Friday, July 31, 2009

Tour Recap

High summer in France approaches. The hay has been cut and bailed, and the cut fields and bails are golden brown. The trees and other fields are still green, and a light haze hangs over them. The sun shines on most days, and large cumulus clouds roll lazily across the sky towards the horizon. From the air, the villages and cities look white or bleached beige -- ancient. Paris awaits the arrival of the riders of the final stage on a lazy Sunday afternoon. For anyone who has spent time in the city, the aerial photography is a feast for the eyes. The Seine, the outlying parks and arrondissements, The Louvre and Tuileries, the Rue de Rivoli, Place de la Concorde, Champs Elysées. The City of Light.

The Tour turned out about as expected. There were a few exciting stages, and the final outcome was not clear until Mont Ventoux. Cavendish had a great sprint at the end on Sunday to claim the victory in the prestigious final stage.

Hardly was the Tour over, and rumors of doping started to spread – stories of medicine bottles found in trashcans at the hotels where the riders stayed. I find myself trying to justify (rationalize) my love of the Tour but know that it is useless. I accept the likelihood of doping and hope that the dopers will be caught and punished. The controls are stricter than with most other sports ... and so on. My reaction to the Tour is a combination of nostalgic appreciation of France's beauty, love of the bicycle (the most efficient means of transportation), fascination with the strange mix of team and individual sport and its curious etiquette, and awe at the willingness of the riders to subject themselves to such a brutal regime over three weeks. I know that I'll be back next year.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The King's Stage (Königsetappe)

Yesterday was probably the most important stage of the race with four (4) Category 1 peaks and one Category 2 peak. The last two peaks succeeded one another with little time for recovery. By the end of the stage, Contador and the two Schlick brothers moved into the lead, displaying a convinving dominance over the other riders. Wiggins and Armstrong could not keep up at the end. Even Klöden ran out of gas at the end. The Germans call the most important stage the Königsetappe. I could not find an equivalent term in English, so I translated it directly as the King's Stage. You get the idea.

Today there are individual time trials. Armstrong is far enough behind the Schleck brothers that he is going to have to have a remarkable run to have a chance at a place on the podium in Paris. Contador is starting to look like the overall winner, but if he has a bad day or an accident, all bets are off. Thor Hushovd appears to have captured the green jersey with a remarkable breakaway yesterday that left him almost six minutes ahead of the pack at one point. He faded at the end, but achieved his goal.

Jens Voigt had an ugly crash two days ago, destroying his helmet, knocking him out, breaking his jaw and scraping his face. He spent the night in the intensive care unit. Without a helmet he'd most likely be dead. He is lucky that he did not fall over the road barrier into a ravine. Voigt is a really decent guy who was a work horse for the Saxo Bank team and a good attacker. His loss right before today's stage was a setback for the Schleck brothers, his teammates. They rose to the occasion and are a formidable team against Contador.

The penultimate stage at Mont Ventoux could be a real thriller if Contador shows any signs of weakness.

Lance Redux

In the 16th stage Lance Armstrong fought off an attack on his second place overall ranking. At first it did not look as if he was going to be able to keep up with the breakaway group, which included the Schleck brothers and his teammates Klöden and Contador. But, before the lead exceeded the critical 30 seconds, Lance rose up on his pedals and launched a successful counter-attack, even passing one of the Schleck brothers before letting up. It was moving to see Armstrong drawing on his last reserves to fend off the attackers. It is pretty clear that he will not be able to win the overall race, but he still has some fight left. The day of rest before the stage certainly did him some good. The next stage is probably the single most difficult one, after which the final contenders or even a likely overall winner should emerge.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Showdown at Verbier - A Play with 21 Acts

If you are following the drama of Lance Armstrong's attempt to win his eighth Tour de France, the climax was reached on Sunday. I find myself groping for terminology to find a lens through which to view this story. Let's try tragedy. There were several key episodes in the story. First, our hero Lance Armstrong broke away from his team and main team rival Alberto Contador in the third stage from Marseille to La Grande-Motte, rising to third place overall but generating criticism for challenging his team captain so early in the race. Lance also engaged in psychological tactics to try to psyche out Contador and gain influence with his teammates. Contador clearly was set back by Armstrong's blatant move to usurp his leadership role. Particularly noteworthy to me was the ceremony after the team time trials in Marseille, when Armstrong, not Contador, took the stage trophy for the Astana team and held it triumphantly. Let's call this hubris.

Contador then responded by regaining the lead over Lance in a breakaway of his own in the Pyrenees.

Finally, on Sunday, in one of the few mountain stages that ends on an uphill climb (on a Category 1 mountain at Verbier) the stage was set for the showdown between Armstrong and Contador. Let's call this the climax. Viewers had become impatient waiting for one of the top contenders to make a run for the yellow jersey. Three Astana riders were up front, including Armstrong and Contador. In a brief instant reminiscent of a judo or sumo wrestling match - or of a duel on a dusty street in the Old West - Contador attacked with less than six kilometers left in the race right before the peak at Verbier, and in a matter of seconds he took a commanding lead to win the stage and the yellow jersey. No other racer was able to respond adequately. Lance Armstrong did not even try to catch Contador. I've lost track of the number of times I've watched Lance Armstrong degrade other racers with similar moves in the Pyrenees and Alps. At a point when no one would imagine an athlete having any reserves left, Armstrong would stand up on his pedals and start making the stiletto stabs with his feet for which he is so famous, and he would pull away in a burst of speed that left one sitting with one's jaw open, tapping one's foot to the rhythm of the pedaling. On Sunday it was Contador who was doing the stabbing. The camera focused on Lance's face, and it was clear that Lance had nothing left to give. Let's call this reversal. Armstrong finished ninth in the stage, and, even though he is still second overall, the race now would appear to be over as between Armstrong and Contador. Armstrong said as much in the post-race interviews. Absent a sign of major weakness from Contador that would imperil an Astana victory, one would expect Armstrong to work for Contador's overall victory now. The denouement shall follow and maybe even catharsis. Maybe the battle between Armstrong and Contador is not over. Maybe Lance will prove his nobility by working tirelessly in the Alps to ensure Contador's overall victory. Either way we will learn a great deal about the man Lance Armstrong. It will be interesting to see if there is another rider who can challenge Contador. Contador looked quite impressive at Verbier.
Fortinbras has entered stage right. The curtain drops until the next act.

Old & New II

Odd Couple 1. Turn-of-Century Villa next to Seventies mixed-use building.

Odd couple 2. Both office buildings are vacant. Which one would you prefer to rent?

Odd couple 3. The roof terrace on the newer building on the right does look interesting.

Odd couple 4.

Variation on a theme. Old and New together. This is the former Lehman Brothers' Building. There are several similar projects where the building was torn down except for its historic facade and cutting edge office space was constructed behind the facade.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Old & New

Exhibit A (Click to enlarge)
On the left, a late Nineteenth-Century villa with sandstone facade. In the middle, an atrocious office building, probably from the Seventies. On the right, nondescript apartment houses, probably from the Fifties (with subsequent renovation). In the background, modern towers.

A teardown. Former site of a nondescript residential building.

A thorough renovation (Kernsanierung). Sandwiched between two nondescript residential buildings, the site of new "Luxury Apartments." Banking district in the background.

The Plan.

The target buyers: The banker and his trophy wife?
Blurb: "For people who prefer the elegant and the unusual over simplicity."

Ever since I first visited Germany as a kid, the constant level of construction activity has been noticeable. Germans build, renovate, tear down and rebuild at such a rate that you rarely cannot find a constructions site in your immediate vicinity. A walk into town takes you past numerous sites. Good times or bad, the work goes on.

During the war, Frankfurt was not subjected to mass destruction of residential neighborhoods. Nevertheless, significant damage was done to large portions of the residential areas near the center of town, particularly in areas that bordered on commercial or industrial districts. With limited resources after the war, Germans made compromises on the quality and design of their buildings. For that reason, Frankfurt has a plentiful supply of nondescript buildings in need of a makeover -- or better yet, a higher and better use. On the other side of the argument, these nondescript buildings often provide reasonably-priced quarters for residents right in the heart of town. I often walk past a bizarre mixture of late Nineteenth Century villas, matchbox apartment houses built in the Fifties, and more modern offices, many of which also are depressingly ugly. In the past years there have been numerous tear-downs of apartment houses and office buildings. With their cheap construction in prime locations, the old buildings just could not compete with newer construction for premium rents. These pictures were taken in the Westend South, and all sites are within about 700 meters of one another.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Oh Joy, this has turned out to be a great raspberry season. The raspberry is my hands down favorite fruit. Unfortunately, it is relatively expensive and extremely fragile. You have to eat the fruit within two or three days of harvest. The berries pictured above (the pic does not do justice to them) are from Germany and were bought at a major discounter for an extremely reasonable price. They taste as good as any I've eaten. The quality reminds me of the best ones we had in Washington State, Oregon, and California. The discounter has been selling them for several weeks now. We eat small bowls of them almost every day. I'm in heaven.

Not all fruits and vegetables here taste great. Often, the mass-produced fruits and veggies imported from countries like Spain, Holland, Turkey, and even some from Italy, taste as bland as their counterparts at the major US supermarkets or discounters. You can always find top quality produce here, but the prices can be prohibitive. The imports from France typically are delicious but expensive. Top notch Italian produce also can command astronomical prices. German produce in supermarkets tends to be a bit more expensive than the cheaper imports but cheaper than the luxury goods from France and Italy. The trick is finding good quality stuff at a reasonable price. We struck gold this summer with the King of Fruits.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Le Tour de France Live

If you'd like to follow the Tour de France but don't have access to TV coverage or don't have several hours a day to watch each stage, the Official Tour de France Website offers a lot of information about each stage of the race in English. Of particular interest is the live ticker that not only gives you a written update of the race every few minutes but also shows the profile (elevation) of the stage, the progress of the race along the profile, and an animated display of riders showing whether there is a breakaway group, pursuers, or simply a pack. I have two screens at my workplace and can leave the live ticker running on my second screen while I'm working. I still try to catch the last hour of each stage on TV when I can. This year, live coverage of all complete stages is not available in Germany, usually only the last couple of hours. Especially on a day like today when the stage ends on a mountaintop (the hardest category: hors categorie), the last hour of the stage can be thrilling, as even the strongest racers start to burn out shortly before the finish line.

For Americans viewing the Tour for the first time, I recommend keeping in mind that no single racer is capable of winning the overall Tour without the help of others, primarily his own teammates, but sometimes teams that have an interest in seeing another racer overtake a leader or that are willing to work with another team to keep their leaders competitive in the overall time contest. The larger the group that pulls together the more likely they will be able to sustain a breakaway or catch up with one. This adds an element of complexity to the race that sometimes produces behavior that is baffling for Americans, such as the occasional times when a rider slows down to allow others to catch up, e.g. if a competitor crashes. The decision whether to go after breakaway groups also involves a close analysis of whether any of the breakaway riders poses a danger to the other teams. If a leader breaks away, there is sure to be pursuit. Occasionally, especially on the less challenging stages, a lower-ranked rider or group of lower-ranked riders is able to break away from the pack and score a stage victory. This gives lesser teams and riders a chance to shine while the leaders store up energy for the next difficult stage. If you'd like to read up on the different stages in English, you might try the Cycling News website or BBC's Cycling Page.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Sorry for the long interruption. I'll try to keep those to a minimum in the future. It is already high summer here (woosh). We had over a week of relatively high temperatures, but now things have cooled down for a few days. In Germany you rarely have more than two or three weeks of strong heat before a cold front rolls in from the North or Baltic Sea and cools things down for a few days. The weather is quite mild in the winter, just gray and rainy for weeks on end, but it is not unusual to have to turn your heat on in May or early June because of a cold snap.

After a pause of a couple of years, I started watching the Tour de France again this past week. Maybe it was Lance Armstrong's comeback that put me over the top. (Maybe his quest for seven titles was the reason I spent so many July afternoons in past years watching.) I think, however, that the doping scandals of the past few years lowered my desire to watch the Tour. Whatever, I caught the fever again this summer. The aerial photography of France is breathtaking. I had to laugh at one picture I saw of a Tour fan standing alongside the route holding a sign. The word EPO was written vertically in large letters on the sign. Horizontally, the E, P & O were supplemented to form the words "Eau, Pastis, Olives" (water, anisette, olives). That's more like it. For the uninitiated, pastis is one of the national drinks of France, particularly southern France. Similar to Ouzo, it is cut with water, which causes it to turn cloudy (see above). It may be an acquired taste if you don't like licorice, and it should only be enjoyed in moderate quantities to avoid unpleasant side effects, but if heaven doesn't have a decent cafe that serves pastis, I don't want to go.