all he did.

Lifting anything against gravity, you expend (in joules)

W = mgh
Where m is mass (kg), h is height (meters) and g is the force of gravity (9.8 m/s2). Assuming again Taleb himself weighs about 90 kg and that a deadlift means brining something 1 meter into the air, and that the mass he lifts is on average 150 kg, then one lift requires about

W = (150+90 kg)*(9.8m/s2)*(1m)
= 2352 Joules/lift
= 0.56 (food) Calories

Yes indeed, a single "massive" lift will burn just half a calorie. But assume that the body requires more energy than this to operate (as lifting is not a 100% efficient task). Assuming a mere 25% lift efficiency,  then each lift is now costs 2.2 Calories. It's surprisingly hard to corroborate these numbers, but at Livestrong they suggest for body-building levels of weightlifting you burn 0.055 Calories per pound lifted per minute exercise. If one deadlift takes 5 seconds (an overestimate), and again we're lifting the same 240kg/528lbs, then we'd expect one lift would burn 2.4 Calories. Pretty close! For the record I didn't calculate that number until after I estimated mine own number above.

We also know that any lifting session requires multiple sets and reps, so let's say -to be generous- he did 8 sets of 8 reps for a total of 64 lifts (and consistent with recommendations of most strength coaches). Taleb may have burned up to a total of 140 Calories from his deadlift routine. Let's celebrate with some mafia-sized steaks!

We'll assume the mob dines with the finest, so I'll guess Taleb likes to eat the $350 Kobe steaks. Alas he has not earned an entire 8oz steak. By my calculations Taleb has expended enough energy go get himself 2 ounces worth of Kobe steak. Those though guys, they must be watching their weight more than I expected. But the glutton I take Taleb to be I bet he'd eat the whole thing anyway faster than a fat kid a McD's.

To sum, it is obvious that a handful of power lifts earns you next to nothing either with your appetite or your strength. But if you want to weigh as much as you can lift, go ahead and keep picking rocks and eating massive amounts of beef. Cheers.