For the last ten years, I’ve been an avid fan of the Tour de France. The drama of the event is intoxicating. Crashes, feuding, courage, bravery, loyalty, tears, blood, joy and every other possible emotion and calamity pepper its days like a television drama gone ballistic. If it isn’t a rider being catapulted into barbed wire by a side-swiping television car, who then finishes the stage, it’s a rider trying to finish the tour with a broken hip. If it isn’t a rider in tears of sadness because he has to retire, it’s a rider in tears of joy because he’s finally won that most coveted of professional victories, a stage in the Tour. Grown men weep and sport wounds that wouldn't be allowed on Casualty. Men fight, sweat and receive odd cuddly toys while standing on very impractical shoes. The Tour is a mesmeric spectacle.
The first name on the graph is of particular interest; Greg LeMond.
Greg LeMond was not only a brilliant professional cyclist but can be regarded as a benchmark for the kind of career an exceptional clean athlete can have. Exceptional bike riders have to be blessed with an exceptional cardiovascular system. As Greg himself freely admits, his genes gave him a wonderful opportunity to compete for the greatest cycling prizes. Someone with such exceptional natural abilities will shine as soon as they start cycling in earnest and LeMond was just that kind of rider. He was a phenomenon from his very earliest years in the sport, as described in this interview. He has one of the highest recorded VO2 Max levels (93) in history, which is an indicator of cardiovascular performance. He was coached by one of the all-time greats of cycling, Cyrille Guimard, and had access to the latest technology, and yet his Watts/kg value looks positively mediocre on the above graph of champions’ performances. It is only in 1999, when the Festina affair erupted and the French police were raiding pro-team's hotels that the performances drop back to something close to LeMond’s level when he won his last Tour de France.
I took two important pieces of information from this graph; one, that EPO gives riders a massive advantage and two, that a human athlete is highly unlikely to be able to significantly improve LeMond performance value of around 5.7 W/kg on a late eighties bike.
My next step was to check how much bike technology improvements since the late eighties could improve a cyclist's performance. The first useful fact was that UCI has restricted bicycle design in competitions, stopping major improvements in efficiency. Secondly, the bikes in the eighties weren’t that bad. They were made of quality steel and equipped with just as many gears as current bikes, making them only marginally inferior to today’s products.
I estimated how much changes to bicycles have improved performance by looking at a modern professional’s performance and comparing. I used Philip Deignan. Philip is a top-level cyclist riding for the Sky Team (Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins’ team). Sky have helpfully published his performance figures at the 2014 Vuelta here. According to a report I found on the web, Philip has a recorded VO2-Max of about 87, an impressive figure only six points or 6.5% lower than Greg LeMond's. According to Sky’s performance report, the maximum W/kg output Philip produced at the Vuelta in a 20 minute spell was 5.42 W/kg.
I now used that data to compare his ability on a bike in 2014 with Greg's in 1989. I could assume that a top-level pro on a 2014 bike with a VO2 Max of 87 produces a maximum power output in a multi-stage race of 5.42 W/kg; that's a ratio of 0.0623. Greg's ratio, 93 divided by 5.7, is 0.0613. Philip's ratio is therefore only a tiny increase on Greg's at 1.6%. The calculations showed, in a very rough way, that bikes haven't improved riders' performances much at all in 25 years. The two factors of weight and cardiovascular ability are still far and away the main issues for performance.
Knowing this, I decided it was safe to conclude that in any major stage race, the riders can’t naturally produce more than 5.8 W/kg or, being super-optimistic, 5.9 W/kg during a twenty-minute-or-so stretch. Performances over that range would indicate that the rider had somehow developed a body that went beyond all recorded limits. Not only that, but such a rider would have won everything from their very first pedal stroke and already be regarded as the greatest bike rider ever to have existed in time and space in this part of the universe. They’d probably finish each race by taking a small drink, waving to their fans and floating away on a magic cloud to their hotel.
With this very useful fact stuffed in my waistband, I inspected the performance of key riders in recent Grand Tour events. In this new era of clean cycling, with the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs well behind us, I could feel confident and assured that the cyclists zipping by on my goggle-box would have a power-to-weight value from about 5.2 w/kg to, in the case of an utterly amazing clean rider - 5.9 w/kg. Philip Deignan is definitely in that range, what about the rest of the Grand Tour peleton?
This is when a chill went down my spine...
This article on Cycling Tips website gives a very useful analysis of the performances of the major riders in this year’s Tour de France (2014), which Nibali won. The table at the bottom of the article is of particular interest. Here's my version of it below, with snappy colour coding of the values. Green is credible, brown is worrying and red indicates ability to levitate:
The numbers were very scary. In an attempt to calm my growing fears, I remembered that the graph of Tour successes in the nineties was stating overall averages on the Tour, so perhaps only the last column of this table was relevant. It was possible that the first results on ‘La Planche des Belles Filles’ might have been distorted because the climb was too short. Then again, ‘Risoul’ might also have been too short and ‘Port de Bales’ as well. Nuts, I thought, perhaps the Tour is much shorter than people think and it only looks long through the TV coverage, like some kind of lensing effect? Perhaps Dr Michele Ferrari’s formula (used in the graph) is wrong? No, wait a minute, I remembered, Dr Michele Ferrari is the notorious sports doctor that allegedly masterminded Lance Armstrong’s training and his medicinal supplemental product regime. Michele does seem to know what he’s doing, whatever he’s doing.
I remembered something else. Any professional rider on a three-week tour will produce their highest output in the early stages of the race. After that, the relentless miles, crashes, heat, rain and the labrador dogs wanting to sniff his front wheel while he cycles past at forty miles an hour will take their toll. His power diminishes as his blood wearies of the constant cardiovascular effort. It’s only when he gives his body a sizeable break to recover that he can function at full power again. This is an unavoidable effect and can only be stopped or reversed by drugs or an actual blood transfusion, which are both banned… and yet Vincenzo Nibali produced 6.09 W/kg on the Hautacam on Stage 18!
Could this be true? My thoughts drifted back to watching Nibali during a mountain stage of the Tour when I noticed that he didn't seem to be bothering to breathe. He behaved more like he was sitting on a sofa, rather than charging up a mountain. At one point, he seemed to be half-heartedly pretending to be breathing heavily on that punishing climb. Why would he do that? Riders are known to mask their exhaustion so as to prevent the opposition knowing that they’re fading but his hammy, brief pants were… well, pants. Surely, faced with top level opposition trying to out-climb him on a daunting mountain road, he’d actually have to breath heavily?
I’ve had personal experience of cycling at my limit up a mountain and I’ve got to say, the only conversation I was capable of making was grunting noises. If there had been a Neanderthal or a three-month-old baby at the other end of the mike, I’d have been all right, but otherwise, I might as well have been gargling my news. Human beings need to breathe heavily when cycling up a mountain.
Swallowing down a surge of terror, I wondered how long this strangeness had been going on. I looked back at last year's Tour in 2013. Had things been normal then or had something sinister already taken hold?
I read this fascinating article on the Outside Online website where experts examine Chris Froome’s performance when he completed the AX3 Domaines climb on Stage 8 of the 2013 Tour de France. He did the famous climb in 23 minutes 14 seconds which is the third fastest ever time on that climb and, most importantly, it beat times recorded when key members of the peleton were doped up to the eyeballs with EPO. Here's the list:
1. Laiseka 22:57, 2001
2. Armstrong 22:59, 2001
3. Froome 23:14, 2013
4. Ulrich 23:17, 2003
5. Zubeldia 23:19, 2003
6. Ulrich 23:22, 2001
7. Armstrong 23:24, 2003
8. Vinokourov 23:34, 2003
9. Basso 23:36, 2003
10. Armstrong 23:40, 2005
22. Porte 24:05, 2013
34. Valverde 24:22, 2013
Froome's time was faster than Jan Ullrich’s time in 2003. This was astonishing. Ullrich was described by Tyler Hamilton in his book ‘The Secret Race’ as one of the most impressive cyclists he’d ever encountered. Lance Armstrong admitted that Ullrich was the only other rider he feared. Ullrich eventually fell from grace after being found to have taken a shedload of performance enhancing drugs but in his prime, he was seen as a godzilla of a competitor... and Froome beat his best time. I wanted to look away, to shield my gaze from this awful truth, but I had to look. Chris Froome had beaten Jan 'my blood's like iron gravy' Ullrich’s best time going up AX3 Domaines and he produced 6.37 w/kg during that 23 minute climb. By comparison, Richie Porte's time of 24:05 seemed like an excellent clean time but not surprisingly, languished down in twenty-second place.
Here’s a quote from the article:
“Based on the proposed power curve in ‘Not Normal?’, the work of Antoine Vayer, a French journalist and former trainer for the infamous Festina cycling team, 6.37 w/kg for the 23 minute effort puts Froome well into the "miraculous" level of human physiology. This is a level of performance not seen in the Tour de France before the introduction of EPO. It is a level of performance that has all but disappeared following Operation Puerto and the introduction of the Athlete Biological Passport.”
"His first two climbs are done at 320 and 322 watts and the final ride is 360 watts. This means on the final climb his power to weight ratio is 5.2W/kg. Those figures are where you expect that rider to be. If you compare Nibali to the other riders when they have been climbing, his figures are comparable. They're all ballpark, similar figures. None of those would stick out as spurious."
Run, Brad! Run Richie! Get out while you can!!!!!
Charity sponsorship; it seems simple. Someone commits to doing something challenging. If they succeed, their sponsors donate money to a specific charity.
But wait a second... almost no one, nowadays, does something really difficult. They can’t, Health and safety would be all over them like a rash if they decided to walk a tightrope over the Thames while wearing ship chains, or wrestle a half-starved lion, or swallow a bucket of scorpions. No one nowadays can be allowed to risk their life, or even serious injury as part of a sponsored event. That’s perfectly sensible, but it means that all legitimate sponsored events are perfectly do-able by everyone who takes part in them. Not only that, but most modern sponsored events actually benefit the people taking part. Also, the events are usually enjoyable, as shown by the oodles of websites full of grinning faces standing around finishing lines and comments like ‘gosh, it was wonderful! I’m looking forward to doing it again!’ Therefore, in nearly all sponsored events nowadays, people are sponsoring other people to do something they’ll be really pleased they’ve done.
That’s odd, because if that’s the case, then, logically, I should be able to ask people to sponsor me to cycle to my town centre every morning and drink a FairTrade coffee while reading a magazine. It’s healthy, ethical and I’d be pleased I did it. I could even make it challenging and say I’ll have the coffee at precisely 11am every day. That would be really difficult to achieve! That would require organisation, persistence and a positive attitude. I think most people would respond badly if I asked them, but logically, it should be fine. For me, the ‘coffee at 11am every day for a month’ challenge is harder than, say, cycling 50 miles in a day. I can cycle a long way on a bicycle, but meeting a deadline every day for weeks on end is torment, so how does my ‘coffee at 11am for a month’ challenge look utterly ridiculous and frankly rubbish to others, but the easier task, for me, of cycling 50 miles in a day seem respectable?
I don’t know. To be honest, I’m confused about the logic of donating. If someone thinks a charity is worthwhile, why do they need to watch someone to go around the Isle of Wight in a wheelbarrow before handing over some cash? Surely, if a person thought the charity involved was valid and worthwhile, they would just donate the money regardless?
It gets weirder. What if, say, Jimmy Saville was still alive today and was running a marathon in support of a cash-starved children’s hospital. Would you sponsor him? My automatic response is ‘no way!’ since it’s now pretty clear he was a monstrous, repulsive, sexual predator. But he wouldn’t get the money I’d donated, the hospital would receive it. None of it would go to him. Would it still therefore be a positive act? I’d still be reluctant to do it, but who would I want to sponsor instead? Why would I need to sponsor anyone to push me to help out an ailing children’s hospital? Why I do I need to be woo'd by a celebrity and see someone run ten miles in a gorilla suit before I hand over some cash? It makes me look like I have to be entertained before I'll open my wallet, however important the cause.
Charities do need our money, but raising those donations by organizing events is a woefully inefficient way of raising money. A fundraiser once admitted to me that two-thirds of the money raised from the celebrity-endorsed event she’d help organize was lost the charity. The money was spent paying for advertising, catering, commissions, venue and so on for the event. What charities ideally need is for us to quietly pay them every month, without any ostentatious displays. That way, they can use nearly all the money donated to get on with their work. They’ll also know that they have a reliable supply of income, month in, month out - security and stability that will enable them to plan ahead and implement long-lasting beneficial projects... wait a second, I’m talking about a welfare state.
The logical conclusion seems to be to never sponsor anyone at an organised event. Instead, a far better act of charity is to set up a monthly donation to a organisation whose aims you strongly believe in.
For those that disagree with this conclusion, I'll soon be setting up a MustGive web-page for my ‘fairtrade coffee every day for a month’ challenge. Please give generously.
Cycle helmets; they're everywhere now. Almost everyone on the roads who's decked out in lycra and/or high-visibility clothing is wearing one of these turtle skeletons. At first glance, it makes perfect sense; you're safer wearing one that not wearing one and every cyclist in their right mind should wear one. This straightforward view is backed up by a Department of Transport study [that] found that cycle helmets worn correctly could prevent an estimated 10-16 per cent of fatalities.' Simple, eh?
But if helmets are that important, why aren't pedestrians wearing them? In my experience, I've had just as many close shaves while crossing the road than I have while cycling on it. The pedestrian crossing near my house, for example, is an absolute death-trap. If one side of the traffic stops for you on that crossing, DO NOT CROSS ALL THE WAY! YOU WILL DIE! You must cross half way and then stick your head out. From there, you can get a grandstand, front row seat view of the cars coming around the corner and travelling past you at high speed in the other direction, seemingly oblivious to the fact that you're an upright, bipedal bag of blood wrapped in some skin who's standing on some stripes, trying to get to the supermarket. Eventually, one of them stops or possibly screeches to a halt and you finally cross.
It's not just me. Here's a stat from a BBC website article:
Motorbikes win easily, but pedestrians aren't far behind bicycles. You think cycling is dangerous? It is! But only a third more dangerous than crossing the road!
There's another factor with the whole 'cyclist in a helmet' plan. It's called human psychology.
When it became compulsory for people to wear seat-belts in cars in Britain, this clear benefit was somewhat undermined because, on average, motorists drove faster if they wore seat-belts because they felt safer with them on. If you dress someone up like Robocop, they will try to smash through walls because they feel invulnerable. They won't say 'oh, that wall looks like it's got breeze-blocks and my Robo-suit is only tested on Victorian Brick. I'd better leave it be.' They'll have a go because they've got hydraulic arms and kevlar! You could call this the Titanic Problem; if the person in charge thinks they're very secure, they take bigger risks. We're also rubbish at accurately assessing what our technology can do for us; we just haven't evolved enough. We're like frogs who try to mate with plastic bottles. It looks good, it feels good, it must be okay!
Putting amphibians shagging polymers aside for a moment, there's yet another factor in wearing a helmet while cycling that undermines the safety benefit.
A fascinating cycling study found that when a cyclist wore a helmet, motorists gave them less room because the motorist unconsciously viewed the cyclist as being better protected. 'Oh, look, she's got a bird's nest on her head! I can cut her up without a care in the world now because the top of her head is protected by little weaves of high-impact plastic.' I have personally noted this problem while cycling with a helmet. Bizarrely, the most effective apparel I've found for warding off the attention of cars is a flapping jacket. They give you loads of room if you're wearing one; it's some sort of force field. This odd, as it means that drivers are like horses. Then again, drivers give horses loads of room too, rather than driving up close to them and shouting that they should get off the road and leave it to those who pay road-tax. Perhaps they feel kinship with them?
Human psychology therefore seriously undermines that 10% physical benefit while wearing a helmet. You might be a little better protected but your likelihood of being crushed like a bug has significantly gone up after putting it on. By comparison, pedestrians - who get killed almost as much as cyclists - only need to put them on when crossing the road. Why don't they carry one for their protection? Why are they being so irresponsible over their own safety?
Pedestrians, WEAR A HELMET WHEN YOU CROSS THE ROAD!
'raise awareness of the cost to humanity and other species of unsustainable human numbers and promotes smaller families as part of a sustainable future'