Friday, July 22, 2011

A Man and a Mountain

Yesterday, Andy Schleck invoked both the great memory of Eddie Merckx and the tainted not-yet-distant-enough memory of Floyd Landis. Desperate for time gaps as this year's Tour de France winds down, Schleck left his competitors behind and climbed into the sky. Twice.

Attacks come on the big mountains in the Tour all the time. The yellow jersey is not won in Normandy, nor is it won on the Champs Elysees. The yellow jersey is won on the summit finishes of the Pyrenees and the Alps. It is traditional, even expected, for the man who would be king to hit his rivals with everything he has on the final climb of a long day, forcing them to rise to his challenge, and if they cannot, leaving them behind and riding on to glory. But to attack with 60 kilometers (37 miles) and two monster climbs to go is a combination of inspiring, psychotic, brilliant, and ludicrous. And yet that is what Andy Schleck did yesterday.

And it worked.

Yesterday, on the Col d'Izoard, Andy kicked, rode up to the summit, down into the valley below, and then climbed to the highest finish the Tour has ever seen on the legendary Col du Galibier. When he left the group of leaders behind, his main rivals looked at each other, decided he was crazy and would never make it to the end, that they would be able to reel him in, and let him go. But on this day, Andy Schleck would not be caught. By the time his chief rivals, fellow two-time runner-up Cadel Evans and three-time (two-time defending) champion Alberto Contador, realized that they were not going to catch him without a massive push of their own, it was far too late. But Evans, not willing to simply concede, started his own push, dragging the entire group with him up the slopes of the Galibier.

And then, Contador cracked. The Spanish rider, often recognized as the greatest climber in the world, sitting under a cloud of doping suspicion and still trying to recover from his win in the Giro d'Italia, simply could not do any more. In the final stretch of the climb up the Galibier, Contador slid away from Evans, then-race leader Thomas Voeckler, and Frank Schleck, Andy's older brother who had been content to simply ride along. Even as his strength gave out and he slowed near the summit, Andy Schleck pulled within 15 seconds of leading the Tour de France, putting nearly a minute on Cadel Evans, and ending Alberto Contador's hopes for a second Grand Tour in a row.

Today, Andy and Frank Schleck and Cadel Evans rode together over the Galibier and finished together at the summit of Alpe d'Huez. Contador was able to pull back some time, but not enough to make a difference. Andy now will ride tomorrow's individual time trial in yellow, and set up a three way battle for the top of the podium. The time trial is a discipline at which Cadel Evans is viewed as being by far the best of the three remaining challengers.

But yellow does strange things to a cyclist. Evans has been here before, with Contador the weak time trialist. But riding an inspired race, Contador retained the jersey and the honor. And the next year, Carlos Sastre did the same thing. And the last two and a half weeks saw two men go above and beyond what could have been expected of them to stay in yellow. Voeckler, who is by no means a climber, stayed in yellow through every high mountain stage save this one, something he should never have been able to do. And Thor Hushovd, a sprinter by training, kept the race leader's jersey over the first few climbing stages of the competition.

But this is not about Hushovd or Voeckler. This is not about Evans or Contador. This is about Andy Schleck putting in a ride that might actually, honestly, and truthfully be what Landis did with chemical aid. To see a man climb up a rock wall into the sky is an inspiring sight. To see him fly away from the men who have kept a keen eye on him for every mile of every day for three weeks is incredible. To see a proud man like Alberto Contador crack is all but unprecedented. And to see Cadel Evans working so hard to finally move up to the top step, seeing in his face that he knows his only chance is in his own strength, and knowing, deep down, that it just might not be enough is heartbreaking.

The Tour de France ends Sunday in Paris, but for all intents and purposes, it is decided tomorrow in Grenoble, in the individual time trial. The "race of truth" always infuses drama into the race, and this year, when there is already enough drama to go around, it isn't even needed. But I wouldn't trade a week of ITTs for another stage like yesterday. For me, it is all about the man and the mountain.

So this is my salute to Andy Schleck. Here's to an incredible ride. No matter what happens tomorrow and Sunday, he has secured his place in the history of the Tour de France.

Now go out and win this thing.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Past and the Future of Cycling

An interesting, depressing, and exhilarating crossroads of time and space occurred in France today.

Before today's 12th stage began, cycling's past reared its ugly head in the form of another doping scandal. Ricardo Ricco, the erstwhile leader of the King of the Mountains and Young Rider classifications, as well as the winner of two mountain stages so far this year, was revealed to have been doping during the individual time trial. He was expelled from the tour and taken way by police. His Saunier-Duval team withdrew, saying that they could not in good conscience go on with their leader expelled for cheating.

After all the depressing excitement of the morning, the past gave way to the future in the form of an up-and-coming present star. Mark Cavendish, riding for the Columbia High Road team, won his third stage of this year's tour. Columbia is, as previously noted, one of the guaranteed clean teams (along with Garmin-Chipotle), who constantly test and retest their riders to make sure they are not cheating. So, in spite of the morning's events, eerily reminiscent of last year's doping-plagued Tour, there is still hope for the future of cycling, in the form of string team controls through organizations like the Agency for Cycling Ethics (ACE), which oversees both Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle.

David Millar, who served a two year ban for doping, has since become the leading anti-doping crusader in the peloton, and now rides for Garmin-Chipotle, is rarely at a loss for words. Last year, when the situation was at its worst, he broke down and cried. Today, he had this to say (from the AP via

"It's just amazing. It's irresponsible," British cyclist David Millar said. "This guy does not have any love or care for the sport.

"The unfortunate is that we are learning that things that look too good to be true are too good to be true," Millar added.

And standing above everyone in the Tour right now is Cadel Evans, the Australian who rides for Silence-Lotto. Silence-Lotto is not one of the ultra-clean teams (I am not leveling accusations at the team; I am just saying that, as far as I know, they are not associated with ACE), but I have never heard any accusations against Evans, and as far as I know, he is as squeaky clean as anyone.

So we have more bad news on the doping front, as a big name and a major contender is exposed and expelled. But we have good news as well, as a clean team's rider wins his third stage, and an ostensibly clean rider leads the GC race. Fingers crossed that we have seen the end of the big-name expulsions, but I'm not holding my breath. I just hope that some day soon we can have a Tour without the specter of doping hanging over it.

Maybe next year.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Taking the High Road and Starting Fresh

We are five days into the 2008 Tour de France, and it seems like every other commercial shows disgraced cyclists Michael Rasmussen and Jan Ulrich riding, and Floyd Landis being awarded a yellow jersey. What makes this commercial noteworthy is that all of the scenes are run in reverse, so it shows the riders moving away from the finish line and Landis removing the maillot jeune. The end of the commercial has a single rider, I believe from the disgraced (and this year banned) Astana team filling the screen and locking into the starting gate and saying "A New Stage Begins."

Today, the new stage took off. A member of the new Team Columbia High Road, Mark Cavendish, won the 232 KM stage from Cholet to Chateauroux. And after today's stage, Garmin Chipotle and Columbia High Road hold the top two places in the team time competition. On top of that, it was Garmin Chipotle rider William Frischkorn who started a breakaway in stage three that led the race for over 200 of the 208 KM. Frischkorn finished second in the stage, as the breakaway group maintained over a two minute lead on the main field of riders. Columbia High Road and Garmin Chipotle, the team formerly known as Slipstream before securing corporate sponsorship, are committed to racing clean. The teams pay for testing by the Agency for Cycling Ethics, and their riders are tested far above and beyond the requirements for the UCI or the ASO, the international governing body for cycling and the organization that puts on the Tour de France.

The early success of Columbia High Road and Garmin Chipotle give hope for both the present and future of cycling. Riders can be unquestionably clean and still have great success. For another example, Garmin Chipotle rider David Millar, who in the past served a two year ban for doping violations and has since then become the leading critic of doping in the peloton, is only 12 seconds behind the leader in the overall general classification.

Maybe this year the Tour will not be tainted by the dark cloud of doping, and can instead be a celebration of cycling, competition, and the toughest test in sports. As for me, I'm rooting for Millar and Cavendish and Frischkorn, because they do it right, honestly, and in line with the spirit of the event.

Monday, July 7, 2008

License to Pray

South Carolina is on the verge of issuing Christian license plates. The plates would have a big yellow cross and the words "I Believe" on it. The state legislature passed the authorizing legislation unanimously, and the governor allowed it to become law without his signature.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a multi-religious group currently led by a mainline Protestant reverend, opposes the plates as unconstitutionally promoting Christianity over other religious and over non-religion. License plates with other religious symbols can be requested, for a $4,000 fee, but cannot have any text and face other restrictions that the "I Believe" plates would not.

Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, one of the leading supporters of issuing the plates, has said that issuing them is a free speech issue for Christians. Bauer went on to say that opposing the plates is equivalent to being prejudiced against Christians.

To stop the program, a Federal court will have to step in. I hope for the love of all that is holy (or unholy, I do not want to discriminate on religious grounds), that the court smacks the South Carolina legislature and Lt. Governor Bauer across the back of their collective head and screams (with more appropriate legal jargon) "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING?!?!?!"

As for me, I just have one question for the ardent Christians of South Carolina. When did religious bumper stickers go out of style?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Let them Lead Lives of Quiet Contemplation

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling authored by Justice Kennedy, struck down the law under which Patrick Kennedy (who is not related to the Supreme Court Justice) was sentenced to death. Kennedy was convicted of raping his 8 year old stepdaughter, and Louisiana is one of six states that, until yesterday, allowed the imposition of the death sentence for child rape.

Now, officials in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and other states across the South, where all six of these states sit, are looking for ways to get around the ruling. The opinion essentially said that it is unconstitutional to execute someone for a crime where the victim did not die. "We cannot sanction this result [execution] when the harm to the victim, though grave, cannot be quantified in the same way as death of the victim." Harm to a victim can never be calculated in any comprehensive or convincing way. The closest we can ever come to accurately calculating the damage done is the binary "is the victim alive or dead" calculation. Otherwise, we risk imposing the death penalty in an arbitrary manner, which the Supreme Court has over and over again declared unconstitutional and in violation of the 8th Amendment.

For officials to try to find a way around the court's ruling is repugnant to the theory of justice that we operate under as a society. Yes, laws can change, but the Court did not just strike down the individual laws of six different states. The Court struck down the idea that a death sentence could be imposed for anything other than a crime where the victim died.

Besides, spending the rest of his life in a Louisiana prison is not going to be a walk in the park for Patrick Kennedy. The lowest person on the totem pole of prison life is not the former law enforcement official, nor is it the snitch. The lowest person on the totem pole is the child molester, child abuser, and the child rapist. Life in prison is never easy, but if your crime included harming a child, it is even harder.

The death penalty is not an incentive to not commit crimes. Justice Kennedy even wrote in the opinion that restricting the imposition of the death sentence to crimes where the victim died could help preserve the life of a rape victim, as otherwise there may be no reason for the rapist to not kill.

Death is different. The Supreme Court has this for decades, in case after case. We treat it differently when it is caused, and we consider it differently when there is the possibility of it being imposed.

So, here is my message to officials in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia: Let Patrick Kennedy and his ilk sit in prison for the rest of their lives. Throw away the key and let them live out their days away from society. There is no need, little purpose, and rarely, if ever, closure when a perpetrator no longer breaths. Lock them up and forget about them. Better to let them spend the rest of their natural time considering their own horror, locked away from public consciousness, rather than putting them front and center, like a supernova, burning bright at the height of public awareness before blinking out and leaving the victim to deal with the crime on their own all over again. And above all else, better to respect the rule of law and the principles of justice, rather then to cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of temporary local satisfaction over national consensus and conscience.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Pulling our Heads out of the Sand

Still think abstinence-only education programs work?

Seventeen girls at a high school in Glaucester, Massachusetts got pregnant during this recently concluded school year. And apparently there was some kind of pact. It has been reported that girls were more disappointed when they found out they were NOT pregnant than when they found out they were expecting.

I spent a quarter working at a juvenile court in Massachusetts. I saw more young girls walking through the courtroom with multiple children in their care then I like to think about. Girls without a high school diploma, many of whom will never get one, trying to raise children. And now I hear about this group of teens who were TRYING to get pregnant.

The local school board is set to discuss the possibility of giving easier access to contraception. One parent interviewed questioned the wisdom of the decision, saying that there was not going to be someone following the girls around to make sure they take the pill. First of all, Let this be considered a big smack on the back of the head of every member of the school board. Of COURSE you need to provide easier access to birth control. But more important than access to items, schools need to be a place where there is easy access to information. Information about how to prevent pregnancy. Information about how to effectively use birth control. Information about how to grow up smart and healthy.

What students need, more than anything in this area, is an effective program of sex education. Abstinence should be part of the program, of course, but abstinence-only programs are a classic example of sticking your head in the sand. High school students are going to have sex, whether the schools teach them how to be safe and smart about it or not. So can someone please explain to me why it is better to not teach them?

An effective sex education program would not have kept all 17 of the girls at Glaucester High School from getting pregnant this year. But it could properly arm them and their classmates with the information that they need to make their way in the world.

Mark Twain said "I never let my schooling interfere with my education." Effective sex education programs are an instance where a class can bridge the gap and be both schooling and education. It is long past time to pull our heads out of the sand and accept the world as it is. Seventeen new children will hopefully be able to learn from such a program as they go through school.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert (1950-2008)

Tim Russert, the long time host of NBC's Meet the Press, died today at the age of 58 of a heart attack.

A sad day in the world of journalistic politics, Russert has been a consistent and calming voice in an ever-changing world. He will never be forgotten by those he grilled, and by those he spoke to.

Our hearts go out to his family, his colleagues, and his subjects.

He will be sorely missed.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Gaining Respect by Giving Up Gold

I never liked Michael Johnson.

It is not that I ever thought he was cheating. I just did not like the way he conducted himself. I always felt that he was obnoxiously overconfident, wearing gold shoes as he ran his races. I enjoy watching great athletes, and especially like to hear humility in their voices. The all time greats that let others judge their greatness earn my everlasting respect and admiration.

Today, however, I must profess my respect and admiration for the man. In the wake of Antonio Pettigrew's admission that he was doping when he helped the 1600 meter relay team win the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Johnson has said that he will return his gold medal from that event to the International Olympic Committee. Saying that he does not want the medal, as he feels "cheated, betrayed and let down," Johnson has stated that he does not want the tainted medal on display with the four golds that he rightfully earned.

Johnson's revelation of humility is a refreshing breath of fresh air in the acrid atmosphere surrounding track and field. Other athletes have turned over their medals, but only when disgraced by their own conduct, exemplified by the Marion Jones situation. Johnson, on the other hand, is not waiting for the IOC, the IAAF, or the Court of Arbitration for Sport to order the relay results changed and the medals turned over. Instead, he is standing on his own principles, and acknowledging that, through no fault or failure of his own, he does not deserve one of the accolades that he has received.

Voicing support for the current crop of young (and hopefully 100% clean) runners who are making headlines around the world, such as new 100 meter world record holder Usain Bolt of Jamaica, Johnson is doing his part to propel the sports world forward, and out from under the cloud of performance enhancing drugs that have tainted every record, medal, and result for at least the better part of two decades. Hopefully, Johnson's success through discipline, and his personal standards, will stand as a shining example to this and future generations of athletes and stars.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Joker Scheduling

It is that time of year again. The 2008 World Series of Poker is about to begin. The month-plus long string of tournaments will include 55 events this year, including the third annual $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. tournament, the second annual heads-up NLHE event, and my personal favorite (non-main event), the second annual $2,500 Omaha H/L-Stud H/L combination event.

And looming at the end of the series, starting on July 3, is the 39th annual $10,000 World Championship of No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em. This event IS the WSOP. This is the one that everyone has been trying to win. The big money, the picture on the wall, the prestige, the respect. Johnny Moss, Stu Unger, Doyle Brunsun, and Johnny Chan all won the event multiple times. Win the main event, and you instantly become a legend. As the field has expanded, the number of days has extended. From a single table to a week-long festival, the main event has the largest prize pool, largest top prize, and largest field every year. Last year, Jerry Yang had to survive seven days of play over an 11 day span to capture $8.25 million and the title.

This year, however, the main event schedule has taken a turn for the ridiculous. After playing for seven days over an 11 day period, the final table will be set. But instead of getting the nine surviving contenders for the throne together on the twelfth day and playing down to a champion, this year, the nine survivors will be handed ninth place money and sent back to their regular lives for the next four months. Then in November, they will all gather in Las Vegas again to play down to the heads-up match, which will gather the next day to decide the winner.

Why take a four month vacation in the middle of an event? Why, for the benefit of the television audience, of course. The assumption is that ESPN will be following the nine finalists around, filming their regular lives, or as regular as they can be still having a chance to become the face of poker. As if the first 50-plus events, in addition to the first 7 days of whittling the main event field down, were not building enough hype for the main event championship, now we will have to wait an extra 108 days to reconvene the final table.

No momentum going into the final day, no one steaming, no one on tilt. Everyone will be able to start fresh. While this may seem like a decent enough idea on the surface, it in fact takes away one of the best human elements that the main event has represented. Fatigue and stamina have played a role in the outcome of the main event since the field started expanding to the point that multiple days were required to decide it.

I do not know who suggested this psychotic scheduling change, but I hope that this becomes one of the WSOP's one-year experiments, much like playing the final table outside the casino on Fremont Street was in 1997. This is a mistake, and I for one am not looking forward to the four month hiatus. The whole idea of the main event is to outlast an ever-growing field over the course of a week or 10(ish) days. Now putting the entire tournament on layaway until just before Thanksgiving takes away one huge aspect of the event, and increases the amount of luck involved, reducing the skill aspect that makes poker the most human of gambling endeavors.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

There is Something Seriously Wrong...

On Washington Street in the West Roxbury area of Boston, there is a small brick building. A sign on the building identifies it as a Disabled American Veterans chapter building. And leading up to the front door of the building is a flight of steps.