Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton…. Best science book of the year

I nominate this fascinating story for the best science book of the year in two categories—bio-chemistry and psychology.  Tyler Hamilton, a cycling hero, gold medal winner and legend of the early 2000s, tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.  After years of maintaining his innocence publicly and trying to get back into biking, he agreed to tell all to a federal prosecutor and the world.  What comes out is a remarkable story of the corruption and moral turpitude that run through all the “moneyed” sports, the psychological walls that cyclists, doctors, managers, coaches, and race directors must build within their own minds to make it through the days, and a veritable arms race of chemicals that are being poured into the healthiest bodies on the planet to give them just a little more of an edge over their competitors.   And all brought to you by the big money vehicle for advertising that professional sports have become.

Lance Armstrong is quoted throughout the book, but the real revelation is how he thought about cycling.  He came at it from a completely professional perspective with the assumption that everyone else in every race was also cheating (by doping), and that you are a chump if you don’t get just as good at playing the doping sport, and the avoiding the testers game, as you are on the bicycle.  It is a truly rational view, and one that was shared by virtually everyone in professional cycling.   Hamilton chronicles his own first encounter with this reality, as well as how the moral objections of others evaporated over the space of weeks, or days or even an afternoon.  It is clear that 20 year old is faced with a choice to take drugs (to do what everyone else is doing) or to abandon the dream that the cyclist has held since childhood, that has moulded his life so fundamentally that his identity is inextricable from the bicycle.

What is clear from this book is that Hamilton has come to terms with his choice and his life, as have, this fall, virtually all of professional cycling’s greats from the last 15 years.  What is not clear yet is whether cycling, or any professional sport, can change.   It has always had the most rigorous anti-doping regime amongst the professional sports (have you ever seen footage of 70s era basketball or football players—it’s inconceivable that the 25% increase in muscle mass of modern players is accomplished through better diet and training regimes…..), but the incentive to win, to fame, to fortune is extraordinarily powerful.  And science can help to tilt the playing field your way, or make the hill less steep.   I hope parents become a bit more thoughtful about pushing their kids into competitive sports—or stick to curling, which is probably the only sport unaffected…..

Pandas! one more wildlife story……

Location of Pingwu County (pink) and Mianyang ...

Location of Pingwu County (pink) and Mianyang Prefecture (yellow) within Sichuan province of China Map drawn in october 2007 using various sources, mainly : Sichuan province administrative regions GIS data: 1:1M, County level, 1990 Sichuan Counties map from http://www.hua2.com (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pingwu County, Sichuan, China is completely vertical–it is the northwest edge of the consequence of the Indian sub-continent drifting into Asia and pushing the Tibetan plateau 14000 feet into the air.  Narrow valleys have roads pasted along their sides, towered above by enormous steep cliffs that often slough off the roads during the summer rains.

This is also habitat for the few remaining wild pandas, China’s iconic wildlife species.  Probably only around 2000 pandas still exist in the fragmented habitat of Sichuan, but Pingwu county is a healthy patch in which they live.  They are notoriously shy–some students receive there Ph.D.s without ever encountering one in the wild during their years of field research.

Part of the danger of having guests coming to China is that they want to see it all in the 8 days that they are here.  Imagine if your Spanish cousin came to visit you in Denver and asked if it would be possible to pop down to New Orleans for a night, then go to San Francisco, and be back before the weekend.  Then add in rough, constantly-in-construction roads, no civil aviation, no airports at all where nature actually is, and you can see how difficult it is to get visitors to see all of China’s wildlife in 8 days.

But there we were, 25 of TNC’s best and brightest scientists and professionals from Africa, Latin America, China and other parts of Asia on an 8 day tour in two small buses zooming around the canyons of Pingwu.  For those of you that know me, you know that I am not very good company when cooped up in a car all day.  So at our next stop, a “45 minute” hike into a nature reserve, I decided to get my workout in for the day.

Our host opened the locked gate and we crossed a rudimentary bridge and proceeded up a side canyon that quickly took on the primeval.  The walls were near vertical, plastered with greenery, and the stream very steep.  I hustled on up ahead and broke into a run.  Running out of trail after about 2 miles, I worked my way up a different side canyon in a dry creek bed for another 2 miles.  As my conscience about keeping my colleagues waiting started to overcome my desire to keep exploring a landscape like none I had ever seen before–bamboo, huge trees, massive boulders, waterfalls dripping moss and fern–I slowed down.

And then I heard the oddest sounds.  “Baaaaa.  Baaaaa.”  and some popping noises.  I don’t know the birds of China well enough to identify by sound, so I stopped and looked up for a while.  It continued and I could tell it was coming from one side of the canyon and was being answered from the other.   Then I thought it might be a monkey–I’m a lawyer by training, so I don’t know their sounds either, though some would say lawyers are equally less evolved…..  I kept listening and the sounds continued.  I made my way up the creek and around a corner slowly, stopping and watching every so often.

Giant Pandas eating bamboo in Chengdu, Sichuan

Giant Pandas eating bamboo in Chengdu, Sichuan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally the baaing stopped.  I climbed up onto a boulder to get a better view around.  40 meters away I saw 2 pandas running up the steep slope away from me–and some movement in some nearby bushes that indicated a 3rd.  I watched them until they disappeared into the dense brush–only about 5 seconds.  I was stunned.   At the time, I didn’t realize how special it was to see these animals this way, and I also wasn’t really sure what they would do to me if threatened.  I have spent a lot of time around grizzlies in Wyoming and Montana, so was thinking that going forward to investigate might not be a great idea.  But after a few minutes I couldn’t resist and hacked my way through the bamboo to where I had seen them in hopes of finding some evidence.  I found lots of footprints and took a few pictures or them, in the hopes of persuading someone I had actually seen the Giant Panda.

When I got down I described the sound to North Asia’s chief scientist, Matt Durnin, who has a Ph.D in Pandas from Berkeley.  He confirmed that was the sound and the footprints of a panda.  I felt like I should have played the lottery that evening–the chances of seeing a wild panda in the only 45 minutes I would spend in their habitat that week must be astronomically slim.  But sometimes it is better to be lucky than smart.