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Friday, July 31, 2009

A very different view on anti-doping

Q&A with Dr. Bengt Kayser on the doping dilemma in sport

Le Tour de France has now passed us by, although news from the cycling world is still coming thick and fast as rumours abound about who might and might not move to the new Team Radioshack in 2010. Also, the million dollar question is where will Alberto Contador ride in 2010? So many questions remain about Astana's future makeup---and Vinokourov's comeback---and Radioshack seems to have scooped many of the very good support riders from the current Astana. For some it might read like a soap opera on wheels, but that is part of the drama of cycling!

And we all know that drama is never far from cycling, even after the tour, because it was just announced that Mikael Astarloza, winner of Stage 16 into Bourg-Saint Maurice, tested positive for EPO on 26 June, just prior to the start of the tour. This follows on a positive test for Inigo Landaluze for CERA back in June during the Dauphine Libere stage race, announced during the Tour de France, which kind of flew under our radar. As an aside, there are very interesting Wikipedia pages listing all of the positive tests in sport, and also in cycling. Unfortunately, you have to check back often for updates!

But just when it seemed that cycling was getting things under control we see that the positives still persist and are very much still part of the scenery. Thankfully Landaluze admitted outright to his doping and saved us from any kind of protracted legal battle about lab procedures and test results.

Interestingly, the same day we received this news about Astarloza, we also received answer to a Q & A from Dr. Bengt Kayser, a medical doctor and also a Ph.D. and well published sports scientist from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Back in early June I attended the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting, and Bengt was one speaker in a symposium titled, "Anti-doping efforts: Is it worth it?" Bengt presented across from Tom Murray, president and CEO of The Hastings Institute in New York.

The symposium was not really a "for/against" debate, but both Tom and Bengt presented thorough and compelling arguments to strive to a 100% clean sport (Tom) and to consider some alternatives to the current situation (Bengt). To sum up, Bengt's main position is that attempts to prohibit doping are doomed to failure, and therefore the only pragmatic response we should be striving for is regulation or control, not prohibition. Bengt has kindly rewarded us with the answers to a few questions, which come to us just as this most recent positive test was announced.

So, is it worth it?

The primary message I took away from this symposium is that even as much as I think about doping in sport and consider myself a very well-informed fan due to my sports science background, there are many valid questions and challenges to the current situation. Mostly, these are important arguments that apply more to our society but are nevertheless important to how we frame and approach the problem of doping in sport. The problem---not how much doping, but rather the fact that it exists---is much bigger than you think when one stops and places it in the much bigger picture of life. Sport is not isolated in a little box outside of our cultures and societies, and as such the larger cultural and societal forces influence sporting culture and sporting "society." But enough social science already. . .On with the Q&A!

Sports Scientists:
What are the primary reasons to permit controlled use of performance-enhancing substances?

Bengt Kayser:

1) Public health aspect: because doping and doping-like practices are forced into hiding, especially outside elite sport, there is increased prevalence of dangerous behavior including sharing of syringes and the use of products of uncertain origin. The best example is anabolic steroid use for body building. Repression will not work, certainly not in a democratic society; therefore evidence-based controlled use and harm reduction must be discussed as potential alternatives for more pragmatic solutions. This is already partly being done for steroid users in the UK and Australia, with some success since more syringes are being exchanged for steroid injection than for heroin in the UK. [SS: Very interesting fact, that speaks to the larger societal issues at work in this debate.]

2) Anti-doping cannot be successful. There are limits to testing technology and in order to prevent false accusations from laboratory uncertainty (sensitivity and sensibility) the cut-off levels anti-doping uses have to remain on the safe side leaving considerable space for well-accomplished athletes to stay under the radar.

This is problematic since the aim of anti-doping is to be 100% certain that the winners are clean, but there is no way to tell that with certainty. Remember that Rasmussen and Jones never tested positive despite numerous tests. [And let's not forget Bernard Kohl, who alleges that he doped for a long time before finally testing positve--SS] Today a champion is unfortunately a suspect by definition. The discussions in the press and on the web of the 2009 Tour and other championships show this perpetual suspicion clearly.

3) The trend of anti-doping is towards serious intrusion into the private sphere of the athlete. Reporting one’s whereabouts 365 days a year is quite something. There is even talk of carrying a GPS to be tracked at all-time. Genetic profiling is being used for forensic use. This all points towards a potentially dangerous slippery slope towards wide-spread controls in society at large. I find the prospect of a totalitarian system of ubiquitous control rather disconcerting. Are we going towards urine control in students before an exam? Blood passports in kids who exhibit talent in a given sport?

Do you feel athletes should be able to take any drug in therapeutic doses so long as the doctors disclose the information? If so, what will this accomplish?

I presume you mean therapeutic in the sense not to treat a disease but in doses that come with acceptable risk. [Correct---SS] Yes, that is a potential way to go about it. Disclose and observe. It would lead to transparency and potential for evidence-based advice. It is very likely that the majority of the drugs on the WADA list do not have performance improving effects. If this can be proved the use of such products may become less popular.

Was there a time when you bought into the current model of doping control? Or was there perhaps a time when your views were more "innocent" towards doping in sport?

Before the introduction of the present coercive system I thought that the system was more or less well self-regulating. But I never believed in the current model, certainly not when I discovered the whereabouts rule and other intrusions in the private sphere of the elite athlete. But in principle, as long as the ‘no-doping’ rule is in effect I find that one should not dope. This is cheating, which is presumably not right. I find that one should, again in principle, obey to the prevailing rule, but one may question the rule finding it in part ineffective, potentially dangerous, and not anchored in sufficiently solid reasoning to accept its side effects. Rules can change and do change when it is found that they do not work as well as hoped.

I predict that the anti-doping rule will change, probably not in the next 10 years, but thereafter. Think about how the world will look like 50 years from now---not many more world records to beat since we will have reached the limit of human performance (one cannot run the 100m in zero seconds and therefore the improvement of the record will become less and less). And a prospect of a performance enhanced society, where most citizens use technology to enhance, whereas the modern gladiators still stick to ‘natural means’ while competing, looks rather unrealistic to me.

SS: When did you first realize that we needed a different approach to anti-doping, or when did your paradigm shift?

I first realized what was happening when I attended a symposium at an international sports federation and heard anti-doping officials, including physicians, talk about their work and the anti-doping rules. It was truly an eye-opening experience, I was shocked. I thought we had escaped from Big Brother, but there he was. Also the way with which the anti-doping officials talked about athletes who were potentially doping was rather chilling. It all came with a strong flavor of ‘the end justifies the means’, even if this would imply sacrifice from (of) athletes.

SS: Do you feel the new biological passport is the answer to sports doping problems? What are its pros/cons, why will it or why won't it work?

Again, it can never be 100%. Of course, many doping practices will become extremely difficult or impossible, but many others continue, at low levels, or undiscovered since not included in the panel of measurements.

The accusation of innocent athletes (false positives are certain to occur the more we test) is something very uncomfortable to me; the sacrifice of innocents on the altar of what is known as ‘the spirit of sport’ is in my view difficult to accept. There is also the strict liability rule that is causing quite some harm, when athletes, clearly not because of willingly doping, find themselves accused and punished with potential devastating consequences on their private and professional lives.

SS: What can you say to the sports fans who still believe that the current controls are working?

Open your ears and eyes and think.

So there you have it, thanks very much to Bengt for taking the time out from his busy academic schedule to answer these questions, because part of our Vision and Mission is to translate the science that surrounds our sports, but also to provide the extra insight, analysis, and viewpoints that one cannot find anywhere else.

Admittedly this is a concise piece considering that one can write an entire thesis and then some on this topic. Fortunately, Bengt has published about this topic recently:

"Viewpoint: Legalisation of performance-enhancing drugs." The Lancet, v 366, 2005.
"Current anti-doping policy: a critical appraisal." BMC Medical Ethics, March 2007.
"Globlisation of anti-doping: the reverse side of the medal." British Medical Journal, July 2008.

as well as some other comments and letters in many journals. It might seem like a radical viewpoint, but the problem is that currently we are not winning the "war" against the cheaters, and so it is important to ask hard questions and think about things differently. One can only hope that the result, although perhaps radical at first, is something better in the long term.

Join us for more debate on the FINA Swimsuit debacle (talk about drama!) as the swimming world champs from Rome wrap up shortly, and then don't forget that the IAAF World Champs start on 15 August.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Swimsuit debate: Differing perspectives

Two points of view, as the swimsuit debate continues

One of the positive effects of the ongoing swimsuit debate is the range of perspectives it brings forward. I had planned a detailed post on swimming world records, a historical look at how swimming has evolved, largely in response to some your comments regarding how what we're seeing is progress and natural evolution.

But then a couple of very diverse opinions arrived, courtesy of Mark (a reader) and Jim (our maven, who sends me great pieces on this issue every day!). Both are worthy of our attention, and so I have decided to take the "lazy" option and delay my own swimming world record analysis until the Rome World Champs are over, and instead post these perspectives.

The "welcome to progress view"

First of all is a comment from Mark, received in response to yesterday's post. It's without doubt one of the best comments we've received (and we've had some great ones), because it's succinct, to the point, black and white. It's on the cynical side, but it's realistic, and it's difficult to fault the interpretation of the current situation. It's shown below, unedited, in lighter grey text:

It was inevitable that technology eventually reached swimming. What is surprising is that it took so long. As much as the purists or traditionalists hate the thought, swimming is now changed forever. There is no going back or delaying the inevitable by trying to ban technological development of the swimming costume. It will not do to have the elite swimmers of the world swimming slower than a club or casual swimmer simply because they are not allowed to use the technology, however fair it makes the competition. It is like banning technology from a Formula 1 car and having a normal passenger vehicle able to lap faster around a track.

As Einstein pointed out, you can’t solve problems at the same level as you created them. As ludicrous as this sounds, we must now accept that swimming and power boating are pretty much synonymous, the only difference being that one is powered by a human machine. What swimming has to do is to accept the technology and manage it to make it as fair as possible for all the elite competitors. So, as for power boating or motorsport, lay down rules and regulations, introduce costume checks, and then either go with a F1 scenario where the manufacturers are allowed to develop their own costumes within certain guidelines or have a NASCAR type scenario where a finite number of manufacturers create a “chassis” and the swimmers have a choice of one of these for their event.

I can almost hear the traditionalists being sick. But their nausea is going to get worse because athletics and road running can’t be far behind. After all, we already have a bionic man who is cleared to run if he makes the qualifying times. It is a short step to aerodynamic suits, body implants, and special shoes. Pure, unadulterated, mano-a-mano competition is very close to being history altogether. Drugs put paid to fair competition a long time ago already. Kicking and screaming won’t help. It is time to accept and manage the situation.

Swimming has now joined all those other sports where one can’t be sure if it is the man or the equipment doing the winning. Because this whole scenario is so new, there are obviously disparities right now, but these will soon be wiped out. Speedo will not sit still and will be back on a par with the other manufacturers sooner rather than later. And as with other sports such as golf and tennis, all the elite competitors will have access to the latest technologies and then it just remains a case of seeing who can utilise them the best. It may not be pretty, but welcome to progress.

Pretty much spot on, from start to finish. It brings a different perspective to the debate, which is why I enjoyed it so much. Many of you have been saying the same things, and it certainly does make one think twice about how the problem can be solved, now that it has been created. A great quote from Einstein, and a dilemma for swimming.

I'll be honest, I cannot see the simple solution here. The more I think about it, the more I believe that for FINA to ban the suits outright would drive a stake through the commercial heart of the swimming world, because the suit manufacturers are integral to the commercial survival of swimming. Imagine legislation was passed that said all cars had to be black sedans with an engine size of 1.6L - pretty soon, BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Audi would be out of business. Is that where swimming will go? There's a danger of it!

Here's an even worse scenario, for the swimmers themselves - why would a swimsuit manufacturer even consider a sponsorship of an individual swimmer (or a national federation) when all suits are the same and as basic as possible? Answer - they wouldn't. If there is no opportunity to differentiate themselves from competitors, then manufacturers would have no incentive to show the world that Michael Phelps chooses Speedo, or that Alain Bernard swims with Arena. It wouldn't matter, and therefore the value of sponsorship would be massively reduced. Commercial "competition" would be negated, and the victims will be the athletes. Integrity of performance is one view, commercial survival of swimmers is another.

The coach perspective: Implications from the top, to the bottom

The next perspective I want to share is that of a coach. This is a letter written by John Leonard, who is the Executive Director of the American Swimming Coaches Association. It's a little less succinct, and not quite as direct and elegant as Mark's post above, but it brings out some key points which I haven't yet posted, and which may be new to you as you follow this debate. The more I think about it, the more I think that this aspect of equality at the children's level might be the biggest danger posed by the suits. I'm not sure I agree with all of the arguments in the letter, but there's a lot to chew on. I've posted the letter in grey, with some "running commentary" from me in black at various intervals in the letter.

Over the past 18 months, the swimming world has been a frenzy of controversy over the emergence of technology in swimsuits. At the recent World Championships in Rome, the constant and overwhelming refrain about suits, echoed the volume and intensity of the last time we were in Rome for a World Championships,when the topic was doping....drugs distorting our sport...in 1994. Fifteen years later, the emotional topic was the new high tech suits that have swept through the sport from the World Championship level down to the local park district championships in the summer league. The parallels were impossible to miss.

FINA, in an unprecedented move at its Congress in Rome, banned the use of all “non-textile” materials from suits beginning in 2010, and limited the coverage of the body to “knees to navel for men” and “knees to shoulder straps” for women. 168 nations voted in favor of the restrictions, against a mere 6 in opposition. (who apparently did not understand the word “textile”) This in the face of strong opposition to the move by the sitting President and Executive Director of the FINA organization. Amazing and never seen before. The USA delegation initiated the restrictions and led the opposition. Why such a strong reaction in opposition to the existing plastic and rubber suits?

[Extra-ordinary that the vote was passed 168 to 6. A couple of people have said that we've seen this before - I can't imagine that strong an opinion existed from within a sport.]

A parent new to the sport, from a middle class background, might well say “hey, why not? Technology marches on! Equipment gets better. Why not let my son/daughter wear one of the fancy new suits and swim faster?”

Its a valid question that requires a thoughtful answer. Here it is.

The answer revolves around two words, with of course, a considerable amount of “side data” that adds to the intensity of the discussion and the strength of the resolution to end the problem worldwide.

Those two words are “Maximizing” and “Enhancing”.

Quality lane lines “maximize” the opportunity of the athlete to swim fast, with minimum turbulence in the lane. (you should have seen the waves in the pool back in the 60’s and 70’s.)

Good Goggles allow the athlete to see the turns, see their competitors, and comfortably compete.(to say nothing of allow them to train hard for hours....impossible in the chlorine pool without goggles...in the old days, yardage and performance was a fraction of what it is today.) Goggles Maximize the opportunity of the athlete to work hard.

Evolution in coaching techniques in training and biomechanics allow the athletes to Maximize their ability to benefit from their time in the sport.

Swimsuits, up until approximately the year 2000, and certainly until early 2008, were designed to maximize the opportunity of the athletes to go fast....the manufacturers designed suits to “get out of the way of the water”. Less suit, less friction with the water, less drag, tighter fit, and better materials MAXIMIZED the ability of the athlete to perform to their highest earned level.

[The line between "maximize" and "enhance" is very grey indeed! I would be cautious to stake my argument on such a volatile term, which can be taken to mean different things by different people! You may decide that goggles also enhance performance, depending on your starting position. Or that the suits maximize talent. The line shifts very quickly. I appreciate the principle, but it's difficult to avoid this become "circular" in nature - it all depends on where you draw the line between the two.]

Beginning in 2008, manufacturers took advantage (and must be applauded for doing so, within the existing rules, which were close to non-existent) of the idea of designing suits to ENHANCE the ability of the athlete to swim faster. A line had been crossed. Designed suits incorporated plastics, rubberized material and new design criteria, to enhance the ability of the athlete to be buoyant in the suits (riding higher makes you faster), wrapped more tightly (compressing the “jiggly parts” makes you MUCH faster) and shed water from the plastics and rubber materials much more effectively, thereby reducing the drag of the suits remarkably.

Since February 2008, 158 world records have been set by elite athletes. [I didn't know it was this many - amazing figure, surely unprecedented in the sport] Their ability to perform has moved from being “maximized” by their swimsuits, to being “enhanced” by their swimsuits. This rate of improvement is absolutely farcical in the historical context of over 100 years of our sport. At the world championships, new world records were receiving polite applause akin to the “golf clap” for a good shot, rather than the historical roars of appreciation that a swimming crowd used to provide when a human barrier went down, as it infrequently did, by great athletes at the peak of their power.

How does this translate down to the local pool?

Pretty simple. The manufacturers don’t make any money by selling suits to the elite athlete. They give the suits away to them. They count on age group swimmers watching the “big guys” and wanting the same suits and equipment.

And lo and behold, the same miraculous benefits accrue to 12 year old Sam and Samantha when they put on the “magic suits” in their local championships. The time drops are miraculous, the smiles are, literally, “priceless” and child, mom and dad are all happy.

Wait a second. That suit just ripped. wow. How did that happen? How much did it cost? Wow! You paid $500 for a suit that Sam just put his foot through, rendering it a $500 broken garbage bag? Uh-oh., well, honey, get him another one....we can’t have Joe Jones’s son Pete beat him in the 200 free tomorrow. Teeth Grit. This is a kids sport? We now have $1000 in suits so far.

And of course, all those magic benefits only last 7-15 swims, so good for maybe 2-3 meets, unless its a championship and your child swims 6 events and makes finals in all events...in which case its $500 a meet.

Lets see, $500 a meet, we go to 2 meets a month, 10 months of the year....Honey, its gonna cost us $10,000 Just for Samantha’s suits this year!

Well, the solution is simple....just wear the suits for the championship meet and wear your regular suit the rest of the time. OK. Good.
But, Samantha’s 58.5 100 free with the magic suit on, just became a 1:02 100 free with the old suit on. Smiles gone. Gone. From Samantha, from Mom. From Dad. Oh well.

[This whole section is very emotionally written, surprising from a high-ranking official, I must confess. I'm not sure of the intended target of the letter, but it's colloquial rather than professional, which I don't think would make much impact on those for whom it should be important (FINA officials). But still, it is a valuable point in the debate. Will parents have to buy these top-end suits? Cycling is expensive, does that restrict access and opportunity? It would be a shame for swimming to go this way, where financial capacity determines junior success]

And of course, there are some other objections as well.

First, the magic suit deal is like paying for your child to have instant improvement. Is that what you want your child to learn from the sport? Or do you want them to learn to persevere, EARN improvement with hard work, attention to detail, paying attention to the coach and, shall we say it again...”Working Hard”. Or do you want them to learn that you can always “pay your way” with cash to what you want?

“Earn it, or buy it”. Which do you want to teach? Answer carefully, parents.

Second, the suit does not affect everyone the same. The thin, fit swimmer will benefit marginally by it. The overweight swimmer will swim like a young seal in it. Spending the same $500 on two children will yield radically different results. Not a fair competition at all. Is that what anyone wants?

Third, and its seems unnecessary to say this...but if you just buy 3 suits a year, that’s $1500 or MORE. (Today, purchasing one of the great European suits online from the USA will cost you $900...with no guarantee of fit, durability or return-ability, and about 30% of them RIP on the first attempt to put them on...no refund, folks.) Do we really want age group and high school swimmers to have to spend that kind of money to BUY success rather than work for it? It doesn’t make our sport a middle class sport, it makes it a sport for wealthy families.

Are you pooh-poohing that? Wait till your son or daughter gets beat the first time by someone whose mommy or daddy could afford a more expensive piece of plastic and rubber than you can. The bitter taste in your mouth is not fun. Not much in the way of “sport” there.

So, in answer to the local official who asked “Why are “they” (FINA officials) wasting time with worrying about THAT? Don’t they have better things to do?”

The answer is no, the suit debacle is the most important thing that any of us can attend to. It preserves the heart and soul of our sport....which is reverence and appreciation for the hard work, attention to detail, courage and teamwork required to be a fine competitive swimmer and to learn to succeed with those life-skills. Instead of with your Daddy’s wallet.

The Congress (not the Ruling Bureau) of FINA took the rules into their own hands after the Bureau had time and again failed to establish the rules necessary to keep our sport vital, credible and important. Bravo for them.

All the Best, John Leonard

All in all, apart from the tone of the letter, it raises an interesting counter-point. I'm not a parent, I have no experience in coaching young children, and so I cannot speak from experience. However, the sport of swimming, which is heavily time-based and where talent is identified on the basis of time needs to ensure more than perhaps others sports that it allows young children equal opportunity to express their talent. If financial limitations prevent this, then it would indeed be a shame.

Then again, other expensive sports have done fairly well, but perhaps lose out on talent for this very reason. And finally, over time, the suits will become cheaper, and so this argument is not necessarily a great argument for banning suits outright.

I'd love to hear your views, as always!


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Swimming world records - not a good day for Speedo

The battle of the suits continues in Rome: Swim suit analysis

Tuesday the 28th of July was not a good day for Speedo. Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time (in terms of medals), and Speedo's big name sponsored athlete, beaten into second in an event he has for a long time dominated. Beaten by a man who only a year ago was 5th in the Olympic Games in the same event. A man who, one year on, has improved his time from that Olympic final by a staggering four seconds, wearing Arena's X-glide swimsuit. A man who has himself admitted that the suit makes "him really fast; honestly, about two seconds in the race. I think the suits are destroying a little bit the sport. It’s just, put on a suit, and you’re really, really fast". (Just for those who are interested - Biedermann's 400m time from Beijing was 3:48. The other day, he swam 3:40 - perhaps "two seconds" is a little bit of an underestimate..)

And this is not criticism of Biedermann. He's emerged from the middle of the pack (he was young in Beijing), and is now a double record holder, double world champion and has taken two of the great records in the sport.

In case you missed it, he won the 200m freestyle final in a new world record of 1:42.00. That's a full 0.96 seconds faster than the old record, which belonged to Michael Phelps. The same Michael Phelps who he beat yesterday, by about 1.5 seconds, and who was wearing the suit from 2008 - Speedo's LZR Racer. So a bad day for Phelps, and a bad day for Speedo.

Queen continues to get air-time in Rome

The Biedermann world record brought to 11 the number of events whose world records have been broken - I've just about lost count of how many times the records have gone, because some events have seen the record improved twice, often in successive races. I think it's 15...or was it 16? Who knows, I guess I'll find out later when I watch this evening's action. All I know is that Queen has continued to get maximum air-time in Rome!

And, perhaps more worryingly, it seems that it is not only world records that are meaningless. Yesterday, we looked at the world records, and the fact that only one or two are older than one year. Call me a purist, but I like the idea that a world record is a challenging boundary! However, I can accept that it's not necessarily a bad thing for records to fall on average every few hundred days, and almost certainly at every major championship.

The problem for swimming, and this answers a question covered below, is that the way the situation has been managed has actually compromised the integrity of the competition. That is, we do not know if were are seeing seeing swimmers compete on a level playing field (or pool as it were). It's a tough thing to say, but World Champions from Rome will always have an asterisk next to their performances.

Did we see the best swimmer win the 200m freestyle race yesterday? Did the best swimmer win the women's 400m freestyle title on day 1? Has the best swimmer won anything this week? You can see the problem with the doubt created by the suits - great swimmers, deserving of titles, are either unfairly doubted, or flat out denied a title because their suit is two seconds slow. It's a lose-lose all around. As for the viewer, we'll never know because there is apparently such a large discrepancy between rival swimsuits that the outcome of the race may be significantly influenced by a sponsorship agreement that prevents an athlete from wearing a certain brand.

Michael Phelps may never have won the title - perhaps Biedermann was the better swimmer. Phelps did swim slower than he did in Beijing - by .22 seconds. I certainly do not wish to be a Phelps-apologist and say he "was robbed". Similarly, I would not say that Kirsty Coventry, Stephanie Rice, or Aaron Piersol are "victims" of the swimsuit debacle. However, their sudden (because 11 months is sudden) fall from the top step to sometimes not even making finals is symptomatic of a shakeup caused by something other than training and talent.

So Phelps did not improve between Beijing and Rome. Biedermann did (by 4 seconds). One would not ordinarily expect the level to improve by that amount in so short a time. Yet it has happened, and maybe Biedermann deserves his success. Fundamental to the debate is that we should not have to wonder - the best athlete should win. And that brings us to the debate stimulated by yesterday's post...

Why bother? Perhaps we should accept technology?

In response to yesterday's post, we had two really good questions, from Sigmund1 and tr3v (you can read these in the comments section to yesterday's post). Basically, they made the point that perhaps we shouldn't even care about banning the suits. Perhaps we should embrace technology and accept it as part of the sport, with the knowledge that in a few years, developments will plateau and we'll have equal competition.

I think there is some merit to that position. I will say, however, that if you trace the current situation back, then you start to appreciate why the technology poses more of a problem for swimming than for a sport like cycling, or even javelin (two examples often given for how governing bodies have "rolled back" the records).

The marketing/sponsorship problem

First of all, the current situation has its origins in early 2008, when records first started to fall. At that stage, it was quite clear something was afoot - the Speedo LZR, with its high-tech design and polyurethane panels was contributing to records that had stood for years. The problem then was that there was only one such suit - Speedo's. Arena, TYR and others cried foul because they'd been caught off guard. They thought that the suit should be illegal according to FINA's laws (which were non-existent). Speedo didn't, and took advantage of a loophole in law to design it.

Swimming coaches cried foul - their incentive was to promote swimming at all levels, and the creation of a suit that cost $800 threatened swimming equality, they said.

And of course, swimmers cried foul - you must remember that for a swimmer (unlike a cyclist), there is one significant sponsorship source - the swimsuit manufacturer. That is, a swimmer is often reliant on a swimsuit manufacturer to make a living. Cyclists have pro teams with contracts, and range of sponsors in what is an equipment heavy sport with plenty of branding options for sponsors (helmet, gloves, nutrition, hydration, accessories, and that is just within the sport). Swimmers often earn little outside this one deal. Suddenly, the prospect that Suit X (be it Arena, adidas, TYR, Nike) was inferior to Speedo was a crisis that could not be solved simply by wearing another suit, since it would cost valuable sponsor goodwill.

And so began the swimsuit wars...swimmers jumped ship, violating sponsor agreements (sometimes with permission) to try to win medals. Beijing came too quickly for rivals to match Speedo, but once it was done, they caught up, and then some. Arena, Jaked, TYR, all designed suits that took Speedo's LZR concept and moved it to the next level. The problem was that Speedo (the biggest sponsor in swimming, courtesy USA and Australia) was now left behind, and the end result is the situation we now have - many swimmers are "tied" into contracts that prevent them from wearing the suits that are performance enhancing. Or, alternatively, they cannot get access to them. Either way, the problem is not technology, it is the unequal distribution and implementation of technology.

The challenge of ensuring equal competition - not as simple as it seems

Two final points to make in this regard - because of its efficiency characteristics (swimming is really inefficient), small changes seem to have a big effect on performance. So technology is always going to do major things to swimming times - you see this with biomechanical analysis, the advent of underwater analysis and so forth. I have some data that shows how swimming records have always been more 'fragile' than running, but that is for another time (when I have more time!)

However, the implication of this is that the impact made by technology is potentially larger in swimming than it would be for say running shoes in athletics, even tennis racquets in tennis. This means that ensuring equality of competition through technology is much more difficult for swimming. The difference between Nike and Adidas running spikes is minuscule. Trek and Specialized may like to believe they make the best bikes, but the performance differences are tiny, if not non-existent (at that level, of course - my Trek is very inferior!). But for swimming, the differences in technology may be large enough that they outstrip the natural difference between swimmers. Then we have Formula 1, not swimming...

History - a purist view, but a tainted record

Secondly, swimming relies heavily on history and world records for its interest. It is a timed sport (different to cycling in this regard) and so generations are often compared by longevity or records, quality of performances. The current swimsuit situation negates that comparison entirely. I am (again) a purist, but I look at greats of swimming, the likes of Alexander Popov, who was the world record holder in the 100m freestyle only 18 months ago. He's now well outside the top 10 times ever swum, obliterated from the books, and swimmers with less talent are now well clear of him. There is of course precedent for this - javelin record books were wiped clean when the new javelin was introduced. However, in this analogy, at least everyone got the same javelin...! And it was easy to document where the change had come - a clear, distinct moment separated old from new. For swimming, access to technology is compromised and the line between "before" and "after" less clear.

So the issue is not new technology, but the control over that technology, and equal access. And, at some point, control over its limits. It's a debatable issue for the future.

For the present though, one might need to enjoy the World Championships but not take results too seriously, because if FINA eventually get around to banning these suits, the pecking order may be tipped on its head. And for the future, FINA should take very seriously the threats and reports, including the threat that Michael Phelps (the sport's biggest drawcard, like it or not) may not swim in international competitions until the high-tech suits are banned.

You may think that is a spoiled gesture, sour grapes (please let us know!), but what it seems to suggest is that the swimmers themselves are disgruntled and unhappy.

This was a much more marketing heavy post, more on the 'philosophical' side, and not the analysis of the world records, which I hope to return to by tomorrow. If time permits...


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Swimming world records fall like meaningless tenpins

Who wants to live forever? Not swimming world records, that's for sure

Queen's song "Who wants to live forever" has been working overtime in Rome. There is a certain irony in the fact that every single time a world record is broken in the pool during the current World Swimming Championships, Freddie Mercury's voice echoes around the Foro Italico, asking a rhetorical question that typifies the sport of swimming at the moment.

In response, I thought I'd play around with some numbers and try to illustrate just how swimming records have been cheapened, so below is that analysis.

Background - the swimsuit wars

You would be forgiven, had you been out of touch lately, for thinking that maybe the Italian swimming pool had been built a few meters short! If you have followed the media for the last 18 months, then you'll know that we're seeing the effects of the "swimsuit wars", initiated by Speedo in 2008, and now carried forward by Jaked, TYR and Arena. To sum up a long, complicated story, the debate is around what materials and designs should be legal in swimsuits, and whether the manufacturers have developed costumes that are performance-enhancing through improving buoyancy and body shape in the water.

FINA has been slow to respond, allowing Speedo's LZR Racer, then allowing the others...sort of...I think! Some are banned, some are awaiting ratification - I must confess it's been difficult to keep up with from outside the sport!

But the result is that swimmers are jumping ship, violating sponsorship agreements to swim in what they perceive to be the superior suits. Meanwhile, retired greats have been shot out of the top 20 of all-time, displaced by swimmers who seem to have come from nowhere. All the while, watching the sport, I'm never quite sure whether I'm seeing a great swimmer or a good one, wearing a superior costume...

Rome World Champs - meaningless world records

Two days in, nine world records gone. Not that this is surprising, for world records in swimming about as common as a starter's pistol - almost every race is won in the "greatest performance ever". And when a world record is not broken, as for the men's 50m butterfly event last night, there is almost a sense of disbelief, a feeling that maybe that wasn't really the final, but a qualifying heat, because the swimmers must have been taking it easy to NOT break a record.

Being a follower of athletics, I'm accustomed to a sport where world records are special, seen by only a few lucky people, achieved by the true greats of the sport. Anyone who has ever witnessed a running world record, for example, can be assured that they were seeing a human being run faster than anyone in history, and that this performance was special.

Swimming world record age analysis

For swimming, it is not the case. The records are broken with an extra-ordinary regularity. Part of this is the sport - swimming does lend itself to more frequent records, because small changes in things like technique, body position and training can produce relatively large effects on performance.

However, we've never seen anything quite like the impact of swimming costumes on the world records. I thought an interesting analysis would be to go back to something I did last year, looking at the age of swimming world records in the immediate aftermath of the Beijing Olympics.

Back then, I worked out that BEFORE the Beijing Olympics began, the average swimming record was only 1 year and 10 months old for men, and 2 years 6 months old for women. Thanks to a spate of world records in Beijing, that age fell to 1 year and 1 month for the men, and 8 months for the women - that's right, the average age of the swimming world records for women was 8 months.

That is incredibly short - it's placed into context when you realise that the average age of athletics world records is 8 years 11 months, and 14 years 9 months for men and women respectively, as the graph below shows.

There are of course factors that contribute to this - drug taking in the 1980s has rendered many of the women's athletics records "unbreakable", and so it is not surprising that women's athletics records are a little older. The same can be said of many of the men's events, especially in the field.

Cycle to cycle - the lifespan is determined by competition

But for swimming, a record is now very unlikely to last from one major championships to the next. In fact, in Beijing, 21 events out of 32 had their world records broken. In Rome, this statistic will be even worse.

To kick off the analysis of swimming, I thought I would update last year's analysis and look at the current age of swimming world records. The table below shows the ages of the records (in days) on the eve of the current championships:

I have highlighted in blue the records already broken in Rome (this was after 2 days, at the time of writing). You'll notice that on the men's side, the second oldest record (Ian Thorpe's 400m Freestyle) was broken. For the women, the oldest record has already fallen (100m butterfly), as have the second and fourth oldest, and so both the men's and women's record age will fall dramatically when I revise this analysis to INCLUDE the current World Championships (which I'll do once they are complete).

Obviously, because we've had nearly a year since the Beijing Games, many of these records are now older than in my previous analysis (the analysis is somewhat "artificial" because records are only really broken in discrete events). However, I want to point out the following:

  • For men, only four world records were older than 1 year. Now that one has gone, three remain, and this is likely to change as well, I suspect
  • For women, only four world records were older than 1 year. Three have been broken already which means that only a single world record is older than one year
  • In men's swimming, only three world records have survived both the Beijing Olympics and the year following it. With four days of swimming remaining, it's unlikely that all three will survive, which means that for men, every single record may have been set between Beijing and the current world championships
  • For the women, this situation almost already applies - one single world record remains, at it may well be broken in the next two days. Swimming world records do not, in the current environment, last beyond two major championships
  • A final observation that some of you may have made is that the longest-lasting records are without fail in the slowest events - the men's 400m, 800m and 1500m records stand out, and the women's 1500m event is a sole survivor. Until the Beijing Games, the women's 800m was the oldest record in the books. Only the 100m butterly record was a true outlier, but it has now fallen, two days ago. It may be that the suits are more effective at higher speeds - an Olympic medallist revealed to me that his experience was that the suits were ineffective at slower than 2 m/s (which is the speed in events up to around 400m freestyle - greater than this, speeds are too slow)
Ban the suits as from 2010 - records will suddenly "live forever"

All of this is good and well, of course, as long as the momentum can be maintained. The problem is that FINA have finally decided that they will ban the controversial, high-tech polyurethane material as from 2010. This means that all the swim suits currently being worn during these "greatest performances ever" will be outlawed, and we will not see swimming world records broken for a long time. Or, alternatively, FINA will not allow these latest records, effectively turning the clock back and banning the suit. But, they would then find themselves with the almighty problem of figuring out WHERE to cut the records - was it before Beijing? Before the LZR? What about the full-length suits used in Sydney in 2000? It's a tricky one, without an easy solution.

We received a telling comment about 2 months ago from a reader, who asked what would be worse than allowing the suits? The answer of course, is to allow them for a short time and then ban them, which is exactly what FINA have done.

That's not to say they're wrong, of course, it's just that this decision is long overdue, and not one that they should not have seen coming, given that all this debate around high-tech costumes kicked off in January 2008. But, politics, business and administration make for some conflicted decisions, and the end result is that Queen's song "Who wants to live forever" may soon be out of favour - the new theme song for swimming will be from a James Bond film, "Die Another Day".


Join us tomorrow for our next swimming analysis, which will look at two examples of how the current swimsuits have impacted on swimming world records. Swimming records do tend to have shorter lifespans, and breaking records in 'batches' is not unheard of. But, what we're seeing now is unprecedented, and I'll look at that in a bit more detail tomorrow!

Also, Michael Phelps races against Paul Biedermann tonight in the final of the 200m freestyle. Biedermann broke Thorpe's 400m Freestyle record, racing in an Arena suit. Phelps on the other hand, is "so 2008" in his Speedo LZR, and so it makes for an intriguing clash, in which the world record will surely fall. It's just a question of to whom?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tour 2009 wrap: Winners and losers

The Tour de France Oscars: Tour summary

In attempt to alleviate my own withdrawal symptoms now that the Tour is over, I thought I'd do a somewhat tongue in cheek review of the Tour, styled as the Tour Oscars - the winners and losers from France.

The first Oscar - The Contribution award

It's been an epic Tour, at least in as far as trying to post on it goes! 18 articles, 100,000 visits, and maybe 200 comments in the last three weeks, and I'm ready for a holiday from cycling myself (imagine what a cyclist must feel like). But the first Oscar goes to everyone for their inputs and comments, for contributing to the discussion and debate (sometimes the arguments) and for enriching the site with informed opinions!

A particular thanks to Alex Simmons, who has commented maybe a dozen times, always with inputs and calculations of power output and performance analysis that helped enormously with the discussion. But to everyone, thanks a million and hopefully the end of the Tour won't signal the end of your input - there are still swimming and athletics analyses to be written!

Onto the cycling - Best performance award

I'm going to split the award for best performance, and say that it goes jointly to Mark Cavendish, and of course, Alberto Contador.

Mark Cavendish

Cavendish almost had a perfect Tour. It was perfect from the point of view that he won every single sprint he competed in - six out of six. When Mark Cavendish was in the group with one kilometer to go, he won six out of seven stages - the only occasion he did not win a stage was on the ride into Barcelona, when he was caught out by the final climb and never really contested in the last 300m. His "imperfection" was in failing to win the green jersey, something he has blamed on the decision to disqualify him on stage 14, which gave Thor Hushovd a big boost in points. To his credit, he has since acknowledged that Hushovd probably would have won green anyway, thanks to his superior finishes on the tougher days, and that brilliant ride in the Alps that saw him garner all the intermediate sprint points.

So Cavendish has unfinished business in the Tour, but he'll go down in history as the best British rider ever (in terms of stage wins) and considering he's only 24, he may well rack up a record number of stage wins by the time his career is over. He may be brash and cocky, and not all that likeable, but he sure is the dominant sprinter - the size of his wins, more than the fact that he's won, has been extra-ordinary. So he shares the award with the best cyclist in the world, Alberto Contador.

Alberto Contador

Alberto Contador won the Tour with three moves - first was his attack on the top of Arcalis, which saw him gain 21 seconds on his rivals, but perhaps more important, leapfrog his own team-mate into the leadership position of Astana. In hindsight, it would probably not have made a difference, so brilliant was his ride up to the Verbier just over a week later, but it was a significant message and a move that apparently created a difficult atmosphere within the team. Contador, who has been accused of being tactically naive, impetuous and inexperienced, actually showed something of his 'street smarts' there, because who knows how the Tour may have shaped had it been Armstrong who was in a position to inherit yellow.

The climb to Verbier was the decisive day in the Tour. For a week the Tour had been dormant, and suddenly it explosed and it was Contador who dominated with a breath-taking acceleration and climb. It said loud and clear to everyone else, including his own manager and team, that he was the superior cyclist, and served to set the pattern for the rest of the Tour. He would go on to mark attacks and control the race, before his third performance, the stage win in the individual time-trial, confirmed his dominance.

In his own words, it was a difficult Tour, one in which he never really had the full suport of his manager or some of the riders in his team. In the post-race interview, he said the following: "The preparation for this win was rather tricky, I had elements working against me, but I kept focused," said Contador. "Do I think Bruyneel wanted Armstrong to win the Tour? That is a very good question." Bruyneel was not at the press conference to answer this question himself. It's not only his words that testify to that, but the actions and quotes coming out from Astana throughout the Tour. It was very difficult to get a consistent message - was the attack planned? Was it against team orders?

No one knows, because no consistent message came out of the team. Twitter messages laced with insinuation, quotes contrary to Contador's, and the world's media began to pick upa very obvious pattern (so it's not only me suggesting this, just so you know!). Nothing seemed certain from the race's best team. With the exception, of course, that Contador was the number one Tour rider, and a deserving winner.

Big disappointments - Cadel Evans

It's easy to forget that Cadel Evans was actually the first person in the whole race to launch an attack - he went with about 2km to go to the summit of Arcalis. It would be Evans' only real contribution to the GC race. The next day, he tried to get into a break right at the start of the stage, but his fellow breakaway riders were having nothing of it and effectively ordered him back to the peloton (It seems that "playing by the rules" is the only way to win in cycling, which is a pity because it renders 90% of the race meaningless. What this event did was to demonstrate that you can try to win in cycling, but only if you do it the way everyone else wants you to)

From that point onward, it just got worse and worse for the runner up from the last two Tours. The Alps were a disaster. He entered them well off the pace anyway, thanks to a weak team that had lost time in the team time-trial, and he continued to lose more. Contador's Verbier attack cost him just over a minute, but it was on the day after the rest day that his race exploded, and he was dropped on the final climb of the Petit St Bernard, losing 3:55. The next day was worse - dropped on the very first Cat 1 climb (there were 4 it total), he ended up in the grupetto and his Tour was well and truly over.

In the end, he finished the Tour in 30th, 45 minutes behind Contador. All in all, disappointment for Evans, who refused to comment on his form for "personal reasons", which may or may not mean anything!

A "dubious mention" goes to Carlos Sastre, who came in as the defending champion, but never really featured. He was predicted by commentators and Armstrong to be a danger man in the third week, but his only occasion to feature was on the climb of the Col de Ronne, where he attacked, and was caught within a kilometer before being comprehensively dropped. He would go on to finish 17th at 26:21 down. His other contribution was an outburst over the "lack of respect" he'd been shown in the media, but to his enormous credit, he apologized for this later in the Tour, showing class that seems to be relatively rare in cycling. Perhaps Sastre simply trained too hard, too early this year, the weight of defending the title pushing him over the edge? He was good at the Giro d'Italia, and while few would have made him a favourite, it was a surprise that he was quite so far down.

Another mention to Denis Menchov - the Giro champion never featured, unless it was to show him picking his bike up after an accident. Perhaps he was a 'victim' of the same problem as Sastre, peaking for the Giro and then simply not having the form in France.

The Prix de la Combativite - most aggressive rider

Forget what the Tour said - they gave this award to Franco Pellizotti, for his frequent attacks and presence in break-away groups especially in the mountains. The real winners of this award should have been the Schleck brothers, Frank and Andy. Pellizotti rode well, sure, and he was aggressive, but it's a lot easier to be aggressive when 98% of the peloton are perfectly happy for you to go on the attack, because you're no threat to the overall GC, and are simply indulging yourself in the King of the Mountains.

When you're lying in the top 6, and you are attacking the best five cyclists in the world over and over, trying to squeeze out seconds in the race for the podium, then you are truly deserving of the prize for aggression.

Andy and Frank Schleck lit up the Tour - but for their aggression, the race would have been a procession, with Contador putting himself firmly in the lead in Verbier. The Schlecks promised to attack in the Alps, and they did exactly that. Even on Mont Ventoux, with the Tour title all but secured, Andy made no fewer than 20 accelerations. Contador was good enough to mark them, but the Schlecks are easily the most combative and exciting climbers to watch. So Pellizotti may be the official winner of this award, but it should be given to Andy and Frank Schleck.

The get well soon award

One of the worst accidents in many years was that of Jens Voigt - he basically lost his grip on the handlebars, and fell face first onto the tar at 80km/hour and skidded for what looked like 50 m before coming to a halt. A fractured cheekbone and concussion, and what must be the worst road rash ever were the injuries, and it could have been far worse, so here's hoping he recovers well and is racing again soon!

On the whole, it was not a Tour with many big accidents. Levi Leipheimer was the biggest 'casualty', breaking his wrist bone in what seemed a fairly innocuous fall. Boygues Telecom had a pretty impressive co-ordi accident during the team-trial, with four men riding off into a field. Denis Menchov fell off often, compounding his poor Tour, but overall, not as eventful as some Tours regarding crashes.

The "so near yet so far" award

This goes to us, and just about everyone else who would love to fully analyse the performance's of the worlds' best cyclists. Cycling is a sport that really does lend itself to analysis - power output data, gradients, inferring from lab studies, and endless debates about heart rate, speed and performance ability.

All of them are within reach, but frustratingly, impossible to access in a meaningful way. The folks over at Training Peaks do a fabulous job of monitoring cyclists, and you can track a couple of Tour riders on their site - well worth a read, and a brilliant system for scientific analysis.

But what I think most would love is an indication of what Contador did on the Verbier? What would it take to match Andy Schleck's attacks on the Mont Ventoux? What kind of physiology is required to produce a podium performance in the Tour de France? How can one predict performance based on lab tests? Can one predict performance based on lab tests? Is there a physiological "limit" to performance? (of course there is - but we don't know it for sure...yet!)

These are fascinating questions, but unanswerable for the most part - too many 'ifs' and 'buts', too many factors unaccounted for. We've done our best to bring you the insights, the implications and the analysis, but unfortunately, definitive conclusions remain just out of reach. Perhaps some day it will be compulsory to publish power output data, I certainly see a great deal of value in it. Until then, we can only speculate and surmise, debate and discuss, based on the best case scenario!

And that's exactly what we'll do! Thank you once again for following our Tour de France coverage for 2009! It's been a tremendous race to analyse and discuss, and we promise that we're not done with cycling - whenever the opportunity presents, we'll come back to it, because there are so many unanswered questions and topics for discussion.

But for now, our attention shifts to the pools and tracks of the world, for what is hopefully equally intriguing discussion!


P.S. Feel free to nominate your own "Oscar" winners - I had to stop eventually!

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tour 2009 rolls to an end: A showdown on Ventoux and Contador's glory

Tour 2009: Contador rolls into Paris in yellow, and already next year is looking good

The 2009 Tour de France sprinted its way to an end today, and as was expected from about a week and a half ago, it was Alberto Contador who ended on top of the cycling world, winning his second Tour title. The finish of the race, up and down the Champs Elysees is a great occasion, one you really should try to make if you're a follower of the sport, and it was largely ceremonial for every rider but Mark Cavendish, who put the exclamation mark on an incredible Tour de France by winning his sixth stage. He may not have won the green jersey, but he's without doubt the pre-eminent finisher in the sport.

Mont Ventoux - no leaderboard shake-up, but attack meets defence (and loses)

For the GC, as is normal, no major shake-ups today - that was the job of the Mont Ventoux yesterday. Apologies for no immediate post-race report on that one, in the end, the stage proved relatively insignificant in the big scheme of the race result, but it certainly didn't fail to produce excitement. In hindsight, the podium was determined by Thursday's time-trial, and not the Mont Ventoux, but it wasn't for a lack of trying by the Schlecks, who really have lit up the final week of the Tour with their aggressive racing.

They attacked from about 15km to go on the giant finishing climb, first Frank and then Andy jumping off the front. When Frank went, Lance Armstrong was able to response immediately and shut the move down. Andy's moves were followed only by Albert Contador, but Andy sat up and waited almost every time once Frank was not able to cover the move, and Contador was. The prevalent wind direction seemed to be from the front, and attacking into a headwind was always going to complicate the lives of the Schlecks, since the draft effect would be great enough to allow moves to be followed.

The battle on the slopes of the Mont Ventoux thus ultimately boiled down to two one-on-one battles: that between Contador and Andy Schleck, with Contador very comfortably able to control it (even if he had not, he had in excess of four minutes), and another battle between Frank Schleck and Lance Armstrong for third, with Brad Wiggins an outside shot at pulling a shock on the climb. In that battle, Armstrong was able to cover all the moves, and Wiggins ran out of steam near the summit. In the end, the aggressors simply did not have the form to shake off the defenders, and the result was that the podium was unchanged, the day's only loser being Andreas Kloden, who conceded one position to Frank Schleck.

A tactical game and changes in impetus

It was extra-ordinary to see Schleck and Contador riding off the front of the peloton and then sitting up, Andy looking over his shoulder for brother Frank, before trying again, and again. The ease with which they rode the climb as a tactical race was striking, and at times it resembled a track race in cycling with a stop-start, fast-slow rhythm. That rhythm was made clear by the fact that the leaders on the road, Spain's Juan Manuel Garate (who would go on to win the stage) and Tony Martin, were yo-yoing back and forth, first losing drastic time as a Schleck came, and then building a lead as the elite group lost all impetus once the Schleck attacks had been neutralised.

What it meant for the overall time, I'm not sure. I would have loved to analyse and get an idea of how fast this climb was done compard to those of years gone by (in keeping with what we've been doing all Tour long!). Unfortunately, it was impossible to see distance markers (apparently many were blown away, while others were obscured by crowds), so I don't actually know the time taken by the elite group to summit. I can only surmise it was not that fast, because the Garate-Martin pair began the climb with about 5 minutes lead, and with 15.9km to go, had 3:24. That would normally not be enough, today it was. Also, the record ascent from that 15.9km mark (a village called St Esteve) is held by Marco Pantani at 46 minutes. I can't see Garate doing it within 4 minutes of that, and so I can only assume the climb was relatively slow. Maybe later in the week, this can be looked at.

Contador reigns supreme

Not surprisingly, however, Contador was able to mark every move, and showed only a feint grimace near the summit for his troubles. He was imperious in the mountains, and won this Tour thanks to what amounted to only two big moves - one was the Verbier, where he threw down a brilliant climb to create time-gaps. The second was his individual time-trial performance. Only two performances, plus marking moves and small time-gaps here and there, and he won the Tour by minutes. A stronger challenge might have created more work, but Contador seemed to have the Tour under control, and perhaps the margin of victory was deceptively small.

Andy Schleck looked comfortably the number 2 in this race. His aggression energized the last week, and as he improves, he may yet challenge Contador. However, for now, Contador is on the way to making history - a fourth Grand Tour, second Tour de France, and only 26, if he is managed well and stays out of the murky waters that affect the sport, then who knows what might be achievable? In cycling, though, nothing seems certain...

Looking ahead - a 2010 script is already taking shape

Already, attention has turned to next year. Lance Armstrong's announcement that he'll form a new team, Radioshack, means the lines of combat will look different in 2010. At this stage, there is no guarantee that Radioshack will even ride the Tour, though it is difficult to see how they could be excluded - Armstrong is likely to fill its rosters with some big names.

Contador is likely to move on, now that Alexander Vinokourov (he of the blood mixing in his thighs to cause a positive test) is returning to "his" team. He may end up at a Spanish team. Then the Schlecks have improved each Tour - if they continue to do so, they'll be combative and in contention in 2010.

All in all, it's exciting to look forward already. And most amazing of all, not a doping story to speak of all Tour! However, before the champagne corks pop and fireworks explode in celebration, I will say that I do believe we may yet come back to the 2009 Tour for some retrospective testing. One positive step taken is the commitment to store samples for future use, and so who knows, we might yet be looking back on 2009 before we look ahead to 2010.

Looking ahead

That's pretty much it from Tour de France coverage. ONE MORE post, where I'll look back and attempt to summarize the Tour - highs, lows, success stories, failures, highlights. I'll give Mark Cavendish and Cadel Evans a mention they've probably warranted but have lost in the discussion of climbing, power outputs and pacing strategies! That comes tomorrow.

And then we move onto the plethora of other sports - swimming world champs, athletics on the go, Jamaican sprinters who test positive, you name it! We'll try to cover it!

Join us for the Tour recap soon, and more beyond!


Friday, July 24, 2009

Tour de France 2009: Contador VO2max

Alberto Contador - can he have a VO2max of 99.5 ml/kg/min?

I came across this interesting piece on Cyclingnews this morning. It caught my eye because it's an extension of a topic that we've been covering in the last week, analysing Alberto Contador's Tour-winning climb up to Verbier.

In the article, Antoine Vayer calculates that given Contador's power output on that climb (which he calculates as 490W for a 78kg "normalized" rider - more on that later), and with one or two assumptions to turn that power output into oxygen consumption, Contador would be riding at 5.55 L/min. The problem with this is that it implies that Contador's VO2max is about 99.5ml/kg/min!

Not that VO2max is the be-all and end-all of exercise, mind you (though some still believe it's the key variable), but that value is off the charts. Some would say preposterous. Most elite athletes have VO2max values between 70 and 80 ml/kg/min, with a few above this. For Contador to be approaching 100ml/kg/min clearly raises a flag.

And it did, with Greg Lemond calling for proof that Contador is capable of achieving these numbers without using performance enhanching products "assuming the validity of the calculations".

And herein lies the catch - are the calculations valid?

Well, first of all (and thank you to Seb for pointing this out - my French is hardly 'parfait', so I'm afraid I can't do the original piece justice!), the Cycling News article is actually incorrect when it quotes Vayer as calculating a power output of 490W. In fact, what Vayer has done is to work out a power output and then normalize it for a rider of 70kg and a bike of 8kg, so that different riders can be compared. This value of 490W actually corresponds to an 'absolute' power output of 440W for Contador. This has implications for how one discusses Vayer's subsequent calculations.

Just on this note, I still think that this calculated power output of 440W is a little on the high side. For example:

  • Last week, we looked at Contador's climbing rate (VAMs) and using Michele Ferrari's formula, arrive at a power output of 6.78 W/kg, or 420W.
  • Alex Simmons very kindly provided some calculations for the climb, given the speed and gradient, and he arrived at a value of 422 W. He went on to show that if you assume even a small following wind, this power output drops to 397W.
  • Using the same principles, but making more "aggressive" assumptions, I have calculated the power output at around 440 W - this is an upper end, call it the "worst case scenario", because I think Alex has pretty much arrived at the accurate figures using his equations (which match the estimation of the Ferrari equations based on VAMs).
The only way I can arrive at this high a power output is to assume a headwind (which is very unlikely), or that the climb was steeper or longer (or that Contador was riding a bike weighing 13kg!). The length and gradient are contentious - we couldn't find any agreement on how long it was or how high it climbed, so Vayer may well be right. In the end, the data from Trainingpeaks.com showed an 8.7km climb and 640m ascent, which seems the safest bet.

There are some other assumptions you have to make - the air density, surface area and so on. However, these have a much smaller impact on the power output than gradient, speed and mass - a lot of people wrote in about this, the effect of air density and road surface. They're factors, don't get me wrong, but they're really very small in comparison with speed, mass and grade.

So that's the first problem with the calculation. That said, Antoine Vayer knows about power output - he published the book I referred to in my previous analysis of Tour climbing power, and has a library of all the Tour climbs. He, more than anyone, knows how to look at a climb in context, and so his figures deserve more than out of hand dismissal.

Converting power to oxygen - some assumptions required

Next, you have to convert that power output into oxygen consumption. This also requires some assumptions. I don't know the specific ones made, but an interesting exercise is to go through what might be "reasonable" assumptions and see what happens. First, you have to assume the level of efficiency. The more efficient the rider, the lower the oxygen consumption at any power output. So, Vayer may have assumed efficiency to be lower than the reality for Contador - short of measuring it, you'll never know.

Next, you have to assume energy use per liter of oxygen. This is tricky because depending on how hard you are riding, the value varies - if you are burning fat, it is lower than if you're burning carbohydrates as a source of energy. For example, the oxidation of fat provides 4.69 kcal/L of oxygen, whereas carbohydrates provides 5.05 kcal/L. Because Contador was climbing at a high intensity, he'll be on the carbohydrate end of the spectrum, so the assumption would probably be around 5 kcal/L.

If you do this, and assume 23% efficiency (which is in the normal range, and I'd assume would be where Vayer would go), then you arrive at a VO2 of 88.6ml/kg/min on the climb. Next, you assume that this is 90% of the VO2max, and you have the estimated VO2max of Contador - 98.4 ml/kg/min! (note the small difference is because I don't know what assumptions he's made - if you assume even slightly more energy from fats, then the VO2max rises to 99.4 ml/kg/min, for example - I'm just using some assumptions for illustrative purposes for now)

The problem - the starting power output is calculated, not measured

The problem of course, is not necessarily these assumptions - they can be made to be conservative and work out a "worst case scenario" as I did for power output. Then they are actually very instructive, because if you are conservative and still get 'unphysiological' values, then you have a real problem! The problem is that missing one assumption can create a misleading picture.

First, you have the power output of 440W. You must remember that this is a CALCULATED power output, and is therefore the result of performance. Any factor that improves performance (like a following wind) will cause an overestimation of the power output if it is not taken into account in the calculation.

In my analysis of the climb, looking at the VAMs (which are also contentious, but minimize the requirement for assumptions to calculate power output), I went to great lengths to explain all the factors that could have contributed to the record climbing speed of Contador. These included the shorter length of the climb, the suspected following wind, the race situation (and of course, the possibility of doping, which is now receiving the bulk of the headlines in this article). Given the shorter climb, the following wind and the relatively conservative riding up to that climb, perhaps the climbing performance was expected.

On the other side, one has to also acknowledge that Contador's VAM (and hence estimated power output) would have been even higher on a steeper climb, as I tried to explain (unsuccessfully in many cases, it seemed!). Of course, this assumes you use VAMs, which is not the best for this kind of interpretation. However, on balance, it was clear that you can't take this single climb and read too much into it.

The impact of wind

For example, just to illustrate the impact of the following wind, for every 3.6 km/h of following wind (and that is a very gentle breeze), the required power output drops by between 2 and 3%. The result is that by the time the average following wind speed reaches 10km/h, the estimated power output has fallen from 422W to 387W (8%). By all accounts, the general wind direction on the Verbier was from behind or the side, so I think it's fair to assume the wind helped the climb.

Therefore, Contador's "real" power output may have been substantially lower than what Vayer has calculated. If his assumption is 440W, it is conceivable that the following wind may reduce it to around 396 W (with an average wind speed of 15km/h from behind). Suddenly, the estimated VO2max drops to 89 ml/kg/min.

Just out of interest's sake,using the same assumptions for converting power output to oxygen use, and using Alex's calculated power output of 387W with an average wind of 10km/hour, the estimated VO2 on the climb is 78 ml/kg/min, and the VO2max estimate is 87 ml/kg/min.

What can be inferred from power output and oxygen use - physiological markers of doping?

They are still exceptionally high, but are more in the realms of "normality" (whatever that means). I still have my doubts about these figures - if Contador's efficiency really is 23% (as I've assumed to work that out), then it's highly unlikely his VO2max is that high. We know that VO2max comes DOWN as efficiency rises. So the combination of a high VO2max and high efficiency is unusual indeed.

Having said all this, then, I really do believe that Greg Lemond is onto a very important aspect of performance analysis. There are upper limits to what can be achieved physiologically, there are without doubt physiological "impossibilities". Unfortunately, in this case, I think the calculation of the key parameters is too fraught with error to be truly meaningful.

What is physiologically possible?

If this kind of analysis is to be useful, then every single aspect must be factored into the calculation - the wind speed throughout the climb, the mass of rider and bike, the length and gradient of the climb. Then one might be able to make a strong case for the position that what we are seeing is impossible physiologically.

There are people (experts in the sport) who believe that the upper limit of performance should lie around 5.6 to 5.8 W/kg on a longer climb. This is well below what is being calculated for the current Tour, particularly the Verbier. However, if the wind speed is not controlled, then the calculated power output may well fall below that "ceiling". The point is, we just don't know what the wind is doing and so the margins are currently too large. Therefore, you cannot use isolated performances, lacking control over variables, to infer doping.

What we should rather do, and I hope can be done after this Tour, is to look at the average of all the major climbs - Arcalis, Verbier, Col de Colombiere, Col de Ronne, and see how the power output goes on average. Why? Because doping's biggest impact may not be on the single performance, but on repeat performances through its effect on recovery between rides. Analysing many riders over a longer period also helps to control the influence of these variables a little better. This analysis would still require accurate estimations of power output, however.

A fascinating subject, and one that's sure to get a lot of air-time, but frustratingly, too many grey areas, and "ifs" and "buts" - I look at this type of analysis, and I can see that there is something there, but it's just out of reach... For now!


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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tour de France 2009: Time-trial analysis

Contador reigns supreme in yellow on the flat roads. Analysis of the Tour's final time-trial contests

Alberto Contador showed in the Alps that he is the best climber in the Tour (regardless of what the polka dot jersey says), and today, he underlined his status as the number 1 rider in the 2009 Tour by winning the 40.5km individual time-trial in Annecy.

For the Tour's best climber to do so well in a time-trial on what was largely a flat course means that Contador's rise to world's best stage racer has now been punctuated by a great ability against the clock, when he used to be a rider who gained time in the mountains and then minimized his losses in the time-trials.

Today, he was fastest from the start, and while Fabian Cancellara did a storming ride in the final 12km, it was not enough to overhaul the time that had been lost in the first part of the course.

Contador took the stage in 48:30, narrowly beating Cancellara (3 seconds), with the GC contenders stacked in amongst time-trial specialists further down. Brad Wiggins was the best of them in sixth, Andreas Kloden was 9th, Lance Armstrong 16th, and Andy Schleck 21st. Frank Schleck had probably the worst day of the big favourites, losing his podium place and leaving himself with a great deal of work if he is to reclaim it by Sunday's finish.

Implications for the GC

In terms of the GC, the big movers of the day were Armstrong, who climbed to 3rd, displacing Frank Schleck, who finished the day 1:04 behind him. Andy Schleck will also be pleased with his performance, because he limited his losses to Kloden and Armstrong to only 47 seconds and 15 seconds respectively.

It means that Andy's second overall is protected by 1:14 over Lance Armstrong. It seems a difficult ask for Armstrong to overhaul that deficit with only the climb of Mont Ventoux to come. though it could happen - a bad day or a good day either way and minutes can be lost. More interesting for Saturday's big stage will be the battle for third on the podium, since Armstrong is separated by only 11 seconds from Wiggins, with Kloden and Frank Schleck also within striking distance of a spot on the podium. The race for yellow may have been sewn up, but Saturday on Mont Ventoux should produce some fireworks for the remaining podium places.

Pacing analysis - contest by contest

I thought an interesting approach to the time trial would be to examine the pacing strategies employed by the GC contenders, and Fabian Cancellara, specifically to see who had the strength over the latter part of the race.

I've tabled the times for each of five segments of the 6 GC contenders and Cancellara, and shown where each was ranked for that particular segment. So below are two images, the first showing the rankings and times for the first three segments, the second showing the last two and the overall time. Briefly, the segments were: 0 to 18km (18km); 18km to 25km (7km); 25 to 28.5km (3.5km, including the day's short climb); 28.5 to 37km (8.5km) and 37 to 40.5km (3.5km).

Given that this time-trial was all about clawing back time, gaining time, and restricting time losses, it's interesting to compare riders in those mini-battles - Armstrong vs Andy and Frank Schleck, Wiggings vs Armstrong and Contador vs Cancellara (for the stage, rather than the GC!) - and see where they made up time and lost it. Bear in mind that when you look at these times, you're seeing effects of rider fatigue (when they slow down), but also of conscious decisions.

Contador vs Cancellara - tale of two halves

Contador made an incredibly fast start - he was 18 seconds up on Wiggins, and a full 37 seconds ahead of Cancellara, who had begun far more conservatively. That was switched around for segment 2, where it was Cancellara who was fastest, and Contador, perhaps by then a bit more settled, slow down somewhat, posting only the 5th best time of our seven riders. The trend for Frank Schleck was set from the outset, and he would go on to post the slowest time of our seven riders at all the time checks with the exception of the short climb, which is where the data is perhaps most interesting.

It was on this climb (segment 3) that Contador really won the day. His time here, over just 3.5km, was 18 seconds faster than the next best rider, and a full 31 seconds faster than Cancellara. It meant that Contador was now 46 seconds ahead of Cancellara, with the long gradual descent to come. Despite Cancellara's very fast finish (shown below), Contador held on for the win. In fact, having reached the high point of the course 46 seconds down, Cancellara managed to finish 43 seconds faster than Contador over the final 12.5 km, and eventually "ran out of road" to win his second Tour stage.

Armstrong vs Andy Schleck - the impact of the hill

Of interest on this climb is that the slowest time of all the riders was that of Armstrong, in 9:11. That is a full 46 seconds slower than Contador, and is where Armstrong really began to battle in his efforts to claw back Andy Schleck. Coming into the stage, Armstrong was looking for 1:29 to catch Andy.

Up to the bottom of the climb (25km) it was going well. In fact, before the climb (at the 25km mark), he was 33 seconds ahead of Andy Schleck on the stage. By the finish of the stage, that lead had been cut to 15 seconds, thanks largely to the 28 seconds Schleck was able to claw back on the short climb. Shleck ended up 1:14 ahead of Armstrong for second place overall, but it was looking much more tenuous until the climb gave the younger Shleck some time back.

Looking at the second group of segments, the profile is overall downhill, and so not surprisingly, the speeds are much higher, and Cancellara dominated in these two segments.

Brad Wiggins - a fast start that failed to continue

Brad Wiggins posted consistent times in terms of the rankings, but in terms of times, he faltered a little after the summit of the climb . His podium aspirations required that he make up a deficit of 58 seconds on Lance Armstrong. By the time they reached the summit at checkpoint 3, he'd recovered 42 of those seconds. However, over the final 12.5km downhill section, he was able to extend this by only 5 more seconds, to make up 47 seconds. That leaves him with 11 seconds for the Mont Ventoux, as explained above, and that may just prove too difficult an ask given the last two days in the Alps, where Armstrong looked to have his measure.

Frank Schleck - consistent time losses

Starting the day in third, it was always going to be tough for Frank Schleck to keep Armstrong at bay. He had a 30 second advantage, and it was gone by the first time check at 18km, where he was already 35 seconds down. From that point onwards, he "only" lost another 30 seconds, thanks in part to the climb, where he recovered 19 seconds on Armstrong, who did that climb slowest of all, as mentioned. That means he goes into the Mont Ventoux stage with 34 seconds to make up to catch Armstrong. That may just prove a bridge too far, unless he has an incredible day and is able to use the steep part of the climb and perhaps his brother's support to attack. He does of course also have to worry about Kloden and Wiggins and make sure he beats them by almost the same margin, so the chances of a podium finish seem slim.

An early predication for the podium then says that Andy Schleck will hold on, and that Lance Armstrong should have enough to hold off Wiggins and Frank Schleck for the third spot.

Looking ahead

Tomorrow is likely to be a day for the break. One more big battle awaits, and having come through 4 big days, the big teams are likely to look at rest and conserve energy for the Mont Ventoux 'showdown'. So don't expect too many fireworks, other than those provided by riders who will see tomorrow as their last shot at a stage win.

Preview of Mont Ventoux to come, and then obviously the race report on Saturday

Join us then!