By the look on Sam Davis’s face (pictured) you’d be forgiven for thinking the testing undertaken by elite athletes preparing for a new season is some sort of sadistic experiment carried out on the whims of team staff.
Athletes are no different to the general population. In a group of 25, you’ll have one heart abnormality, two people with asthma, one person with bipolar disorder and probably someone with depression.
It’s brutal, at times perverse, but it does of course serve a purpose. Cycling Central visited the Huon Salmon team in Launceston to unravel what exactly medical and physiological testing tries to uncover, and why it’s integral to teams extracting the best out of their athletes.
Sheets of tarp are neatly laid on the floor of a small motel room in Launceston with four separate bikes positioned side-by-side atop, riderless and ready. Andrew Christie-Johnston, the team’s general manager quietly looks on as Mark Fenner the team’s new high performance director calibrates the machines for the next set of riders. There’s a peace to the room ahead of the day’s second round of tests. Then the the riders enter, mount up, and spin through their gears warming up. Some unaware of what’s to come. None, overly eager to be there. This is going to hurt.
For most, elements of the day’s tests are familiar, but together this is a largely novel process for the class of 2014. A range of measures specifically being introduced this year to get the team as close to being a ProContinental team in structure and professionalism as it can be, before the requisite funding and investment arrives to take it there.
The idea is to bring together a battery of tests that will allow the team to get a comprehensive understanding of their athlete’s capabilities. This is par for the course for the world's best teams. Assessing their strengths and weaknesses, propensity to get ill, diagnosing existing and potential injuries and looking to prevent future one’s from occurring. The better understanding the team gets of the riders they’re dealing with, outside of a result sheet, the better they can manage them throughout the year and extract the best from them.
“What we’re trying to do above all is keep the guys as healthy as possible to enable them to maximise their potential,” explains sports physician Dr. Tim Devlin to Cycling Central who is working with the team in a voluntary consultative capacity. “To do that we need to look at a variety of factors, which we split into three key areas for testing; physiological, biometric, and medical.”
The physiological tests for the outsider are the most impressive to witness. It can take many different forms, but the one that Fenner had the Huon riders undergo at camp was what is called a ‘Step-Test’. Essentially, riders will do five minute efforts starting at 100W, increase that load every five minutes thereafter until they can do no more. 'Clearing 450W' would mean holding 450 for five minutes, after holding 400, 350, 300, 250 etc consecutively. A ‘good’ test for an elite rider is anywhere between 400-500W clearance, with the bigger guys getting, on average higher numbers.
But it’s all relative. If a little guy (<70kgs) can get close to holding 400-450W he’s done pretty well. As a matter of perspective, the best Grand Tour riders can generally ‘clear’ 500W. The purpose is to ascertain how much load riders can hold, and on balance, how efficient their body is at producing power. It’s fascinating to watch. It all starts gently enough but 15 minutes in, beads of sweat are growing on foreheads; 25 minutes in jaws dropped, mouths open. At 35 minutes few riders are still in the game. Simply at the end of their tether most collapse. (This is where the tarp on the floor can or cannot come in handy.)
Testing a rider’s limit is not just informative from a potential point of view, but also for a limit and risk assessment.
“At the end of the day there’s a duty of care with these athletes,” said Devlin. “We want them to have longevity in the sport, and that’s about keeping their health in check, not just burning them out.
“With Mark (Fenner), we’ll sit down and put together a program to manage a rider’s performance and health as best we can.”
There may be good reasons a rider doesn’t test well. Maybe they’re fatigued, maybe they’re sick, maybe they’re just returning from a period off the bike. Most of these things are fairly self-evident and are predictable. If a riders produces an ‘unexpected’ test however, that’s where other factors come into play.
“Athletes are no different to the general population. In a group of 25, you’ll have one heart abnormality, two people with asthma, one person with bipolar disorder and probably someone with depression.”
The medical testing riders undertake includes a cardiograph, lung-function testing, and blood testing. What’s trying to be uncovered amongst this is whether there are underlying heart issues, asthma, or whether their blood profile looks healthy. All of this can be addressed if it’s identified early, thus the reason for doing it at a pre-season camp.
A rider will sit down with Devlin and discuss their medical history, and go through their test results. Choosing one rider at random, as he open his chart and scans down along it, Devlin explains a few of the key things he’s looking to pick up.
“One of the most important things is the red blood cell count, basically the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, and in this athlete it is a little low at 44. We might be able to boost that during the season with some time in a hypoxic tent, or going to altitude. That’s a performance thing, but if it’s too low, that might also indicate fatigue.”
The other aspect Devlin is at pains to point out is the Neutrophil count, cells that are critical to a well-functioning immune system. “A deficiency indicates an athlete is more likely to be prone to infection throughout the season, and this really has to be managed. Riders getting sick, means time away from training, and time away from racing. That's not good for the team or the athlete.”
Then there are other tests. Glandular Fever virus or the Cytomegalovirus need to be picked up early, if they haven’t already as they, even if dormant, can be exacerbated in elite athletes when high exertions day after day are a norm. Testosterone and Cortsiol levels are also revealing. Low testosterone, more fatigue, high cortisol, more stress.
“All these guys are different, it’s just a matter of figuring out, on a rider by rider basis what that means for how they train, how they race, and how we deal with them. Something I always go back to. They're also people before athletes.”
Finally riders will meet with the team’s biometric expert who will look at the test data holistically and figure out if there are functional issues at play. Perhaps a muscle group has been built up more than it should have been, perhaps another is under more stress. Bike fit, targeted physical exercise and in some cases corrective treatments can all be beneficial here.
Fenner remarks, as he’s watching another group of riders undergo the dreaded ‘Step-Test’ that aside from the numbers being produced, he’s keenly observing the way riders sit on their machines while under physical stress. “You can’t just sit someone on a bike and pretend they’re sitting the way they will be in a time trial effort. This is raw. We’re seeing how these guys react while they’re at their limit. If there are problems there, that’s where need to look at corrections.”
Alex Clements, who will be heading back to the WorldTour Academy next year, but is still nominally a Huon rider for 2014 has two legs of unequal length. He already uses a wedge on his cleats to compensate, but as part of the Biometrics they’re starting from scratch. Is the wedge too much, is it too little? Can the problem be fixed anywhere else on the bike?
Above all this is a partnership between three different arms with competing, and yet shared aims. Getting the best for the athlete, in terms of performance, health and longevity. Thinking about all three, keeps riders happy, competing better, and ultimately in a better position once they leave the sport.
Back in the motel room with the tarp-layered floor, and Campbell Flakemore has just registered one of the tests of the day. He’s exhausted as anyone. “Great stuff Campbell, really, really good,” says Fenner. Fenner loves this sort of thing, watching an elite athlete exert at his absolute limit. But there’s also a purpose. Fenner clicks a button, saves the data, and files it. Analysis to come. The season is only just beginning, there’s a long way to go, and Fenner wants to see what more can come of his charge.
Disclosure: Cycling Central stayed in Launceston with Huon Salmon-Genesys as a guest of the team.