Tag Archives: comeback

Mid-Life Dopers

Podium

I compete against mid-life dopers. I ride with a power meter, a crank-mounted device that measures the number of watts you are producing at any given moment on the bike. So I don’t just feel the pain that I go through trying to stay with some of the middle-aged amateur cyclists I race against – I can actually see the numbers they are putting out. And sometimes those numbers are simply unbelievable.

I participated in a multi-day race in Sardinia last year against Masters riders from all over Europe. About half way into the 140km first stage I found myself putting out around 360 watts at the base of a long climb just to stay with two Italian guys in my age group category. These were not little skinny guys like me (I am 168cm tall and my race weight is around 64 kilograms) but tall, well-built men of at least 75 kilos.

The two Italians were smoothly riding away from me on the climb, and taking into account their body weight and the incline, this meant that they were putting out as much as 10 percent more power than I was – maybe 390 watts – and they were holding it! When in peak condition I can hold 360 watts for about ten minutes of pedaling, before I completely blow-up. So I shook my head and watched them ride away.

To put 390 watts in perspective, Chris Froome’s estimated power output on the mountain stage he won in the Tour de France this year was around 410 watts. So what I witnessed in Italy just didn’t make sense for middle-aged amateur cyclists. I Googled the names of the two Italians that evening to discover that one of them had recently returned to competition after a two-year doping suspension.

Over the course of the week-long race, these two guys raced aggressively every single day – there seemed to be no fatigue, and they attacked constantly. I eventually finished third for my age group classification, but was more than twelve minutes behind by the end of the week. The other guys in my age group joked that we were engaged in two-speed racing – the winning Italians in one class, and the rest of us in the other.

The fact is that doping, and especially the use of the blood booster EPO, is all too common in amateur Masters cycling. Unlike professional cycling, there is no biological passport system involving the systematic and regular testing of competitors. In many countries, such as Belgium, there are random checks at race events but typically just a handful of riders are tested. In many events, like the one that I raced in Italy, there is no testing at all. So the odds of getting caught are quite small.

Doping products such as EPO are affordable, and readily available for purchase on the Internet. The real challenge is how to deal with the mid-life dopers, and I think that out of season testing must become a reality for those Masters riders who are performing ‘exceptionally’ in race events. For example, I know of a 50 something cyclist who won 8 out of 10 Masters events in a Belgian Kermesse series a few years ago. Given the level of competition in Belgium, that kind of performance verges on the unbelievable. Out of season testing of amateurs is already done to an extent in the US, and scores of riders have been suspended as a consequence. The same should be done in continental Europe.

Although there is very little research about doping by Masters athletes, I have read a lot on the psychology of doping at the elite level of sport. Much of the literature talks about game theory. The simplest game in game theory is “prisoner’s dilemma”. In the athletes’ version, both cyclists will be better off if neither takes drugs, but because neither can trust the other, both have to take them to make sure they have a chance of winning.*

If it is highly likely that the majority of your competitors are doping, then you have two options. You can choose not to dope, and be almost certainly beaten as a consequence, or you can dope, and be given a fighting chance. I have read scores of interviews with cyclists who doped during the Armstrong era, and almost all of them talked of this athlete’s dilemma.

The financial stakes in professional sports can be high, and this is also a factor that undoubtedly drives some to dope. But it is not just about fame and fortune – many young cyclists who encountered the doping culture of the 1990s and early 2000s had dreamed of professional cycling since they were kids, sacrificing education and career opportunities for a sporting path. They had travelled far from family and friends to make it as a rider in Europe, and were then sucked into an environment in which doping was the norm – where it was expected by peers and mentors. For them, cycling was a job and doping became a tool of the trade.

But the reality for middle-aged cyclists is very different. There is certainly no fortune, as even the best amateur Masters racers spend far more on equipment, travel and race costs than they ever get from prize money. Cycling is a passion, not an income generator. Fame is also elusive, as Masters cycling is rarely reported on by the mainstream media.

We are not surrounded by people who encourage us to dope. In fact, those who cheat disgust most of my cycling peers. A Belgian rider who is almost fifty years old won his age-group category of a week-long Masters race in Italy this year, and also rode unbelievably well on the general classification. Not only did he finish in the top ten, but he consistently outclassed riders twenty years his junior – every day of the event. He has served a previous doping suspension, and was openly ridiculed by other cyclists at the race. I wondered if this was fair, but his performance on the road left few doubts in many peoples’ minds.

To me it seems that the prisoner’s dilemma still plays a role in elite Masters cycling – the fear that others are doping, so to win I must dope too. But what this also says is that the individual puts ‘winning’ above all else. And in the absence of financial rewards and fame ‘winning’ is essentially about two things: firstly a sense of self-achievement, and secondly recognition from family, friends and the Masters cycling community.

But in both cases the outcome is a lie for dopers – you have not achieved your true potential, and the recognition that you are receiving is undeserved. It is one thing to mislead the Masters cycling community about the reasons for your performance, but to do so to spouse, children and wider family and friends strikes me as very sad indeed.

And this is why I pity the mid-life dopers. Because what they have failed to acquire is the wisdom that at this stage of life, winning is not just about receiving a medal after a bike race. It’s about how you got there, and who you have become along the way.

Earlier this year I won my age-group classification and was also 1st International Amateur Rider overall at the Cape Town Cycle Classic. It was the first time in my life to stand on the top step of the podium at a major international race.

Standing on that podium in South Africa, I held the trophy high.

CAPETOWN

*For a good discussion of game theory and the athlete’s dilemma see: The Economist, Doping in Sport: The Athlete’s Dilemma, 20 July 2013. ARTICLE

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Getting Serious about Going Fast

I raced my first cycling competitions in Belgium in Spring of 2010 and it was a terrifying experience. I failed to finish my first two races, and struggled home several minutes down on the winners in the other kermiskoerses that I completed. I experienced muscle cramping in almost every event, not because of dehydration but because of the sheer exertion that I was demanding of my body, over and above what it was capable of delivering. It was a depressing experience. But at the same time that I was suffering on the narrow roads of Flanders, I was also learning a lot.

The first thing that I started to understand was that the elite Masters racing that I was competing in was nothing like the kind of long-distance road racing that I had trained for as a young man. At the Masters level, the distance is typically just 70 or 80 kilometres, not the 140 kilometres or more that is typical for the elite level amateur and professional racing.

I realised that I had to train my body to go very, very fast for a little more than 90 minutes – not to be able to race for 4 hours or more, as is typical of the professional cycle racing you see on TV. I started to understand that the first 30 to 45 minutes of that 90 minutes was especially important, for that was when the selection of strongest riders was typically made in a kermiskoers, and gaps would start to open-up in the race. If you were not able to stay in the front ten to fifteen riders in the opening laps, especially once that group opened any kind of gap on the chasing peloton, your race was pretty much over.

So in the summer of 2010 we spent almost two months on Corsica, and for six days a week I rode my bike along the beautiful coastline and into the mountains above Calvi and Ile Rouse. While I did a longer ride once or twice a week, what I really started to work on was intensity and really pushing myself to exhaustion on the long steady climbs that the Islands is famous for. I would do a five to six minute effort at close to my maximal heart rate, rest for a minute and then repeat. I would do this again and again until I literally started to feel sick and weak. At first I could only do two of these kinds of sessions a week, as I needed a few days to recover afterwards. But by the end of the summer I could manage three such workouts.

We came back to Belgium at the end of August and I headed to a race in East Flanders. As I lined-up I realised that I was not the only guy had been training hard over the summer – those Flemish guys looked muscled, lean and suntanned. The flag dropped, and I experienced a tortuous 30 minutes of pain before losing contact with the front group of ten or so guys who drove the breakaway. The rest of us knew it was over, and we raced the next hour with resigned effort. I just wasn’t strong enough, and I still had problems with cramp and back pain.

I kept riding my bike, I kept racing and I kept losing weight. The 2011 Spring racing season was better – I could consistently finish the races I entered, and I got in my first breakaway. Being in that breakaway as an Aussie cyclist in Flanders was an experience I will never forget – the pain and the effort, and the realisation that there was a group of fifty guys hell-bent on catching you just a half-minute or so back down the road. The guys in the breakaway pretty quickly realised I was a foreigner, and in true Flemish style started to shout at me in English. There is no friendship in that kind of group – just solidarity of effort until the final few kilometres when the guy beside you will quite happily lean you into the barriers if it looks as though you might sprint past him. In that race I came 4th (picture below), with just a few centimetres separating me from my first podium in more than 20 years.

4th

That summer I lived a lifelong dream. My family and I went camping in France, and I competed in road races in the Auvergne and Languedoc regions. It was a very different style of racing to Flanders – races of 100 to 120 kilometres on beautiful open rural roads. The first half of these races was usually pretty civilised, before the real action would start in the final 50 kilometres or so. The competitors were almost gentlemanly, and I loved every moment. I was consistently finishing in the top 10, and I got my first podium with a third place in a hilly a race in the Dordogne. I won a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and bunch of flowers. Fantastic! There was a big party at the campsite that evening!

In September I went to the European Masters Games in Lignano, Italy and I finished 7th in my Age Group Category. The race was on a very flat circuit, and not really suited to my physique, but I managed to make it into the breakaway with a Slovene, several Italians, a German and a Russian and we were able to stay away until the end. The Slovene guy won in a solo break, and Italians took 2nd and 3rd. I was over the moon with my 7th place – it was still two years to go until Torino, and I had really started to believe in myself. But the best part was coming home to Belgium – despite my 7th place, the kids had drawn a huge picture of a golden cup with a Number 1 on it.

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Something else started to happen – I think my body began to accept that I was serious about this cycling stuff. My fitness gains and weight loss had been slow and steady in 2010 and 2011, but then seemed to accelerate. At the end of 2011 I bought the most amazing performance enhancement tool than any cyclist can use – a power meter. This new tool enabled me not just to train with heart rate and feeling, but with accurate numbers of the watts of power that I was producing in any given effort. It was a revelation.

Performance in cycling is relatively simple – it is a combination of power-to-weight, aerodynamics, race nutrition and tactical wisdom. Training is about specificity – simulating the kinds of efforts that one will experience in competition. Improvement comes from incrementally and progressively overloading the body during training and racing, and ensuring that one has enough rest and the right fuel to recover for subsequent efforts.

I started to use my power meter to record my Belgian race data, and I could see quite precisely the kinds of power that I needed to sustain to finish at the front of races. After just a few weeks, I could see a certain pattern – I was having to average 290 to 300 watts of power output for the first 45 minutes of a typical kermiskoers just to stay in the front group, and an average of around 270 to 280 watts over the duration of the race. I sometimes struggled in races with a lot of corners, as although I could hold a good intensity I was unable to do the repeated sprints at very high watts after each deceleration. But I decided not to worry about this too much – the racecourse in Torino would not involve tight corners.

Now my training became completely focused. I developed my training plan around simulating the course that I would race in Torino – nine laps of an eight kilometre circuit, with sweeping corners, long straight sections and each lap an almost 1km climb of between 12% and 18% gradient. Each lap should take around 11 minutes at an average speed of just over 40kmh, so I would have to hold about 270 to 290 watts for around 8 to 9 minutes, and then go up into the 400 to 500 watt range for the 90 or so seconds of the steep climb, before recovering on the descent and repeating. I would also need to be ready to chase breakaways or close gaps – efforts of maybe 340 to 360 watts for 2 to 3 minutes at a time.

Racing kermiskoers in Flanders was perfect for the threshold work that I needed, but lacked the climbing, so I also started to do some racing in Wallonia. In summer of 2012 we found an amazing camping ground in the Cevennes national park in the south of France which had wonderful surrounding roads for training. A short distance from the campground I found a quiet road at the base of one of the nearby mountains. The first section of tarmac was about 1km long, with a 12 to 18% gradient and I rode up that damned thing hundreds of times.

I raced in France throughout the summer of 2012, and in the second half of August I won my first race in more than two decades – a regional Masters competition near to Lyon. I promise you something – it felt just as good standing on the top step of the podium at age 41 as it did when I was 17 years old. And I had the proudest family in the world.

And I still had a year to go to prepare for the World Masters Games in Torino.

Commitment, Cramps & Crashes: On Becoming a Cyclist Again

Brandenburg gate

I started training again in 2009, almost 20 years since I last raced my bike at an elite level. We were still living in Berlin, and I would ride my bike from where we lived in Prenzlauerberg on the East side of the city and out into the countryside. The outer suburbs of the east side of Berlin are a mix of turn of the century apartment buildings that survived the war, and housing and factories built during the GDR times. I would pass through Weissensee and Bernau, and then do a loop through the fields and a small forest near to Melchow and Biesenthal. On longer rides I might go as far as Eberswalde.

I tried not to get lost, as these were the days before I had a bike GPS and my German was non-existent. If you did ask someone for directions, the usual response was for the person to ask (in German) what kind of an idiot would ride with a map they could not read, and then point you in the wrong direction. The people out this way were Prussian, and they did not like the ‘outsiders’ like me who were coming to Berlin, forcing up prices and gentrifying many of the formerly working-class inner city suburbs.

The small rural villages in this part of Brandenburg were tidy and well kept, but far from affluent. Young people were notable by their absence, and you were more likely to see Dacia Logan sedans than BMWs. I would occasionally come across Confederate flags from the American civil war fluttering over small isolated houses out in the countryside, and my German friends later told me that these belonged to far-right supporters or neo-Nazis. I’m glad I didn’t stop at those places and ask for directions – the angry looking Rottweiler dogs in the front gardens would have deterred me anyway.

For the first several months that I rode my bike I didn’t have any special training plan or goals. I just wanted to ride, and I loved my time alone. I started riding in the early Spring of 2009, and the temperatures were frequently hovering around zero. I would leave home with layers of clothing, thick winter gloves and a thermal hat under my helmet. My cheeks would sometimes start to burn on the really cold days, so I also got myself a balaclava. Looking back now, I’m not surprised the local village folk sometimes got a shock when I asked for directions.

My first goal was just to build-up my aerobic fitness and lose weight. This is what cyclists call base training, and at first I was doing just four or five hours per week. Trying to fit in some riding around my young family and intensive work schedule was not easy, so I often headed out very early in the morning. I also got myself an indoor trainer, and would try to ride on it once or twice a week in the evenings.

The best thing that I discovered about being back on my bike was the thinking time. I had become so busy in trying to juggle the three balls of family, career and self, that the third one had been the first to drop. This meant that I was occupied all of the time, with very little time for mental down-time. On those rides through Brandenburg I started to reflect upon my life, and this eventually led to the worklife decisions that I have discussed in my previous blog posts. In mid 2009 I resigned from my job as a professor in Berlin, and moved with my family to Belgium.

Once in Belgium my new life as a cyclist really began. I had set myself the goal of competing at the next World Masters Games in Torino in 2013, and started to completely rethink how I could keep the three balls of family, career and self in the air. I have explained in my previous posts about how I started to focus my professional activities on becoming a keynote speaker, and at the same time was able to invest more and more time into my family.

When we moved to Belgium we rented a small house in Tervuren, a leafy suburb on the outskirts of Brussels. The choice of area was a very conscious one – we wanted somewhere that offered direct access to the countryside for the kids, that was well connected for transport (I would still have to travel from time to time for my speaking engagements) and which offered a good base for my cycle training.

Once settled, I joined a local cycling club and started to seek-out other cyclists who could also train on weekdays. My local club organized rides every Sunday from the famous ‘Café Congo’ in Vossem, with groups divided by ability – A,B, C and D. In the summer months it was not unusual for each group to contain thirty riders or more. The A group would average around 32 to 34kmh for a 100km ride, and the D group quite a bit slower than that, with each group followed by a support car. Of course, I immediately jumped in with the A group and found myself unceremoniously left-behind at around the 60km mark of my first group training. The rules of Belgian A-group club rides are pretty simple – if you can’t keep-up, then you find your own way home.

So for the next few months I dropped back with the Sunday B-Group, while at the same time increasing my week-day training to around 6 to 8 hours. The area of Belgium where we were living was called Vlaams Brabant, a beautiful part of the country with rolling hills and open countryside, dotted by small villages. It was just a short ride across the ‘border’ into French-speaking Brabant Walloon.

My first race in Belgium in the late Spring of 2010 was a shock. I had been back in training for more than a year and I thought I was in good condition. I was now able to join my club’s A-Group every Sunday, and was down to around 70kgs. So I thought I was ready to compete, and took a license with the Vlaamse Wieler Federatie (Flemish Cycling Federation).

What I was about to discover was that the level of amateur Masters cycling in Belgium is without a doubt the toughest in the world. Not only is the country cycle racing obsessed, but the sheer number of people participating in amateur competitive events is unrivalled. Many of the guys who race have been competing since they were nine years old and some have spent years as a professional. According to the Belgian press, doping is still prevalent in the amateur ranks and especially amongst the over 40s who are struggling to remain competitive into middle-age.

There are no fewer than seven provincial racing associations in Belgium, as well as the Flemish and Wallone ‘national’ amateur Federations. In the spring and summer months there might be upwards of 20 separate racing events per week, all in a country which is about a third of the size of the little island we Aussies call Tasmania.

The Flemish north of Belgium where I first chose to compete has a very special style of amateur road racing called the Kermiskoers. Belgium is a small country, so access to open roads can be difficult. The typical race format is therefore a short circuit, anywhere between 4 and 8 kilometers, that starts in a village centre and then loops out into the countryside. Total distance at the amateur level is 70 to 90 kilometers, and the circuit often involves sections of narrow farm roads, with a cobbled section thrown in for good measure. Flanders is very flat, so there are rarely any hills to speak off.

Re-entering the village can involve navigating sharp corners, speed bumps and traffic islands. Each and every corner involves deceleration and then rapid acceleration, and there are constant attacks. This would all be fine, if it were not for the 120 or so other guys who are all trying to stay at the front at speeds averaging 42 to 44 kilometers per hour! A professional cyclist once described the Kermiskoers as being as mentally stressful as the final kilometers of a sprint lead-out, but for the entire race. Crashes are common, and an ambulance crew is always standing by.

My first race was a 72km Kermiskoers in a small village near to Dendermonde in East Flanders, involving nine laps of an eight kilometer circuit with a cobbled section of about 400 meters. After four laps I was spat out the back of the peloton, with legs cramping and severe pain in my lower back. I pulled to the side of the road and proceeded to throw-up. I remember that it was not just any kind of vomit – it was that brown-green colored stuff that comes from someplace way down. I glanced at my computer – my average heart rate for the four laps that I had completed had been 174 beats per minute!

Bent over at the side of the road, I thought that I would never be able to compete with these guys. Then I told myself that this was just the first step on a long journey. Torino was three years away, and I had a lot of work to do.

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