The biological passport - giving some context to the performances in the Tour
Thank you all for the tremendous discussion on yesterday's post with some insights on the Plateau de Beille stage. As usual, whatever doesn't come out in the post is brilliantly debated in the comments and discussion afterwards, so thank you for the thoughts and opinions!
Most of the discussion has been around the issue of the 2011 Tour tactics and strategies, and particularly what this implies for doping (or a lack thereof) in the sport. That is obviously a big talking point - it is implicit in what we are seeing, to the point where I actually tried to avoid mentioning it in the post because I'd rather focus on the racing. But of course, it's a big issue, and it's also a positive thing for cycling to suggest that the sport is moving in the right direction, so worth discussing.
And so I felt the need to do this post, somewhat reactively, in order to provide some context to the debate and to my interpretation.
Complexity of sports performance
What one has to really understand is that sporting performance is so incredibly complex, that when you watch a competitive sports event (and this is true of any sport, incidentally), so many factors affect the outcome that taking a "reductionist" approach will always be incomplete, and sometimes very misleading! That is, if you reduce things like performance and racing tactics to being the result of only one variable (in this case, the presence of absence of doping), then you are invariably over-simplifying things. This is not necessarily a bad thing - simplifying a problem is often the first step to building an understanding of it! And if you do it systematically, then it's actually the only way to work towards understanding a complex phenomenon like performance.
But it's important to acknowledge the complexity and recognize that there's no proof in performance alone, only context. And I do think it's valuable context, particularly if you can adopt a systematic approach, and ask yourself "What would the sport of cycling look like WITH doping?". Make a list of characteristics that you would expect to see if the best athletes doped. And if you know that, then you can find signs (not proof, take note) that suggest otherwise, that the sport may be getting cleaner. But I'll post more on this tomorrow, when I'll do some "Rest day questions and insights".
For now, I want to repeat part of a post I did earlier this year on the biological passport. And this is important, because I want to impress on you that I'm not just basing this idea of a cleaner Tour on the slower times, the less aggressive racing and the power outputs. There is physiological, anti-doping context as well, and the interpretation of the performance and race tactics actually come AFTER this physiological finding, which is why I interpret it the way I do. And for this reason, we must revisit the biological passport concept
The biological passport - what is it and how does it work?
I'm not going to go into this in great detail now. If you're new to this site, or missed the two posts I did on this earlier this year, then click the links below to read more on the bio-passport - this is what I believe has helped produce the results we may be seeing. The articles are:
- The science of the biological passport - how does it work? Legal & Scientific issues
- Is the passport effective? A look at some evidence of its impact
- a LOW reticulocyte percentage indicates that there are fewer immature red blood cells because red blood cell production has been switched off - this happens after the infusion of RBC, or blood doping
- a HIGH reticulocyte percentage indicates that there are more immature RBC, and this happens because of removal of blood or the use of EPO, which both stimulate RBC formation
- a 'normal' or physiological range for reticulocyte percent is 0.5% to 1.5%. Anything outside these is suggestive of doping
And so that's why when the climbing times are down, when the power outputs drop, when the physiological implications of those power outputs are suddenly "credible" based on what we know about physiological capacity, when the racing is more conservative, when attacks are less frequent, when groups are more bunched, my interpretation is that the sport is moving in a positive direction.
The physiology, the marker for doping, says that doping behavior has changed. The performances confirm it, and even though each of those things by themselves proves nothing, they mount the evidence, confirm the hypothesis and all in all, I think they portray a positive message!
That's the context then. Into the future, a rest day tomorrow, and maybe a good time for some questions - what will the last week bring? So join me for some insights, where I'll try to talk racing as well, not just the doping, because there is a fabulous climax to this Tour on the horizon, much to look forward to!
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