Reflecting on Truth, Lies, and Drugs in Cycling

November 14, 2013

Many years ago, I started watching what turned out to be an epic contest: an American and a Frenchman, battling for dominance, and finally victory for one in one of the most dramatic finishes to a sporting event. It was 1989, and Greg LeMond eventually beat Laurent Fignon by just eight seconds in the Tour de France – the result in doubt until the last couple of hundred metres of the closing time trial.

Watching Le Tour on Channel 4 became a big part of my summer for a while after that. There was little British interest – Robert Millar was a threat in the mountains and after he turned pro Chris Boardman was in contention for the Prologue – but with the likes of Miguel Indurain, Marco Pantani and their challengers, and then Lance Armstrong’s dominance, you couldn’t help but marvel at their scarcely-human stamina.

Except that the doubts were creeping in. 1998 – when Pantani won – saw the Festina Affair, with drug allegations against the team and yet them seeming to have big support from the rest of the Peloton. Suddenly the world was muttering about EPO, HGH, and the inability to test for them; and while Cycling was far from the only sport affected, the unique demands of the sport meant that no-one could really be clear of suspicion. Some high profile cases later, and it looked like things might be clear; but it turned out that actually the worst was still to come.

Reading Tyler Hamilton’s book “The Secret Race” reveals the shocking truth that whether condoned by the team management or not, there was pretty much an expectation that anyone in a pro race was taking something – whether EPO, Testosterone, or a Blood Transfusion on a rest day – if they were even just keeping up. Hamilton’s own account – of going from a gifted amateur to discovering that everyone else in the peloton could blow him away, and then having to face the decision of either taking drugs or just giving up and finding another job – makes that pretty clear. It wasn’t that everyone doped – but those that didn’t were often not competitive, and sometimes found themselves forced out.

Which brings us to Lance Armstrong, the personification of an era when what mattered was more whether you had the best drugs and doctors, and his attempts to argue that he should not be treated any worse than any other cyclist of that era – to the distaste and disgust of many of those who follow cycling far more closely that I ever have.

In some ways, he does have a bit of a point. The argument, it would seem, is that Lance, despite his drug taking, was still the best of his era – because he wasn’t doing anything that others weren’t also doing. If everyone’s cheating, then why should he be the scapegoat? And as time goes by, it becomes clear that an awful lot of the cyclists in the peloton were doing whatever they could to keep up and maybe overtake the US Postal squad. If a team had a particularly good day and looked strong, the question in most riders minds, according to Hamilton, was not about what training regime they were on – it was what drug, blood substitute or whatever had they got access to. If Armstrong was racing on a level playing field, the argument runs, why should he be penalised?

The physiological factors are often quoted at this point; different responses, different red blood cell levels that gave some riders a bigger possible boost from EPO, and so on. And some riders probably were riding clean – though proving which ones is nigh on impossible. But more of a factor is possibly Armstrong himself.

Lance Armstrong, whether in his own words or through the lens of the words of others such as Hamilton, is without doubt a very strong and forceful character. Not someone to cross. Someone who will do whatever needs to be done to achieve. And the sad thing is that he’s used that forcefulness to ride roughshod over anyone that dared challenge him. In some ways, that’s what made him a sporting winner; but by letting it spill over, into the smears and legal action against anyone that dared to reveal what was actually going on – and by even now not seeming to show the slightest remorse for what he did to Soigneur Emma O’Reilly, and continuing to fight the attempts to get him to repay SCA for bonuses he received for his Tour victories – it feels that he is reaping what he sowed. Armstrong set up the “best” team-wide doping system – and until the story finally gathered too much momentum to be derailed, he was best too at forcefully denying it. He may well have been the best cyclist of his era – sadly though, we will never know.

And the continuing tragedy is that it means that every good day for a less heralded rider, every remarkable comeback by a top star, every dominant ride in a major race, will always be questioned. 


In support of Roy Hodgson

April 30, 2012

Ah, the media frenzy is starting already and he hasn’t been officially unveiled yet…. but it seems that the new England Manager will be Roy Hodgson and not, as the media (and allegedly the fans) wanted, Harry Redknapp. And this particular England fan is actually quite happy at the prospect.

I think that one thing that has to be said is that Hodgson is going to be given a pretty rough ride – at least unless he can pull a few results out of the bag. Part of the reason for this is, in my opinion, that he starts with the media already against him – as Phil McNulty’s Blog hints at, Redknapp is something of a darling as far as the press are concerned, as he’s often very quotable and news-worthy. The more astute will of course note that this does not make him a better manager in football terms; just better as far as the media is concerned. In some ways Henry Winter summed things up nicely when he said to the BBC that Hodgson is “… a broadsheet man in a tabloid world” - but what the tabloids want, it should be kept in mind, is not necessarily that England should be successful, but that England – and their manager – should be newsworthy and help to sell papers.

Redknapp is nobody’s fool as a manager. He has, after all, won trophies, taken Spurs into the Champion’s League, and done pretty well there. You don’t get to be there without knowing what you’re doing. However, he’s not exactly what you’d call a deep thinker about the game, and for me Hodgson is the better bet. He’s got a track record in exceeding expectations with International sides, and if the FA are looking for someone to be involved with the new centre at Burton, then Hodgson surely has a better claim for that than Redknapp.

There is an element of looking at Hodgson as the safe option, and people of course then start harking back to the way that Brian Clough was not given the England job. I would argue though that the situation is a little different; Clough was overlooked essentially because the FA knew that if he came in, he would shake things up from top to bottom – which desperately needed doing – and went for someone who would be happier to maintain the status quo. With the best will in the world, I can’t see ‘Arry being the person to shake the FA to its foundations. Hodgson may not be either, but in terms of the sort of job he is likely to have to do – including working with up and coming coaches and players at Burton – he could well prove to be more effective.

The thing that is thrown at Hodgson as much as anything is his brief spell with Liverpool. Reds fans don’t like him, and there will of course be questions about how the likes of Steven Gerrard will take to playing under him again. I think though that it is worth bearing in mind the situation Hodgson came into at Anfield; they had failed to reach the Champions League, some players leaving (most notably Mascherano), the issues off the field dominating – bear in mind it that Hodgson got the chop before he had a chance to spend any of the money the new owners made available to Dalglish – and the continuing problems this season under Fans Choice Dalglish, and you get a picture of a club which had (and to an extent still has) underlying problems that would take anyone more than six months to turn around. Before that, he’d taken Fulham to the Europa League final; after, he’s made West Brom a side comfortable in mid-table against many expectations.

Hodgson will, ultimately, be judged on results, but again we have to look at what we expect those results to be. England are n0t a great side, although they are a good one, but whenever there’s a major championships it seems that anything less than winning the tournament is presented by the tabloids (and some fans) as unacceptable. Yet in reality, England are technically and tactically behind the World’s best teams. Can we really hold a candle to Spain? Do we have a talent to come close to the likes of Messi? Can we match the tactics and technical skills of  the Netherlands, of Germany?

We need to get real. The only major tournament we’ve won was on home soil, more than 45 years ago. We’ve reached one Word Cup Semi since, and that was more than 20 years ago. The last time we reached the Euro semis was again on home soil, 16 years ago. Reality is that we’re performing at about expectations if we reach the quarter finals in a major tournament, and exceeding them if we go beyond that. Given the time he’s got, if Hodgson qualifies from the group stage at the Euros, he’s doing a good job. Whether the press will see things in the same light is another matter of course…..


BeeCloud Buzzing off..

March 1, 2012

Out of a clear blue sky, an email arrived. 

“It is with regret that we need to inform you that we have ended our relationship with Livedrive….As of March 13th 2012 you will no longer be able to backup or restore data…. You are advised to search for another backup solution”.

Yes, it seems that the offer that was too good to be true, was: BeeCloud.eu, who have been offering 512GB – or even more – online backup space for free, look like they are sailing off into the sunset.

Information is patchy to say the least. BeeCloud’s website seems to have been replaced by a single page,  informing you that they are no longer reselling Livedrive – the US-based cloud storage service that has been behind the BeeCloud service. Livedrive’s website says nothing about BeeCloud on their blog, although interestingly there is some consumer pricing indicating that the “free” service that BeeCloud operated is available at a price of £4.95 per month, or at a special offer price of £40 for the year.

This is speculation of course, but it looks a lot like BeeCloud’s business model was flawed. They would have to be paying Livedrive even for free accounts; presumably they hoped that enough people would decide to take up the “Premium” options that included something akin to Dropbox that it would cover their costs. However, when your USP seems to be that you over the most amount of storage for free, that was probably something of a folorn hope.

If people have been truly using BeeCloud for backup – which I have – then this isn’t too disasterous provided you don’t have a hard drive failure in a couple of weeks time. It’s annoying – my computer was on for about three weeks solid copying all of my data to Livedrive – but what I’m losing is after all only a copy of my data. It does however raise the question of what to do about backup now.

This is not a new problem, but with data volumes ever increasing it’s reaching the level of being a real pain. My current computer has about 200GB of data on it – with serious amounts of photos, and an iTunes library that alone is topping 40GB. That means just to backup my data would take 8-10 BluRay discs – about £10 – plus purchasing a BluRay capable drive at about £70. And then spending the time writing that amount of data. And then finding somewhere to put them that’s safe from fire and flood. And hoping that the media will remain readable – it’s currently too early to say if the durability claims made (30 years or more) prove to be accurate. The thought of sitting there with a stack of 40-50 DVDs just doesn’t bear thinking about, and has the same sort of concerns about storing offsite and data durability.

Small wonder that cloud storage seems to offer a panacea for this. You can usually set things to back up in the background – set it and forget it. By definition it’s offsite – and indeed you can then often use it to access your files from any computer so long as you can remember your logon details. However, unless you have fast broadband it can take a long time to do the initial copy, and, as BeeCloud’s difficulties show, you are still hoping that your vendor of choice proves to be longer-lived than your need for the data.

Me? I’m wondering about an External Drive, and keeping the drive itself at work when I’m not using it. At least I’ll know exactly where it is!


Chisora gains some respect, but will he keep it?

February 18, 2012

There was no surprise in Vitali Klitschko retaining his World Title by beating Dereck Chisora in Munich tonight, but there will be more than the occasional eyebrow raised at how: Chisora lasted right to the end, and although the end result never looked in doubt, Klitschko had to work a lot harder than in some of his other fights over the last few years. Chisora kept going forwards for the full twelve rounds, kept throwing punches, and although he never seemed to put Vitali in trouble, a clearly tiring champion didn’t look particularly like getting Chisora out of there either.

“Experience beat me today” was what Chisora said after the fight, and there’s something in that – but it’s not the only thing. Vitali may not be the most stylish boxer, but he can box – his shots were always that bit sharper, more likely to hit the target. But one of the other factors was Klitschko’s sheer size.

There may not have been much difference in weights at the weigh-in, but the taller Klitschko looked that much bigger. His height gives him a reach advantage, but as well he uses his size to lean on his opponents. Kieran Mulvaney over at ESPN has spoken a couple of times on the Heavy Hitting Boxing Podcast about why this is a reason for him not to include the Brothers K on his Pound-for-pound list, and you can see his point: it’s not that Vitali was doing anything against the rules, but he does use those extra pounds to his advantage.

Klitschko didn’t exactly grow old in this fight, but the fact that he was unable to finish Chisora off will give his fans some pause for thought. At age 40, Klitschko’s best days lie well behind him, and Chisora – widely regarded as a limited and inexperienced fighter, although the limited part of that certainly needs some reassessment – did enough to suggest that a pressure fighter with heavy hands, a decent chin, and decent boxing ability has good reason to fancy their chances against Vitali.

What now for Chisora now? Arguably, if he can hang around a bit then he might be in a good position to challenge when Vitali finally retires, but that may as well depend on whether he can behave himself out of the ring. His slapping of Vitali, and the continuing antagonism with both of the Brothers Klitschko, are but the latest examples of his occasionally bizarre behaviour; and it’s not that long ago that he lost his British Title to Tyson Fury after appearing to be well out of condition. No such accusation could be made tonight, and hopefully that’s a sign of how he intends to go on.


Why I didn’t buy a Kindle…..

January 6, 2012

Today I finally took the plunge and bought an eBook Reader; however, it wasn’t one of Amazon’s seemingly all-conquering Kindles. Why not?

The Kindle looks, without doubt, a cracking device. It’s incredibly popular, available in many places retail as well as from Amazon themselves, and for what it is it’s surprisingly inexpensive now when compared to for example Sony’s competing products. But I didn’t get one.

What I got was a Kobo Wireless eReader. Yes, it’s cheaper than the Kindle – I got mine for less than £70 – but price was not my primary motivation. It was, in fact, that the Kobo – unlike the current Kindles – supports the ePub format.

One of the things that had made me delay getting an eReader is what you might call the legacy issue. When I first got an iPod, one of the more painful processes was getting my existing music collection onto it: I sat there feeding CDs into the computer, letting it rip them, for hours at a time. Once done however, it ceased to be an issue: the CDs now live mostly in the loft, but I can still listen to them because they’re all on the iPod – or at least in my iTunes library. For books however, there is no analogue. I suppose in theory I could sit there and scan every page of every book I own, but I doubt anyone has ever done it. I don’t really want to go and re-buy them all either. One solution therefore is to borrow them as and when via the local Public Library – and that is one thing where the Kobo – for now at least – wins over the Kindle.

Our local libraries use the system provided by Overdrive for lending digitally, and although the US has started to get Kindle compatibility, at the moment we are still only being promised this in the UK “soon”. And if you’re after Public Domain works, then it’s pretty easy to get them too. And you are not tied to where you purchase the content from.

Amazon quite possibly sell the Kindle at a minimal profit or even at a slight loss, because you will then be tied in to their store for all your eBook purchases. Their format is not supported on other eReaders (I discount tablets and the like here) so you can’t take them elsewhere; you can’t buy your eBooks from say Waterstones and move them to Kindle. While I can’t transfer Kindle eBooks to my Kobo, I can get them from numerous other sources – and, at that, some sources that will accept payment in Book Tokens, something that Amazon don’t.

So far the Kobo looks a pretty good device. I suspect that the Kindle is more polished, and almost certainly provides a better, more integrated experience; but until I’m not exclusively tied into purchasing titles from Amazon with it, I’m prepared to give the Kobo a good go.


iCrisis? What iCrisis?

October 5, 2011

To, it seems, the horror of many, Apple has failed to release the iPhone 5 and instead released an updated version of the iPhone 4. Apple immediately took a hit on share price (although it did regain some later on) and Tim Cook came in for a fair bit of criticism for, effectively, not being Steve Jobs. Already discussions are starting: has Apple lost its Mojo?

First of all, let’s consider the issue of Tim Cook. He gave a lot of time to others on the stage, and if people were expecting him to give a Jobsian performance – complete with “One more thing” – they soon discovered that this wasn’t going to be the case. This is of course not really fair: Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs, and to be fair what Cook had to launch was not going to be as exciting as say the iPad or the original iPhone. Until he does, it’s not that fair to judge him on this ground.

However, Jobs would probably have got more of a response out of the same material, and here is why I think so: The Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field has an element of truth.

No, not some sort of device, or strange mental rays, but the fact that Jobs is not just a consummate professional when it comes to presentation, but also that Jobs – whether at Apple or outside – has a long and respected history of driving innovation. That record goes back to the original Apple computers – don’t forget the Apple ][ was a huge success – through the disappointment of the Lisa, through to the development of the Macintosh. Apple lost their way when he was forced out – and in the meantime, he went off and started NeXT (the underpinnings of which can be seen underneath OS X don’t forget), and invested heavily in Pixar – the company which revolutionised animation and now is at the heart of the Disney empire. His return to apple continued this path, with development of the iPod and iPhone. There have been misses, but Jobs has helmed his companies through so many hits that even if those in tech journalism aren’t always certain he’s right, they know that whatever he is talking about has to be given plenty of attention. Compared to Jobs, Cook is an unknown – certainly outside of regular Apple watchers – and doesn’t have the same sort of clout and reputation to demand attention.

Back to the iPhone 4S then, and if there is a criticism of Apple, I think it’s that they allowed rumours of an iPhone 5 to reach such a fever pitch that anything less would be seen as a disappointment. They can’t control what others speculate about, but it seems that there were not enough accurate rumours – something that a few quiet words with some influential tech bloggers might have helped with.

In fact, a bit of thought – and look at past practice – would have indicated that it was unreasonable to expect a major upgrade to the iPhone this year. For starters, as Molly Wood points out over at CNET, anyone who got the iPhone 4 last year when it launched is probably tied into a 2 year contract in any case. It would need to be something pretty incredible to make people prepared to pay the additional fees to get an early upgrade; the jump from 2g to 3G was enough, but even if the new phone was 4G there’s too little coverage for it to make a difference to many.

To be honest, Antennagate aside, there simply isn’t much wrong with the current iPhone 4 – or even the 3GS, which remains on sale as an entry level smartphone . Apple is reaching the point where it is making some products that are moving from innovative to mature, and the iPhone is one of them – the iPod is another. The task for Tim Cook is to make sure that this transition to selling mature products doesn’t reduce Apple’s lustre as a tech leader.

Android has something of an opportunity here as much as anything because it has multiple handset makers, and they are competing with each other to drive innovation and pricing. It’s more flexible. Looking to move on from the ubiquitous Blackberry Curve, but don’t want to give up the keyboard? Well, how about the HTC ChaCha? Want something with enough oomph to put some netbooks in the shade? How about a Motorola Atrix, complete with Laptop Dock? From cheap and cheerful to high end performance, Android can offer a number of options. However (and I say this as someone who is probably going the Android route for my next phone) it doesn’t do some things very well at all. One is the much-talked about issue of fragmentation: there are so many versions out there, and apps that work on some and not others, that you can hear about a great app and then not be able to run it. As for upgrading to a newer version – well, it’s not always easy. A lot depends on whether the carrier will make the upgrade available… I speak from the experience of having to upgrade a Samsung Galaxy Portal that was stuck on 1.5 as the carrier weren’t making anything newer available – I eventually did it, but only by a lot of fiddling, downloading ROMs and flashing it myself that would be beyond many if not most of those with the phone.

By comparison, Apple’s upgrades to IOS are less painful, and the curated App Store means if you see an app there, you know it will work. Android may be more flexible, but for a lot of people they’re not prepared to pay the price of that flexibility – that, unlike in the Apple ecosystem, things don’t “just work” without a bit of work.

Me? I’m just happy that they don’t seem to have killed off the iPod Classic before I get a chance to upgrade from my ageing 30GB version. It’s pretty much the only Apple device I own – and I reckon the price of an iPhone is still more than I’m prepared to pay – but I really don’t think that Apple can be criticised simply for failing to meet overhyped and unrealistic expectations. Allowing those expectations to get that high – well, that’s a different matter.


Cars 2: a few thoughts

August 16, 2011

I took my six year old to the cinema last weekend to watch Cars 2, and it has to be said I was left a little concerned and less than impressed. Be aware, there will be spoilers in this post…

One of the points is about the desire of so many film studios to create films in 3D. Whether this is a good thing or not is open to debate; I tend to side with those that argue that it isn’t something that particularly adds to a film and indeed can even diminish a film. Nevertheless, even watching in 2D, the 3D is a distraction: you tend to pick up on scenes that have clearly been put together to say, “Look! You can see the widget/monster/rock coming straight out of the screen towards you! Isn’t this 3D amazing, eh – well worth those extra couple of quid a ticket!” I’ve noticed this on a few films – the excellent Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs and How to train your Dragon for example – and although the kids don’t really notice it, I do.

I’m not interested in paying the premium: but even so, I can’t escape the 3D effect. The retro-fitting of films – the trailer for The Lion King in 3D was running with Cars 2 – makes this even more annoying: one wonders how contrived some of the 3D scenes will look, in order to show off the fact that it’s there. The fact that 3D seems so beloved by the film studios in part as an anti-piracy and revenue-generating measure and much less for the new creative opportunities doesn’t help my mood.

The critics have in some cases been very sniffy about the first Cars film, but I wouldn’t agree with them. It isn’t Pixar’s greatest or most original, but it’s a simple story told well, with verve and humour, and I’m sure ours wasn’t the only household with children where watching the DVD seemed to be a weekly – if not more frequent – event. It says a lot for the film that even with such heavy rotation, I still don’t mind it being on. However, as a story it was pretty self-contained: any sequel would to an extent be rather contrived.

So it proved. The formula for such films seems to be “Let’s take the characters from the first story and take them out on the road, out of their familiar surroundings, and let hilarious consequences ensue!”

As a result the main focus seems not on McQueen, but on the main comic relief in the first film, Mater; and in order to maximise the fish out of water approach, Mater turns into a reluctant spy due to mistaken identity. The spy plot he is embroiled in is confusing, and there seemed to be almost no clue to indicate how things will be resolved, or who the evil mastermind is. And here is one of the problems with the film: it is too complicated for its target audience, the young kids still watching the first film.

In fact, the way the spy plot is handled is the cause of some of my disquiet. At points the film seems to want to be a James Bond film – there are for example clear references to Octopussy – while at times it seems to want to reference Austin Powers – witness the female assistant who is called Miss Shiftwell. All of these are referencing movies for adults; and when the action includes the crushed remains of a spy car being displayed, another spy being (strongly implied at least) blown up, others in extreme danger of being crushed by a mechanical device and a major character close to being annihilated by a bomb connected up to him, you can’t help but wonder if this is really suitable family viewing. My six year old coped with it, but it’s not hard to imagine sensitive children – especially younger ones – getting upset by it.

The complexity of the plot, the surprising amount of violence, the turning of the comic relief character into the main focus – these changes in my opinion take this film too far away from its original core audience. It’s by no means a bad film – but given the high standard Pixar have set themselves, this is a big let-down.


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