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Peter Abraham
Peter Abraham
Is This America’s Best Track Meet?

You may not have heard of the Occidental High Performance track meet. Sure, you know about the famed Prefontaine Classic meet in Oregon, which is a showcase for Nike’s marketing muscle. And probably the Adidas Grand Prix Diamond League meet in New York City. Or perhaps the USA Track & Field National Championships. But the Oxy HP meet might be the most compelling meet in the country.

This meet is different. Like a few other big meets, the fields are world-class—this year’s event featured much of the US Olympic team as well as global distance superstar Mo Farah. While the Pre meet and other Diamond League races do have faster fields overall, their heats are stocked with Kenyans and Ethiopians whom are unknown to all but the most hardcore track fans. Oxy showcases, for the most part, the stars of American distance running. Moreover, it also doesn’t try to cram every track and field event into one evening. Just distance events: The 800, 1500, Steeplechase, and 5000. That’s it. One of the biggest mistakes brands, or events, make nowadays is trying to be all things to all people. The fact is that a single traditional track meet is actually playing to several audiences with sprinters, jumpers, throwers, and distance runners all on display. The distance fan really is a discrete tribe, so why not create an event just for them? I love that Oxy does this.

The organizers of this event—Rose Monday, Frank Gagliano, and Jon Marcus—have done an incredible job building it thus far. I commend them for creating such a great meet in such an intimate venue. The value of their foundational work isn’t lost on me. But neither is the opportunity to take Oxy to the next level. Currently, Oxy is the equivalent of holding a PGA Tour event, with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, at a local municipal course with a miniscule gallery of insider spectators and almost no media coverage. Hard to imagine, right? Well, in track and field it’s commonplace. But that’s also the opportunity here. Outside of the Olympic Trials or a big city marathon, I can’t think of a better way to bring distance running to a new audience. Not only is this event already great and getting better, but it’s in Los Angeles, the fittest big city in America. If Rose and her team want to grow Oxy to it’s rightful place as America’s best track meet (and to be clear, they may not), they require some significant upgrades. Oxy needs to mature along with its potential.

Here’s my 10-point plan to build this meet into a world-class event:

1.     Immediately move the meet to UCLA’s Drake Stadium. While Oxy has benefitted from the quaint environs of the 2,400-seat Jack Kemp Stadium, this venue is at capacity and there’s no real estate to add temporary seating. A move to Drake, with its 12,000 seats, would allow the race to scale upward for years, with plenty of parking and amenities.

2.   Professional media team. Currently, the Occidental meet does almost no media or press whatsoever. That needs to change. I’d add a small media team starting a month or so in advance of the event with PR, social media, and video content.

3.   Create a real social media profile: Twitter, Instagram, facebook. Proper hashtag usage, including a hashtag chalked onto the infield so all of the spectators can get on the same page. Then they need a professional social media staff the night of the race to be constantly tweeting, posting to facebook, sending out photos and video, etc. This approach is critical for any live event nowadays.

4.     Build a website. It’s hard to imagine any event without even a basic website, but Oxy currently doesn’t have one. It took me 10 minutes on Google to find even their basic page on the Occidental College site. This can be built in a few weeks for a couple thousand dollars. It should incorporate all of the social media channels and be updated on a daily basis in the weeks leading up to the event.

5.     Great video content before, during, and after the meet. Flotrack did a good job with live video of this year’s event, but it could be even better. This is inexpensive and effective storytelling. Shoot some preview pieces in advance and get them out with press releases. Then do a really nice live streaming production with RunnerSpace or Flotrack, and immediately (night of event) cut a highlight video and send it around with a wrap-up press release.

6.     A comprehensive PR strategy. They need to get local and national media excited about this event. A friend of mine is a local news anchor in LA and a committed marathoner and triathlete. He’d love to cover Occidental, but I’m guessing no one bothered to tell him about it. I follow running media obsessively, and I saw absolutely no coverage at all of Occidental before or after the event outside of Flotrack and the usual diehard tweeters.

7.     Analytics: It’s super important for events to understand how their media is or is not working. So one needs to use a comprehensive social media data mining platform. There are free ones like Addictomatic, and more in-depth tools like Tracx. Either way, this should be a priority.

8.     Get sponsorship. I wasn’t aware of any sponsors at the event. There may have been some, but they weren’t visible to me. Oxy could hire a competent corporate partnership agency like Collective Sports & Entertainment, someone who is a pro in both sponsorship and running. There are all kinds of opportunities to provide ROI to brand partners, but the biggest win will be in the digital space. Sponsors can get placement on the website and in social media, involvement in video and broadcast elements, included in email blasts, etc. And the sponsors don’t necessarily have to include running shoe companies. There are so many other ways to go. Look at the HyVee Triathlon in Iowa. It’s got one of the richest prize purses in the sport, and it’s sponsored by a Midwestern grocery chain.

9.     Actively reach out to the local community. It shouldn’t be difficult to get 10,000 spectators out for this event. I’d start by making a deal with Nike to bus in kids from the Students Run LA program (which Nike already sponsors). They train 3,000 at-risk middle school and high school kids every year to run the full LA Marathon. Why not get 2,000 of them to come out and be inspired by world-class performers? Then I’d offer half price tickets to every high school track and XC team in the region. After that I’d reach out to the dozens of running clubs in Southern California. There are so many potential attendees—it’s just a matter of connecting with them.

10. Create a great spectator experience. I’d start with a mandatory autograph alley. Every athlete would be required to spend half an hour before or after their event meeting fans and signing autographs. At this year’s event there was zero opportunity for the many high school runners in attendance to meet their idols, unless they stood outside the back gate and intercepted athletes on the way to their cars. The athletes were sequestered all the way across the field from the grandstand. The autograph zone could also include distance stars who may not be running at the event but would love the chance to grow their tribe: Meb, Deena, Ryan Hall, and Shalane Flanagan. There should also be great food, fun giveaways, a VIP skybox, and a scoreboard loaded with useful info. Any event needs to take time to understand the customer experience and optimize it.

Final SXSW post, I promise!

I also shot this piece, so when people ask, “Hey what is SXSW about, anyway?” I can just show them this video. I think of it as “Southby 101.”

Why Experiential Matters

(I’m reposting a piece I wrote for the BeCore blog)

While attending the famed South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, I spent time thinking about the nature of experiential marketing. We were there working with a couple clients on activations. With Sonos, we collaborated with other agencies to create a version of their Sonos Studio in Austin. While we can’t take credit for the entire space, we were proud to be a part of it. This video illustrates much of the fun they created for attendees who came by to visit: bands, live radio broadcasts, art installations, haircuts, DIY speakers, and more. And all of it (ok, maybe not the haircuts, but most of it) related directly to the Sonos brand identity that revolves around music listening.

What experiential offers is a live, tangible engagement that a brand can’t get from advertising, online video, digital, PR, or the various other forms of media and communication. There just isn’t a replacement for people feeling your brand in person. In fact, many smart brands are now creating customer experience centers that don’t fit neatly into the retail category. I’m thinking of the Nike Training Club in Chicago, the new TOMS retail space in Venice Beach, and Gardein’s tasting kitchen in Los Angeles. These are all places for current and potential customers to experience the brand without the pressure of having to buy anything. I love this direction, and it speaks to my recent interview with social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk. He rightly emphasized the importance of brands “bringing value” to their customers. All of these activations do that.

My favorite brands nowadays are bringing the full 360 degree approach to their outreach, and I’d include Sonos in that category.

Here’s my report from the SXSW Festival, from the BeCore blog:

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Austin’s Sixth Street, the beating heart of SXSW.

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The convention floor during the interactive conference.

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Fitz and the Tantrums live at The Belmont.

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The backyard scene at the Sonos Studio.

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I interviewed Sonos head of culture and PR Ivan Entchevitch on the neon furniture…

becore:

This month we sat down with Aaron Foster, a man who is perhaps the most hyphenated person we’ve ever come across. Over the last 2 decades he has gone from furniture to fine art to Hollywood and is now changing the game of sports drinks from Skratch Labs HQ in Boulder, CO.

We wanted to hear…

I like this interview.

Five Questions for Gary Vaynerchuk

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Gary Vaynerchuk is a global influencer in the social media space. From his beginnings building his family’s WineLibrary.com business to becoming something of an online video celebrity with his wine tasting videos, to now advising dozens of brands on media strategy and execution, Gary is a fountain of information on contemporary communications and business. He’s also written a couple terrific books along the way: Crush it! and The Thank You Economy. I was interested to get his take on the current state of content marketing, so I reached out to him. Gary was nice enough to spend some time with me on the phone discussing everything I threw his way and more.

How did you get into content-focused marketing? Did it all start with the videos at WineLibrary.com? 

I looked at content as marketing early on, and the reason is I thought it would bring value. Content is a level up from marketing, and even a level up from that is bringing value. If you bring value, you win. I’m challenging my brands and my clients to bring value in ways that are even bigger than content. That’s the next five-year battle, which is going to be very lucrative, especially when executed on the social web.

How do you work with brands at Vayner Media?

We do three core things: community management, paid media on social networks, and strategy. Then the real mothership; we are a creative shop making content: animated GIFs on your Tumblr account, the pictures on your Facebook account, copy on Twitter, pinboards on Pinterest, photos and meme-like products on Instagram. We create content for those channels.

A lot of companies need to address who they are and what they stand for before they start creating content. Do you have this discussion with brands you work with?

I think it’s important. If you don’t know who you are, then how do you market? But if you take it even a level higher than that, understanding who you are is way too subjective. You could have four different groups do this kind of brand thinking for you—Bain, McKinsey, Cambridge Group, and someone like me—and you’d get four different answers. That’s the real truth. I think of a brand like a human being, and there are multiple layers of personality. Take me for example: some think I’m inspirational, some think I’m egotistical, some think I have amazing bravado and confidence. Those are all true, but they’re all me, right?

I’ve seen you use the term “micro content.” Can you tell us about that?

Much like Leo Burnett and a lot of people in the 1960s figured out how to tell stories on television, we need to figure out how to tell stories on social networks using mobile devices. That’s what micro-content is. Shareable, mobile, social, timely content that rides the wave of the conversation or the story your brand is trying to tell. But respecting the platform that the product is on. Respecting the nuances of Pinterest, respecting the confines of Twitter, etc. Figuring out how to tell a story within the confines of that vehicle, just like we did with television, print, outdoor, and radio in the ‘60s and ‘70s. With social, there are so many different sites and nuances, it’s not all the same.

What gets you up in the morning? Is there a bigger purpose to the work you’re doing?

It’s not about changing the media world, but it is. I’ve innovated in the wine world: I was the first wine ecommerce site on the internet, the first one to sell using online video, the first one to do email marketing, and the first one to buy the word “wine” on SEO. Same thing now for this world. I’m trying to change the way agencies are perceived and what they do. But what it really ladders up to, quite honestly, what I wake up in the morning and say to myself subconsciously: I’m driven by gratitude. I’m so grateful that I was born with this talent and DNA. I’m so grateful that I got out of Soviet Russia, I’m so grateful that I have the best parents in the world, that I just want to execute on what I’ve been given.

Fieldtrip: Outdoor Retailer Winter Market

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Here’s the Woolrich booth on the show floor. Founded in 1930, they bill themselves as “the original outdoor clothing company.”

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This wall says it all: Patagonia has an amazing amount of authentic storytelling material.

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I am strangely obsessed with this little Japanese brand that effectively combines contemporary style with functionality.

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Hey, cool…Sweet quilted down jackets in bright colors!

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Hey, wait…more quilted down in the same colors. Let’s all jump on the bandwagon, shall we?

I’ve been an outdoor sports athlete basically since I was born, and I’ve worked in marketing and sports for over 25 years. So how is it possible that I’ve never been to the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City? I’d wanted to go for years, but never had a compelling reason beyond my own curiosity. This year, working with experiential marketing agency BeCore, I had several clients to meet with. So I boarded my flight to Utah with a lot of anticipation.

The show, which takes place twice a year, is an opportunity for retailers to see gear that will arrive for the upcoming season. So the January show is focused on apparel and equipment for the following winter. Of the hundreds of brands set up in the Salt Palace Convention Center, some of the largest displays included Patagonia, The North Face, Teva, Keen, Burton, Woolrich, and Columbia.  But the list goes down to ski wax makers, outdoor dog accessories, and headlamp makers. It’s a veritable Disneyland of gear, gadgets, and Gore-tex. I LOVED every minute of my time there. 

Here are some of my observations:

The Old Guard: I feel that we’re about to see a paradigm shift in this space. The legacy brands I grew up with—The North Face, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear—are all feeling long in the tooth to me. They’re lacking purpose. While they still make functional and nice looking gear, they’ve built their business on the backs of baby boomers. And I don’t see them appealing to the millenials. Specifically, and I’d say this is a problem for over half of the brands I saw, the marketing point of view and brand positioning is conservative and expected. I didn’t see a lot of innovative storytelling on display.

New Blood: But there is a new crop of young brands poised to step into the culturally relevant space. Keep an eye on brands like Trew, Holden Outerwear, HippyTree, and Topo Athletic, who were all in attendance. In addition, there were some brands not at OR whom I also like: Poler and Aether Apparel. These guys, who are all from either Oregon or Los Angeles, are trying to differentiate themselves through design or brand positioning. And I like that. They’ve got a refreshing energy which runs counter to the mainstream.

Patagonia, even at 40 years old, is still a vital and important brand. Why? First of all, they stand for something, and many of the other brands there could learn from this. Patagonia is an environmental movement with a brand attached. And they’re also innovators. They have an accumulated reservoir of storytelling material that goes beyond any other brand at the show. 

Arc’teryx apparel on display was exceptional. They stand out due to their obsessive focus on beautiful and functional design. I learned that they’re the only brand that owns their own factory (in Vancouver, near their headquarters). So they do an amazing amount of prototyping. Their gear is expensive, but it looked and felt different than anything else at the show.

• The quilted jacket phenomenon: We’ve all seen the quilted down jackets popularized by Patagonia, right? Well, if OR is any indication, get ready to see a lot more of them starting this fall. It was literally hard to find a brand who WASN’T making a quilted product at the show. I lost count when I hit 20 brands making essentially the same product in the same 5 bright colors. Do we really all have to do exactly the same thing?

Equipment: As a climber, I love beautifully designed and functional technical gear. OR was full of camping stove makers, lightweight water bottles, and climbing safety equipment. Some of my favorites included Black Diamond, who are now making a vast array of different things, and Snow Peak. This is a Japanese brand that makes lightweight-but-stylish camping gear. You can tell they are design freaks: the attention to detail, the small-but-slick display booth, and the super modern HQ building in Japan. This could be my new favorite brand.

Manufacturing: There were a number of factories with booths selling their services. You can one-stop shop for all kinds of technical apparel and gear production. Like consumer electronics, this business has moved almost entirely to Asia. I found myself pining for a brand that was made in the US.

Holding companies: You may not be aware of how many brands are owned by private equity funds. I certainly wasn’t. Wolverine was there in force. You think of them as a workboot maker. They’ve grown far beyond that, and they own, among others, Merrell, Sperry Topsider, Saucony, Keds, Hush Puppies, and Patagonia Footwear. Then there’s Amer Sports, parent of Arc’teryx, Salomon, Atomic, and others. And of course Deckers, owner of Ugg, Teva, and Sanuk. VF Corporation owns 25 separate brands including The North Face, Vans, Nautica, and Eagle Creek. I personally lament this roll-up of businesses. While it does provide economies of scale and backroom efficiencies, I sense that many of these brands have lost the unique identities that made them successful in the first place. On the upside, the holding companies threw some great parties, and I made it to the Wolverine event that featured a performance by Macklemore.

Five Questions for Architect John Enright

John in front of the quarter-mile long SCI-Arc building.

The stunning St. Thomas school that John and his wife designed.

John Enright and his wife Margaret Griffin have been good friends since our daughters started playing together in kindergarten. They’re a talented couple who, through their firm Griffin Enright Architects, have compiled an impressive body of work. In addition, they both teach at influential Los Angeles architecture school SCI-Arc. John is the undergraduate program chair at the school and plays an integral part in designing the curriculum. I recently visited John at SCI ARC’s impressive downtown campus and chatted about what he’s up to.

Tell me about your background and how you ended up at Sci Arc.

I started teaching at SCI-Arc in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s with Thom Mayne while I was working with him at Morphosis Architects. In 2000 after starting Griffin Enright Architects, Eric Owen Moss, the Director of SCI-Arc,  asked me to teach a studio, and since then I have been teaching there, with the exception of a couple of years at USC, and a visiting position at Syracuse University.

 

What does your job entail?  

As Undergraduate Program Chair, I help develop the pedagogy and curriculum of the undergraduate program, and am involved with student and faculty recruitment, admissions, and development. We are a small school of 500 students and 60 faculty, so everyone is involved at an integrated level. This includes the administration, faculty and staff. Recently I have been also helping manage the schools 2013 Solar Decathlon project, which will be built next year, and I am for the first time teaching first year design this fall to our freshman class – which has been more fun than you can imagine!

 

Is there a particular philosophy that is unique to Sci Arc?

I think SCI-Arc has always challenged the basic assumptions of what architecture is in society. This has had many manifestations in the schools forty year history, but it remains a constant – exploring the future through rigorous study, debate, and energy – always questioning, always challenging ourselves, to imagine plausible futures that do not yet exist.

 

How has the “digital revolution” impacted architecture and what you teach? 

It goes without saying that the computer and digital technology has changed so much in our society, from social media, to finance, manufacturing, and of course architecture and fabrication. SCI-Arc was an early adopter of many of these technologies that are now so pervasive in our world. There have been huge advances in how these technologies affect how we design, build, and imagine our environment. While SCI-Arc has embraced these technologies, we also challenge them constantly, debate their usefulness, and question the role of these technologies in design.

 

Do you believe that architecture can be a force for positive change in the community?

I think that any architect will tell you that they absolutely believe that, and it is fundamental to what architecture is. We certainly know that the opposite is true; that architecture (and here I would expand this to the broader term of “our environment” which includes our cities, infrastructure, parks, landscape, etc.) can certainly be a negative force of change. Obviously global warming is the prime example of this, but also the emergence of new global economies, particularly in the east, where we are seeing the largest, most rapid,  human migration from rural areas to cities that the planet has ever experienced. The good news is that through these massive changes that are occurring, it is sparking a new global awareness of how important our built environment is to society. I believe that young people, who have much more of a stake in this future, are absolutely understanding of this. 

But it is not just climate change that we have to be concerned with, there still lies the fundamental questions of what architecture has to offer to our society. Most buildings in our environment are pretty unremarkable, serving the basic needs of shelter, doing their business in an anonymous and mostly unnoticed manner. Think about your drive to work every day, you passed probably hundreds of buildings, did you think about any one of them? But then there are the more rare examples of architecture that has the power to make someone stop in their tracks, ponder, think and consider something. Buildings such as this usually require another visit, they usually have a complexity or an oddness that encourages you to consider it again.  They open our eyes to the world, make us think about our connection to each other,  and challenge our beliefs. Achieving this is not very easy, it means that one must have an idea, an alternative idea usually, from the milieu of what’s out there. This need not be the merely iconic (think of skyscrapers, airports, museums), but can be small of scale, sometimes hidden. Los Angeles is a great example of this, there are so many hidden gems in small pockets over the large expanse of the city, that one can spend a lifetime finding them.  

Case Study: McRun iPhone App

The road to McRun began a year and a half ago, when I went to visit renowned running coach Greg McMillan at his Flagstaff homebase. The purpose was to speak with his team of elite athletes about their communications and media skills. But I fell in love with his whole program and started talking to Greg about his McMillan Running Calculator. It’s a great tool that is used by runners all over the world to calculate equivalent race performances and optimal training paces. “Greg” I said, “the calculator would make an amazing app. What do you think?”

Greg McMillan

At the same time, my brother John, a tech CEO, had been coding apps in his spare time “just for fun.” He’s also a runner, and he kept asking me about opportunities to do an app together. Soon we were all on the phone talking about the possibilities, and McRun was born.

John Abraham

Ahh, but that’s the easy part. Every day you meet someone with an idea for an app. What about actually building one? Then what about building a GOOD app? Like many things in life, it’s all about the details and the execution. While there were some running calculator apps out there, none of them were very compelling. We wanted to create an elegant and useful interface that didn’t try to do too much. Many apps are over-engineered and unclear about their central purpose. As fans of Lean Startup methodology, both my brother and I were excited about going live with a minimum product that delivered on the core functionality while providing something for customers to comment on. Then we’d start iterating based on feedback, reacting as quickly as possible to customer needs.

Early sketch of UI

First order of business was to sketch out the user interface, or UI. What would it look like and how would it work? I had done quite a bit of interactive design, and I was a fan of Josh Clark’s excellent book Tapworthy. All of this came together as John and I sat and imagined the user experience. There are all sorts of bridges to cross here: where to put the navigation buttons? How many screens? What’s the simplest and easiest layout for users to understand? We had to be disciplined to keep it simple, because it’s tempting to add fancy bells and whistles that might distract from the app’s core functionality.

We then had designer Peter Miserlis do a rough pass on fully designed screens. We sent these to Greg and worked through how his calculator would work on the phone. He gave us great notes, and we kept at it. Meanwhile, John was deep into coding. We opted for the Appcelerator Titanium development platform, which allowed us to code once for any number of eventual platforms—iOS, Android, etc.

The Race Times page

John spent hundreds of hours getting the code right. With a painstaking attention to detail that I could never conjure up, John worked through the thousands of lines of code necessary to make the app work. Coding is an art as much as a science, and John was great at never losing sight of the forest due to all the trees.

So now it was time to release the app to a small group and get feedback. We uploaded the app software to the iTunes store, whereupon you wait up to two agonizing weeks for them to get the app live. Then Greg sent out an email to a few dozen folks who could give us early opinions. People had good notes, which we recorded and then cross-referenced with our own ideas. This led to another round of coding/revising by John. Then we went out to an even larger group. More notes. It was feeling pretty good, and we were homing in on a good product. But still not there yet.

Greg held firm that we needed to match many of the most important features from his online calculator. Namely, the sample workouts for different types of runners. He was right, and John worked ridiculous hours coding these into the app. But it was the sample workouts that really rounded the app into good shape. This is what gave the app true value to the user. Not just providing data, but giving guidance on how runners can improve their workouts and fitness.

One of many tips and inspirational quotes we snuck into the app

Finally, we were able to go live with the app, including a website with video, a press release, social media, and outreach to publications. We’ve gotten very positive reviews just about everywhere, including Competitor Magazine and the RunBlogRun blog. The app has sold really well right off the bat. But what has surprised me the most is how many sales are outside of the US, including places like Russia, Thailand, and Argentina.

We’re already hard at work on new features and improvements, and I look forward to sharing these with you soon.

Peter, I noticed some Twitter Traffic on the Tyler Hamilton Book. I have followed cycling for years. For the last 8 or 9 years, I have strongly believed that LA was guilty of doping. My question is why should I give credibility to TH. I believe that most of what TH will write is accurate, but are their some "sexy allegations" to sell books that should be ignored? TH is a convicted chronic liar who even raised funds from cycling fans for his legal defense. Is this piling on LA appropriate?

Hi Dennis,

Good question!

Several thoughts:

1. I  have been involved in cycling for many years, and I’ve met several of the main characters in this story. My own experience tells me Tyler is being totally honest.

2. While I haven’t read Tyler’s book yet—it comes out Wednesday—the reviews make it look shockingly honest and detailed. Read this: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/media/books/Lance-Armstrong-Case-Closed.html?page=1 You really can’t make this kind of stuff up. Plus, the author, Daniel Coyle, is a great writer who also wrote the best book on Lance. He’s spent years working on the subject.

3. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Tyler is a “chronic liar.” He of course lied when he first tested positive, because at that point he still had a chance to resurrect his career and make a living as a cyclist. Now that is behind him, and he really doesn’t have any motivation to lie. Think about it—why would he fabricate all of this if it wasn’t true? It’s certainly not making his life any easier. Also, did you see him on 60 Minutes last year? You can just tell he was telling the truth. Compare that with the Roger Clemens appearance on the same show. Roger was obviously lying. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure this stuff out.

4. Lastly, when you look at the charts that show the speeds riders were going in the doping era (specifically measured in watts/kilo), you’ll see that everyone is going literally 10-20% slower now on the climbs. It’s exactly like baseball, where there are 15% fewer home runs than 10 years ago. There is physically no way Lance could have gone that fast without drugs. It’s not humanly possible. Make sure you read this great blog post for more background: http://www.sportsscientists.com/2012/08/the-armstrong-fallout-thoughts-and.html

Thanks and keep in touch!

…P…