Earlier this evening, I tweeted a link to this Dave Brailsford interview, where he explains the reasons behind Chris Froome’s refusal to release his Tour de France power outputs.
The article is short, but to sum up in one Brailsford quote, he says the following:
“There is so much pseudo science out there right now. If you release the data, there are very few people who can properly interpret and understand that data. All you’re going to do is create is a lot of noise for people who are pseudo scientists. You can even write magazines about it. They’re so wide of the mark in what they’re doing, it’s quite scary. You can do anything with stats. You can use that with a cynical view”.
Later, he adds to it with:
“We look at power numbers every day, and you get these anomalies, you get these quirks, if things are not quite calibrated correctly, or if something else is wrong. All of those things need to be taken into account, just like the biological passport. There is a fruitful area of debate and opportunity in terms of what power data could provide, I am very pro-that, but just releasing it in general is not the right way to go.”
I have a few quick thoughts on Brailsford’s thoughts:
First, he makes some valid points, particularly the comparison between power and bio-passport data. There is, without question, “a lot of noise” in power output data, and so the context and calibration are so important – a windy day could make a clean rider look like a doper, and vice-versa. Historical comparisons (which are the point) are clouded by issues such as those, and so yes, it is possible that those with a cynical view will bend power output numbers to suit their prejudices.
(I’d also add that this cynical view has been earned over many generations by the sport, and so cycling and all its custodians would do well to realize that they can’t just ask nicely for optimism and belief – they should, in fact, be encouraging healthy cynicism to lay open the change they argue exists for all to see – the perception of the sport will change when the cynics are won over, not the apathetic or naive. This is discussion for another time, however)
Brailsford’s comparison to the biological passport is thus valid, and so just as the biopassport has rigid parameters and expert review in place, so too proper power output analysis would require stringent control to prevent false interpretations. No argument from me on that point.
So too, we expect performances to edge forward over time, and so yes, a clean rider will one day match a doped rider from the past. I’d argue that people are not fools, and would allow for this, and would also be able to tell a normal progression apart from an artificial one. And finally, you don’t need power output to have this particular debate anyway – if a 2013 rider knocks out a 36:30 ascent of Alp d’Huez and displaces Pantani, Riis or Armstrong from the all-time list, a power meter is not exactly a secret weapon – the stopwatch does the job just fine.
However, while Brailsford’s explanations appear sound, I don’t believe the subsequent actions are. The idealistic view that the so-called “noise” can be silenced simply by with-holding the information is naive and false, and only serves to grow suspicion. If anything, he amplifies the sounds of cynicism with this view, and certainly allows for more voices and thus more noise. The reality is that Froome will be in the spotlight, as a Tour favorite. His performances are currently seen as the benchmark for the professional cyclists who wish to defeat him, as well as for cycling’s fans, who (cynics excluded) want to know the numbers of a potential Tour winner (cyclists are like that!)
And history has shown that people will make up what they are not provided with, and so with-holding the data doesn’t silence the noise, it actually increases it.
Filling the silence – if you don’t tell them, they make up the truth
Therefore, what Brailsford is currently hearing is noise of cycling’s own creation – the secrecy and refusal to talk openly about performance leads to silence that will, for better or worse, be filled by all manner of “experts”, some of whom, it must be said, are real experts. Others are not. I suspect his main focus of criticism is Antoine Vayer, who recently published a magazine called “Not normal” using the power outputs to cast doubt on the credibility of current performances. But rather than label these people as “so wide of the mark its scary” (even if he’s right), I’d argue that controlling the information is the sensible longer-term strategy.
I remember being involved in the debate around Caster Semenya – was she a male or female? That saga was crying out for some transparency, and the longer people hid behind the admittedly valid explanation of medical confidentiality, the worse the situation got for Semenya, because there was nothing they could announce that would possibly be worse for her reputation than what people were making up! There are many other cases like it, and I’d suggest a similar phenomenon for power outputs in the Tour.
And it’s not just Froome here – all the GC guys should have it monitored, as has been argued for years. Currently, no teams make the data available, and this needs to be addressed. Sky and Froome are the current focus for the discussion, partly because of the BikePure incident and Brailsford’s interview. Also, as the excellent cycling journalist Shane Stokes pointed out on Twitter, Sky came with a promise of transparency in clean cycling, and are rightly accountable for that. So for those who feel this singles out Sky, just bear in mind that a) Brailsford gave an interview earlier today, which provides the context, along with the fact that they dominate the sport’s biggest event; b) nobody is saying that Sky should be the only team to release power; and most importantly, c) Sky has an amazing opportunity to deliver on their promise of transparency and to change that cynicism for the whole sport, and instead make statements that lead in the opposite direction
So, the world will watch the Tour, and measure the performances on the climbs. And, starved of the accurate data, the calibration and the context, they will amplify Brailsford’s ‘noise’ by filling in the blanks for themselves.
Use experts to pro-actively control data and create transparency
Why not take the initiative as a team who want clean cycling, who stand for transparency, and make the data available to experts? Why not put the data in the hands of experts who can explain to the “pseudoscientists” out there what the difference is between noise and valuable data? At the very worst, the discussion of data will drive better understanding of those ‘quirks and anomalies’. At best, it will silence the cynics, because they will have the numbers explained to them, and after all, they are pseudoscientists, so should be led towards the truth by those who know better.
What we currently have is a situation where those who claim to have the reliable data, the ‘truth’, are not sharing it, and leaving the way open for people to do what people will do. If the team and their experts know the rider to be clean, and if they can explain that “a record ascent was possible because of a tail-wind, and here is the power output data that shows it”, then everyone would seem to be better off.
This may be a path towards some compromise – I’m not advocating that they tweet the power output within hours of the finish line, because that is uncontained data, analogous to throwing money at beggars and hoping they spend it wisely. But there is no reason, in my opinion, that they cannot make the data available weeks after the Tour, and then educate the public, the cynics, the media, and tell the world the story they seem to believe.
For my own part, I plan to analyze performances much as I have since this site began five years ago. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, that will involve historical comparisons, predicted power outputs, implications and any other insights on offer. I would love to have actual data from a GC contender, and I would make every effort to contextualize and explain the potential variance around that. But just because Brailsford and co don’t see fit to provide that data, the noise will not stop – that is a very naive view.
Rather, if you have a group of ‘noise-makers’ all playing their instruments individually, get a conductor to pull them together. The “noise” Brailsford refers to could be converted into a ‘melody’ if the release of data were controlled pro-actively. There are experts who could do this, what is lacking is the will.