Sunday, July 30, 2006

obscure strategies

Another little war started in the Middle East 19 days ago. At least it seemed that way for the first few days. A border skirmish lead to Israeli incursion into Lebanon. Missile launch installations were targeted and terrorist infrastructure. Smart weapons doing the job but causing hardly any collateral damage. So the Israelis claimed. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and watched as the campaign unfolded, then stalled, and quickly degenerated into indiscriminate punishment of the Lebanese people. Civilian casualties were mounting. Today, 50 were killed at once. Important strategic goal were surely met.

What's up with the Israeli government, and by extension with the Israeli people who strongly support their government and its actions? Is Ehud Olmert on steroids? Is he trying to impress? ("Look Arik, I can do massacres also!" But Sharon doesn't look - he's still clinically dead.) Or did he get trapped in a situation from where he feels like he can't escape? Since there is no military success to report, he might feel that concessions to Hezballah or a cessation of hostilities would make him lose face and strengthen Hezballah.

But does he have any face left with the Israeli goverment acting like a bunch of terrorist nutcases. Hezballah is a serious threat to Israel's security. So why is it that Isreal changed their haphazardly conducted attack on Hezballah positions and infrastructure into the biggest recruiting drive that Hezballah has ever enjoyed? Is no one alarmed at all that Lebanon is rallying behind a terrorist organization? Christians and Sunnis hand in hand with the Shiite would be a cause for jubilation, except they're chanting Hassan Nasrallah's name. Even Iran didn't see this coming and is speechless.

Why does Israel support terrorism? Is Olmert really so stupid to think that every killed jihadi means one fewer jihadi? I'd say it means at least nine more jihadis. And every slaughtered child surely means a hundred more jihadis. With every passing hour, with every Lebanese cilivian who is brutally murdered, terrorism gains ground. The reason is the current Isreali goverment and its shockingly inept way of dealing with a threat that is real but not more so today than it was last week or would have been next week. Except now it will be more dangerous next week because Olmert is recruiting terrorists.

I'd prefer he'd just send money and rockets instead of killing civilians. The effect would be the same, but the suffering less. I'm afraid when the next bomb explodes in Tel Aviv, taking innocent bystanders' lives, I won't have any tears left to cry after what I saw this weekend.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

drugs and cycling

Exactly one week ago, Floyd Landis delighted the world of cycling and a fair number of casual spectators with his inspired ride through the Alps, deciding to go solo halfway into the first climb of the day and never looking back. A small group comprising the top riders and a few of their team mates chased the American for the rest of the stage. Despite riding themselves into delirium, they couldn't bridge the gap, and Landis finish five minutes ahead of the second best that day. This was the same guy who seemed to have met his Waterloo only 24 hours earlier, all but dying on the last climb to La Toussuire.

Comparisons with the greatest of all cyclists were made. Eddy Merckx was famous for his brutal and audacious attacks, and his pitiless thirst for victories broke the will of many opponents. Landis was hailed like a savior, the man who single-handedly made cycling interesting again after more than a decade of domination by invincible riders with commanding teams.

Curiously, no one saw parallels with the previous heroic solo ride in a big tour. In the 2003 tour, Tyler Hamilton, his doubly fractured shoulder bandaged like a mummy, attacked at the Soudet and rode almost 100km in front of the increasingly frustrated peloton to win the stage in Bayonne. A little more than a year later, he tested positive for blood doping on two occassions, and his heroic feats are no more than dog shit in the sewer.

Today, Landis jumped into the sewer. Fishy testosterone values were detected in his urine after his unbelievable ride. If the results hold up after the second test, he's out and will never have won a Tour de France, in particular a tour in which more than a dozen riders were exluded hours before the start because of blood doping.


I rode up to the Bastille today. The climb is only two kilometers long, but averages 17%. The worst are the middle 400m, which are solidly above 20%. After that, one can lean back and enjoy the relative flatness of a 14% gradient. I know this because some joker painted the numbers and silly comments ("Don't brake here!") on the tarmac.

I made it to the top without taking pills. I have made it up l'Alpe d'Huez, the Charmant Som, the Luitel, the Croix de la Fer, and many other painful climbs around here. Much slower than the pros but without taking pills. In fact, I haven't taken any pills in at least ten years with the exception of a handful of vitamin tablets that my friends, fearful for my health in the land of burgers and fries, gave me when I moved to the US in 1998.

Is there any professional rider that is not on some sort of chronic treatment? Most have a doctor-approved list of exemptions that allows them to take drugs that are illicit normally but necessary in their particular case because of their dire state of health. Many claim to have asthma. (How this predisposes you to be a cyclist is my favorite mystery.) Pain killers seem to be around quite a bit. One is excused for assuming that there is not one healthy individual in professional cycling.

When a stage is finished, the cyclists are prepared for the next day by their doctors and rejuvenation wizards. Obviously, it's only a small step from revitalizing a tired body to pimping a tired body, and I'm not sure it's always the riders themselves that make the decision.

I'm not saying anyone is innocent. To the contrary, I think professional cycling is corrupt to the bone and needs to be cleaned up and out. The first step would be to rigorously ban any drugs. Those who are sick shouldn't ride their bike. If everyone were clean, maybe we'd see more surprises. We'd certainly have more reason to cheer.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

back alive

After working too late for shopping (which does not mean much in France) yesterday, I finally had the chance to drop some money on a new wheel today. As there are not too many (or any good) bike shops around, I went to the local sports chain with the intention of buying the most expensive wheel in the store.

That ploy was foiled when the only pricey wheel, a nice silver Ksyrium, was only available as front. I was left to choose between literally three mediocre wheels and pocketed a ridiculously cheap Rigida aero with 24 flat spokes fully built up with fond de jante, tube, tire and quick release, all for the price of a pair of Grand Prix 4000 tires. Fin de série, but not end of season.

The thing weighs a ton, substantially more than my old-school Open SUP. I won't cry about this. With the roads as abysmal as they are around here, sturdiness is a plus. When I took my once again happily running bike for a spin this evening, all seemed good. I made it up the Col de Quatre Seigneurs in near-record time and was most surprised to find that my bottom bracket, not more than an innocent bystander in the latest developments, had stopped creaking.

Deep inside, I suspect my bike has miraculously healed itself. It must have lived a few nights of fear and apprehension since I went on the rampage that cost it a limb and was probably afraid I would next lay hand on its frame and bend it into pretzel. But I wouldn't do this. Where would I get a new bike?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

demise of a wheel

Saturday afternoon, right before the 57km time trial that would decide this year's tour, I went out to ride up to Lans-en-Vercors. The climb up to the resort town situated on a lovely plateau is the only gentle climb far and wide. 19km with an average of just over 4% are perfect for testing one's will. Pushing hard until my lungs, legs and will hurt equally, I made it to the top in fifty minutes flat.

After a five-minute break coughing, panting and gasping, I hopped back onto my bike to calmly finish the loop, but I soon found myself back in the zone, willing myself to speeds I was dreaming of a few days ago. I surely helps not to ride with a backpack. I got back home after two hours with my bike computer claiming 57km. My personal time trial.

In the evening, I set out to give my bike a little treat. New tape was long overdue. Nothing remained of the fresh blue-yellow pattern that once adorned my bar. It was now gooey and black from hundreds of hours of sweaty hands. Five minutes later, my bike looked like it did when I bought it, and leaned against the basement wall shimmering contently in the dim light. It had no idea of what was to come.

I bent down to examine the rear wheel. Some spokes were fairly loose and the entire wheel ran a little off-center. Nothing a spoke tool can't fix. I started turning nipples and got nowhere. Sometimes the spokes would torque because oxidation had permanently glued the nipple to it, and when I let go of the tool, it would swivel back like some spring-loaded toy. Sometimes I would loosen spokes and the rim would seems to move into the same direction. At last, the spoke wrench decided to take the square profile off a nipple or two. By this time, the wheel was decidedly out of whack and I felt frustration rising up in me.

It's not that difficult to true wheel. Why is the little red wrench not doing its job? Frustration led to anger, and anger quickly got out of the way of developing rage. I kicked the rear wheel, which did not help. I didn't hurt either, and there is nothing worse when you're at the brink of an apoplectic fit than a kick with no effect.

I took the wheel out and slammed it against the stairs, and it's appearance finally changed. Hard to say at this point if that was an improvement. I really didn't look. I was acting in affect, oblivious of consequences. When the wheel came to rest on the soft packed-earth floor, I jumped on it, and this did it in. A sad figure eight, beyond repair, stared at me with profound sadness and quiet reproach. The quick release had assumed the shape of spoke, one end angled like the head of a man in despair.

When clarity had returned to my mind, I didn't even bother trying to explain what happened to me, but I found an excuse for what happened to the misfortuned wheel. After ten years of service it was old and decrepit, and I simply delivered it from its misery. All would be good except I don't have a operational bike. Thus I'm spending Sunday writing my blog instead of riding through the Chartreuse.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

tour de surprise

Today was the day to watch the tour on TV. With all that was going on in the pack, it was impossible to keep track on the road. I missed the dazzling finale up La Toussuire as I was rolling back to Grenoble from the Col de la Croix de Fer. It was a stellar day no matter.

I took the train to Montmélian this morning, the closest I could get to the base of the Croix de Fer on a direct train. When I got off, the opposite platform was filled with cyclists. Their destination was clear. I wavered for a moment but decided against taking the easy way. I'd ride the next 50km. So what if the road is undulating in the foothills of the Alps? If I had wanted to just sit around, I would have stayed at home.

Two hours later I was at the base of the climb. Cyclists were everywhere, obviously not deterred by the two huge signs that happily declared "Sommet 23km". I started easy, rolling with a small gear. Nothing major happened for the next hour and a bit. When my forces were waning, after 17km of steady up, the mountain finally dropped the hammer. Almost 3km at 10% average. Once arrived at the Glandon, it was only a short hop over to the Col de la Croix de Fer.

Col de la Croix de Fer

So what about the race? Floyd Landis lost it today. He might as well fly home and get a new hip. His days of glory won't come back this year. And Oscar Pereiro Sio who had lost 26 minutes in the Pyrénées is now back in the yellow jersey that he wore for the first time when he was in a break-away group that Landis's team let win by almost 30 minutes. That's how the tour goes when no one is in control and no one has even the faintest idea who really is a title contenter. More strange things will certainly come to pass until Paris.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Tomorrow is the big day. The tour will summit the Col de Galibier, the highest point of this year's big loop and a 40km climb. After dropping into the valley of the Arc, the Col de la Croix de Fer (via the Col du Glandon) is the next test. Twenty-two kilometers averaging 6.9%, certainly not for the faint of heart. This is where I'll enter the picture. I'll do the exact same climb a few hours before the peloton will come through, hopefully getting to the top in time to take a breath, enjoy the view and get ready for the caravan publicitaire, a trek of pimped-up vehicles promoting various commercial goods and handing out samples to the fast and fearless. The riders follow a good hour after that.

After reading up on the Croix de Fer today, I have to admit I'm a little scared. This climb is long, longer than any I've done around here. It's not excruciatingly steep, but 7% are not to be taken lightly, and it's gets progressively steeper the higher one gets. It will be an effort, certainly much more difficult than L'Alpe d'Huez.

What's worse, my bike is still not in prime working condition. Today, I was again not able to get the tools required to fix the creaking in my bottom bracket. I'll hate my bike with every stroke I do, and also France a little, because bike shops are so pathetic around here. (I just placed another order with a German internet vendor.)

When the last sprinter and Jean-Marie Leblanc's red Skoda have passed the Col, I'll cruise back to Grenoble, 60km down the hill, while the winner of the stage will only be decided up in La Toussuire, after two more gruelling climbs. In light of this program, the French surprise, third-place Cyril Dessel, admitted that tomorrow's stage scares him. Welcome to the team.

Monday, July 17, 2006

eclectic criminals

This weekend should have been dedicated to riding, but it wasn't. It all started ambitious enough. Thursday night, I rode the Col de Porte despite looming thunderstorms. Back in town and not completely soaked I attempted the Bastille. This road is not even two kilometers long, but averages a ridiculous 17%. Every 20 meters the current gradient is written on the ground in white paint. You know it's steep when you rejoice at the sight of a big old 14. Going back down felt like falling off a cliff.

Friday, on what should have been an epic ride up the Gorges du Nan and into the Vercors, I was kept from going with any sort of effort by the most bone-chilling noise coming from my bottom breaket whenever I pedaled hard. At the base of the canyon when sixty minutes of sustained effort beckoned, I turned around and cruised back to Grenoble leisurely following the Isère.

The next day, I set out to inspect the damage on my bike, but couldn't find the tools I needed. It appears that when my mountain bike was stolen about a month ago, other random things must have been overwhelmed by a desire for freedom and taken the opportunity of an open door. It couldn't have possibly been the thieves that took what disappeared: Old cleats that I tossed into a dusty box many years ago, used bottom brackets and chains that I mistakenly thought might serve a purpose some day, and an assortment of nuts and bolts whose origins I was always curious about.

Some other things are gone that I actually miss: My bottom bracket and chain tools, my Allen and other wrenches, a handful of inner tubes. For whatever reason, my pedal wrench, all lube and my snowboard remain. Also remaining, to my great delight, are two bottles of Sangre de Torre Gran Reserva, not to be opened before 2013.

Why am I telling this story? Because exactly ALL of the tools I need to take out and clean my bottom bracket are gone, and I'm slowly getting worried.

I want to spend Wednesday at the Col de la Croix de Fer, and I need a smoothly functioning bike to get up there. When I went to the bike shop today to buy tools, it was already closed. So I might have to sacrifice watching Alpe d'Huez on TV tomorrow in order to be able to watch the race on top of the mountain the next day.

And if you turn on the TV on Wednesday, watch out for the biggest of all German flags draped around me jumping up and down like silly.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


Yesterday was Bastille Day, celebrating the most famous of all French revolutions. Traditionally, flags are being raised, military parades take place, and fireworks light the skies shortly before midnight. The day is a holiday, and nobody works. This year, 14 July was a Friday, and thus the weekend was long. It wasn't long enough for all, though. My employer argued with the most original French logic that I must take Thursday off also. If Bastille Day had been on Thursday, the Friday would have been off as well. Why not the other way around? I only worked half a day.

When I went to lab this afternoon, the cold room was not working. Instead of cooling my experiments to a refreshing four degrees, they were toasted at almost 20. This was second time in as many weeks, and I was predictably furious. I called the number at the door, ready to vent my anger. The sleepy voice at the other end (French don't work on Saturdays) told me that this number was only valid on work days and I should call security instead. They have to authorize any intervention. He gave me the number, I called, and couldn't believe my ears. I was advised to call the cold room maintenance number, the number I had called at first. When I pointed this out, the security guy said that he couldn't really do anything because no alarm had been triggered. Well, if the alarm had gone off I wouldn't be sitting here calling useless numbers and getting increasingly more frustrated. I tried to convey these ideas to the guy at the other end, but he had already dozed off.

There I was, with a cold room that wasn't cold anymore but full of ongoing experiments in an institute that sees itself at the forefront of international research but doesn't even have the most basic support that makes this research possible. Nothing will be fixed until well into next week.

How am I supposed to do my work? Oh, I forgot, I'm strongly discouraged from going to work on weekends. And if I hadn't gone, I wouldn't have found out about the cold room failure and wouldn't be pissed off now. Expect for my experiments (minor detail), everything would be fine. I raise my glass to the French - a fitting thing to do on this Bastille weekend.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

two losers

Night has fallen over Grenoble. It is eerily quiet, and smoke is wafting through the streets. Just one hour ago, large crowds were gathered around bars. Only a minority had found chairs, the rest was standing. From time to time, the Marseillaise lit up and wild Allez la France shouts made the round. France played Italy in the 2006 World Cup final, the games was going overtime and everyone was anxious to see the Blue win.

After an exhilarating first twenty minutes, the game slowed down noticeably towards the end of the first half. French supporters deemed the gold trophy within reach when their team crushingly dominated the Italians in the second half. Was it that the Italians were tired, or were they waiting for the last five minutes to score? In any case, nothing happened before the ref's whistle sent the game to overtime.

Here it was the same picture as before: France attacking vigorously but ultimately haplessly and Italy defending smartly but near collective physical collapse. At this point, no team really deserved a win.

Ten minutes before the end of overtime, Zidane, in an inexplicable fit of brutality and idiocy, headbutted Matterazzi's sternum into a bony pulp. This ugliest moment of the World Cup made France the team that deserved to lose. And so it happened in the penalty shootout where the Italians didn't miss and Zidane couldn't help the team after his expulsion. Fabio Grosso killed the last hope when he put the golden ball into the net, and an entire country fell into deep sadness around me.

Walking home I was hoping the smoke around me was only from fire crackers that were lit copiously during the game, and not from vehicles and trash can set on fire. May the French not take after Zidane and let their anger out in violence. Cars burn easily around here.

four weeks down, two more to go

The Tour started a week ago and produced the first surprises unrelated to doping today. Levy Leipheimer lost the world in the time trial, while Floyd Landis and Andreas Klöden will take a little cushion into the Pyrénées. Four Germans are among the best eleven in the GC, and Team Telekom, long-dormant vigor apparently set free by the exclusion of Jan Ullrich, leads the team classification. Stay tuned for more of the unexpected.

Somewhat unexpected, at least to me, was the way Germany dominated Portugal in the little final of the World Cup tonight. Portugal is certainly not Argentina, but they've eliminated England and given France a hard time, and Germany was playing without four starters. The game went back and forth in the first half with the Germans having the edge and all of Portugal's opportunities ending in the arms of a clearly pumped Oliver Kahn. In the second half Bastian Schweinsteiger shot on goal three times, and the game was decided.

For his first goal, the ball moved in an bizarre way sneaking by the goalie's left hand as if by its own will. There seemed to be something odd about the ball for Kahn was tricked into the wrong corner a while later on a 35-meter free kick and barely managed to keep his goal clean. In the end, I was happy that the Portuguese also scored, so everyone could celebrate.

Celebrating football, the Mannschaft, and happily themselves is what most Germans did for the last month. Now the World Cup is almost over, only the final remains to play. I'll watch it, decked out in a France shirt, in a bar in Grenoble, secretly hoping Italy will win. On Monday, teamgeist will be retired, merchandise will go on clearance, and gloom will mark the day of many.

I don't low spirits, though. My post-Mondial blues will be lessened by two more weeks of le tour. Go Klödi!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

changing sheets

I've missed, by only a few hours, to mention the first anniversary of this glorious blog. The first post saw the darkness of near complete disregard on 5 July of last year. As it is, there is reason to celebrate, but my writing has nothing to do with it.

Yesterday, I got back from Germany where I spent one week in and around Frankfurt soaking up World Cup atmosphere. And what an atmosphere it was! It was hard for me to believe that I was in Germany, the country where pessimism, morosity and mental self-flagellation are higher virtues than punctuality, productivity and neatness.

This time I only saw cheerful faces, oftentimes painted in black, red and yellow. I was surrounded by singing, flag-waving masses professing their love for their country (by proxy of its national football team). The team, at the same time, reciprocated with its creative, inspired and offensive way of playing.

After the (deserved) last-minute loss to Italy two days ago, the mood didn't change much. All were sad after the game, many cried and some took their flags down. But the next morning, the same exuberance as before permeated the streets. The players and especially the coach were praised and everyone was looking forward to the last few games of this World Cup and, with quickly adjusted sight, to South Africa in four years.

As I said, Germany 2006 gives plenty of reasons for celebration. But it also stirred in me the desire to return to the country that presented itself so differently from how I knew it. I'll have to figure out my options over the next months. But first I'll have to hang up my French flag and continue cheering for football. Allez les Vieux!