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Dispatches : Athletes

The 5 Best Beach Volleyball Beaches

The beach volleyball matches we’re used to watching at the Olympics are often played far from the ocean, on man-made courts surrounded by stadium seating (in the case of the 2012 London Games, approximately 4,000 tons of sand were trucked into the 15,000-person venue).

But beach volleyball is best played on, well, a beach. And no one knows the sand better than the athletes who bump, set, and spike their way around the AVP tournaments and FIVB international tour.

Olympic silver medalist April Ross grew up in Newport Beach, California, and has 31 career wins from tournaments spanning the globe. Her next big stop? Rio 2016 with partner Kerri Walsh Jennings. Twenty years after beach volleyball made its Olympic debut, the duo hopes to take home gold on what Ross deems one of her top-five favorite beaches in the world. Read on to find out why Brazil's capital city is so great—and where else Ross recommends getting a little sandy.

Karon Beach, Thailand 

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The best beach I've ever played on is Karon Beach in Phuket, Thailand. Minus the occasional ten-minute downpour it's generally hot and sunny, and the sand is perfectly deep and not too grainy. After we play, we always rinse off in the ocean, which is turquoise blue and about 70 degrees.

There is also plenty to do for cheap: parasailing, jet skiing, surfing, or you can just hang out and get a Thai massage on the beach. My favorite pastime, however, is renting a motorbike and cruising the coastline, looking for secluded, exotic beaches no one else has found yet. There is wilderness every where you look, green hills and palm trees surrounding each stretch of beach. 

Manhattan Beach, California

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Back on our side of the world is Manhattan Beach. This is one of my favorites for a few reasons. It's home to the AVP Manhattan Beach Open, which honors you with a plaque on the pier if you win. Walk to the end of the pier and you will see plaques with the names of some of the greatest players in the sport.

The area is also home to the legendary Manhattan Beach Six Man, which drew more than 100,000 people in its heyday to witness the absolute craziness of amateur and pro volleyball players who dressed up in elaborate costumes and fought for the Six Man tournament title.

Manhattan Beach is also easy on the eyes; definitely one of the most beautiful beaches in Southern California, with plenty of shopping and amazing places to eat.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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Rio de Janeiro, duh. I've only played there once, but the atmosphere is unforgettable. There is so much energy; everyone is active, socializing, playing something, or in the water. Rio is also known for its beach volleyball history; Copacabana Beach is packed with people playing the game. Doesn't hurt that the backdrop is gorgeous, it's always warm, and you can walk up to the boardwalk for an authentic acai bowl.   

North Beach, Illinois

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Another one of my favorites is North Beach in Chicago. I like this one because of the mix of beach and city life. It's a preferred place among AVP players to play beach volleyball; in the summer it's warm, the water is refreshing, and the sand is great. I also like the fact that if you want a change of pace you can walk to one of the best shopping streets in the U.S.—Michigan Avenue—or grab the best deep-dish pizza on earth for lunch or dinner.  

Plage de Prado, France 

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I love France, so it's no surprise that I loved competing in Marseille at the Plage de Prado. In addition to the amazing breakfast—croissants!—our hotel served, Marseille had that relaxed Mediterranean atmosphere. Everyone seemed carefree and ready to enjoy themselves, whether it was while swimming, laying out, shopping, or having a cappuccino at one of the cafes on the beach. Plage de Prado was sunny but not too hot, and the water was clear with little coves perfect for floating and jumping off rocks after we played. The whole time I was there I felt like I was on the set of a movie. Also helps that we won the tournament.

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Why George Hincapie Has Hope for Cycling

George Hincapie was one of the peloton's most respected riders—and Lance's dominant domestique. But when he had to testify before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, he faced a brutal choice: Speak out about Lance and his own past or quit the sport altogether. In this extended interview, Hincapie reveals what it felt like to dish on Lance and why he chose to stop doping.

OUTSIDE: You were much more than a domestique, yet many fans of the sport use that word to describe you. How does that make you feel?
HINCAPIE: Being called a domestique is not a bad thing. A top domestique at the Pro Tour level is a very difficult job. It requires a ton of focus and coping with a lot of pressure. Your teammates rely on you every day. To be considered a good domestique is an honor for me.

You seem to excel most in helping others succeed. Did that hurt your own career?
I might have lost out on some successes because of that, but I also gained a lot of success by helping the team win races. Whether it was Lance or Kevin, Cadel or T.J., some of the best riders in the world today, I was able to help them succeed, and that was very gratifying to me.

Were you concerned about being unable to compete after you stopped doping?
When I made that decision, my concern was to get to as many people as possible in the peloton to stop doping and to stay in the sport for as long as possible. My initial concerns had nothing to do with results.

You mention that Floyd Landis mocked the peloton and had no intention of racing clean. How do you draw the line between the ethics of his doping and Lance’s? Or his doping and your own?
Really, there isn’t a line to draw. We were all wrong. We all crossed the line. Whether we did it later on in our careers, or longer than other people, or took more drugs than other people, if you cross the line you cross the line.

You take time to dismantle USADA's argument that the U.S. Postal Team had the most sophisticated doping program sport had ever seen. Why is that so important to address?
I think USADA did their job investigating our team. But I do feel that their statement was inaccurate. They didn’t investigate other teams as thoroughly as they investigated ours. I lived that life. I was there. I observed the riders around me. I observed the teams around me, and I saw many things that indicate that statement to be incorrect.

How helpful is it to focus on cycling's dirty past?
I feel like the focus should be on how much the sport has changed, how over the last seven, eight, nine years, riders have been winning races clean, and I witnessed that first-hand.

Did those who testified before USADA get off too easy and was Lance punished too severely?
That’s not a question for me to answer. I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me. It was very difficult for myself and my family. Hopefully, people will see what I’m doing for the sport now through my development team and through certain charities that I work with. I am still trying to promote this sport in a positive way, and I hope to have this sport in my life for the rest of my days.

What's it been like to view the sport from the outside?
Like I write in my book, I’ve seen a lot of change in cycling while I was still racing. I know cycling has suffered through the recent decision. Sponsorship is probably down, and people are probably hesitant to get back into the sport, but I hope through this book they'll see that it is truly a different sport now. The majority of the sport is clean now.

How far has cycling come in the fight on doping?
I think it’s come a long way. The culture of the riders has changed. It is no longer accepted.

More on George Hincapie and Lance Armstrong

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Andrew Talansky: The Strong But Silent Cyclist

He has kept a lower profile than many of his cycling peers, but Andrew Talansky has quietly established himself as one of America’s most promising stage-racing talents. Since he turned pro with Team Garmin-Sharp in 2011, he placed second at the Tour de Romandie (in 2012), won a stage at Paris-Nice (in 2013), and rode to an impressive tenth-place finish at his debut Tour de France last year—a leaderboard he hopes to climb this July.

FREE-FLOW: “Eighty-five percent of the rides I do are structured. But I really look forward to the ones where you go according to how you feel. Doing your favorite route, just enjoying it, provides a great mental break.”

PERFECT RIDE: “My absolute favorite training ride is five to six hours with five 20-minute intervals mixed in. The first one is mostly a warm-up interval, the next two are hard but controlled, and the last two are all-out.”

ROLL IT OUT: “As painful as it is, I use a foam roller on my IT band every day and trigger-point balls for my hamstrings. It keeps me pedaling straighter and more efficiently.”

MAIN SQUEEZE: “I use NormaTec MVP boots after rides. They are full-length boots that, through a series of compressions starting at the ankle and moving up, flush out lactic acid and promote blood flow.”

ON THE MENU: “Real food is always better for you, even on the bike. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are good. And I like homemade rice bars with eggs, bacon, brown sugar, and soy sauce.”

THE PITS: “My favorite meal is tostadas with corn tortillas, brown rice, home-cooked beans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and avocados. I eat tons of avocados.”

COUNTING SHEEP: “There’s nothing—no supplement you can take, nothing you can eat or do—better than getting enough sleep. Eight to nine hours each night, and I take an afternoon nap when I can.”

ON BREAK: “You have to have time during the year when you don’t ride. For me it’s October. I like to go to Hawaii and surf.”

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Is Gear a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

Cycling’s most prestigious record—the distance an athlete can ride in an hour—is about to get smashed, and it’s not because the riders are training harder or doping smarter. In this case, it’s all about the bikes.

The Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body, announced last week that it will allow aero bars, disc wheels, and aero helmets in hour-record attempts. It’s a complete reversal of its restrictive ruling in 2000, which stated that all attempts at the record would only count if riders used a bike similar to the one ridden by Eddy Merckx.

Merckx rode 30.7 miles in one hour back in 1972, a record that stood for 12 years until Francesco Moser beat that distance by almost a mile. The difference? Moser was on a full aero set-up, which was far more technologically advanced than the bike Merckx rode. That record kept improving thanks to new technology up until 1996 when Chris Boardman set it at 35 miles, nearly five miles longer than Merckx’s original ride. Then the UCI changed the rules. Today, the hour record stands at 30.72 miles—a mere 883 feet farther than the record Merckx set in 1972.

The UCI’s recent ruling marks a significant victory for the use of technology in all sports, and it touches on one of the key questions all competitors face: where will the next big performance gains come from? New technology, new training, or some combination of both?

The Sports Gene author David Epstein aimed to answer at least part of that question in a TED talk this past March. He pointed to three main ingredients that have led to record-breaking changes in sports: technology; genetic makeup (the Kalingen runners of Kenya, for example, are genetically predisposed to excel at running) and changes in body type; and an athlete’s mindset. But while fitness and nutrition have made a difference in some sports at some times, technology has made a difference in all sports, said Epstein.

Take track surface advancements for professional runners. If 1932 Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens were to run against current 100-meter world-record holder Usain Bolt on today’s synthetic track—not cinders—and with the use of the now-standard specially designed starting blocks, the separation between the two would come down to just one stride, said Epstein.

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The fourth element making us faster, though, might be a mix of technology and training. The real performance gains will probably come from increased data and sensors that can quantify information for athletes. That’s right. Wearable tech might be the next big breakthrough for human fitness. 

“Equipment is always improving—in cycling’s aerodynamic parts, special skin suits, and helmets, in faster skis and waxes in skiing, and in lighter shoes for running,” says Scott Schnitzspahn, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s director of high performance. But it's the new techno-training tools that might offer the most promise: monitors for activity and sleep, GPS, biofeedback, cryotherapy, targeted compression devices, and sports psychology. “We’re not only enhancing training,” adds Schnitzspahn, “but allowing athletes to have more training days uninterrupted by injury.”

Those new tools and smarter training have also prolonged the careers of record-breaking athletes. “The fact that we have swimmers competing into their 30s now is evidence that we understand how to train better,” says Scott McLean, chair of the department of kinesiology at Georgetown, Texas' Southwestern University.

“In the old days it was all volume, but now quality is understood to be more important. Michael Phelps will try to qualify for his fifth Olympic games in 2016. He will be 30 when he does this. That would have been unheard of 20 years ago.”

And while the record-breaking potential of wearable tech remains to be proven, other records—in swimming, skiing, cycling, and ultrarunning—are sure to fall thanks to some less-heralded technological tweaks. Already, swimming has benefitted from suit design (despite the ban on the world-record-breaking full-coverage, low-drag suits of the 2008 Olympics), as well as improvements in deeper pools and better gutter designs.

The latest breakthrough may be the new backstroke start device (a kind of wedge like the one used by track sprinters) that gives backstrokers a small ledge to stand on. Although it hasn't yet been introduced (there’s talk we’ll see it by the next Olympics) it “may be,” says McLean, “where you’ll see some big drops.”

And while significant records in the shorter distances have probably plateaued, the role of footwear for long-distance running records could hinge on shoes with greater cushioning. There’s attention being paid right now to new foams for foot beds, for one, and because many track shoes have energy return plates, “perhaps this may assist longer distance road runners as well,” says Dr. Wendi Weimar, director of Auburn University’s Sport Biomechanics Laboratory. “The trick here is to find the shoe that encourages you to run with an optimal stride.”

It’ll also be hard to break the records in women’s running, many of which were set during the questionable 1980s—an era of virtually undetectable doping. Whereas the doping police were always a step or more behind the dopers in the past, that’s not so much the case anymore.

“The rationale here is that these records were set by athletes who were taking illegal substances but were undetected, a situation that will not occur in the future,” says Professor Matthew Curtner-Smith, head of the University of Alabama’s department of kinesiology. “On the other hand, if the rules are changed or relaxed regarding drugs, and some substances that are currently deemed illegal by governing bodies are approved, that could lead to breakthroughs.”

Similarly, for skiing and cycling, advances in suits, lightweight materials, and aerodynamics should lead to new standards. “Skiing is essentially limited by friction, so there’s not much to be gained there, but cycling is always a good sport for equipment gains, specifically individual events against the clock,” says Senior Sports Scientist Eleanor Jones of England’s University of Birmingham. “Anything that reduces air resistance is advantageous. But I don’t think you can really get a substantial improvement from kit—if you work within the equipment rules set by the UCI.”

Unless, of course, a sport’s governing body embraces changes in technology—the way the UCI has with the hour record. Then you’ll see records falling left and right. “The exciting thing is,” says USOC’s Schnitzspahn, “we can all use these same devices and improve our own performance—within sport and in our general lifestyle.”

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