Day 1 in the mountains: One more pixel, context & mistrust

14 Jul 2015 Posted by
I can’t stress enough – today’s mountain finish, and the estimated 6.1 – 6.2 W/kg produced by Chris Froome for 41 minutes (even though the attack only really came in the second half) is not an isolated reason to prove doping and entrench skepticism about cycling.

Such skepticism was inevitable, and the ride will have done nothing to dispel it, that’s for sure.  But here are some thoughts on the ride, its historical context, and my opinion on it.

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The power output

The estimate for Froome ranges between 6.1 W/kg (Ferrari method) and 6.2 W/kg (CPL method) for the 41 min climb.

For the sake of comparison, the estimates compare favorably to estimates of Robert Gesink’s power output.  As per his MEASURED power output reported on Strava, he produced 409 W (5.8 W/kg if we go with 71kg, halfway between his Strava-listed and team-website listed mass), while the CPL method estimates 408.8W (5.8 W/kg) and Ferrari’s formula 5.86 W/kg.  Conservatively then, I’m once again confident that the estimate for Froome is not outrageously wrong (I’d say it’s exceptionally accurate), and that he was at least at 6.1W/kg (calculations & times, as always, provided by the excellent Ammattipyoraily)

Quintana, incidentally, at 5.9W/kg, was just slightly above what we’ve seen from the Tour winners for the last four years, for the length of the climb, while everyone else was down on estimates, so a howling tail-wind won’t cut it this time.

For 41 minutes, making some conservative assumptions (that is, weighted in favour the rider), that implies a VO2max over 90 ml/kg/min, but more likely mid-90s, because he’d need to be riding at a super high % of max for it to be any lower.  Or he must be 25 to 26% efficient, something documented and disputed only once before.  And of course, the combination of super high VO2max and high efficiency is, by definition, rare.  Too many ifs and buts, however, so moving along…

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Beyond the numbers

So, moving back away from this single pixel, I want to stress that there are six years of historical context here – this is a conversation that has been happening since 2009 and this is but the latest sentence.  There’s more to it than the number.

In fact, back in 2009, when my part in this analysis journey began, my intention was actually to use the numbers to portray a better cycling, with less doping.  To offer a qualified message of hope, and if you go back and read what I wrote from 2009 to 2013, you’ll see that.  I tried to dissuade the view that a performance of 6W/kg for 30 minutes proved doping, and I even wrote this article which was heavy in defence of Froome after his win on Ax-3-Domaines in 2013 (take note of that, they certainly never acknowledged it in the midst of the ‘seige).

In the absence of any change at all in the outside world, away from the SRMs and climbs, I would say exactly the same thing today, because while this was perhaps the best performance yet (6.2W/kg for 41 min when you’ve only really gone for it halfway up is mind-boggling – it suggests 5.9 W/kg for 20 min then 6.5W/kg for 20), this performance too, in isolation, does not prove doping.

However, the world has changed.  Facts have emerged, a different picture, and in parallel with that, so too has my opinion evolved.  What began as an attempt to argue for cleaner cycling has become increasingly difficult to do, and it’s not the SRM that tells you that, it’s the collection of factors ranging from the patronizing PR to the half-truths, the full-lies and emerging reality that the sport has just adapted its journey in the same direction.

Today provided a few more of those.

You see those time gaps today, and look at who they’re to, and that a third rider was just marking moves in the best group behind after doing tempo work earlier on.

In fact, something I hope you will appreciate is that a performance from the past can change meaning as new information emerges to contextualize it. In other words, it doesn’t need there to be a performance of X to suddenly make the previous ones suspect. As the environment changes, interpretation in hindsight can (and should, if we assimilate new knowledge properly), so what was ‘marginal’ or grey in the past can look different (either secure or worse), thanks to ’emergence’.

Then add in the CIRC report that explains how doping has shifted from “blunt force” to “surgical precision”, changing its nature but not its existence. And keep in mind the sporadic doping busts, just enough to let on that all is not peachy.

Then Froome, on the verge of being discarded, having not even stood out as exceptional in our SA cycling circuit (good, but not “let’s blow away the best” exceptional), transformed into the greatest ever cyclist after the age of 25, with VO2max values that would have made a physiologist’s eyeballs explode (and hey, we’re in Africa, but we aren’t that backward here), riding away from people who WERE earmarked for greatness from a young age.  It’s the most remarkable transformation of a mature athlete ever.  Late emergence is one thing, transformation when you’re already in the ‘window’ quite another.

Next throw in the arrogant Public relations spin that Sky in particular offer (pillows, dieticians, altitude and Nutella bans for example – give me a break), plus the lack of transparency pretty much from top to bottom of the sport, the presence of the same people in charge of teams as who doped, the hiring and denial of hiring of doping doctors, the TUEs, the inhaler before big efforts from Froome, and on and on.

Then look at other sports and what Salazar’s group is accused by about 18 people of doing, and you get an idea for how the sport has moved on since Festina, then Lance.

I fully expect attacks, and that’s OK, I don’t mind. But over the years, I’ve grown more and more confident in our estimates, and what they mean, and pixel by pixel, an image is being revealed.  So this is an opinion, no doubt dismissable and insultable, with (for most) a Union Jack in the background, but don’t confuse opinion with objectivity.

Some will say my degree was printed on clip-art (got this on Twitter already), others that I have, and I quote, “questionable research ethics, cherry picking data, and clear lack of objectivity/investigator bias” (I may use this as an introduction next time I give a talk, thanks Alastair :-)). That’s alright, just know that if it’s a South African (hey, Froome even grew up here), I’d be saying the same thing.

Would you, if that was an American riding away from the world, with two team-mates controlling the mountain, one his closest challenger? Cast you mind back, and perhaps you did, because it’s happened before.

Ross

As for the numbers, I’m learning two things:

  1. In this day of social media, information is so fragmented that it has changed the nature of communication.  Used to be a sender & receiver of information, simple.  One message, sent, received, understood.Now there are too many senders, sending byte-sized packets of information, that the onus on the receiver has changed.  Valid communication requires the receiver to work harder.  The most frustrating thing about this ongoing conversation is having to backtrack and supply context at every step.  And I can’t keep referring back to six years of articles and explaining how the development of this position has come about.  I despair!  I also can’t add fifteen paragraphs to an ongoing thesis every time, so I have to request – do the work.
  2. It’s funny how perspective and desired outcomes or beliefs colour the same set of numbers.  Over to Dilbert (via Tony DaDub)

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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.