Neanderthals, aliens, performance data & context

18 Jul 2015 Posted by
Below are some paragraphs I’ve written, on my website, the first is from this week, the second from a post-Tour wrap in 2013.  Both discuss Chris Froome (by virtue of the fact that he won or is winning the race) and performance data (the second one also references Quintana in 2013).

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They are consistent with everything I’ve written on performance data and doping since 2009. They have highlighted, as strongly as I know how, that performance data ALONE does NOT prove doping. Similarly, performance data ALONE will not DISPROVE doping.

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Data, wood, trees and a broader background

The same is true of physiological data, unless the mismatch between performance that physiology is so large that no known physiological theory can explain it, but that’s a story for another day (maybe for the rest day, I’ll try to offer something on this).

Any mistrust of cycling, its leading teams and its top riders, is thus NOT simply borne of W/kg, VO2max, or any other convenient little speck of dust that some people think it may be from.  The reason this matters is that we’re now seeing a pre-occupation with that data, which has value, don’t get me wrong, but isn’t, at least to me, the nail in cycling’s credibility coffin.

Rather, and I’m speaking personally here, because this is Twitter, and Facebook, and when you clicked “Follow” you invited opinion, my mistrust of cycling is based on a collection of things, both on the bike and off the bike, that point to a sport that may have strained at the leash of its own past ten years ago, but is just as clandestine today as it was in the 90s and 2000s.

If I may quote a book title I hope you know – “it’s not about the bike”, or the numbers produced on the bike.

When performances are close or better than what they were during periods of known, relatively unregulated doping, that’s a worrying SIGN, certainly, and the physiological improbability of performance is worth paying attention to, as one piece of a complex, very noisy puzzle.

But it’s not proof, and won’t be until someone literally breaks through the realms of physiology.

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Patriotism, Neanderthals and idiotic reactions

CKM1-RxWEAEtBecI say all this because today, the actions of a moronic fan have been offered as the result of what people are saying about the validity of performance, based on data.

First of all, even if your opinion is that someone is doping, throwing urine in their face is a classless, stupid act and doesn’t belong in the sport. It highlights the very worst in people, when their passions get the better of their senses.

So if you’re reading this (which I must say, I highly doubt if you’re going to be inclined to store your urine in a bottle as ammunition) – don’t be an idiot.

But second, to link this to performance analysis and people’s call for transparency and data is far-fetched, and actually I believe, opportunistic.

Take a look in the pictures on the right, of what the French newspapers are saying about the race this year, and then try to tell me that a French fan is influenced more by W/kg arguments and projections than by a general perception of the Tour, with all its known history.

The Tour has produced this kind of nonsense before, I also want to point out, and it’s also been for reasons of nationalist pride and stupid patriotism. The screen grab below is from a piece on the history of the Tour, and highlights but two examples of idiotic fandom.

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Lastly, let me just emphasize this again – W/kg, VO2max or any other data point, is not DNA found on the victim. It’s part of a big, noisy picture.  We deal in biology, and that means probabilities, not certainties.

Performances are part of the reason for my mistrust, speaking personally, but they are just that – part of it.

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The alien visitor and the importance of context

If I were new to cycling, or if I landed on earth last weekend as a visiting alien, I would have watched the Tour in the Pyrenees and wondered why that team in black in particular, but also the team in blue with a big “M” on their jerseys seemed so much better than the rest?

I’d wonder what they were doing differently, but removed from any prior knowledge, memory or context of what cycling has looked like for 60 years (and especially the last 20, and the last 3 – Astana, TUEs etc), I’d put it down to the normal order of things – maybe they’re just wealthy, or scouted the best guys.

I’d look at the W/kg, and someone from earth might inform me that it implies a VO2max of about 90ml/kg/min (some have said 80, but the fact that Quintana, who we know has a VO2max of 86ml/kg/min was riding slower, thus at a lower VO2 (unless he is massively less efficient, of course), makes me confident in my calculation from first principles, which agrees with a few others).  They’d tell me this was incredibly high.

That person would also inform me of the assumptions that have to be made in this projection, and to take the numbers with caution, but that they are on the high end of what is physiologically possible for this human race. Being the alien, I’d agree, and recognize that this person was being circumspect about the data, applying sound physiology, recognizing and acknowledging limitations, but offering some common sense to help me understand a little better.

Then all those W/kg, that VO2max, the climbing times, none of it would matter too much to me, as the interested, new observer.

But what if my earthly host pointed out to me that only ten years ago the sport was locked in a doping orbit, that all its champions were dopers?  And that 17 years ago, doping was so rampant it bought the sport to a standstill, and then the guy who “saved” it convinced everyone that he’d never dope because he’d had cancer, but turned out to be just as bad, I’d start to wonder.

If my earthly host then also explained how one team used to dominate by putting riders who had never been known as climbers on the front of the race and just grinding away the challenge of every one else, including known climbers, then my interpretation of what I was seeing from those black jerseys might start to become just a little more coloured by what I was learning.

He might then go on to tell me that in his informed opinion, the processes to catch the cheats were quite far behind the cheats, because of undetectable drugs, corruption and smart-doping in the face of a difficult legal system.  He’d explain that given the balance of risk and reward, and the likelihood of being caught and punished, many cyclists (and athletes from other sports) choose to dope.  He’d tell me about the recent CIRC report, which explained how doping has evolved and still happens, from credible sources.

Perhaps he’d also tell me that the sport has had major issues just recently with a team doping and having riders suspended but somehow keeping its licence, only to dominate (as a team) the Giro, while other guys in the top 10 of that race, and this one, had previously served doping bans.  Or how about the fact that a rider is found to be using asthma inhalers for asthma that was only acknowledged once the media discovered it.

Oh, and lastly, the guys today, they’re climbing just as fast as the doped riders did, only ten years ago.  And that was with oxygen vector doping, which my earthly host explains was pretty powerful stuff.  He knows, he’s a physiologist.

If all that happened, then my little alien suspicion antenna might start worrying me even more.  In fact, if I chose to ignore him as a newcomer to the sport, or decided to dismiss him as merely opinionated or holding a grudge against one team, I’d be the idiot.

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Noise doesn’t have to deafen us

My point is this – nothing, in the absence of context, makes sense. It’s all just dust or pixels. But we have memories. That idiot fan with a bottle of urine has a memory, he’s just acting out that memory like a Neanderthal.

And it’s those memories, long-term, short-term, combined with what’s going on in the sport of cycling (Astana, TUEs again), plus the sport of athletics (Gatlin, Salazar, east Africa, Russia, you name it), plus our awareness of human nature, that suddenly colours the view.

That data? It still proves nothing, either way. But it sure looks different against that backdrop. And that alien visitor, I’d like to think he’d be sensible enough to see that too, without resorting to personal attacks. And if he still did that, I’d ask him to simply unfollow, because that way he wouldn’t invite the opinion in.

Ross

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.