Tour of California Explained: Cycling ValHella

Categories: Local News, Sports
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Part III of our explainer of California's new favorite sporting event. Read Part II here, and Part I here.


Q.
In  your installment about Tuesday's stage victor, Norseman Thor Hushovd, you said bike racing's low-impact training meant fewer injuries and greater athleticism. So is cycling a sportsman's Valhalla?

A. It's not. Unless you believe Odin rules a place where Einherjar are always on the verge of sickness, walk with great pain, live in constant risk of calamitous trauma, lurch from unhealthy starvation diet to starvation diet, have needles stuck into their bodies daily, and, if they're among those mid-level strivers reputed to ingest doping products without the aid of a 24-hour team physician, risk dying suddenly in their sleep.

While cycling's impact-free quality removes certain limitations from training, its high-stakes competitiveness leads professionals to push themselves up against limits unfamiliar to other sports. Cyclists typically train six hours a day, often at high intensity, pushing their bodies to  the point where immune systems break down. So a typical professional spends his days and nights obsessed with unwavering thermostat temperatures, never touching cold drinks, and taking other real and imagined precautions against the common flu -- a dreaded, ever-looming disease that, when it strikes, can force a season-imperiling, salary-decimating, lull in training. To minimize weight to be carried up mountain passes, cyclists diet constantly, further inviting illness.

Ignorant of this, a casual observer might imagine 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre a paragon of healthy living. Don't tell Sastre that. He's been riding the Tour of California with the flu, and by Tuesday had fallen more than half an hour off the race leaders' pace.

Because of the countless hours of mountain intervals, base miles, speed-work and other training, pro cyclists' time off the bike tends to be uncomfortable. Aching legs and backs cause cyclists to seek out chairs, couches, ledges, curbs -- any resting place offering relief from standing -- in the manner of the decrepit elderly. Elevators, never stairs; don't go for a walk if you can watch TV -- this is the top cyclist's creed.

This sort of mere crippling discomfort is actually a sort of luxury, enjoyed only by those racers who haven't been recently involved in a crash. By the end of an extended multi-day stage race, they're a minority; team hotels can become veritable trauma wards. 

Q: What about all the crashes?
A: Sports reporting doesn't take great note of the daily, bloody crashes that inflict pro riders because, well, they're not news. Carlos Sastre went down Sunday: "After the feed zone, on a slight descent, another rider lost control of his bike by hitting one of the reflectors of the road -- he went straight into me, breaking all the spokes of my front wheel. He fell to the ground and I skated for about 50 meters," Sastre was quoted as saying, before he remounted his bike, finished the race, and started again the next day -- sick.

So far, in the Tour of California, Lance Armstrong's gone down. Levi Leiphiemer's gone down. After ending up at the bottom of a 15-rider pileup Monday local boy Andy Jacques-Maynes was transported to the hospital with injuries to his head and ankle. Wednesday, a rider broke his leg in a crash, and another was taken to the hospital for suspected broken ribs and a broken collarbone.

Despite their banal frequency, these wipeouts aren't mundane events. When they occur on a descent, which is commonplace, they're the equivalent of stripping down to one's underwear and jumping out of a car that's traveling at 60 mph. If you performed such a stunt all the time, you'd learn to cope: sometimes you'd skate 50 meters upon impact, others, you'd break your ribs and legs.

Q: We notice you haven't gotten to drugs yet...

A: Even the worst crash pales compared to the specter of doping. There are the annoyances that accompany cycling's reputation as a dopers haven; rules require racers to submit day or night to unannounced visits by "vampires" the name given to needle-toting dope testers who come knocking for their daily drop.

Cagey athletes who figure they've tricked the testers have been known to get caught up in other ways. During the 1990s, European reports described a wave of nighttime deaths among young racers who had used the then-new doping drug Erythropoietin, known as EPO. An anti-anemia medicine, EPO thickens the blood to deliver more oxygen. In fact, it's the main product of Tour of California sponsor Amgen, whose executives say they wish to publicize the drug's appropriate use treating illness. But when applied to otherwise healthy athletes, blood can become so syrupy it stops flowing during deep rest. One reputed dopers' trick became to set the alarm clock for midnight, get up and ride a bike mounted on a stationary trainer, to get the heart pumping again to ward off failure.

By day, the joke went, cyclists lived to ride. By night, they rode to live.

On February 5, a cycling-press news flash reported on the death of 21-year-old cyclist Frederick Nolf, a Belgian with Team Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator, who had been competing in the Tour of Qatar. He was believed to have suffered a heart attack in his sleep. According to news accounts, Nolf's father said he didn't want an autopsy.
"Out of respect for Frederiek, we see no sense," he was quoted as saying. "It is time to leave Frederiek to his rest."

Indeed, given he no longer suffers life as a pro cyclist, he may now be one of the more contented denizens of Valhalla.

Confused by the Tour of California, which runs Feb. 14-22 from Sacramento to L.A.? Address questions to Matthew.Smith@SFWeekly.com, and we'll answer them promptly.


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