Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Cyclist in the House: A bike rider’s perspective.

Courtesy of DivX and Peer-to-Peer software, I just watched “Spin,” (Season 2, Episode 6) from Fox’s House, M.D. In this episode, fictitious professional cyclist “Jeff Forster” comes under the title character’s brilliantly sarcastic medical care.

Since the show throws around heavy medical jargon with relative ease, yet appears to do its research, I was curious to see how accurate their portrayal of the case might be. The focus of the episode is on Forster’s declining health, and whether or not it’s related to the doping which he readily admits to, citing doctor-patient confidentiality as a reason for his glibness. Some observations on the doping issue in particular:

· House correctly cites Erythropoietin as the most commonly-used drug for Cyclists to enhance their performance. Later on in the episode, he rejects testing Forster for EPO use, saying, “Gee, I hope EPO isn’t one of those drugs that becomes undetectable after six hours.” While he may be overstating, it’s true that there’s a short window to correctly test for EPO use. They probably have at least four days, however.

· Forster claims that, instead of EPO – because of its dangers -- he’s been using a variety of other doping means, including amphetamines, diuretics, and sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, and his main method, “straight blood doping,” i.e., regular transfusions.

· The purpose of most of these doping methods is to increase a cyclists’ red blood cell count, boosting endurance. However, Forster’s red blood cell percentage isn’t elevated because of an underlying condition – a tumor called a thymoma, which causes “MG” and “PRCA.” This isn’t really plausible. As a professional cyclist, before the start of every major competition, his blood would’ve been tested for doping. While homologous blood doping (transfusing one’s own stored blood) is undetectable, the percentage of red blood cells in a rider (hematocrit level) is carefully monitored by the anti-doping authorities. The doctors giving Forster his transfusions would’ve had to monitor it, too, to make sure he floated just under the legal limit for red blood cell count, and they would have therefore noticed his abnormally low hematocrit levels.

· Hyperbaria is incorrectly mentioned as a doping method. Cyclists actually use hypobaric chambers to boost their red blood cell counts. Simulating living at a high-altitude, low-oxygen environment, hypobaric chambers cause the body to believe it’s not getting enough oxygen, and thus boost red blood cell counts. Altitude training, either by actually going to the mountains or by hypoxic tents, is permitted by the UCI, as long as the rider doesn’t increase his hematocrit above a particular threshold.

· Amphetamines can increase certain athletic performances, but due to dehydration and elevated blood pressure, they can be extremely dangerous. Furthermore, they are easily detected by doping controls. Because of this, the use of amphetamine-type stimulants fell out of favor among cyclists long ago.

Other items of note:
· Forster’s cycling jersey, presumably intended to be his official team kit, since a young fan in the beginning of the episode is also shown wearing it, is in fact an off-the-shelf Castelli Italia jersey in blue.

· Forster’s helmet is also a cheap, stock model, and he rides an old Raleigh of some kind. Other riders are shown with appropriate, modern bicycles; presumably these are extras from a casting call told to bring their own equipment.

· The bike race at the start of the show is confusing. While some elements of real bike races have been included, such as the distinctive yellow-and-black Mavic logo on a tent, and the announcer describing a “chase pack” forming, the type of race depicted is unclear. Riders are doing laps around a small park, and though some bikes are depicted with knobby tires, most are road bikes. It’s clearly not a cyclocross race, or a mountain bike race, but it’s not a road race.

· Forster is made out to be a well-known professional cyclist. Cameron claims he’s paid “Millions of dollars,” and he has a bitchy manager making life difficult for the cast. In reality, unlike baseball, football, basketball, or other major-league athletes, cyclists are usually paid little in comparison. Only a tiny handful of cyclists are paid seven-figure salaries, and only one American comes to mind.

· An amusing dig at Lance Armstrong’s famous post-cancer comeback is made when the cast briefly believes Forster has cancer. His manager declares, “think of your image! If you come back from cancer, the sponsors would [pay the big bucks]!”

· Kristoffer Polaha, who plays the cyclist, doesn’t cut a convincing picture of a bike rider. While his legs appear to be shaved, he’s got typical beefy-American-male physique: an overdeveloped upper body, chubby face, and skinny legs. More tellingly, he hasn’t got any kind of tan.

· No mention one way or the other is made of what team Forster rides on, or that teams are involved in cycling. Furthermore, when they joke about reporting his doping to the “cycling police,” neither the UCI, USA cycling are mentioned. Ditto for the World Anti-Doping Agency or its United States division. Actual cycling races aren’t mentioned, though Forster says he needs to be “in Spain” in four days, and talks about having previously ridden “The Tour” (Presumably the Tour de France)

So, in conclusion, it seems that the writers of House did a reasonably cursory job of research before making the episode. All in all, it doesn’t change the plot of the show, and the accuracy of cycling as a sport is totally irrelevant to the episode.

That’s the beautiful thing about House: the plot is utterly irrelevant. Only the characters, and their interactions with the ethical issue du jour, matter. The requisite outside-the-hospital scene preceding the credits only serves to add a little background to the show. House appropriately, then, dismisses the purported celebrity of the matter when he first meets Forster. Declining to be introduced by name, he simply states “I’m a doctor; you’re a sick person.”

And there you have it.


  • At 9:28 PM , Blogger ryan said...

    "That’s the beautiful thing about House: the plot is utterly irrelevant."

    I found myself explaining this very concept to someone the other day. They didn't quite get it. They thought it meant that because the plot was irrelevant the show more closely resembled a soap-opera style serial drama. While that isn't completely untrue, and to my chagrin they have been including a lot more time devoted to things that carry on from episode to episode, it misses the point as well.

    House, like scifi literature, gives one an opportunity to demonstrate a thought experiment, or a series of them.

    I do, however, predict a crisis approaching, where the show will digress into a lot of arc nonsense and very melodramatic character interaction. Hugh Laurie will save it from becoming too crappy, but like The West Wing, it will never be quite the same.

    Have you looked at the lists of Sherlock Holmes parallels? I was keen enough to catch on to several of them, but there are a ton of legitimate parallels to be made.

    My word, I certainly enjoy talking about House.

    PS: Word verifications are really just panels taken from an Orc's Word-a-Day calendar.


  • At 10:48 AM , Blogger rigtenzin said...

    I like your post because it's about two things I really like, bicycles and House. That show has me in its grip. I rarely miss an episode. My wife and I make sure to shuffle our kids to bed on time on Friday evenings to watch it.

    However, I missed the bike racer episode.

  • At 1:45 PM , Blogger Argentius said...

    I discovered House only recently (courtesy of Ryan, above), and hadn't started watching when "Spin" was aired.

    Thankfully, there's bittorrent.

    Huzzah! Now onto watch the Giro.


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