This one is for me. I guarantee nobody who reads my blog is going to really care about this entry, so skip if you like.

Since I?ve accepted the reality that I?m not going to be working until I return home, I?ve needed to occupy myself with something productive. There are about 14 weeks until the defense of my 20-24 Age Group title at the Black Bear Half Ironman triathlon up in the Poconos. I?m going to make the most of them, and try to get in really good shape in time for the event. Last year I finished in something like 5:45:00. This year I want to break 5 hours.

I found an excellent 20-week training plan for a half event online, catered to novice triathletes like myself who have a good base of fitness, and want to improve. I?ve decided to cut out the first 5 weeks, since they are mostly base training anyway, and I?m already exceeding the workout times and intensities of those few weeks. It?s been really nice to have a plan to stick to, knowing everyday what to expect from a workout, from time and mileage down to perceived exertion. The workouts average about 90 minutes a day, and usually include two or more disciplines. For example, today I?ll swim about 2000 metres and then bike for 45 minutes on the trainer.

Yesterday I ran an out-and-back course, running a negative split, meaning the ?back? portion of the run should be faster than the ?out.? Feeling fantastic after running an easy pace of RPE 2-3 (on a scale of 0-10) on the way out, I blasted home in 24 minutes and had to have been running faster than I ever have before, knocking a full seven minutes off of my ?out? time of 36 minutes. It was one of the best workouts I?ve ever had, and I felt fresh and springy afterwards.

Tomorrow I?m off, which is good because Mia and I are going to Stockholm to our third roommate Johanna?s house to have a good old-fashioned American BBQ, with yours truly as the chef. A bunch of their friends are coming over, so I?ll be surrounded by about 8 Swedish girls?tough life, right?

On another note, the Tour of California began on Sunday, with the deciding stage coming today, a 15-mile time trial that should determine the overall winner. This is cycling?s biggest race of the early season, and by far the biggest race on American turf. Only in it?s third iteration, it?s already attracting the best teams and the best riders from around the world, and is quickly becoming a marquee event on the pro calendar, only a notch beneath the Grand Tours of Europe. Last year American Levi Leipheimer, who was once a minion for Lance, won the overall and is looking to defend his title again this year, grabbing the yellow jersey after a demanding Stage 3 in the mountains.

Stage races almost always come down to the best climbers and the best time-trialists. On flat roads, nearly everyone is equal, and though the sprinters ultimately get the stage win, they never put any time into the peloton because everyone arrives at the finish more or less at the same time, and whoever can jump off the front in the last 200 metres wins the race. Climbing stages, however, are a different animal. The lighest, fittest riders can make it up and over the mountains much faster than the sprinters, and can effectively put several minutes into the weaker climbers. On the biggest mountain climb of Stage 3, Levi and an elite group of the best climbers hammered up the slopes and put a huge gap into the rest of the peloton. Levi and another Dutch rider shot off the front alone, crossing the finish line a full 4 minute ahead of the main pack.

So after stage three, only 5 riders remain within striking distance of the jersey. They also happen to be some of the best time-trialists in the world, including reigning two-time world champ Fabian Cancellara, who sits only 30-odd seconds back of Levi. After a flat Stage 4 in which the main peloton should cross the line at more or less the same time, not affecting the overall standings, it will come down to who can beat the clock in Stage 5. Levi is one of the best in the world against the clock, winning the final Time Trial is last year?s Tour de France. But Cancellara is fitter this year, and should be a major threat. In fact, he?s not known as a climber at all, but managed to stay in the front group in Stage 3, stunning Levi and the front-runners, giving himself a shot to win the overall with a big ride today.

Which brings me to another issue. Cycling is an interesting sport in the way the races are handled. There is the Pro Tour, which is sort of like the PGA Tour of cycling, and includes many of the major races in Europe, and a handful elsewhere around the world. All of the biggest and best teams are ?Pro Tour? teams, much like a football team is a member of the NFL. So the Pro Tour races therefore get the best teams and the best riders and are the biggest races.

However, the UCI, which governs the Pro Tour, has been at war with the organizers of the Grand Tours like the Tour de France, Giro di Italia, and Vuelta y Espana, over matters of anti-doping. Subsequently, they?ve pulled these races, the biggest in all of cycling, out of the Pro Tour calendar, and are now running them as independent races, and may invite whichever teams they choose, Pro Tour or not. In a world without doping, this would be ok?they?d invite the best teams with the best riders anyway. But that?s not the case, and this year?s Tour de France, among other big races, will not see Alberto Contador defend his title because ASO, organizers of the Tour, declined to invite his team, Astana.

Astana is a Kazakh team, sponsored by Kazakh companies and the government. In 2006 and 2007, they were mired in doping problems and were kicked out of the Tour both years because of that. Last year, Lance?s former Discovery Channel Team won the Tour with Contador for an 8th time under director Johan Bruyneel. The team also included Levi, who placed third, and was undoubtedly the most powerful team in the peloton (again), even without Lance. Discovery did not renew their sponsorship of the team last year and they folded. Suddenly, Johan, Contador, Leipheimer and the rest of the Tour de France-winning team was out of work.

Enter Astana. Looking to shake things up and create a clean team, they hired Bruyneel as their new director. He subsequently fired everyone else on the staff, including most of the riders, and hired basically everyone from his former Discovery Team, including Contador, Levi and Andreas Kloden, another Tour favorite. So now Astana is under new management, with a new roster, new bike sponsorship (Trek, of course), pretty much new everything. They have 3 legitimate Tour contenders in Kloden, Levi and Contador, and without question the best supporting cast of any Pro Tour team. Problem is, the Pro Tour no longer regulates the Tour, so Astana got snubbed.

ASO, the organizing body of the Tour, reasoned that with Astana?s past doping history and disruption of the Tour in recent years, they didn?t deserve to come back. Fair enough. But the only thing that remains from the old team is the name of the sponsor. They have even implemented external doping controls for the entire team, spending over $1 million this season alone to make sure their riders are clean.

Furthermore, ASO did not snub other teams mired in scandal, including Rabobank who fired Michael Rasmussen for suspected doping during the last week of the Tour, who was poised to win the whole thing, wearing the yellow jersey when he got the boot. ASO is under enormous criticism from the American cycling media to let Astana in the Tour, and Levi even launched a campaign called ?Let Levi Ride? with a website, t-shirts and stickers.

Interestingly, in France, the decision to boot Astana has received praise, simultaneously giving the Americans another reason to hate France. They see it as a good thing, whereas the rest of the world sees it as an enormous debacle, something that could ruin the Tour. Riders from other teams are already threatening to boycott the Tour altogether if Astana cannot ride. The peloton wants to ride against the best, and there is no sense in winning if the favorites are sitting on the sidelines. It?d be like the Master?s not letting Tiger play?who wants to win if they don?t have a chance to beat the best in the world?

Similarly, the fans are already boycotting the Tour. Nobody, myself included, wants to watch a bunch of second-rate riders duke it out on the slopes of the Alps and Pyrenees without the likes of Levi, Contador and Astana leading the charge. It will be an enormous shame if this ends up killing the Tour. I don?t think it will, and I still have a feeling that ASO will reverse their decision as the pressure mounts, especially if Levi can win in California, proving that his Astana squad is the best in the business. That said, if the decision does kill the tour, it might end up turning the Tour of California or another yet-to-happen Grand Tour in the US into the marquee cycling event of the future. It?s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out.

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