Sunday, July 24, 2011

Reflections on a Bicycling Competition in France

Everything I think I know about the sport of cycling I learned from my son David, who has occasionally accompanied the likes of George Hincapie on training rides.  (Hincapie has been one of the more prominent American contestants in the Tour de France over recent years.)

So when Dave and George said on Day One that their pick to win the most important cycling race in the world was Cadel Evans, I gave it great currency.

Today, Evans, a 34-year-old Australian,  rode in triumph down the Champs Elysees to claim the yellow jersey of the champion.

I found much to applaud.  It had been a most thrilling race to watch on television: exciting plot twists and turns, great performances by elder statesmen like Thor Hushovd of Norway, and strong young riders like the Schleck brothers of Luxembourg, capped by Evans's charge to the top in the penultimate stage, an individual time trial.  This may be the most difficult discipline of all in cycling, more difficult, in its way, than the climbs up the steep mountains of the Alps and the Pyrenees.  The top competitors know their rivals well in the climbs up the mountains; it becomes man against man, a test of will and strength.  In the time trial, a cyclist rides alone, with no teammates to "mark" his rivals, man against the time clock.  There is no rival on your wheel, or leading an attack up the hill, no measure of your standing except the clock.  A special discipline, indeed.

I was first attracted to the Tour on TV because of the gorgeous images of the French countryside. But in this year's race, especially, the cyclists stole the show from the scenery. And Evans was the best scene-stealer of all.  He has a compelling personal story as well: conquest of childhood illnesses and injuries,  victor over repeated misfortunes not of his own making, able to mount his greatest effort despite the death of a coach who "believed in me even more than I sometimes believed in myself."  And an Ozzie, a species that shows the world how to be a gracious winner.

I asked Dave, when he told me his prediction, if Evans was strong enough to match the Schlenks in the high climbs.  "He's a mountain man," Dave said.  Then , aware of all the doping scandals in the sport, including a positive drug test of the defending champion, Alberto Contador of Spain, I asked: "Is Evans 'clean'?"  "I like to think so," Dave replied.

Now comes a new argument for the importance of the 2011 Tour de France: two experts say that the performances this year offer evidence that the sport may have turned a corner in its efforts to curb the use of performance-enhancing, banned substances.

In an article in the Sunday New York Times opinion section, Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas, exercise physiologists and sport science specialists, wrote as follows:

Some battles are still being lost — a Russian rider was forced out of this year’s Tour after a blood test — but the war on doping is slowly being won.
Most telling has been the noticeable slowing down in performances in the crucial mountain stages. Taken in isolation, a single performance tells little about the state of doping — there are simply too many factors, like wind, race situation, rider preparation and injury, that influence performance to prove that the sport is cleaner based on one climb alone. But the trend toward slower performances has, to date, been universal, so much so that the finishing climbs in the 2010 and 2011 Tours de France have been substantially slower than those of the 1990s and the 2000s, some by many minutes.
For example, the fastest riders on three of the last climbs in the Tour, including the famed Alpe d’Huez, were still three minutes slower — a lifetime in cycling — than many of the fastest riders on the same climbs during the 1990s and 2000s.
Linked to this are the physiological aspects of performance. In the same way that a motor vehicle requires certain components to travel at 200 m.p.h. — a huge engine, fuel and aerodynamics — a cyclist requires certain physiological characteristics to produce the power output necessary to win the Tour de France. Those characteristics, which include a high maximal capacity to use oxygen and efficiency of converting metabolic energy into power, are identifiable and measurable.
It is possible to use these physiological characteristics to estimate the maximal sustainable power output for a cyclist. It requires some assumptions, but if they are consistent and made in favor of the cyclist, then they reveal that in the 1990s and 2000s, Tour performances routinely exceeded the predicted physiological capacity of humans. In contrast, 2010 and 2011 Tour riders have been beneath this ceiling on every climb of the race. The slowing in times thus brings physiology back in line with what are believed to be limits of performance.

This of course is not conclusive evidence that the race is "clean" again.  But I like to think so.

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