Close your eyes really tightly

15 Jul 2015 Posted by
I just did an interview with Off the Ball radio, always informed and excellent interviews (from their side, anyway), and it is embedded below.

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It’s difficult to deconstruct and then rebuild complex topics in that platform, so in addition to the interview, some brief thoughts to go along side it.


1. Pixels and blindness

Nobody can see a whole picture by looking at just one pixel. Performance, stage by stage, is one pixel at a time. In the article I wrote yesterday (link in comments), I tried hard to emphasize that any single performance will not prove doping. Still, much of the blowback and criticism has involved the numbers of a single performance, the 6.1W/kg and its implications. It even made it sentence #1, which says a lot of people don’t read beyond, well, the headline.

It wasn’t the numbers yesterday that should have been a concern, if you’ve followed the Tour since the mid-90s, anyway. But if this was a court case, and the only exhibit on offer was a single ride in the Pyrenees or Alps, the case wouldn’t make it past opening arguments.

But that single, isolated piece of evidence is not where the mistrust of the sport, a team and a rider is coming from, by the way.  It’s not about what happens “on the bike” only, but also off it.  Focusing on the performance alone does make for a convenient straw man to attack for those not wanting to engage (and that works in both directions). There are many more ‘pixels’ in the image, they’ve been visible for six years now. But, if you close your eyes really tightly, you can pretend they’re not there, and then that one from yesterday’s performance can become irrelevant too.


2. Amateur, hopeless rivals

It’s a pity David Walsh didn’t come on before me – they did ask him. He might have repeated his accusation that Sky’s rivals were hopeless and amateurish. And while there will always be a spectrum of competency, to declare them amateurs is quite extra-ordinary. I hope it’s not based on the fact that Sky have Nutella bans and use dieticians to help riders make smoothies to lose weight. I jest – on a serious note, other teams are not hacking about in hope, and many even have former Sky employees, heads of innovation, scientists, doctors, dieticians. This is the kind of statement that helps build mistrust, because even though it comes from an “independent source”, (Walsh is not a Sky employee), it all feeds into the same narrative of rationalizations, reasons and deflections.  It’s also disrespectful to excellent, very professional people in other teams, and so it’s a disappointing accusation.

The other thing I can’t help thinking is that this very same accusation was flowing in the opposite direction, from the USA, fifteen year ago. Why was Lance winning? Because his team was professional, advanced, ahead of the curve, while the other teams were amateurs. Close your eyes tightly…


3. Froome’s data – nothing new, but validation

The release of the Froome data was an interesting story, but it didn’t actually add all that much to the interpretation picture, a point I make in the interview. We already knew the power output based on our estimation (turned out we were exact, but even a small error wouldn’t have changed the interpretation). The HR gave people something to talk about, and may still, given how it was either a) too low, or b) too unresponsive, but the real outcome of that leak (it was never a hack – that’s just too CIA, typical of cycling’s transparency issues) was to validate what guys like Antoine Vayer, Ammatti Pyoraily and Mike Puchowicz have done so well – analyse performance.

That absolutely has to continue. Ideally, it should happen with the real data, but if not, it still adds value because it’s building a picture, year by year. I remember being panned about all the assumptions when it began, back in 2009, and as more riders provide power files, more validation is being provided. It’s not just that one file, but many more, and ‘pseudoscience’ no longer stings.


4. Long live transparency

Antoine Vayer was quoted in the Guardian earlier today as saying the sport desperately needs transparency and he’s right. For Froome, for Sky, for the entire sport, being maximally transparent is the first step to winning back trust.

Not half transparent either – being half transparent and trying to dictate the terms is worse than having no transparency.  I remember when Grappe was allowed to see some power files, but not to disclose specifics back in 2013, and I recall thinking “What a wasted opportunity”.  With transparency, it’s all or nothing.

I say this in the light of Froome’s assertions today that he might be open to independent testing and evaluation if it can be agreed upon.

What needs to happen is regular testing throughout the year so that data is available at different phases of the season (once off testing runs the risk of biased conclusions in either direction), married to performance data, going all the way back to 2010. For all the riders, not just one. But speaking specifically of Froome, bilharzia or not, there’d be some evidence, from a biological passport, from power output data, from the combination of the two, of his latent ability, the validity of the bilharzia excuse, and the current credibility of the performances.  So let’s see.

And let’s also see the TUEs in the sport – if 140 professional cyclists have asthma, I’m calling shenanigans, for instance.  For instance, I’d want to repeat Froome’s asthma test, because as Alberto Salazar’s tale has taught us, you can cheat that test to “have asthma”.

But the bottom line – there’s just too little transparency, too much evasiveness, and no consistent, open message.  Promote the use of ketones, then deny the use of ketones, for example.  Blame dysentry (Aru, in this case), or asthma meds for low cortisol (Lars Boom – Astana, see it’s not only Sky?)

Why would anyone trust that?

Unless they can close their eyes really tightly, and stick a finger in each ear.


This post is part of the following threads: Tour de France Analysis, Tour de France timeline – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.