And then it was 5

Milligrams that is. Tomorrow I embark on the delicate operation of cutting in half an already small enough tablet to take the (non-licenced) 5mg dose of Citalopram.  If my patience can deal with this first thing in the morning I think I may finally have reached the other side. Wish me luck.

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Losing the Plot

Don’t worry, it’s not a regression. In fact, it’s quite a positive step.  Last week, MrsAB and I finally relinquished our allotment plot.  For those I have not seen or spoken to in a while this may come as some surprise.  For those who don’t know me in the flesh you may not even have known I had an allotment.  So here goes a story of realisation, relief and, possibly, realistic sustainability.

When MrsAB and I moved to our present abode just over 4 years ago we decided we wanted an allotment. We’d thought about it for a little while having already grown our own veg at home.  The new house didn’t seem to have the right garden for it so we put our names down on the council list.  Anticipating a long wait we grew some bits and bobs on the patio. However, the call came sooner rather than later and we were offered a third of a rather overgrown plot.  The slight snag was I had just broken my shoulder.  Undetered we took it on and at first MrsAB embarked on the plot clearance.  Over a space of 3 years we went from a third to a whole plot (spurred on by the desire to acquire the abandoned shed – property really is a driver of greed!) and slowly cleared most of its blanket of thick couch grass.  Progress was steady, at times encouraging, at others disheartening.

Our initial enthusiasm was driven by our own shared ethics and a childhood experiences: home-grown food, green urban space and doing our bit to limit global decay.  All of these are pretty laudable but the lesson I learnt over this period was that sometimes a little becomes a lot and that lot is a bot too much for one couple.  After all, if you want to get a scenic you don’t have to scale Everest.  Whilst I was going through my breakdown and recovery part of what I had to readjust was the feeling of being beholden to and apologetic for other people.  Pre-2009 I was determined not to fly, to buy local and to eat my own grown food. Yes, I was almost wanting to be a 21st Century Tom and MrsAB my very own Barbara.  What I realised was that I couldn’t take on all of that responsibility. The allotment became a chore and latterly a brake on my recovery.  There was no way we were going to grown all of our own food with the limited time, space and money that we had.  So why displace the other activities that gave me (and us) pleasure.  For a start, MrsAB and I are together because of our shared love of the outdoors, the hills, walking and wildlife.  The nearest we have got to this is the hill between here and the allotment and a few bugs around the plot.  And when you start to consider it more logically, us growing all of our own veg deprives someone else of an income – not very sustainable when you think about the wider local community.

Add to this the allotment politics and I was getting particularly bogged down.  The allotment society we belonged to is a limited company, run by a committee of old men who like to do things their way. They grudgingly accept new members for their rent but not their opinion. And unfortunately they cannot run a business efficiently and effectively.  Last summer they erected a second fence and gate to the site and as I remarked at the time it felt like a concentration camp more than an escape. For me I’d made my mind up at that moment.

And so it was in January that we jointly admitted we had both been harbouring the same thought for some time – though the heart longed to keep the plot our heads knew it was time to give up.  It was a hard decision to make but we both feel all the better for it.  I now have time to go out on my bike guilt free. This last weekend we were able to sit in the garden (which had been long neglected), have a coffee, read a book and potter. We still grow some veg, the things you like fresh and at hand, but we also support local producers and think about what we eat and where it is from.  Living off grid in the way you think you might is all well and good but you lose some of the good things in life in the process – and I don’t mean the TV or exotic veg, just the simple things like time to yourself.  We were guilty of being caught up in the fashion for allotments that so many seem to be. We lasted longer than most but I’m happy to have lost the plot yet in doing so found a more sustainable equilibrium.

We are the robots

Before reading this post, press play on the clip below.

We're charging our battery
And now we're full of energy
We are the robots

We're functioning automatik
And we are dancing mechanik
We are the robots

After posting a couple of procycling related posts over the past few weeks I’ve been mulling over the cycling scene and what those inputs might have meant.  Over a coffee with a colleague last week I realised that there was a pretty strong connection between the post about the radio ban/break away league and the doping/media issues, which had hitherto been staring me in the face whilst I chose to ignore it.  On one hand managers, teams, administrators, even other riders point their fingers at dopers and claim, whether rightly or wrongly, that they acted alone, that there was never any pressure on them to do this and that there certainly wasn’t any in-house system that aided and abetted them in their misdemeanour.  On the other hand though we now have the teams claiming that riders need to be connected to their managers during races by two-way radio so that the managers can inform them of the dangers ahead, whilst they sit behind the race in their cars (and as shown by the in-car coverage during Tour of Flanders, watching the race on a TV whilst driving – QED?).  Am I the only person missing something in the logic here? I’d like the think I’m not the only person starting to wonder about the degree to which “control” is exerted over riders by those above them.  Hence the music – it’s not to distant a fantasy to think that the riders have become robots in this piece.

The radio debate has shown what can only be described as petulance by the riders and the administrators.  The latest Salvo has seen the teams walk out of a meeting with Pat McQuaid in a way akin to Union leaders who are stuck in the 1970s and Jonathan Vaughters promising to shave off his sideburns if the ban is reversed (For record, I think the sideburns are good but maybe I’m biased). The only mature discussion I have seen about it has been between Tom Southam and John Herety, rider/embedded-reporter and DS respectively of the British Rapha-Condor-Sharp team and I can see both sides of their arguments especially in the British racing context. But come on, safety issues for ProTour riders riding in races with completely closed roads. Am I the only person who, having ridden a bike, would have thought the riders, being at the head of affairs being in the best position to se the dangers ahead?  But then, who am I to tell those who’ve been there, seen it, done it.

No, I think the race radio issue is one that is being perpetuated by the control freaks.  What better example of the way that riders have become robots than the end of Sunday’s Leige-Bastogne-Leige.  No offence to Phillipe Gilbert on what was the crowning of a magnificent Ardennes Week, but what were the Schleck Brothers playing at. After coming over the Cote de St Nicholas as a threesome, most viewers would have put good money on the team with two riders in there producing the winner. But not with the Schlecks.  No, we watched as they sat, and sat, and sat. Meanwhile Gilbert got closer to the flat and used his sprint to beat them both.  Were they waiting for a call from the boss to tell them to attack?  I doubt we’ll know the real story but I have my suspicions.

Duped, doped or both?

So, if riders are controlled in one way by the so-called good guys, its not a huge leap of imagination to think that they might also be in the control of the ‘bad guys’ who run the doping circles. And if a rider doesn’t use his own brain to race, do we think they will use their brain before embarking on their doping programme.  Take for example a rider like Riccardo Ricco: I don’t think I’m stating anything out of the ordinary by suggesting he’s not the sharpest tool in the box, there is sufficient evidence emerging to show how he has been led by others throughout his adult life.  If he puts his faith in one group of people then others can see the weaknesses and will exploit them.  This is not an excuse for doping of course but I think it is an important context to consider.  With the emergence in the last 15-20 years of highly scientific and organised doping systems having riders who are easily manipulated is important for the dopers to do their business.  As I discussed in general agreement with Derek at Flammecast, it is the reason that riders alone are not the only villains in this piece and might even be an injured party in some respects.  And then of course there is the possibility of the good guys and the bad guys being one in the same – the doping wagon and its links to the French Mafia in Les Triplettes Belleville, now why am I starting to think of a fairly high profile cycling team (or teams) now?

Unless we give some autonomy back to the riders in terms of their racing can we really expect them to be strong enough to resist the temptations and offers of the dopers? All of which means I can’t help but think of Bill Bailey and co in their spoof on Kraftwerk. Vaughters might say don’t race this year, but the hokey-cokey can’t be far off.  I think you get the point now.

Innocently bystanding

This spring has been a joy so far. The weather has been fantastic, time has been spent pottering in the garden and the last three weeks have seen some of the best spring Classics I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever (I’ll agree, my direct viewing has been limited to more recent years but go with me on this).  Therefore I was looking forward to yesterday’s Amstel Gold and the switch from cobbles to Ardennes, so much so that I was forgoing Stoke City’s march to the FA Cup final as a trade with MrsAB (I sneaked snatches of the latter via a combination of Twitter and radio).  In the words of Allo Allo’s Captain Alberto Bertorelli, what a mistake-a to make-a!  The racing was mundane, the parcourse though hilly was challenging more for its obtrusive road furniture than its attrition (perhaps a lesson to consider in any form of road calming?) and it was only saved marginally by a win from Phillipe Gilbert, a gutsy, attacking rider who I have grown to appreciate more and more.  Unfortunately though, the thing that soured it for me most was a brief outburst by David Harmon during his Eurosport commentary. Even more unfortunately it involves doping in cycling.

Doping isn’t a subject that I am expert in but, like very other cyclist and cycling fan out there, I have my own opinions on it.  I’m not going to use this post to accuse, castigate or praise any one rider in particular for their denial, doping, suspension, return or rehabilitation in the sport. There are enough of those opinion pieces out there and I really haven’t the energy or inclination to add to them.  Yet that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a more serious debate to be had about how the doping issue evolves and so this piece is my first forray into that wider debate.  To say I have apprehensions about writing it would be a slight understatement but once again I’m hoping I can put forward a couple of points in a constructive way. Therefore I reiterate this is not a personal attack or slight on any one person but a comment on the situation we are in.

So returning to matters from yesterday afternoon, Harmon was responding to correspondence about success and form in Amstel of recent years and their presence in today’s race: Frank Schleck, Vinokourov, Di Luca, Schumacher, Cunego, Ivanov, Gilbert. So far so good.  Then, in referring to form at this race he lands the incendiary line: “I’m not even going to include Schumacher”.  What does this mean? For those unaware, Stefan Schumacher was found positive 3 times for CERA-EPO in 2008 and subsequently banned for 2 years and had previously been caught by the police and tested positive for amphetamines though was never suspended from cycling.  Schumacher served his time (perhaps a little unrepentantly some might say) and is now back in the sport racing for the Miche Continental Team, a third division outfit.  Harmon’s line prompted me to tweet him: “if you’re not going to count Stefan Schumacher why include Di Luca? Both have done the crime, both done the time. Difference?”. Condorbee replied to us both about not including Vinokourov and I can only imagine others were wading in prompting David to give a stern response – stop the tweets and emails, we know his views on the ex-dopers and he now has a job to do commentating.  And that’s the slight issue I had this afternoon. If commentating is to be an impartial activity as David is implying then that requires a balanced and consistent approach to your treatment of the subject. By deciding to exclude one ex-doper but feel it necessary or obligatory to include others starts to bend if not wildly cross these boundaries. It was not as impartial as it should be.

This post is in no way a wild swipe at David Harmon and nor am I singling himn out alone but is an opportune example of a difficulty the sport faces in discussing doping matters.  David is a great commentator making the sport accessible to the novice and the expert. More importantly he commentates live and does so whilst offering an opportunity to interact with the audience in an open way. When I have had a tweet mentioned in the past it does make you feel part of the event somehow.  Therefore, I would like to think the initial comment of Harmon’s was one of those moment of live television where thoughts emerge and might not necessarily come across 100%.    Equally his reaction is understandable given what I could imagine to be an onslaught of the cycling Twitterati (I wasn’t referred to as naught-to-nuclear without good reason a couple of years ago). We are only human.  

What it does highlight is the uncomfortable relationship we all have in this sport around the thorny issue of doping.  What I am adding now is the views from the roadside of an increasingly confused and, though loathed to admit after recent progress, cynical cycling fan. What do we do about and with dopers.  Whilst the cycling press would like to think that it is merely reporting on the happenings, there is a dangerous undercurrent which affects they way we view this issue.  It is one that was put across extremely well by Festinagirl in the last Real Peloton podcast which I would urge you all to listen to.  Her point is that whilst the press think they adopt an objective position, much of the time they are subjective and often just in the way they refer to the subject of cases by first or family name.  Furthermore, she notes the close relationship between some journalists and riders which can affect the way we view them – the example she gives is that between Messrs Liggett and Sherwen and Lance Armstrong.  As a fan on the roadside, sat at home in front of TV coverage or reading the reports later on, we are reliant on the content of this reportage to help us shape our opinions of riders.  This afternoon I was trying to highlight this via Twitter. The lapse by the commentators allowed doubt and more doubt to creep in.  That’s why the balance and consistency is important.

Yet this speculation, praise and veil accusation is all fuelled by the murkier world of doping regulation. I can just about remember when a dope test was done, analysed and announced all in the same afternoon.  Of course, the doping products and procedures in those days were far less sophisticated, over the counter remedies being the mainstay, so I’m reliably told.  Though the penalties now look like a slap on the wrists, at least the matter was dealt with in real-time. Rather like sagas in Aussie soap Neighbours that turned from days in the 1980s to weeks by the 2000s, doping procedures seem to more and more protracted increasing the uncertainty not just for those immediately involved in the sport but for the innocent bystanders too (i.e all of us “viewers”). The latest high-profile case with Alberto Contador is merely the tip of the iceberg.  Whilst justice must be seen to work correctly (though the aforementioned latest case does question this if you get the PM involved) surely there is a need for greater speed in proceedings too. If the decision is between doping and not doping, the rules about your body as a temple set and the evidence needed to proceed is already collected why such a long time to sort out who won, for example, last year’s Tour de France.  You can come up with all the arguments you like but evidence is evidence, it’s not as if you need an alibi to prove you were somewhere else. The facts should speak for themselves, just ask George Monbiot.

Which leads me to the third issue, the one which encompasses us all as fans, competitors, sponsors, administrators and managers – if a rider does the crime and then does the time do we accept him back with open arms?  Looking at this from the spectators perspective this al seems to be very dependant upon who you are.  Let’s look at yesterday’s race and the names which seemed to cause offence: Schumacher, Di Luca, Vinokourov.  Of these three, 2 were in yesterday’s race having secured rides with ProTeams.  The other, as I’ve already mentioned has resurrected a career of sorts with a much lower division team.  Why the difference? I really don’t know though could hazard a few guesses based on a few criteria and limited evidence. So this is the offical response to dopers by employers.  But it doesn’t stop there.  What does the average fan think. Given the Twitter traffic ex-dopers can be given both support and short-shrift.  For example, Di Luca and Vinokourov continue to divide opinion, but so does a rider like David Millar.  Here is my own personal take and opinion on this triumverate as an example. Whilst they have all spent their time out of the sport for me my acceptance of Millar is based on his contrition and the commitment he puts into a cleaner sport. The fact Vinokourov ‘retired’ after his positive whilst proclaiming is innocence only to return and Di Luca has received a lenient sentence for co-operating with authorities though without naming any names has always riled me.  The basis of any justice system is that if those found guilty take their punishment they are entitled to start a fresh, in theory. In practice we know it is very different and, yes, I am a hypocrite for putting all of this in one paragraph but then that’s the confusion this whole mess creates. For example, where once there was agreement between teams about post-suspension employment (an extended ban in all but name), now there is merely an open market and conjecture.  As someone yesterday suggested on Twitter, there appears to be a class system operating for ex-dopers. Another case of sport mirroring life? It doesn’t really help the spectator.

Rather like my previous comments about the stand-offs between teams and administrators, those of us on the sidelines are affected as much as anyone else but without a thought.  In terms of doping there obviously needs to be action to speed up the process and to set in place a clearer procedure for any return to the sport.  Even the punishments need reconsideration, though let’s not start here or I’ll be over 2,000 words and climbing.  If professional commentators find it hard then spare a thought for those of us who view this in our spare time and try explaining it to our friends without fuller information.  That is why we tweet and email and though I acknowledge it can be annoying it deserves fuller discussion.

And just to keep the musical themes of most of my posts going, the situation we’re in reminds me of this:

A street kid gets arrested, gonna do some time
He got out three years from now just to commit more crime
A businessman is caught with 24 kilos
He’s out on bail and out of jail
And that’s the way it goes

If cycling is like a line from a Grandmaster Flash song the only hope that fans have is that the next season is commissioned by HBO, though given the nature of these productions I don’t want to be the innocent bystander.

Actions speak louder than words

Picture courtesy of @HaroldZDalton

One worry that constantly haunts me about cycling is the danger posed by other road users, particularly by a small albeit seemingly growing band of motorists who appear to lack any consideration for anyone who might also wish to occupy the road space they want to consume.  This week, cycling was in the news for the attempts by backbench MP Andrea Leadsom to introduce legislation to create an offence of death by dangerous driving.  I have been torn by this move: on one hand I will not condone the action of wilfully negligent cyclists who feel they have a right to claim the road and, more particularly, the pavement as their own; on the other hand there is a strong feeling as a cyclist that we are perhaps the group most in need of legislating against.  Let me put it this way, I am happy to disown the cyclist that wants to run red lights and to cycle without a care at break neck speed along a pavement.  Just as I have complained about the selfishness of some motorists, these type of cyclists give the rest of us a bad name, they need to re-evaluate their responsibilities and learn to share space with other users.  But is the real concern about a specific crime of death by dangerous cycling. Firstly, the statistics do not suggest there is a major problem in this regard.Secondly, surely prosecution can surely be brought under existing legislation if only the law experts looked at this. What the statistics do reveal is the danger posed to both cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles.  The front page of yesterday’s Independent was a chilling reminder of this.

There is already legislation on statute design to make our roads safer: roads have speed limits, you cannot drink and drive, you cannot use a mobile device whilst driving.  The success in implementing and policing this legislation is already patchy. Therefore, will adding another piece of legislation make any difference? I doubt it.  Rather than legislate, why not take some action.  The London Cycling Campaign has put forward a 9 step plan for safer cycling. The majority do relate to motor traffic. Some might already be legislated for elsewhere  – surely responsibilities of HGV owners and drivers is covered in road traffic regulations and under the auspices of Health and Safety legislation? Some, like reducing speed limits in built up areas has been proposed by a range of groups.  But equally there is a role for awareness amongst cyclists.  Partly it is our role as cyclists to disown and/or re-educate the inconsiderate minority, though I agree this is easier said than done.  But at the same time schemes such as bikeability have a crucial role to play in educating children how to use the roads confidently and respectfully.  Now, bikeability is a scheme that was co-ordinated by Cycling England and run through local authorities. The sharp ones amongst you will have realised a problem here – Cycling England has been wound up in the bonfire of the Quangos and local authorities have had their budgets cut, both of which instigated by the coalition, of which Ms Leadsom is a backbench member.  So this is my problem: rather than create headlines with a piece of un-needed legislation, why don’t Ms Leadsom and her supporters pressure the government into taking real action.  In part this is the implementation of existing legislation to protect cyclists and pedestrians. But this is only part of the story and the solution is through the real action needed to improve skills and awareness through training.  Like so many things this will take time and resources.  However, as they say, action speaks louder than word and for once the politicians could work with what they’ve got.