Friday, September 16, 2011

My Life as a Horse

A doppelganger for This Old Jock?

Hi all,

A week from today I'll be motoring up north to Ascutney, Vermont, with the girls to connect with my brother Matty and his bride, Laura. The couple is driving out from their home in God's Country, otherwise known as Eagle, CO, with their two hounds and two mountain bikes. Laura has returned to her mountain bike racing roots, and she's signed up for the notorious Vermont 50 (one of the most grueling events I've ever done). So we're  heading over to the Green Mountain State to cheer on Auntie Wedgie. And, no doubt, I'll relive one of the more inglorious moments of my own cycling career, the day I found out I was part-human, part horse.

The following is an essay I wrote about the experience, a good eight years ago. The accompanying photo isn't me, but given the guy's expansive torso and semi-scowl, I suspect I've got a long-lost twin roaming those woodland trails! The funny thing is, looking over this piece, is that I'd give up my right pinky finger to be "only" 215 pounds again! Guess it's time to get back in the saddle and start pedaling. Often!

My Life as a Horse
Coming to terms with size, cycling and the term "Clydesdale"

Five years ago, signing in for the Vermont 50 mountain bike race — my preferred form of masochism — I handed my racing and driving licenses over to the woman at the registration table. She took my IDs, glanced up, and seeing the stressed seams of my jersey, quipped: "My, you're a big boy. Clydesdale?"

"Excuse me?" I blurted out, unsure if I was just insulted.

"Clydesdale," she repeated, with a grandmotherly smile. "You know, the heavyweight division."

I didn't know. I do now. And, at 215 pounds, I've grudgingly accepted that I am, and will forever be, a horse. "Clydesdale," for the uninitiated, is the quasi-official term for a 200-plus pound male weekend warrior who insists he still has enough left in the tank to compete in endurance events such as cycling, running and triathlon. Women who tip the scales at more than 145 also have their own category, called either fillies or Athenas.

I say "quasi-official" because not every event recognizes the big-boned category.

However, there are several ruling bodies that oversee this division, including the USA Clydesdale & Filly Racing Federation and the international Team Clydesdale, and even blogs, like SuperClydesdale. Initially, the notion of a weight-related race category didn't sit right with me. I understood age limits, but weight classes felt more contrived. To my way of thinking, you compete against your peers. If the skinny guy next to you has a better power-to-weight ratio, more power to him.

That probably explains why I'm drawn to contact sports like hockey and hoops, where I rely on my bulk to dole out retribution (assuming I can catch the scrawny weasels). Ironically, I got into cycling because of the strain that running put on my joints, in no small part due to my beefcake build.

I wasn't always like this. There were brief, post-collegiate glimpses of a trim torso. Shortly after turning 25, my college sweetheart and I split and I attempted to mend a trampled heart by making it work insanely hard. I pedaled for miles and miles, indoors and out, ultimately melting more than 45 pounds off my collegiate peak of 220. The weight stayed off for a year or so, but that had more to do with my paltry reporter's salary, since I couldn't afford food and beer.

Eventually, the weight snuck back on despite hoops, hockey and a continued commitment to cycling. I never got huge, but I was consistently roaming around Clydesdale country.

Things didn't improve much after 40. There's the inevitable downward shift in metabolism, making weight management doubly challenging. I still long for those days of 175 pounds and 32- inch waistlines, but Father Time is betting against me.

Of course, it's not all bad. Cycling and competing keep my weight within reason, and my heart rate and blood pressure down. During road rides, I'm the most popular lead-out guy in the pack, with my "Big Dog" physique creating a massive wind wedge. On singletrack descents, gravity pulls me downhill like an anvil.

Going uphill, unfortunately, is another matter altogether. Not long ago, a national cycling magazine featured a test to determine natural climbing ability. It was a simple height-to- weight ratio, followed by some pithy observations. On one end of the scale — say, if you were 5-foot-11 and 135 pounds — the chart suggested you might be "the next Lance Armstrong." I was at the other end. After dutifully dividing my 6-foot-2 frame by my 215 pounds, I found my spot at the bottom of the chart. The comment? "Move to Kansas."

Well, we live in hilly Boston and love life here. The fact that I might be a lifetime member of the Clydesdale club wasn't going to force me into premature retirement. To prove the point, I took my XL game to New Hampshire last summer to tackle the infamous Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb. At 6,288 feet, "The Rockpile" is the Northeast's tallest peak and the site of the highest recorded wind speed on earth, a searing 231 miles an hour. The daunting Auto Road, rising almost 5,000 feet in 7.6 miles, features 72 corners and an average 12 percent grade, including an ungodly 22 percent stretch over the last 100 yards.

More than a third of the 600 racers were Masters athletes, but few were carrying as much baggage as me. Fierce winds, horizontal rain, a relentless incline and a balky lower back took their toll — I struggled to the summit in two hours, more than an hour behind the top finishers. But I did finish.

Afterwards, I saw that 43-year-old Eric Brandhorst was the first-place Clydesdale. His time of 1:15:12 was a goal worth riding toward. I knew I'd be back.

(This article originally appeared in the now-defunct GeezerJock magazine. RIP)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Truth and Tyler

OK, I'm going to try real, real hard to not sound like the angry, exploited journalist here. Tyler Hamilton is, basically, a good guy, one of the most personable athletes I've ever met. It's just a shame that he's also a bald-faced liar. You don't have to take my word for it. You can take Tyler's word.

Anyone who happen to watch tonight's 60 Minutes episode, with Tyler baring his soul to the world about his long-denied use of performance enhancing drugs and blood transfusions, can make their own decisions about the man's honesty. I have my own story.

Tyler is a local guy, born and raised in Marblehead, a product of the Holderness School in New Hampshire, and an NCAA champion cyclist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I started following him when he latched onto the Subaru-Montgomery squad, the irresistible "local guy makes good" storyline. And then his career took off, aided by his own tough-as-nails performances on the bike and the all-encompassing glow of Lance Armstrong's stunning comeback from cancer and subsequent Tour de France victories.

Hamilton was a loyal lieutenant on Armstrong's US Postal squad for those early wins, and that catapulted him into the stratosphere of European cycling. In 2001, he left US Postal for a huge pay day and a chance to be a team leader with Team CSC. Those years were a roller coaster for Hamilton, marked by bad luck, bad crashes, and heroic efforts, culminating in a 4th place Tour finish in 2003 despite suffering a broken collarbone in an early crash. Clearly, we can't help but question now just how many of those performances were done au natural.

I remember going into my local bike shop shortly after the news broke of Tyler testing positive for doping at the Tour of Spain in 2004. We were all stunned by the news. Hamilton was by that time a legitimate hometown hero, an Olympic gold medalist in the time trial only weeks earlier (The attached photo shows Tyler celebrating is Olympic victory with his then-wife Haven. The two are now divorced). The bike shop owner, a forthright individual with intimate knowledge of the cycling world, stated flatly: "He's guilty. They're all guilty."

That was seven years ago. And those simple two sentences have proven true, again and again and again. Bjarne Riis, Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, Hamilton, Alexandre Vinokourov, Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador, and even "the patron" himself, Lance Armstrong. The list goes on and on and on. There are few innocents in the European pro peloton. Very few, if any. And there haven't been for a while. Even those who haven't doped are complicit in their silence. Good guy Frankie Andreu? Guilty. George Hincapie? Guilty. The stain is pervasive.

Now, I'm not saying these are bad people. They understood the rules of the game, and the rules meant that, if they wanted to compete, they had to cheat. As Andreu admitted, he was tired of losing to less talented riders simply because they doped, and he didn't. But these cyclists made that choice. And then they chose to lie about it. To all of us. And in doing so, they've cast a long, dark cloud not only over their sport, but over anyone who chooses to compete in it.

I've interviewed dozen of professional cyclists over the years, including Hamilton on numerous occasions. I've often asked them about doping, and never had a single racer admit to me that he or she doped. Not once. People question why the US Government is spending so much money going after Armstrong. My reaction? We'll at least get to the truth, because people like Hamilton and Hincapie are going to think twice about lying to Uncle Sam. It's unfortunate, but sometimes it takes the threat of prison to get these guys to tell the truth.

In 2006, I spent two hours in Tyler Hamilton's living room high above Boulder, when he hoped to overturn a ruling by USA Cycling to ban him from cycling after his 2004 positive drug test. It was a spectacular mountainside home, bought with a portion of the millions that Hamilton had earned through a gritty career as a cycling domestique, and later the team leader for Team CSC and Phonak. ESPN colleague Shaun Assael and I spoke with Hamilton, his wife, and his attorney at length about the charges, and his claims that he was falsely accused, the result of faulty testing. Tyler flat-out lied to both of us.

"You have to believe me," Hamilton told us. "I didn't do it."

Well, he did. It just took him a while to admit it. For years, he tried to parlay his "nice guy" image into duping writers and everyone else into thinking that, somehow, he was the victim. Perhaps, like former teammate Floyd Landis, Hamilton finally got religion. Maybe he wants to jump-start sales of his book. I really don't care. He's still in damage-control mode. Here's the bottom line -- Hamilton doped for selfish reasons, and now he's trying to come clean for selfish reasons.

Journalists often take heat for "making the facts fit the story." But more often, we're the messengers. I conveyed Hamilton's message. And, yes, there once was a time I wanted to believe him. But no longer. And that makes me see red.

Tonight, Hamilton told 60 Minutes, and anyone watching, that he lied to protect the sport, to protect his teammates, his friends, and the staff. Maybe so. But by lying, he also helped perpetuate a corrupt culture that now implicates, rightly or wrongly, almost everyone who participates in this great sport. He also lied to protect himself. I'd like to hear him admit that too.


Addendum (5/23/11): A great deal has been made of the timing of Hamilton's confession, and his decision to air it on national television. Many detractors, like those in the Lance Armstrong camp, say Hamilton did it to bump sales of his forthcoming book. Even if that's not true, Hamilton could take an enormous step toward legitimacy by earmarking any profits of his book sales to his previously embraced charity -- the National Multiple Sclerosis Society -- or any other charity that he has no financial link with. That would get my attention, and prove that Hamilton was serious about cleaning up the sport, and not feathering his own nest. -B

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Water-Method Man ...

Back in my college days (ancient history, I know), I went through something of a John Irving jag. Started with the novelist's breakthrough hit, "The World According to Garp," and then went on to read some earlier works, like "The 158-pound Marriage," and later ones, like "Cider House Rules." But oddly, one of my favorites was his second, "The Water Method Man." Little did I realize then how much the title would ring true for me know, well into my 53rd year.

You see, I'm now The Water-Method Man. OK, the definitions are really worlds apart. Irving's protagonist, Fred Trumper, suffers from an unusually narrow urinary tract, and is forced to guzzle inordinate amounts of water to flush out any nasty germs, etc. My "water method" is something entirely different. It is, I hope, my road to recovery.

Six months out from hip surgery (a fluff and buff detailed in prior posts), I needed to get moving again. Not just for my body, which is sagging under the weight of 20 new-found pounds, but also for my sanity. Being active has always always been a coping mechanism of mine. And for the past six months, I've been as active as your typical garden slug. Probably less so.

So I've started running. In the water. In a pool. Now, I understand the benefits. Water's buoyancy will help support my 200-plus pound frame, reducing the stress on my post-op hip (and various other joints). And the natural resistance will help me regain some of the muscle mass that I've frittered away this past half-year. I get that. But, admittedly, it's hard not to be self-conscious running in a pool.

First of all, it just ain't natural. There are very good reasons why people a lot smarter than me have come up with a variety of swim strokes to help men and women carve their way through the water. Freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke ... all make more sense than running. And that's pretty much what almost everyone else is doing each morning I get over to the Manchester Athletic Club (I'll address that "almost" part a little later). While all these dedicated swimmers are dutifully filling their lanes, I come in like an aircraft carrier, plodding along, creating a massive wake. I secretly say a word of thanks that everyone else is wearing swim goggles, so I can't see them rolling their eyes.

Second, it's boring. I mean, put-a-vise-on-my-head boring. I'm easily bored anyway (which is why I've always been drawn to sports that require chasing something), but running at a snail's pace in a pool feel's like, well, water torture. There's no Zen escape, no "quite mind, active body" release. It ... is ... drudgery.

To make things worse, the bottom of the pool is pretty slick, making foot placement a precarious proposition. It's one thing to be running in the pool; it's an entirely different matter to be flailing about like I'd scheduled my workouts right after a three-martini lunch. Occasionally, I'll stumble right into the path of an oncoming swimmer, and you can imagine just how well that goes over. Suffice to say that the sauna-quality atmosphere of the MAC pool can get pretty chilly pretty quickly.

Today I had the bright idea of wearing my old windsurfing slippers for a little added grip. The problem was that these Nike slippers were waaaay too old -- they hadn't seen any action in almost two decades -- and promptly disintegrated once I got to work.

On the plus side, I'm not the only person in the pool not swimming. There's actually a water aerobics/social hour session that started shortly after I started treading water. It was, in fact, fairly hilarious. The perky instructor -- who is not in the pool, but can only be described as buoyant herself -- didn't seem to mind one bit that most of the participants (ranging in age from 60 to 90, as best as I could tell) were more interested in catching up on local gossip than actually working out. And the music selection was priceless. Honestly, when was the last time you heard Michael Jackson's "Beat It!" ... ?

But more than anything else, seeing the old-timers' aerobics class was a terrific motivational tool. I know I'm no spring chicken. Not by a long shot. Especially where my hips are concerned. But with all due respect, I'm not ready for the MAC morning water aerobics sessions either. So I put my head down, and kept running against the tide.