Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Spitting in the Soup" by Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson has written about cycling for years, mostly for magazines, but also the book "The Argyle Armanada" about the 2011 season of the Garmin cycling team.  With all his cycling expertise I was eager to read his latest book, "Spitting in the Soup" on doping in sports, knowing it had to be laced with cycling lore.  Cycling certainly does get plenty of attention, but it is far from the focus of the book.  Rather, that goes to the Olympics, though there is, of course, considerable overlap between the two.

I did learn a few things about cycling, the most startling of which was that Jacques Anqutil was blood doping back in the '60s while winning The Tour de France five times, or at least according to Eddie Borysewicz, coach of the 1984 US Olympic team that caused a national uproar when it was revealed by "Rolling Stone" magazine that it had blood doped. Johnson talked with the 77-year old dynamo and said, "his memory of the chain of events leading to blood doping is still clear."  Blood doping was not against the rules at the time, but still a shady practice that was not widely practiced.  Anquetil had always been open about his use of drugs, but I had never come across this admission.  When I read this, I immediately emailed my friend the English cycling authority Les Woodland who has written over twenty books on racing, including one that Johnson footnotes, "The Crooked Path to Victory, Drugs and Cheating in Professional Bicycle Racing," to ask if he knew of this.  He did not and doubted its veracity.  

Borysewicz told Johnson he met Anquetil in the early '70s when he was visiting Jean Stablinski, another Tour veteran.  He asked Anquetil how he sustained himself through the long racing season.  He told him he always had two blood transfusions, one of which was before The Tour.  It is shocking that Borysewicz didn't reveal this as part of his defense when "Rolling Stone" broke the story.  Equally shocking is that if Borysewicz thought blood-doping was a means to success, why did he never introduce it to the Americans he was coaching, including Greg LeMond, until just before the Olympics, when there was an uncertainty of how the racers would react to the transfusions.  And most shocking of all is that Johnson didn't pursue any of these issues.  

But so it goes throughout this sprawling, rambling, unfocused discussion of doping that veers off onto  tangents on the Puma/Adidas wars and Mormonism and the making of the Wizard of Oz (16-year old Judy Garland was doped!) and many others, bloating this 400-page book that would have been even fatter had not his publisher cut several chapters. Johnson can't seem to make up his mind what his point is or where he is going.  One of his theses is that drugs were once accepted and that it was the professional thing to do, but then the time came that drugs became a scourge and those who resorted to them were considered pariahs.  That's not entirely true.  Anquetil was a rare exception to be open about it.  When the Pelissier brothers revealed all the drug taking they did to the highly-respected investigative reporter Alfred Londres after they dropped out of the 1924 Tour de France it was a huge story.  That doesn't fit in with Johnson's thesis,  so he ignores it.  

I had anticipated Jonathan Vaughters, head of the Garmin cycling team who made racing clean the foremost plank of his team, to be a prime source for this book. He knew him well from writing a book about his team.  Vaughters is one of the smartest minds in the sport and raced during the EPO era and has spoken most articulately on his own dabbling with drugs, but he receives just one bare mention as someone  who continually fretted about the drug issue.  Vaughters thoroughly researched any drug before he used it, their safety and their effectiveness. He knew what a difference they could make. He could have enlightened Johnson on many issues.  Vaughters set the record for the fastest time up Mont Ventoux until it was broken by Iban Mayo, but said it wasn't something he was proud of because it was drug-assisted.  When Johnson came to Chicago's Garmin store in April of 2012 on his "Argyle Armada" book tour, I asked him if he had ever discussed the issue with Vaughters.  It was a surprise he hadn't.

Rather than going into the trenches and asking riders about their quandaries and their reactions to drugs, he relies on academics for most of his information. His sources include Arthur Mandell, a psychiatrist who worked with the San Diego Chargers in the early '70s and wrote a book about it, "The Nightmare Season," Christopher Thompson, a professor at Ball State whose book "The Tour de France: A Cultural History" is footnoted sixteen times, and Dr. Charles Yesalis, a professor at Penn State who is a steroid expert.   

He turns to the Spanish scholar Bernat L√≥pez as his authority on EPO.  He maintains that it is a myth that the rash of young cyclists dying in their sleep in the early '90s was related to EPO. He says it was media hype to discourage riders from taking the drug.  He could have asked Bjarne Riis, who was known as "Mr Sixty Per Cent" for pushing the perceived hematocrit safe limit of fifty per cent, about how he decided how much to take and how the new drug was perceived by cyclists.  EPO would thicken the blood and could clog the heart.  He cites the famous quote of the Italian doctor Michele Ferari, who was Lance Armstrong's guru, comparing EPO to orange juice--"EPO is not dangerous. It's abuse is.  It is also dangerous to drink ten liters of orange juice."   That is an acknowledgement that it is a drug to be wary of, like all the drugs he traces in this book from amphetimimes to steroids.

He cites Chicagoan Danny Van Haute as an early blood doper.  His father-in-law was a physician, so he had him perform the procedure preceding the trials for the 1984 Olympic team.  He was flying faster than he ever had, qualifying for the pursuit team, turning a lot of heads.  Van Haute has been the director of the domestic Jelly Bean team for years, the team that Phil Gaimon mentioned in his book "Pro Cycling on Ten Dollars a Day" whose doctor hinted to him that he had symptoms of asthm and that he could prescribe the popular medication among cyclists that would make him ride faster.  Gaimon would have none of it.   Van Haute would have made another good source for Johnson, but he too is ignored, as is the asthma issue.  The Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, who dominated the Giro d'Italia for several years, was suspended in 2007 for using excessive amounts of asthma medication. Rather than writing about the iffy morality of the many cyclists who claim to have asthma, Johnson writes about the similar thinking of the growing number of high school students who get doctors to diagnose them with ADHD, which allows them extra time when they take their SAT tests, enabling them to get higher scores and gain scholarships and entry to better colleges. 

The longest of the book's twenty chapters is on the use of steroids in baseball and the national fascination with the McGuire/Sosa home run battle in 1998 to break Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in a season.  This embrace's Johnson's argument that spectators are complicit in the athlete's drug-taking.  They had no issue with the bulked-up athletes for the entertainment they provided.  Johnson doesn't know baseball as well as he knows cycling, as he referred to the early baseball commissioner Ford Frick as "George Frick."  And he makes the outrageous claim that in 1996 Brady Anderson of the Baltimore Orioles hit a lead-off home run in twelve straight games.  It was amazing enough that he did it in four straight games, as no one has ever done it more than twice.  

Johnson's cycling commentary isn't without its mistakes as well.  He wrote that Armstrong went on to be world champion after his recovery from "near-certain death" on page 351.  He won the World Championship in Oslo in 1993.  He was diagnosed with cancer after the 1996 Olympics.  How his editors at Velo Press would let this slip by is unimaginable.  It nearly discredits the entire book.  Johnson also wrote that the French three-time winner of The Tour de France, Louisson Bobet, went on to become a journalist.  It was his brother Jean who became a journalist.  A quote from his book "Tomorrow We Ride" adorns a wall in Armstrong's  bike shop in Austin.  Johnson is also a year off on the year the head of the UCI Hein Verbruggen let Armstrong back-date his cortisone excemption in The Tour, writing that it happened in 2000, when it was the year before in Armstrong's first Tour win.

One myth that I was happy to have Johnson dispel is that the extreme demands of The Tour de France don't necessarily shorten a rider's life.  The Scottish 1984 winner of the King of the Moutains Jersey Robert Millar maintains that one's life is shortened by one year for every Tour one rides.  I often feel that way myself after riding The Tour route with my loaded touring bike, as I have done the past thirteen years. Johnson cites a French study that found the 786 French riders who raced The Tour from 1947 to 2012 had a 41 per cent lower mortality rate than the overall French population.  

Johnson points out that is counter to the theory that all the drug-taking of the riders is detrimental to their health.  At times it seems as if Johnson is defending, or at least condoning, the use of drugs.  But he makes no suggestion, as some do, that there should be no restrictions.  In his epilogue he concludes that drug taking should be restrained, if only to save the young.  Even now ten percent of high school athletes jeopardize their health taking steroids and growth hormones.  It would be much worse if it were made socially acceptable.

Johnson's bio on the book jacket identifies him as a category two racer.  He avoids any mention of his time on the bike or anything personal other than that his wife and two sons "have had to listen to him rattle on for years about society's dual love affair with pharmaceuticals and sports." "Rattling on," for better or worse, is a good description for the book he wrote about the subject.  

Saturday, December 3, 2016

"The World of Cycling According to G"

G is Welsh cyclist Geraint Thomas.  He was a key member of Team Sky on each of Chris Froome's three Tour de France wins and was a teammate of Bradley Wiggins on the four-man British pursuit squad that won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. He rode his first Tour de France in 2007 as a 21-year old and has only missed three since, but one of those was Wiggins' Tour win in 2012, as he was preparing for the Olympics, where he won another team pursuit gold medal.

These career highlights could easily have been the focus of his book "The World of Cycling According to G," but they receive scant mention.  Instead, Thomas concentrates on the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes life of a professiomal cyclist. It is narrated in an anecdotal, conversational style broken into short chapters, some devoted to people (Froome, Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, David Brailsford), some to places (Tenerife), and others to miscellania (how it is to return home after weeks away) and sundry aspects of the sport (Pain).

In this refreshingly casual "memoir" most of his insightful minor detail is devoted to life off the bike rather than in the peloton.  He reveals that so much of a professional cyclist's life is spent on the road in strange hotel rooms, he has developed the skill of finding light switches.  On those rare visits home after prolonged spells of hanging out with the guys, one must be wary of inadvertently calling a girl friend "mate."  It may imply a measure of intimacy among his teammates, but not for a loved one,"and they will let you know it," Thomas warns.

Food is a common theme.  He's not allowed too much of it, so it is always on his mind. Shedding weight and then keeping it off is a key component of his job.  He complains that he is always hungry, that he must eat like a ballerina.  He calls Team Sky's legendary two-week training camp in the Canary Islands staying at a barebones hotel without internet on the top of a mountain "a fortnight of pain and starvation."

Three of the four mentions of tears in the book relate to food--all of pleasure over a treat when he's allowed to break his monkish diet.  One is a simple jam tart, another is piadina.  The non-food instance of tears is Cavenish sobbing in his hotel room atop the Stelvio Pass after losing the points jersey in the Giro. Thomas never admits to tears of exhilaration over a great result.  After one of Froome's Tour wins, he was thrilled to be able to gorge on pizza at the team bus on the Champs Elysees.  Another of his fond memories was his pre-race dinner as a junior when his mum would go to a Chinese takeaway to fuel him up on barbecue ribs and egg-fried rice.  "What I'd give to be able to eat like that now," he laments.  The weeks preceding Christmas before training becomes one's sole focus is a reprieve from "small portions."

Food is the one subject where he divulges some of the secrets of the Team Sky regime.  They prefer rice to pasta, as it has less gluten and clears the stomach more easily.  The team also favors cherry juice, because of its high levels of antioxidants, but not just any cherry juice.  It prefers juice from Montmorency cherries, as they are slightly superior to others.  When it comes to yoghurt, Greek is the team's choice, as it is more natural and less processed. The team's protein drink has a special ingredient to clean one out, but Thomas doesn't reveal what it is, just that it can lead to issues with smells.  Nor does he divulge when in the day it is best to eat protein for your body to most effectively absorb it, just that Sky believes there is such a time.

Avoiding airline food is among the tips Thomas offers, as it is too salty and doesn't have enough nutrients.  He also advises to cut back on coffee intake in the weeks before a stage race so one's body will get a bigger kick from it when used during the race.  And he warns not to take a caffeine gel closer than twenty-five kilometers from a stage finish, otherwise it won't take effect until one's back on the team bus.  

He gives a detailed description of the luxury of the team bus, with individualized seats for all the riders, a ready stock of fresh rice, WIFI, a shower and a pair of washing machines, one for dark clothes and one for whites, that run twenty-four hours a day during a stage race.

There's not much gossip in the book.  He doesn't take sides in the Froome-Wiggins rivalry, avoiding the controversy of Wiggins being left off Team Sky for the 2013 Tour that began in Yorkshire, despite being the defending champion.  Wiggins is only one of three Tour champions never to ride it after winning it. The book has no index, so I had to make one of my own.  Froome is mentioned on twenty-one pages plus the six-page chapter devoted to him.  Wiggins appears on four more pages, but his chapter is one page less than Froome's.  Froome comes out ahead in the number of photos--three to two.  Thomas has nothing negative to say about Wiggins, but he does take a jab at Froome, saying he's from South Africa, then admitting that he knows he's from Kenya, but it's his retaliation for Froome referring to him as being English in his autobiography.
Thomas is proudly Welsh.  He compares the loudness of the Italian fans to the Welsh fans at Millennium Stadium when the Welsh team runs out to face England.  That was one of many rugby, soccer and cricket metaphors that I, as an American not so well versed in those sports, had to guess at.  They may have slightly hindered my understanding of what he was getting at, but they lent the book a little extra charm allowing Thomas to remain true to his voice and not condescend to a wider audience.  

I wouldn't want an American version sanitized of such expressions as "Crashing is as unavoidable to a cyclist as losing your wicket is to a Test batsman."  Nor would I want footnotes to explain "tackles that Welsh centre Jamie Roberts routinely soaks up," or "wind gust as effective as a Sam Warburton tackle," or Wiggins comparing his move from Garmin to Team Sky as like "going from Wigon to Manchester United." It was nice to have the the book peppered with "bloke," "chap," "telly," "arse," "sod it," "punters," "bollockings," "properly chuffed," "faffing about," and "too poosh to push."  They all added a measure of authenticity to the book and made me feel like I was getting a straight story.  

At thirty, a year younger than Froome, Thomas still has a few years in him at the top of the sport.  After nearly finishing on the podium in the 2015 Tour, there is still a possibility for that to happen.  Thomas doesn't bemoan his bad luck of suffering a crash in that Tour on Stage Sixteen that knocked him out of contention.  He only mentions that the crash was caused by the French rider Warren Barguil, who got the line wrong in the corner on a descent and blindsiding him.  But rather than taking him to task, he expresses gratitude for the fans who helped pull him back up from the ravine he had fallen into.  He seems to be a man without grudges or guile.  Such is the positive tone throughout the book.  He doesn't deny how hard racing is and all the sacrifices he must make and the suffering he must endure, but in the end he feels lucky, as all should, any time he can ride his bike.  

"Even when cycling is your job," he writes, "that sense of release when you climb on your bike and pedal away from the mundane real world is still the same...It wipes the mental slate clean. Two wheels and a triangle of metal to some, an escape chute to all us riders."  Cheers to that!