The Unprovable Challenge: Is Froome clean, or not?

July 21, 2015

Once upon a time, there was a myth. That myth was that there was a golden age of Cycling, long ago, when no-one took drugs and every rider – well, most of them – were clean. The myth took occasional batterings, when occasionally some riders tested positive for something, but it held pretty much until the mid 1990s. Then, EPO arrived….

It’s a myth because cycling has always had its problems. Some of the early TdF riders resorted to ether, strychnine and other drugs to deaden the pain as much as anything, and then stimulants became de rigeur; it wasn’t until the 1960s that any testing came in, and even then it’s debatable how useful it was. Then came Steroids, and finally the focus on blood with EPO and transfusions.

All this time, the authorities were playing catchup. All this time, many cyclists were taking something, and as some of the memoirs have shown, were often not only ahead of the game in terms of tests, but also enjoying a testing regime that lacked thoroughness.

Lance Armstrong represented the apex of this era; by that point, doping became not just expected, but close to institutionalised although teams became a lot more cautious following the Festina Affair. Armstrong ruled with a rod of iron; US Postal ruled the Tour; and once it was proved that this was built not just on the best training, best planning, best equipment, but on the best use of PEDs and transfusions, it left a nasty taste in the mouth of cycling fans – their theme song ever since has been “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. And currently the one that some think is trying to do just that is Chris Froome.

Froome has been dominant in this year’s Tour de France, winning one stage imperiously and with strong support from Geraint Thomas, Richie Porte and the like has rarely looked in trouble. And because he and his team are so dominant, the suspicions rise and Team Sky are faced with the conundrum at the heart of all sports that are based on physical endurance or athletic ability as opposed to innate skill: how do you go about proving someone isn’t doped?

It’s a hard question in cycling because of Lance Armstrong. Armstrong was facing suspicions, and attacked them head on. He’d never failed a dope test. He challenged anyone who said he doped head on – including in the courts – and won. After his final victory, he went as far as to say he pitied all of those who didn’t believe he was clean. And all the time, it was a lie. So when Froome insists he’s clean, allows power data to be released (as Sky have done today), even offers suggestions on how to tighten the doping regime, some remember Armstrong and decide that Froome must be about the same game.

Is he? I don’t know. And for all the jaundiced comments on various cycling blogs, neither does anyone else except Froome and his inner circle. He will never be able to prove the negative – or at least, not enough to satisfy some, who even if Froome was tested on a daily basis would no doubt argue that he was taking something so far undetectable. The balance of probabilities is that he’s clean – but no-one can be certain. And that lack of certainty inevitably means that some cycling zealots will never, ever, believe that Froome is clean.

Gimme that ol-time Music Storage…..

June 15, 2015

The times they are a changin’ for those that enjoy their music on the go, and it seems that one of the things that’s changing is that the concept of a high-capacity music player is old hat. Apple finally killed off the iPod Classic last year, and although they haven’t quite got rid of the line completely, iPod no longer has its own tab on the Apple Website – instead, you have to go to Music and select it from the dropdown menu. A small change, but significant – iPod is no longer a significant revenue stream for the company, and you suspect future developments will be at a minimum – more likely, as happened with the Classic, the Nano and the Touch will carry on in the catalogue until they run out of places to get the components and will then be quietly withdrawn.

There are alternatives of course. The likes of Fiio, Cowon and others are producing some very good players that if anything offer better sound quality and more flexibility due to their use of swappable memory cards, while with many non-Apple phones you can always add a high-capacity memory card; “Take TWO devices into the car?” Anyway Grandpa, get with the program: who needs the capacity anyway when you can have everything live in the cloud and just stream it wherever you are? Whether it’s Spotify, Google Music, Apple Music or another service, who even needs to keep it on their device any more?

Well…. I do. I admit I’m something of an edge case, and that for many people all they need is their phone and a Spotify or Google Music subscription; but I have a couple of reasons to still want a high capacity dedicated music player.

One of them is for work purposes. There are times that I want to play music as part of my work, maybe set up a playlist or similar, but I don’t want to have a device that will pop up notifications or otherwise interrupt the playback; ideally as well it needs to emit minimal electrical interference in case I’m working with roving microphones. For this sort of purpose, it’s hard to beat a standalone music player; a device that only has to do one thing and do it well. (By the way, have you ever tried using a phone simultaneously for GPS and Audio Playback? It works, but be prepared for lots of journeys where the playback stops and never comes back….)

The other is to do with the streaming issue. I live in an area where basically if you can’t get onto a Wifi hotspot, you have no internet; my mobile network offers very bad 2G, and there are places where even that is patchy. This is not uncommon in rural areas; with fewer users the payback time for a cell tower is longer, and the planning issues are harder to overcome. Suffice to say I have a 1GB Data Limit, and rarely use even half of it unless I go to a city for a few days. So relying on a streaming service for music outside the house is a no go. OK, some of the paid-for services allow you to cache substantial amounts, but then, why not just get a big memory card or a dedicated music player anyway?

In some ways this just highlights that Rural areas are often the digital poor these days. Often we can only dream of the speeds of fibre broadband; mobile data is unreliable so forget working on the move. Streaming services are only relevant in the home. So while it may no longer be mainstream to carry your music around with you, it’s still going to be the reality for quite a number of us yet. So I’m replacing my 10 year old iPod Classic with a high-capacity alternative now – while I still can….

Proportionally Better or Worse?

May 11, 2015

Surprise surprise, there are quite a few graphics around showing the perceived unfairness of the UK’s voting system following Thursday’s General Election. The chances of any type of PR being implemented for Westminster are remote – if nothing else, there’s little or no incentive for the party in power to change the system that’s elected them. That won’t stop supporters of some of the other parties – Lib Dem, UKIP and Green in particular – from pointing at their vote share and arguing the case again.

I have some sympathy for them, but at the same time it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for” – PR would quite possibly have delivered a Tory/UKIP coalition based on the stats, and a lot of the people complaining may well have seen that as their worst nightmare. However, all of the parties need to recognise that PR is a system that can damage as easily as promote them.

One of the things is that PR would see a lessening of the impact of Tactical Voting. Currently, the fate of the country is decided by a number of key marginals – the majority of seats rarely if ever change hands. And in those marginals, there will be a tendency for tactical voting to be encouraged – virtually every party in second place in a marginal will have produced election leaflets saying “Only X can defeat Y here” – clearly saying that even if you don’t actively support them, you ought to vote or Party Y, your natural enemy, will be elected instead. It’s a fairly standard tactic. So Lib Dems might historically pick up a lot of prospective Labour votes in places where they were seen as the only effective alternative to the Conservatives. and some prospective Tory voters who wanted to keep out Labour in other places. UKIP are somewhat different in that they have effectively been a Protest Vote – “we don’t like any of the others so we’ll show them by voting UKIP”. They have built on this somewhat, but Nigel Farage has been very keen to promote himself and UKIP as the party to vote for if you’re fed up of mainstream politics and politicians.

Introduce PR, and the Tactical Vote is less significant. What effect would that have on the smaller parties? Would the Green Vote increase as people felt they would actually have a voice? Would the Lib Dems find their vote squeezed even more, or would it grow as they gain the Lib Dem supporters who’ve voting tactically elsewhere? If UKIP have to engage with mainstream politics, will they have to change their stance? Would the people in the Labour Heartlands like the North-East who voted UKIP continue to do so if they think they could gain real power? The answer is that no-one is really sure – but I’m fairly confident that the share of the votes we saw last week wouldn’t have been quite the same under PR. So to argue for it on the basis of last week’s results is very much a flawed argument.

Did Labour lose, or did the Conservatives win? Election Reflection

May 8, 2015

One of the most remarkable of all sites connected with politics is UK Polling Report – the site run by pollster Anthony J. Wells, which far from taking a party political line, attracts people from all sides of the political debate who are interested in the numbers and analysis. However, if the predictions that were made by many of its denizens are anything to go by (amazingly collated by one of the contributors – see UK Polling Report to find a link to the spreadsheet) then most of those frequenting the site will be scratching their heads today as they consider what went wrong – not with the campaigns, but with the polls over the last few weeks.

It’s a legitimate question to ask given how things turned out. Almost every poll going seemed to indicate a very tight election, almost certainly a hung parliament, and a new coalition or a minority government propped up by less formal agreements. And then came the results of the Exit Poll, greeted with almost stunned disbelief even by those who found their wildest expectations exceeded. Paddy Ashdown said he’d eat his hat, Alaisdair Campbell his kilt if the exit poll was right; even Michael Gove seemed to think that they might not do quite as well as the initial prediction. The fact that the Exit Poll if anything very slightly understated the result – Conservatives gaining even more seats, Labour and the Lib Dems losing even more – suggests that all the polling companies are going to have to take a long, hard look at their methods.

Meanwhile, the political inquests are already starting at Labour and Lib Dem HQs. Both of them will need to do some careful analysis; whether they will reach satisfactory conclusions though is open to question.

First, a quick comment about the Lib Dems. Coalition has often been a difficult expeerience for the junior partner, and for them it was a particularly bad one: in some ways, they have found themselves completely squeezed out. For what we might call the progressives, the softer left and centre, they became a scapegoat in my view: blamed for much of the austerity and perceived injustices of the last five years when, brutally, they failed to stand up to their senior partners. The Conservatives didn’t suffer because most of their voters in 2010 knew that this was what they expected from their chosen party; if anything, the Tory vote may have been firmed up by being able to write off any unfilled pledges as being due to the demands of coalition, while the Lib Dems never escaped the perception that they’d sold their soul for a bit of power and a Referendum on AV. To a large number of the “Anyone but Tory” vote, they became anathema, while they failed to appeal to the centre ground who might normally consider them.

Labour however suffered for more complex reasons and they need to spend some time thinking about them. First, possibly one of the key factors was that they simply failed to convince enough of the electorate to trust them again; after the car crash of the Brown years (not entirely Brown’s fault, but he didn’t seem to know what to do about it) Labour needed to lay out an Economic Programme that looked sound, imaginative, and inspiring – a true alternative vision. They tried, but too many people simply didn’t believe them; they couldn’t bring themselves to trust the people who, rightly or wrongly, in the public mind carried the can for the problems since 2009. The average voter isn’t going to read about the issues in depth; they’re not going to care about the worldwde economic situation, or the American-led bad debt issues that enveloped so many financial institutions. “It’s the economy, stupid” said Bill Clinton many years ago – and Labour didn’t convince on the economy and will have to work hard to change that.

There’s also the issue of what their campaign focussed on. In some ways, under Ed Milliband, Labour attempted to head back towards its roots somewhat – champion the working man, tax the rich, social justice. But the perceived betrayal of the Blair years, when Labour seemed to be less the party of Socialism and more the party of “whatever will get us elected” means that it has lost contact with those roots; while many still voted for them, the ties that bind have weakened and you do wonder if some of those traditional Labour households no longer feel that it’s their party any more. Instead, they latched on to UKIP – a party with a keen eye for a populist policy or seven, the Greens (albeit in smaller numbers) who seem to be offering a sort of Environmental Socialism, or simply stayed at home. However, for the centre ground – which Blair won from so convincingly – they looked too much like the party of, if not Tony Benn and Michael Foot, then at least Neil Kinnock and John Smith.

However, one must also acknowledge that agree with them or not, the Conservatives actually won the election as much as anyone else lost it. They presented a vision that enough people bought into to elect them; they presented themselves as a strong party of government, and you suspect that many were swayed not so much by the political principles as by the image of a party ready to govern with a plan on how they were going to do it. To this end, Cameron’s refusal to participate in the leader’s debate was actually a good thing for him; he dealt from a position of strength and left the others to argue it out. Arguably Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP were the only other party to benefit – looking strong and forceful, and already governing in Scotland. They provided the only other leader who looked Prime Ministerial – and they were no threat to the Tories anyway as if anything they were already going to make it harder for Labour to become the largest party. People who maybe aren’t so political can sometimes be swayed by that perception; they won’t read the manifestos, but will go by that decision of will they offer stable government. Thatcher managed it; Major didn’t. Blair did, for a time at least; Brown didn’t have the same appeal. Cameron built on his time as Prime Minister to make enough of the apolitical ones decide they’d prefer him to the alternatives.

Finally, it will be interesting to see where UKIP goes now. Nigel Farage is at least going to allow a leadership contest, and his party have surprised many by showing that they are not about being a party merely of disaffected Tories, but a real challenger for the votes of the centre ground too. They will talk of a broken voting system – something pretty much every party other than the big two will always do – but with no real prospect of change. The challenge for them is whether they can maintain their momentum, hold onto their place in the spotlight, and become a real alternative to the established parties for a long period of time. Will they replace the Lib Dems as the third force and a destination for those who’d never vote for the other of the big two? Or will their fragile patchwork of party machinery across the country disperse before it can be more permanently harnessed? Only time will tell.

Unreal Tournament: England and the Cricket World Cup

March 7, 2015

You’d be forgiven for thinking that there are currently two England Cricket Teams. One is full of self belief, knows what it’s doing, and is looking to go deep into the World Cup; the other is in disarray, with players who shouldn’t be there, scrabbling for the scraps just to try and at least have a claim on being at least the eighth best team in the world.

The problem is that to anyone outside the camp, it’s the latter that’s the true situation. England so far have one win – against Scotland – and three defeats that it’s hard to argue have been anything other than thumpings. Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka – they’ve not just defeated England, they have done so comfortably and arguably with embarrassing ease, and now England’s fate depends on defeating Afghanistan and Bangladesh – and while England will be favourites in both games, none of the experts are writing them off, particularly Bangladesh who seem to be getting their batsmen in form.

The messages being sent out from the England Camp don’t reflect this though. Not because they’re taking opponents lightly; but because their attitude seems to be that most of the criticism is undeserved, and tellingly through the dogged insistence on playing the same players who have already failed to even run the big sides close. Now to be fair options are somewhat limited – the squad is only 15 strong after all – but when England have lost so heavily, Alex Hales, Ravi Bopara, and James Tredwell must be wondering how bad things have to get before they are given a chance to show what they can do.

More than that, England are looking like the kid who has only just discovered last year’s craze in time to look totally uncool. The game has moved on, but England haven’t. Not so long ago, scores of 300 were par on many grounds; now, it’s reaching the point that you can add 30-40 to that, yet England seem to think they’ve done well to reach 300. Scores are rising – we’ve seen 400 three times already, an individual double century, and unless there’s a batting collapse going on a strike rate of less than a run a ball is just too slow. Yet England’s only two batsmen beating that strike rate are Moeen Ali and Jos Buttler. Add in bowlers that are struggling to cope with the attacking intent and fielding restrictions (as to be fair many teams are), and you have a recipe for a side that looks like it’s still trying to win the last tournament, not this one.

The problem is that there’s little confidence that any of this will change. There have been a number of reviews in recent years; a number of attempts to make a fresh start; but all England seem to have achieved is to engineer the departure of their most destructive (in almost every sense) batsman, and damage the careers of others like Steven Finn almost beyond redemption.

Fortunately, I do have an alternative: through family connections, I would be eligible to represent Ireland. Now there’s a team that’s going places!

Culture of Entitlement?

March 7, 2015

One of the great things about the internet is that there’s so much out there for free. People and in some cases companies have given their time and abilities to produce any number of apps and services that are available, completely legally, for nothing. In the past I’ve played around with Linux, LibreOffice tends to be my office suite of choice, while there are any number of online services I use, very few of which actually force you to pay money up front.

The problem is that sometimes I find myself falling into the trap of expecting these things always to be without cost. And it seems that there are many others out there who do the same. Yet, somewhere, somehow, all of this has to be paid for if it is to remain sustainable.

Let’s take a relatively trivial example. For the last three months or so, I’ve been playing Farmville Country Escape on my tablet. For those unfamiliar with the game (It’s almost impossible not to be familiar with the concept) there are effectively several sets of in game currency: Coins (which are actually in a lot of ways the lowest in value), Stamps (which allow you to purchase certain “Prized Animals”), two types of “Speed Ups” (Helping Hands and Golden Gloves, that allow crops or craft items to be finished sooner), and most importantly Keys. Keys can be used to speed up waiting times, fill in for missing items or ingredients, purchase additional crafting stations or crop fields, all sorts of things – and they’re also the main thing that you can’t get a lot of without spending actual real-world currency.

This can be a real pain when it comes to some of the frequent “Events” that Zynga (the makers of the game) run, as often it seems difficult if not impossible to complete them without either the purchase of keys, specific strategies that come close to cheating, actual cheating, or quite literally spending 24 hours a day for 2-3 days completing the quests. A classic was their “Home for the Holidays” event, where you had to collect special items and make certain things for each stage; one of them required four Alpine Strawberries, which if you had two Strawberry Fields would typically require four harvests, each an hour apart – with the “reward” being more often not what you were trying to get to complete the quest. Reckon on needing to make 20 of these to complete the phase, and that’s more than three days of solid harvesting without sleeping. People were not happy…. ( ) The alternative? Spend some real money on keys and/or speed seed to hurry things up – sometimes you can complete a whole stage for keys, albeit about 2000 of them – cost maybe £30…..

Are people right to be angry? Well, it is frustrating (I say this as someone who has always done this the hard way – waiting rather than spending money), but it does somewhat miss the point. Zynga don’t charge up front for the game; but they have invested considerable amounts of money in developing and running it. It has to pay somehow…. There’s a limited amount of in-game advertising which you can’t imagine covers much of the cost, so the big contributor is probably people spending money to buy keys. If it’s possible to complete the events or gain keys without being too frustrating/time consuming, who will pay good money for them?

This is the problem of the Freemium Model. People get something for free, and have a tendency to think that they should get everything for free. But the problem is not Freemium in itself – it’s the feeling of entitlement that so many then have.

In some ways it feels like the whole Internet is sometimes struggling to work out a business model that will allow it to survive, and it can’t go on forever offering content and services without there being some income somewhere. Facebook doesn’t charge for its services – so it has to be paid for through advertising. Evernote reserves some of its features and upload limits for those who are prepared to pay for it. Some Newspapers erect a paywall. And you can probably find plenty of people who will react angrily to that, and move onto the next free service.

Ironically given the content,  this post was originally on the Evernote-linked blogging platform – which,  after a few days of use by me, announced that it was going premium only; as I don’t think my blog would reach the point of justifying the investment, I decided to resurrect this one… though I’m not going to get angry about it. looks to be a good service but blogging isn’t essential enough to me to pay them to do it. But I can understand why they’re asking people to do it.

In short, we have to move away from this culture of entitlement, and recognise that, ultimately, there’s no such thing as free. You pay, somewhere, somehow. Whether that’s through having to scroll through or watch ads, pay for a fully-functional rather than limited service, pay the Licence Fee that allows the BBC to operate, or just give voluntary donations to a creator to encourage them to keep going (as my favourite podcaster, Tom Merritt has done so successfully with his Patreon – ) – the message is the same as it always was: even on the Internet, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

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. 


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.