I was able to convince him to take some time out from his roaming in France to respond to the Letsrun message board junkies and give us his scoop on the tour. The fax came in this morning.
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Boyo, was I in for a kick-in-the-nuts surprise when I emerged from my night out in Metz with Bob and Phil only to find the Letsrun message board playing host to the selection committee for the National Book Award and the Booker Prize. I had a bad enough headache from the absinthe that Phil foisted upon me, claiming it was a real "panty-dropper" for the ladies traipsing after him on the Tour de Farce. At his age, he better be glad Le Dopage Controlle doesn't come after his Viagra supply.
Now I had to read this drivel from the board posters who had all run a sub-four mile AND won the Pulitzer. I was hurt to the bone. But Thomas Pynchon once told me, "Pearls before swine, son." Or shark meat before minnows is more like these clowns. To call them pigs would be a compliment.
I escaped Eugene alive, changed planes in time to drop my package off at my editor's doorstep before dawn, and boarded another flight to the Debt-Crashing Continent. Why do we imagine that Greeks, Italians, and Spanish citizens want to buy into an austerity program? That's like asking an Italian to move out of his mother's house. Or demanding Letsrun posters stay away from the screen while they are salaried to be bankers, accountants, or real estate agents. If their bosses knew what they did with their time, there'd be hell to pay.
My editor, who has a real Ph.D. instead of my mail-order one, sent me over here to discover what all the French fuss was about and to investigate how and why cycling culture drives Europeans purple with passion. I didn't relish watching fat, thong-clad men running alongside riders on the steep climbs, but the bare-chested babes begging for photo ops settled my stomach.
If we are discussing body types, I found out that professional cyclists are mutants. These guys are hummingbirds. I thought distance runners were skinny, but Euro-riders make pro runners look like Sumo wrestlers. They sip on negative-calorie soup to suck weight to make them better climbers. As my new drinking partner, Phil says, "They weigh less than a slice of bread."
TV calls the Tour entertainment; I call it NASCAR on two skinny tires. Between crashes, a bike race breaks out. Viewers love to see carbon fiber and flesh strewn across the road after a 45 mph road rash slide. The slower paced pile-ups create even more spectator pleasure: cracked collarbones, riders hurling busted bikes over guardrails in disgust while they wait for a team car to hand deliver a replacement ten grand machine. And we thought the One Percenters were spoiled?
I may have suffered a flesh wound from the message boarders’ troglodytes jabs, but nothing compared to the poor bicycle racers I witnessed yesterday. There was so much blood, skin, and Lycra on the Tarmac that the French police -who call themselves Gendarmes or something like a Frog liqueur - thought they had stumbled upon a crime scene. Fellow scribes called the crash carnage the "Metz Massacre." Speaking of journalists, if I hear the word "carnage" fall from Paul's lips once more on television, HE is buying the drinks during the Time Trial. We have a bet. Listen carefully on what used to be OLN, the Only Lance Network, to see if he can muzzle himself.
|The scene in Metz.|
Anyways, the main reason I jetted over here was to take an inside look at the sport that INVENTED performance enhancing drugs. Let's go back to the 1920's when a French rider faced journalists and threw a handful of pills on the table and shouted, "You think we ride on bread and mineral water alone?!" Climbers once smoked cigarettes, believing it opened up their lungs. Now every Olympian has a Theraputic Medical Exemption to use an inhaler full of the bronchial dilator Ventolin. Let's move on to the Sixties when British sensation Tom Simpson died while climbing the moonscape of Mont Ventoux: an autopsy revealed killer levels of Brandy and amphetamines in his system. The prevailing wisdom was that the booze enhanced the speed's effect. Jaysus !
These uneducated guinea pigs -- most Euro bike racers didn't do school -- sacrificed themselves for the sport, literally. The died in their sleep in hotel rooms from aneurysms, cardiac arrest, and blood clots during the 90's, overdosed on too much of a good thing. Then runners got wind of the fun. Spanish marathoners keeled over on the side of the road during training runs. Along came micro-dosing and all was well again. All you had to do was keep your hematocrit below the upper norm of 50 and you were free to ride. Dose it up, stay out of racing for two weeks for Health Reasons. Take care of the problem, come back in a fortnight, and race your balls off.
Science has improved and the testing police nerds are thinking they are ahead of the doping curve. I seriously doubt it. One of my former runners works in a Cambridge Bio-Tech lab and told me they are working on a new drug for cancer patients. Is it any surprise that performance and sickness are so closely linked? It's no surprise to me. Fate has given me the curse and opportunity to look death in the face and say fuck off, but I'm not ready to talk about that just yet. Anyways, this new drug encourages the body to make more of it's own EPO and ALSO strengthen bones. Tell me, please, what would be a better bike racing recipe: more red blood cells AND fewer broken collarbones?!
Doped up or not, today's race made history and I'm a sap for that kinda stuff. A Kenyan won the mountain climb finish stage! Okay, he was whiter than a Twilight movie heartthrob, but still his victory gave hope for Africa in cycling.
|Johnny Hoogerland found a fence in the 2011 tour.|
But, damn, there is something flat fucking romantic about these breakaway riders in cycling just hanging on for dear life. In our big city, big money marathons, we hire metronome pacers. Same with some track meets with reliable rabbits. Everyone, including my cynical self, roots for the upset. Yet, in America we like to compartmentalize our runners in PR boxes. how DARE Bumbi challenge Rupp to the line in the qualifying rounds?! Why won't we allow an athlete to dream, to go for it, and maybe pay the price in doing so? Oh, and how we whine about contact during a race: Bumbi clipped Rupp's heels, oh no! It's not a fucking time trial, with every runner getting a separate start in a protected space with no one else allowed to enter the force field. When racing in Europe, if you pass a runner, he either elbows you in the ribs or punches you in the kidney. If for some odd reason he doesn't, you need to apologize at the finish and ask him if you offended him.
We all wish it wouldn't, but real racing hurts. You wouldn't know that Stateside, though. I fully expect the next issue of Jogger's World's cover to proclaim "Get Faster By Sitting On The Couch". You'd think we were lazy Greeks, hoping for a VO2 bailout. I suggest a call to arms where we get our rocket launchers and flame-throwers and knock out the helicopter and lawnmower parents. If we encouraged ourselves to risk the fire, we might find ourselves finding life.
Frankly, the way these bike racers struggle in pain and deplete their cellular resources, I can hardly blame them for seeking "medical support." Holy feck, these guys are killing themselves. It is not uncommon for a rider to face death on the road. Almost every year, some pro will smash headfirst into the pavement, busting his skimpy helmet to bits and never wake up. They are pushing the physical and metabolic envelope and giving it Large.
And isn't this what we all want to do? Live life Large. We take care of our aging parents, we witness the struggling elderly lift their walkers up the curb, and we hope we can make the most of our active time before we, too, fade into that unenviable state. We rage against age. Wanting to be heroes, we venture to venues like Eugene and France to bathe in the Fountain of Youth that gives us hope, gives us joy, and gives us life. Large.