Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Beijing 2008: Cycling road race results

Sanchez takes gold on miserable day for a bike ride

The men's Olympic road race has been won by a Spaniard...but not the one everyone was watching. In fact, not even many people's second or third choice. Instead, it was Samuel Sanchez who took out a six-man sprint on the Great Wall of China to claim Spain's Olympic Gold medal (and keep alive what has been a golden year for Spain - football, Sastre, Nadal etc.)

Second place went to Davide Rebellin of Italy, with bronze to Fabian Cancellara, in what was, if possible, the ride of the day despite him only claiming the third step on the podium.

How the race unfolded - a war of attrition

As many expected, the conditions in Beijing played a major role in how this race unfolded.

However, it was likely NOT the pollution, but the heat and humidity to blame for the fact that after one hour of racing, the peloton was moving along at only 25km per hour! Bathroom breaks were plentiful, riders clearly paying a great deal of attention (perhaps too much) to hydration, and therefore needing to relieve themselves more often than usual.

With just over 100 km to go, a 26 strong group had formed at the front, including:

Jens Voight
Carlos Sastre
Simon Gerrans
Kim Kirchen
Oscar Friere
Roman Kreuzinger
Sergui Ivanov
Fabian Cancellara
Chris Sorensen
Vladmir Karpets

Spain would have fancied their chances then, with both Sastre and Freire in the break, as well as enough CSC riders around Sastre to "help" the pace along in the interests of keeping the group clear! At this stage, the lead was around 4:00, but the chasing group were making inroads, and would eventually catch the lead group with just over 2 laps to go.

Perhaps the more relevant story was that riders were dropping out the race with regularity - the temperature on course was reported to be 26 degrees, with a relative humidity of an astonishing 96%, and so it was without doubt the environmental conditions that influenced this race.

Building up - final two laps of spectacular racing

With just over two laps to go, Spain send its riders to the front of the peloton and upped the pace - suddenly what had been "leisurely" became brutal, an increase in speed from the mid-30km/hour to over 40km/hour, and as a result, riders began to fall off the back, leaving behind an elite group including Evans, Sorensen, Vandevelde, Leipheimer, Michael Rogers, Andy Schleck, and Sammy Sanchez at 19 km to go.

Andy Schleck then made his move with about 18km to go, and put everyone into difficulty - just as on Alp d'Huez a few weeks ago, it seemed that Schleck is the form man on the climbs at the moment. His move in this race, while significant, probably came a little too late, because his break only served to split the front group, but not put him out alone. Instead, he was accompanied by four other riders: Rogers, Sanchez, Rebellin, Kolobnev (Russia)

Schleck then through another attack at the breakaway group, and split the group again, with only Rebellin and Sanchez managing to stick to his wheel.

But then it was Fabian Cancellara who took up the challenge from behind and almost single-handedly rode off the front of the chasing group and managed to bridge the gap, first to Rogers and Kolobnev, and then to Schleck, Rebellin and Sanchez. It was a brutal performance by the Swiss time-trial specialist, and his efforts formed a group of 6 with just under 1km to go.

As the riders hit the final 500m, it was the usual tactical battle, with the Great Wall of China providing the stage for the leading six to sort out the three medals. Kolobnev moved first, and Sanchez covered and then passed him across the line to win gold, with Rebellin around a bike length down, while Cancellara held on for a very deserved bronze medal. Andy Schleck pounded his handlebars in frustration since he was probably the strongest man in the race, certainly on the climbs, and leaves with nothing but a fifth place finish.

The pollution - was it a big deal?

Very difficult to say for sure. I don't think that the riders can be "trusted" to provide an accurate assessment of whether the pollution impacted on their performance, simply because it's almost impossible to differentiate between the heat, humidity and pollution. So, when riders like Stefan Shumacher say that they had a headache because of the pollution, I think it only further serves to propogate what I think is actually a myth about the impact of Beijing's pollution.

For one thing, the riders were hardly in the city of Beijing during this race. Instead, they were on the outskirts, surrounded by trees and nature, where it is likely that Beijing's pollution, even at the worst of times, is similar to most places in the world and not all that bad. Further, the measures put in place since July 20 must have reduced the levels even more.

So I don't buy that the pollution was the issue. The heat and humidity - 96% of it, that's the problem. And breathing difficulties caused by the heavy, dense air are certainly a problem. But I don't think this pollution, much-hyped by the media and the athletes, is going to be that influential in Beijing. I think the only people who might struggle is a very small group of athletes who have an allergy or asthma that is untreated - everyone else will either be fine because they have no such breathing problem, or they are treating theirs. Of course, we may never know, and it must be remembered that the athlete who has to experience it can't tell the source of their problems in many cases.

So the first endurance test is out the way, and while tough (only 90 men finished), Beijing's heat and humidity has shown its head, but it didn't prevent us from seeing a great race.



Alex Simmons said...

While humidity clearly causes difficulty for athletes, one thing is for sure, humid air is not more dense than "dry" air.

At the same temperature, barometric pressure and altitude, an increase in humidity actually reduces air density. Not by much but technically speaking "it is so" as Prof. Julius Sumner Miller would have said in his day!

I agree that Cancellara was amazing.

Unknown said...

It will be really interesting to watch the marathon unfold in these conditions considering that he cyclists had so much difficulty in the heat and they have the benefit of greater heat loss than a runner would through movement on the bike.
While an increase in humidity may reduce air density, the increased humidity does dilute the partial pressure of oxygen- at sea level, the normal pp of oxygen is 159 mmHg but in very humid conditions it can drop by 10 mmHg which I think can affect all athletes in the heat, particularly those with an underlying asthma condition, not to mention the smog.

Anonymous said...


That's a great comment - I had wondered about that. If oxygen partial pressure drops by 10 mmHg, with what elevation above sea level would that correspond?