Despite all the focus on the World Cup, it has not escaped our attention that one of the highlights of the sports year starts in a matter of days. On Saturday, 20 teams of 9 riders each will start a three-week tour around Holland and then France in what is usually described as one of the most difficult tests of sporting performance in the world.
This year's Tour has been designed to be filled with drama. Every stage is always vital, but with the cobbles of Arenberg awaiting on only the third stage, plus two trips up the Col du Tormalet, numerous mountain top finishes, only one individual time-trial (excluding Saturday's 8.9km prologue in Rotterdam), and numerous other challenges, 2010 should produce GC drama throughout. Check out Cyclingnews.com for an overview of the Tour stages.
The other reason why the Tour is so great to follow is that it lends itself to science and analysis. Of strategy, of physiology, of performance. In the last two years, we've tried to add some insight into the race here at The Science of Sport, and we'll certainly aim to do the same in 2010. The measurement of power output opens up a world of discussion, comparison and prediction that inspired some great debate last year.
To refresh your memory, last year there was some great discussion over analysis that was done on the climbing performances on the Verbier, where Alberto Contador laid the foundations for his overall victory. We first analysed the climb, then compared Contador's performance (in vertical ascending meters or VAMs - admittedly, an imprecise measure) to other climbs in Tour history.
And then, Antoine Vayer was quoted as having calculated that Contador's performance predicted a VO2max of 99.5ml/kg/min, which is of course very unlikely, and led to debates around whether it was an "unphysiological" performance. That formed the basis for another lively discussion.
So the Tour equals analysis, and analysis always leads to discussion. This year should be no different, and we're looking forward to having you along for the next three weeks.
Performance as a means to identify doping
It's early days yet, and who knows where the race will go. But the analysis of performance lends itself to a very interesting discussion around whether a cyclist is doping or not.
And so to get the ball rolling, here is an interesting article that came out in New Scientist today, called "Superhuman performance could betray sport drug cheats". I know it because I'm quoted in it and helped with some of the analysis. The basic premise is this - in order to produce a certain power output on a climb, you have to have a certain capacity to use oxygen. The work done has an oxygen cost, and this cost tells you a good deal about the "ceiling". If the climbing power output predicts a ludicrously high oxygen consumption, then you have a waving red flag.
It's not proof, but a very suspicious question mark. And I can assure you, the Tour is littered with question marks, from the 1990s up to perhaps last year. This year's Giro d'Italia, many of you have already noticed, has seen a substantial drop in power outputs on the climbs, and they are now "physiological" again.
If you read the New Scientist article, and feel a little under-informed and needing more detail, don't despair! I will definitely be covering this topic in much more detail in the coming weeks, explaining the method, the assumptions, the limitations and the implications. Analysing performance, and predicting physiology based on what we see!
However, I'm going to be as direct as possible right now and say the following:
A sustained (over 40 minutes) power output of greater than 6.2 W/kg at the end of a Tour stage is simply not physiologically believable, and is strongly suggestive of doping. In fact, anything above 6.0 W/kg is very, very suspect. Those are power outputs that are produced by riders who are doping, because the physiology required to drive that kind of performance, well, it just doesn't exist.
For the basis of that position, join us over the next few weeks!
As always, we welcome any ideas, any questions, any data (if you have power output data for Tour riders, please send it). I know many reading this are close to the sport, and you will have insights that all of us will enjoy, so please, don't hold back!
Other than this, I'll do my best to keep the Science of Sport Twitter account going during the Tour - not to overwhelm you with tweets, but for those who can't watch, I'll try to give the crucial updates, and a few snippets of information. So please check us out on Twitter!
Who knows where the next three weeks will take us? But wherever it is, we'll try to cover it for you!