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Soup of This Day #216: Tear A Plane In The Falling Rain

July 18, 2012

Frank Schleck
Confronted by doping control a nervous Frank Schleck had no alternative but to go to Plan B – Dazzle them with his new sunglasses – Photo: Noel Reynolds, 2011. Noel Reynolds is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

This morning I woke to a news story that had Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck, 1 half of a pair of brothers who have been at the forefront of the Tour de France peloton for the past 5 or so years, dropping out of the 2012 Tour de France after he returned a positive test for a banned diuretic at the conclusion of Stage 13.

The substance was Xipamide and it can be used to help a rider lose weight. It can also be used as a masking agent for more serious performance enhancing drugs.

Either way it’s a banned substance and if found guilty of it’s use, Frank Schleck is an idiot.

There can’t be anyone out there who can claim not to have got the message that illegal performance enhancing drugs (IPEDs) in sport are not on. Frank in particular should have got it though his skull – His brother and team-mate Andy has only recently been retrospectively awarded the 2010 Tour de France after its winner Alberto Contador was found to have transgressed with another banned substance. Even without this empirical reinforcement close to hand, Frank, like every professional bike rider, should know the lie of the land – The message is clear and it is very simple – IPEDs are bad.

We’re told that they are bad for a number of reasons. The 1st is that if you artificially boost your chances of winning you are cheating. It’s fairly difficult to argue with that, although some advocates of a lift of the ban on IPEDs will try to muddy the waters with assertions that the use of such substances is no different from other ‘natural’ enhancements. It’s no more cheating than say, Frank Schleck getting a new carbon-fibre bike that is 0.5kg lighter than everyone else in the peleton.

Which isn’t really a valid argument – The bikes are governed by regulations and the gap in performance between the bikes in use by each of the pros is so minimal as to be insignificant. The performance gain via IPEDs would dwarf any of the technical gains made by modifying your wheels. And anyway there is another compelling reason to turn your back on IPEDs…

We’re also told that the use of IPEDs is unhealthy, that there are long-term complications from using them. The list of potential side-effects is long but about all I need to know here is that some substances can allegedly shrink your testicles.

That’s way over the Longworth72 line right there.

The merest threat to my balls and I am out of the frame – Shrinking the beans is not performance enhancing to my way of thinking, at least not for the important performances, if you know what I mean. Wink.

Sure, it might help you get to the Olympics but what then? You’re at the pinnacle of your sport and you’ve got shrunken love spuds. No thank you.

And that is not the worst that drugs can do to you.

Tom Simpson was an English rider competing in the 1967 Tour de France. Heading into the 13th stage on a stinking hot day he was suffering from a stomach bug. In search of an edge he took some amphetamines, probably washed down liberally with alcohol, before pushing on up the suicidally tough Mont Ventoux. Towards the top he fell off his bike. Against the urging of his mechanics he got back on and started up again. The 2nd time he fell it was the last – Attempts to revive him failed and he was declared dead on arrival at the nearest hospital.

His final words were ,‘Go on, go on.’

So this morning as the story broke there was little question in my mind that IPEDs are not good for you and should be banned.

And that Frank had possibly been an idiot.

But then, looking at a photo of Frank Schleck along with that story, I got to thinking a little about other things that aren’t healthy.

Like riding the Tour de France.

Those guys race 3,500km across 3 weeks, pedalling along at the furious pace of around 45kmph for most of the time. Which is an epic test and that’s before you factor in the mountains – The behemoths of which are the scarily-named Hors Categorie (HC) climbs – Literally, these are climbs that have been deemed to be so difficult to negotiate that there is no category for them – A HC climb is like an 11 on an amp – Off the scale of regular human endurance.

So to survive such a test, to thrive on it even, sometimes twice in 1 stage, you have to go beyond regular human.

Elite climbers, specialists who target stages with the big mountains in them, build their bodies to suit. They are almost all light of weight, for each kg means that much more power is required to haul them up the slopes. The weight that remains is distributed unevenly – You want muscle mass in the legs and not in the upper body, so the arms are generally spindly while the calves are powerful.

Sort of reminiscent of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Minus the running and the screaming and the eating of people.

These guys are putting as much care into shaping their bodies as a body builder on display, a boxer fighting a certain class or a jockey trying to make the adjudged weight. They are taking what evolution has provided and are twisting it, breaking it and then re-moulding into something else entirely. Faced with a need to go beyond what is regular they have gone and made themselves irregular.

That cannot be good for a human body. It just can’t be.

Don’t think for a moment that I’m suggesting that the use of IPEDs is ok because it’s just 1 more danger among many. I’m not, at least I’m not suggesting that about PEDs as we think of them now – As aids to winning.

What I am suggesting is that perhaps the way we approach sport at the highest level is wrong. Take a look that photo of Frank Schleck again. Perhaps it’s time to start searching for positive PEDs – Drugs that help athlete’s to recover and to sustain essential processes while competing. In that kind of schema the ‘Performance’ in PEDs is less about achieving new records and more about achieving new levels of competitor safety in much the same way that a new type of helmet might help a football player.

Imagine for a moment that 1 guy developed and marketed a new model of headware, 1 that significantly reduced the severity of impacts for linebackers in professional US football.

It’s great to have confidence in your product. Even better if demonstrating that faith does not involve head-butting a brick wall at speed.

If that kind of protective gear was available to just 1 player then surely even then it’s worth it, even if that player is gaining a competitive advantage. Soon the technology would filter out to other players at the elite level, and shortly thereafter down to through the tiers to high school kids. Any competitive advantage is nullified and what we’re left with is a safer world than what we now have.

Which is nice but we have the helmets now and we also have a dangerously high incidence of lasting damage to the brains of pro football players. The kind that comes to haunt them long after their careers are over and sometimes leads to desperate suicide – An escape from a hell – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – wrought in a sporting battle.

Maybe we need to find a way to not build our athletes bigger, faster and stronger. This might involve looking at what they’re building for. It might also involve a new look at PEDs – The kind that can help an athlete to stay healthy – An aid to life.

Whichever way we go, Frank Schleck is probably still an idiot.

Tear a Plane In The Falling Rain

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