I just got an email from a South African paper concerning the Oleg Tinkov plan to have the big four in cycling – Contador, Nibali, Quintana and Froome – race each other in all three big Grand Tours, for a 1 million Euro prize purse.
The question of course is whether it’s physiologically possible? Or optimal.
So I responded with a few thoughts in an email, and by the time I’d clicked “send”, figured I might as well share the whole email with you here, and the newspaper can extract quotes for their own story.
So below is my email in response to the question of whether the 3 Grand Tour challenge is physiological?
[ribbon toplink=true]Recovery, pacing and improbable limits[/ribbon]
It depends how you ask the question. Of course it’s possible to do all three Grand Tours – it happens already, as I’m sure you’d know. It’s not the norm, even for the guys who are not racing at the limit (which is telling), but it’s certainly possible.
Obviously, that’s not what we are talking about here. We’re talking about the prospects of the main protagonists trying to win all three, and that is highly unlikely, in my opinion.
We’ve seen a few attempts at doubles recently, most notably from the Giro to the Tour, and those don’t come off particularly well. Rodriguez is a name that comes to mind – he was 2nd in the Giro and 3rd in the Vuelta in 2012 (thanks Ben for the tip-off). And I recall 3rd at the Tour followed by 4th at the Vuelta in 2013. The former (the 2012 double) obviously is far easier because of the time gap between the races. I remember Contador trying a Giro/Tour double, didn’t he? Didn’t go as planned for him either.
Physiologically, we know the demands of a three-week stage race on the body, and the common denominator is a compromised hormonal system which can only be returned to normal only by recovery (or accelerated by doping, which is the ‘dark side’ of this particular campaign).
So there is this metabolic demand that each race imposes independently, and how a maximal demand (for the elite men racing for a win) would compromise recovery prior to the next race, bearing in mind that the cyclist can’t simply rest – they have to continue training and provide enough stimulus to be competitive only a few weeks later – is unknown.
Research wise, there’s not a great deal, and certainly nothing that directly answers the question. In a roundabout way, you can build a picture of what would happen, using the following links:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14514543 – a case study of a single cyclist who does ride in all three tours in one year. They find that the athlete incurs similar “load” in the three tours, because the length of races is compensated for by changes in intensity. In other words, this rider paced himself to a total load. This is normal, expected physiology.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14507292 – A review article by Lucia et al that describes the physiological demand of the Tour
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1724409/ and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1724409/pdf/v035p00424.pdf – the most relevant article, this one measured the hormone levels of pro cyclists in the Vuelta. The finding – testosterone and cortisol are lower by the end of the third week, which is a sign of suppressed recovery. The body is stressed to the point of not being able to produce hormones that would aid in the recovery process.
Now, what is not known is how long it takes post a race for the body’s recovery/hormonal axis to return to normal function. That’s the key in this discussion – can an elite rider continue training in the gap between Tours, while still allowing these physiological systems to recover?
My short answer is no, unless they don’t race the GT at a very high level. Then it’s possible.
But the first paper I gave a link to suggests that a rider can do it, but they’ll simply pace themselves, which is to say, control the intensity to get through the task. That’s not unlike a marathon runner who has to slow down compared to when they run a 10km race. A basic physiological outcome.
So what would it mean for Tinkov’s series? Well, my guess would be that the rider would still have to choose to focus on one or the other. Let’s say they have great intentions and hit the Giro in their best shape – all four of them. It would be a great race.
By the Tour in July, all four are below 100% because of the accumulated fatigue, and so then it becomes a question of who is best able to hang on to that level for the longest (which we would hope does not involve doping, as one fears it might). Because the four of them are so superior to the rest, the Tour may well still come down to those four (the fifth guy is far enough behind that even with the “advantage” of freshness he might not win), so you’d perhaps see a Giro-Tour double winner, by virtue of the fact that the big four are all compromised equally.
By the time of the Vuelta, however, the accumulated fatigue is so severe that if I was a betting man, I’d be looking down the list and picking the guys who might normally come fifth or sixth to win the race. Again, we don’t know this for sure, but all signs point that way.
So is it possible? Yes, and no.
[ribbon toplink=true]Wider implications[/ribbon]
Is it good for the sport? In one regard, it would be cool to see more big battles. All sport suffers from a lack of head to head races between its big names – look at track and field and how Usain Bolt, Justin Gatlin and Yohan Blake tap dance around each other between major championships. It’s why the Olympics are so exciting, because they deliver those big confrontations.
Point is, there’s some value in scarcity – if you over-saturate the ‘market’ then you devalue the product. We’ve seen that in some sports – rugby in SA, for instance, where the season is so long and produces about six or seven similar matches that ultimately, the product is diluted.
So from a sports marketing perspective, I’d find it very easy to sell the concept of the big 4 racing in the short term, but whether it’s a good long-term campaign, I’m not so sure.
Physiologically, I think it’s damaging, and I guess given that it’s cycling, it invites all kinds of “temptation” to dope. More than this, it may ultimately achieve exactly the opposite, because the rider would have to pick a race to peak in. So it would create more ‘smoke and mirrors’, because say Nibali decides the Tour is the main goal, he won’t be in the same condition in the Giro, and then it means you’re not really seeing what you thought you were anyway….
Sorry for the somewhat casual nature of the post – an email opportunity that seemed too good to pass up for a quick article!