Vélo Files: Game of Numbers

Anthony Tan

cycling, australia, Anthony Tan, Cycling Central, Velo Files, doping
Marco Pantani leads Lance Armstrong up the mountain in Stage 14 between Draguignan-Briancon during the 2000 Tour De France (Getty)
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Get used to it – cycling is in the Era of the Power Meter. The sport is now, more than ever, a numbers game. And, according to one performance expert, numbers don’t lie, writes Anthony Tan.

The mountain tells the truth and tells you who is doped... This power, generated in watts, is the most reliable indicator of presumed doping. - Antoine Vayer, cycling performance expert and author of ‘Not Normal’.

The way things work nowadays, I’m spending less and less time out in the field covering sporting events and an increasing amount doing what many of you do in your spare time, which is watch said events live and couch-side, with preferred communication device at arm’s length.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Living out of a suitcase for more than two hundred days a year wears thin after a certain while, though it took me five masochistic years to realise it.

It’s far from glamorous; sometimes lonely (unless you like that kind of thing), other times stressful because you are more or less on your own; and with athletes mollycoddled and media-managed beyond recognition, that promised one-hour interview has now being reduced to ten minutes max – that’s if you’re lucky enough to get a one-on-one interview – and with few exceptions, is comprised of stock-standard responses in plethora, generally because there’s only enough time to ask stock-standard questions. Besides the basics, I don’t really feel I know many of the athletes these days. Or rather, I know them as athletes but not as people, which is generally what piques my interest most. For mine, results are secondary; I want to know what makes them tick – and what gets them ticked off.

Sometimes, though, there’s nothing like being there, and so, in little over a week’s time, I’ll be heading over for TdF #100, which I’m very much looking forward to.

Anyway, back to watching on the box. I now see more of the race, which is a good thing, since much of a journalist’s work is based on observation. And the past six months, one thing that’s become glaringly apparent to me is the propensity of riders to glance down, be it in training or racing, like an inquisitive peck from a budgie’s beak, before the noggin tilts back towards the wheel or road in front of them.

No, they’re not checking out how fast they’re belting down the mountainside, or monitoring their cadence or calories consumed, or whether mechanic Faustino did a good job with the bar tape. Nor are they fatigued or struggling to hang on, ‘chewing the bars’, as it’s called.

They’re looking at their power output.

You see, the modern era of cycling, and most particularly stage racing, has been reduced to a numbers game. Watts are all GC riders care about; be it putting out the right numbers in training, or maintaining a certain threshold in racing, it all comes down to joules per second, it seems. Especially when you’ve got a rider like Bradley Wiggins or Tejay van Garderen, who appear to race more on numbers than feel. Which you can’t argue with, since they’ve won numerous bike races that way, and lack the natural explosivity of Alberto Contador, Chris Froome or Cadel Evans when they’re on song. (Okay, the latter trio also use power meters, but you can tell they’d prefer to race ‘old-school’ any day.)

When, in late April last year, on the final stage of the Tour de Romandie, a journalist asked Wiggins, who had just won the race, whether he thought Sky Procycling raced like US Postal, Mr Tetchy replied: “Yes, it’s very similar to US Postal, and Banesto used to do the same thing. You race to your strengths as efficiently as possible. It works. We’re not going to change it.”

And, true to word, they didn’t. Which saw Sir Wiggo victorious in Paris-Nice, Romandie, Critérium du Dauphiné and, of course, La Grande Boucle – all in one season, not to mention a gold medal in the London Olympic Games road time trial.

Why would you change things?

Okay, the journalist at Romandie was possibly hinting at something untoward. As Antoine Vayer, the French cycling performance expert and author of ‘Not Normal’ told us this week in the Cycling Central podcast, “this power (on climbs), generated in watts, is the most reliable indicator of presumed doping”.

“The mountain tells the truth and tells you who is doped. On cols (mountain passes), with little wind, no drafting, and established grades: those are the ideal conditions to calculate the muscle power of each rider according to his build and to install ‘radars’ which we use to measure their power,” said Vayer, whose 148-page publication analysed the power outputs from the last thirty-one Tour winners, labelling them one of four things: ‘normal’ or ‘human’ (“but not necessarily clean,” he hastened to add), ‘suspicious’ (410 watts or more), ‘miraculous’ (430> watts), and – my favourite moniker – ‘mutant’ (450> watts).

Take the climb of Alpe d’Huez as an example. In the 1989 Tour de France, Greg ‘Normal’ LeMond clocked a time of 42’30” up the 13.8 kilometre switch-backed ascent, equal to an average power output of 394 watts. In the ‘95 Tour, Marco ‘Mutant’ Pantani, to quote TV commentator Phil Liggett, “flew like an angel” (well, at least a bloodied one) up the Alpe in 36’50”, producing an average 468 watts, while Richard ‘Suss’ Virenque did it in 40’30”, averaging 417 watts. And at the 2001 Tour Lance Armstrong glided his way up the 21 bends in 38’38, equivalent to a 450-watt average for Mr Miraculous.

In case you were wondering, the report “takes into account the onset of new technology and training advances and allows for differing body weights of riders”.

And, in case you were wondering, Vayer calculated Contador’s 2009 Tour-winning climbing average to be 439 watts (‘miraculous’), while on his since-rescinded 2010 Tour, ‘El Pistolero’ produced an average 417 watts (‘suspicious’). Meanwhile, Evans’s 2011 Tour saw him average 406 watts (‘normal’) on the cols of Luz Ardiden, Plateau de Beille, Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez, while Wiggins 415 watt average output on La Toussuire and the east and west faces of the Col de Peyresourde placed the Brit in the ‘suspicious’ category.

From the noughties through to the present, you could say power output has been a key indicator all along, then. Just that nowadays, it’s (hopefully) being used more as a training tool to race smart, rather than a barometer of a team’s doping program.

While he didn't quite admit to being a freak, Wiggins said this in his final press conference at last year's Tour: "If we're going at 450 watts up a climb, it takes 500 watts to go away, and we know no one can sustain that on a 20-minute climb." Still, Vayer says 'suspicious' performances are not categorically illicit, a definitive gotcha, but rather cause for concern; a "please explain", to quote my culturally myopic nemesis Pauline Hanson.

Tim Kerrison, the former Queensland Academy of Sport swim coach turned Team Sky’s ‘head of performance support’ and the man credited for revolutionising the latter outfit’s thinking on all aspects to do with training (Wiggins has referred to him as “the guru”), told William Fotheringham of The Guardian in April that a possible reason behind their success is due to the “knowledge gap” left by teams who focused on doping at the expense of coaching and rider development.

“In the previous era of cycling, I guess the teams did a cost-benefit analysis and the best way to invest their limited amount of resource for some teams was to invest in doctors and doping programmes, and coaching suffered. That’s left a window of opportunity for us. Quite uniquely, in this sport, the development of coaching systems has been retarded by the effects of the last decade,” said Kerrison.

For cycling’s sake, I hope to God he’s telling the truth. For now, I can (just) handle the Era of the Power Meter and the often humdrum racing that goes along with it; what I couldn’t handle is if this era turned out to be as dirty or filthier than the last, albeit at a more sophisticated level.



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