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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tour de France 2009: Power estimates

Power output of Tour champions: What does it take to climb with the elite?

The Tour is currently winding its way through France, in what is another pretty sedate and routine stage so far. It's looking like a sprinter's stage, and maybe the battle for green between Cavendish and Hushovd.

To pass the time, I thought I'd do a post on the power outputs of elite cyclists in the mountains, which is always a nice topic of discussion, especially among those of you who measure power output and enjoy comparing yourself to the pros. So perhaps the numbers below will put into perspective just what it takes to ride at the front of a race like the Tour!

It's also a post that was partly inspired by some of your comments in response to our race report from Friday's racing up to Arcalis, the Tour's first mountain stage.

In that post, I commented that the climbing time of the lead group was around 25:22 (for Contador, 25:43 for the rest), compared to the time of 22:55 when Jan Ullrich won on the same climb back in 1997. Many of you suggested that this slowing of the times was an indication that the Tour is "cleaner" now - the fight against doping is being won, and the slower times are the outcome of having fewer doped riders pumping the pedals powered by all manner of EPO, GH, Insulin, testosterone and who knows what else! That's the thinking, anyway...The same question and debate seems to be doing the rounds in a few chat forums on the Tour, so it's obviously topical.

So today's post is a look back on the Tour, and just how fast it used to be. Unfortunately, I don't have data that span the most important period (2002 to 2006), but it does provide a good starting point for the debate, and a topic of discussion while the Tour rolls over the flatlands before the next big rendevous in the French Alps this weekend.

Is leTour 2009 "clean"?...too early to tell, too many confounders

To begin with, it's too early to answer the question definitively. There are simply too many confounding factors that can't be controlled - the weather, the temperature, the race tactics, the quality of the riders, the race situation - all these things impact on the estimated power output, and given that we've only really seen about 2km of all-out racing on the climbs, it's impossible to infer too much.

For example, if you compared the climb of the Tourmalet on Sunday to the climbs during the period 1995 to about 2006, you'd find an enormous difference - the Tourmalet has rarely been climbed so slowly. But that tells us nothing of the doping situation, but rather the stage profile, with 70km of riding after the summit negating the climb. So one must be careful to avoid the trap of looking at the numbers blindly and in isolation.

I think that if we look back on the 2009 Tour in a few years, it will make interesting reading though. Over a period of years, and maybe 15 to 20 climbs, it starts to become more meaningful to compare times and power outputs, because factors like tactics and weather start to "wash" out and trends become more meaningful than isolated observations.

So let's begin with a dose of realism - Contador and co may have climbed 3 minutes slower than Ullrich on Arcalis, but that ALONE doesn't tell us too much. There are however other factors that contribute to the argument, and we'll get to those shortly.

First, let's look at the power outputs that have been estimated for pros on the major climbs of the Tour in the past. Remember of course that all the above "confounders" or limitations exist for this analysis as well, but by looking long-term, at trends, we can still gather useful information, as I explained above. But race context, environment, strategy - all these things affect it, and I'm well aware of this limitation. I do however maintain that taking a long term view allows interesting trends to emerge, despite the limitations. The mistake would be to zone in on specific climbs, but that's not what this is about!

Power output on major climbs - the Tour champions over the years

Below is a graph showing the estimated power output* for the eventual Tour winner on the final climb of the Tours between 1989 and 2001. In other words, in 1989, Greg Lemond would go on to win the Tour, and what has been done here is to estimate his power output on the final climb of each mountain stage and then average them for that year. Same for Lemond in 1990, then Indurain, Riis, Ullrich, Pantani and Armstrong.

Note that for all years, the power output has been "normalized" by expressing it relative to body weight. This is important, because Indurain, for example, was much larger than Pantani. Pantani at a power output of 350W was thus the equivalent of Indurain riding at around 500W. So, to compare them, one either has to express power output per kilogram, or express it for a standard weight. I've taken the approach of expressing it relative to body weight. I'll post more on the effect of body weight on performance in the mountains once we get closer to Mont Ventoux.
Also, just as an addendum to the post in response to a comment by Will below, I must make the point that all the ABSOLUTE power outputs were calculated using the rider mass PLUS the mass of the equipment (bike and gear, assumed at 9kg for calculations), and then expressed relative to rider weight (see footnote).

It makes for some interesting reading - Greg Lemond averaged 5.7 W/kg on the final climbs during both his Tour wins. Then Indurain started off with an average power output of 5.3 W/kg, followed by 4.91 W/kg, and then it began to climb, so much so that when Indurain won his fifth Tour in 1995, his average power output on the final climbs of the mountain stages was an incredible 6.35 W/kg. (Just to labour the point - if you want to work out the ABSOLUTE power output for each rider, just multiply the power I've shown by the rider's mass. For Indurain, multiply by 80kg and you get a value of 508W)

That high power output was maintained for the next four years, Riis averaged 6.47 W/kg, Ullrich 6.33 W/kg, and then Marco Pantani set the 'record' when he averaged 6.63 W/kg during the 1998 Tour.

In 1999, which was the year after the big Festina scandal, the power output decreased to 5.88 W/kg, and then it began a progressive climb in 2000 and 2001, so that it was back up to 6.3 W/kg in 2001. That, unfortunately, is where the data I have end - see the footnote below.

However, we do know that Lance Armstrong's power output on Alp d'Huez in 2004 was calculated as 495W - this was presented as a scientific paper at the ACSM congress in Nashville in 2005, and I noticed the power output. It equates to 6.97 W/kg (as shown in the graph). It must be noted that this was the time-trial stage and so the climb was performed without other climbs and a day of racing before, and so should be slightly higher. However, what's really interesting to note is that even with this apparent "freshness", Armstrong still only rode 25 seconds faster in the 2004 climb than in 2001, when he won atop the Alp as well (after a long stage). The effect of the fatigue exists, but it's not as profound as I think one first imagines...

Whether the power output was as high as this on other climbs between 2002 and 2007, I'm not sure - if you look at a list of the best times ever recorded on these climbs, you'll find that many were set in this era from 2002 to 2007. Pantani still holds most of the records, but the generation 2002 to 2007 are in amongst the best times, faster than Riis and Ullrich, and so I suspect that the power outputs during this period as comparable to those achieved in the period 1994 to 1998, and 2000 to 2001. Therefore, the power output from 2002 to 2005 at least will be in the same range - 6.3 W/kg or higher. If you have the climbing times, do let me know.

To unpack the graph above in a bit more detail, the table below shows the power output estimated for Lance Armstrong during his three Tour wins in this recording period (1999 to 2001):

What does it take to ride the Tour?

There are a number of ways to interpret these numbers. First of all, it puts into perspective the enormous power output required to be competitive in the pro-peloton in the mountains. Take any of the above riders, and you'll find that you have to be able to sustain a power output well above 6W/kg. Greg Lemond, and Miguel Indurain's first few Tours were won with power outputs lower than this, but ever since, anything less than 6W/kg is not high enough.

In fact, since the mid-90s, 6.2 W/kg seems to be the minimum requirement, apart from the "aberration" of 1999 when the Tour was on full alert after the fiasco of 1998 and Festina-gate. Physiologically speaking, riding at 6.2 W/kg for up to 40 minutes is quite extra-ordinary. Elite athletes are usually able to sustain power outputs between 80% and 90% of maximum for a prolonged time. If a rider is able to sustain a power output of 6.3 W/kg for 30 minutes, then you can infer their peak power output will be somewhere between 7 and 7.5 W/kg, incredibly high.

If you are a cyclist who monitors your own power output, then, work out what 6.3 W/kg means for you (say, 520 W), and next time you are riding on a slope of about 7 to 9%, try to hold that power output for as long as possible. It is an eye-opener, that is for sure.

The doping implication

I'm sure most of you reading this have already made the junction and are asking what is physiologically possible? That is, Greg Lemond was down at 5.7 W/kg, then within 5 years, the power output has climbed by 10%, and then continued to climb, so that Marco Pantani is 15% higher than Lemond. That level of progress is not typical of mere physiology, so it does point to something, and that "something" of course, is doping. Or is it? Perhaps we should be expecting sustainable power outputs of 6.3 W/kg?

I do have to point out the following though - remember that these power outputs are estimated based on time. Therefore, technological changes such as a reduction in the weight of the equipment, stiffer bikes (as pointed out by a commenter), and better components will make a difference to estimated power output, even though the caliber of riders haven't changed at all. Part of the changes you see in that graph can therefore be attributed to changes in technology.

The question is how much does technology explain? That depends what you want to believe, unfortunately! If you want to believe that cycling is clean, or rather, was clean right up to and after the Armstrong era, then you'll say that technology accounts for a 10% improvement. That would mean that the power outputs of 2001 are "expected". Put differently, this argument says that Lemond on the same equipment would also be producing 6.3 W/kg.

Others would say that technology contributes little to this growth. I don't know the answer, but I do think that the impact of technology has been overstated and that the greatest reason for the change you see in that graph is doping. Yes, bikes are lighter, stiffer and therefore times should improve. But, at the same time, we know that Riis, Ullrich and Pantani have all been implicated (or straight out confessed), and so their performances are likely drug aided. Therefore, the fact that Riis, Ullrich and Pantani achieved such high power outputs relative to Lemond is an indication that either:
a) The drugs don't work and technology really is responsible for all of the increase
b) The drugs do help and the technology is not that big a factor after all.

Of course, this itself assumes the these riders were doping, but I think it's pretty reasonable to say that, in hindsight. So my interpretation of the above graph is that in the 1990s, the Tour moved into a new era, where doping characterized performance, and that era peaked in the mid-90s.

The doping 'fingerprint' on performance

I read an article this week, for example, that reports that when the test for EPO was developed, samples from the 1998 and 1999 Tour were used to 'test the test', and 80% of them were found to be positive! The poor researchers thought something was wrong with their assay, because so many samples were being found to contain EPO. There is little doubt that until that test was finally perfected for 2000, EPO abuse was rife in the peloton. The graph above spans that period nicely.

Post 2000, all indications are that the peloton went "back to basics" and blood doping, which is arguably less effective, if only because of practical difficulties around doing it. One would expect the sudden "removal" of EPO to cause a drop in pace in the peloton, of course, while riders used what they could until the teams had figured out how to bypass the systems once again.

The interesting year is 1999 - that was the first year after the Festina scandal, and the Tour was on high alert. I remember police raids of team hotels, and a general crackdown. Not from the UCI or Cycling authorities, mind you, but from the police. So I think the lower speeds of that year were a function of greater policing, quite literally! Then, after that, the speeds just go back up again, as shown in the graph.

Cyclists may have occasionally been forced to regroup and think of how to use drugs without being caught, but they rarely stop because of the risk...Here, I think of Bernard Kohl, who has just recently highlighted just how ineffective testing is (including the passports), by his admission that for years, he used everything - Growth hormone, insulin, EPO, testosterone and blood doping, without being caught.

Now, the really interesting thing - if the mid-90s were characterized by doping and those performances are "assisted", then one cannot help but notice that the late 90s and early 2000s have produced similar performances, taking into account the short-term drop in 1999. Since that, it's been a steady climb upward, and it would be very helpful to see what the performances of 2002 - 2005 are like, so if you have them, let me know.

There are then only two ways to explain the performances from 1999 to 2001 (and beyond, since they will remain similar, or be even better). One is that must believe that one rider is genuinely better than the effect of doping. Or, alternatively, you are left with the conclusion that his performances are an extension of what went before...

Unfortunately, no amount of evidence will prove which it is. Based on this evidence ALONE, I must confess that I would not deliver a verdict either way. You may be the judge...

Looking ahead

All of this is interesting, and hopefully food for thought. It doesn't exactly help us answer the question of "Is the 2009 Tour 'clean'?". That too, I'm afraid, is unanswerable as far as performance-analysis goes.

However, it does lead into the next post, which is a more subjective view of the performances in the last two years in the Tour, and what is my opinion on the state of the peloton. But that is for tomorrow!


* Note: The method used for all the above estimations comes from a publication from Polar France, performed by two French scientists: Antoine Vayer and Frederic Portoleau. It was published in 2002, and called "Pouvez-vous gagner le Tour?", and it was kindly given to me by David Walsh (yes, that one). The method used was to calculate power output given the riding time, the mass of the rider PLUS equipment, and then all the factors that are typically used (rolling resistance, frontal surface area, air density, gravity, and speed). I've expressed that calculated power relative to body weight.

You'll find a number of different methods to estimate power, but all produce relatively similar values - there is some error though, which explains slight differences between these and other similar estimates. The important thing is consistency in the method, at least in as far as comparing years goes. Unfortunately, the book was published in 2002 (by PolarFrance.fr), and so I don't have the same method to work out the power output from 2002 to 2008. That would be very revealing, I believe. An analysis presented at the ACSM conference in 2005 estimated Armstrong's power output on Alpe d'Huez at 495W.


Anonymous said...

Since Power = work/time and work = force times distance - shouldn't the mass of the bike be factored in (since it too is being hauled up the slope). And does that favor smaller riders (lower overall mass) or bigger riders (the bike is a lower percentage of mass)? How have bike weights changed in the past fifteen years? I agree that it is probably just a minor portion of the improvement, but it is potentially quantifiable, I would think.

Keep up the great work on the blog.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Will

You are quite right - it already has been taken into account. Perhaps I should clarify that in the post - but all the values you've seen in the graphs and table are worked out for the mass of the rider and the bike together. So for example, Pantani weighed 56kg, and so his figures are worked out as the 56kg plus the mass of all equipment. For these calculations, that was assumed to be 9kg.

However, as per convention, when one reports power to weight ratios, you only use the rider's mass. That's just how it's done, with the acknowledgment that riding a mountain bike would be slower than riding a road bike because of the mass difference.

Hope this makes sense?

And then climbing certainly does favour the smaller guys, though they are 'carrying' a relatively larger mass. So Pantani would be relatively disadvantaged by a 9kg bike compared to Indurain, but he still has an overall advantage in the mountains because of his lower mass.

And finally, yes, the mass of bikes has changed and you're right, it would be quantifiable. However, the UCI clamped the mass of bikes about 7 years ago, I must confess I'm not sure if that is still true. That limited the impact quite a bit, at least for the period shown in this graph.

The mass difference might be 2kg, at most - maybe they used to weigh 10kg (total, including the helmet, shoes and all other add-ons). They now weigh 8. So I think it's miniscule.

If I knew the numbers though, I'd plug them into those equations, I just don't know exacly what Lemond's bike and all equipment weighed compared to Armstrong's though.

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

Your comparisons of average watts from 1999-2004 are deceptive. The 2004 alpe-d'huez was a time trial while the 1999 and 2000 came at the end of long stages. You need to consider the context of these climbs, i.e. length of stage, surrounding mountain stages, position in the 3 weeks etc.

Nevertheless, I agree that cycling is rife with doping.

Andrew said...

Excellent analysis! A few questions:

1) Wouldn't ambient temperature impact a rider's sustained power output?

2) Is it entirely fair to compare W/kg given that bigger riders must dissipate more heat during the effort, and endure more air resistance?

3) How accurate are the riders' body weights?

To tease out any doping effects, it should be doable to account for the effects of temperature and bike mass. It would also be insightful to compare absolute power numbers for the same rider across multiple tours; that way knowing their body weight is less critical.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI guys

First, to the anonymous poster

Thanks for the comment. Yes, you're right, but I did acknowledge the context of the climbs and the strategy and race situation as a key factor in the post, so it's not entirely deceptive. It is an oversight not to note specifically that difference, and I'll go back and add it now.

The point about the other climbs in the period 2002 to 2007 would prove that this isolated climb is not an anomaly - the performances from 2002 to 2006 are up at the same level as Ullrich and Riis and Pantani.

Also, what is amazing is that Armstrong's time up Alp d'Huez is not even a record - it's still slower than Pantani.

And finally, Armstrong himself has ridden Alpe d'Huez almost as fast as in that time-trial stage - his 2001 time of 38:05 is only 25 seconds slower than the 2004 time-trial. SO the effect of that "fatigue" and two climbs before is not as large as one might think...


Anonymous said...

Interesting analysis, it would be very interesting to see total comprehensive data for many tours over decades with race situations. Two points to keep in mind. The first on technology. Bikes have gotten lighter in the past decade, by what factor I am not sure, but in addition to lighter they also got stiffer, so more of the riders power is transferred to forward motion and less to frame and wheel torque. The decond point on situation, hard to know just when all out racing is really happening. The purest case would be if they held an alpe-d'huez time trial every year. Then you still have weather and what at what point of the tour does the time trial take place.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Andrew

Thanks for the comments. To answer:

1) Yes it would. The hotter it is the lower it would be. But I've tried to acknowledge that this is a limitation in the current model, right upfront, where I spoke of those confounding factors. That's why looking at trends is the way to go. ONe could make the mistake of looking at specific climbs, and saying "he was clearly doped on day ! because his power was higher than on day 2". That would be wrong.

So rather, as I explained in the post, one has to take a longer term view, and look at trends and averages, because that "hopefully" controls this variation as much as can be!

For example, to give you an indication of how tricky it can be - that day in 2004 that Armstrong won the time-trial up Alp d'Huez (shown on the graph) was incredibly hot. I was there, watching on the slopes, and it was brutal. On a cooler day, it would have been 30 seconds faster. So now Armstrong's point goes UP not down! So you see, it gets hazardous playing with that level of detail. Strictly speaking though, you're right, it should be controlled!

2) No, again, you are right in theory, but you can't control for this, and so you have to compare. I will say this - the speed of riders means that overheating is less of a problem than it would be for running. Wind speeds of 25 km/hour mean that these guys are not at the same risk as runners going 19km/hour, so the hyperthermia problem, while real, is not quite as "limiting" as it would normally be.

3) The million dollar question. As Ed Coyle so elegantly showed when he did "research" on Armstrong, body weight changes a lot! You can even make it up to suit your needs!

So to answer, I don't know. One has to assume it's close, within 1 kg, but you're quite right, this is a potential error in the calculation. I've gone with what the French engineers used, which is the official race weights of the riders as per Tour measurements. Quite what that means, is a good question!

Finally, I agree that controlling for heat is a good thing, but to tease it out after the fact is impossible. For one thing, you can't apply a "blanket" formula that says "add 5% to the time if it's over 30 degrees", because the heat affects everyone differently. ANd that's not just a function of size either - some guys just suffer more, even when they are the same size as others.

Ideally, this kind of study would be done prospectively, and the actual power outputs would be measured and the rider weighed on each day, and environmental temperatures recorded. Even then though, how do you account for tactics, for strategy, race context etc.? You can't, so it's therefore best-case to look long term and observe trends.

Sadly, the 'ideal' is hypothetical in this case, but you're right about what it would be!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi to the last anonymous poster

Yes, you're right on both counts.

But, I did spend a lot of time acknowledging the technology issue, and that includes bike stiffness, you're right. The point I made in my argument still remains though - if Pantani and Ullrich and Riis were improving solely due to technology, then drugs don't work. There is therefore a mix, so it must be acknowledged, but as I've said, I think that technology has been overstated. NOt that I'm dismissing it - I spent 3 or 4 paragraphs on it, so it's a recognized factor.

As for race context, yes, you're right. Again, I did acknowledge that as a limitation of this method, perhaps I need to go back and make this a little clearer in the post so it doesn't seem I'm ignoring it!

Thanks for the comments!

Anonymous said...

I remember Armstrongs 495W coming form a training ride he made when climbing the "Col de la Madone" starting in Menton at sea level, probably measured by an SRM system.

For the Alpe d'Huez TT climb in 2004, I calculated 480-485W, quite in line with the lower air pressure (~800m-1800m).

Wrt. Armstrong: his performance during his first Tour 1993 was horrible. He lost almost 50 seconds in 6.8km prologue!
I mean, such a short submax effort should be a good indication for your mostly inherited max_performance. How was he able to improve his max_performance so highly, considering he was an already 22 years old pro rider?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi anonymous

Ah, the million dollar question. I didn't post this in the article, because I wanted to let this post be more about the numbers and less about this debate (with the realisation that most readers would arrive where you are by themselves admittedly), but that same book by the French scientists actually looked at Armstrong in 1995, and they found the following:

Power output on two major climbs that year: 4.8 and 5.5 W/kg respectively, on climbs lasting 40min and 25 minutes.

So his improvement on those performances is 15%, which translates to about 10 minutes on a climb, and is pretty much the difference between finishing at the front of the race and with the domestiques. There are some who will attribute this to his supposed loss of weight (which Coyle showed did not actually happen), and obviously to cancer, and his new approach to cycling post-cancer.

I think your argument is very compelling - his time-trial performances were never even close to indicating what was to come, regardless of weight loss and any other changes. But, people will tell you otherwise. And don't forget the "strength of the team" he built around him, and the influence of Johan Bruyneel and so forth!

Another example is the implications of Armstrong riding at 480W - Coyle worked out that he was able to ride at a VO2 of 5L/min when at a power output of 403W. That is already 83% of his highest ever measured VO2max (which came just before he won the World title in 1993).

It's possible to work out that if he were to ride at 480W with 22% efficiency, the MINIMUM oxygen he'd be using is about 6.1 L/min, higher than his VO2max.

So, the only way this would be possible is if his VO2 max is actually around 7L/min (98ml/kg/min), or, he's getting to this 480W driven by something other than "normal" physiology during Tour times!

Problem is, there are too many assumptions in this calculation, which is why it's never "admissible" to the argument...but it asks some pretty big questions.


Anonymous said...

Referring to one of the previous comments, I remember reading an article about the size of the rider versus power output. The bigger you are, the more power you are capable of putting out. However, you are heavier and have a larger frontal area creating increased drag. The article showed that there was an optimal size and once you exceed this any gain in strength was overcome by the increased load.

Another point to remember is that larger riders have larger bike frames. My girlfriend has a 49cm frame (she's 5' 3"), whilst I ride a 59cm frame (6' 3"). We both have similar level components, however the weight of my bike is significantly heavier (and if she's reading, it's enormously heavier - that's my excuse). The difference might not be so great with top level components, but we're introducing a lot of small variables here.

Many a mickle maks a muckle.

Colenso said...

As an ex-physics teacher my ears naturally prick up when I hear talk about power outputs. Inevitably, I start pondering about the power inputs of the subjects, their consequent relative efficiencies and what the plausible biochemical mechanisms are for the effects of doping strategies on all this.

I used to find it intriguing how vague the scientific literature used to be on this when I tried researching these issues many years ago. One read then that the human body is capable of mechanical efficiencies of roughly 15% to 20%; but I don't think I have ever read a detailed account of the calorimetric measurements of a named cyclist that revealed his or her actual, measured mechanical efficiency (ME) under different loads (speeds and gradients, plus wind speed, ambient temperature, humidity and solar gain).

Then, for me, the big question is how does doping affect all this? That is, what's the most plausible mechanism? Does doping simply increase the rider’s total energy consumption (ie his VO2 increases) while leaving his ME unchanged, or does doping somehow improve his ME in ways that we still don't properly understand?

If all that doping does is to increase the rider’s total energy consumption during the climb (leaving his ME unchanged) then that rider must be getting a lot hotter than he would be undoped, due to the 75 to 80% of his metabolic energy heating up the rider’s body before he can dissipate that thermal energy to his surroundings. On the steepest sections of the climbs even the lead riders appear to be moving quite slowly - can we be sure that the air movement over their skin at these times really allows for sufficient cooling to maintain their core temperaures within the normal levels, or, at such critical moments, does doping then allow the rider, up to a point, to survive higher core temperatures without cell death? If so, how?

Colenso said...

I should have written, of course:

"... due to the 80 to 85% of his metabolic energy heating up the rider’s body before he can dissipate that thermal energy to his surroundings."

That is, 80 to 85% rather than 75 to 80% (because 100% less 15 to 20% gives a consequent range of 80 to 85%.)

Colenso said...

Final thoughts. I see that you mention in one of your replies that Armstrong can achieve an ME of 22%. Is this a cycling record - how does it compare with Pantini's officially measured ME, or don't we know?

Jason said...

Great sports blog!

I was wondering if we could exchange links. Let me know if this is possible. If you can, please let me know what you think about my sports blog as well.


Alex Simmons said...

If you can provide the key assumptions as per the paper by the French scientists Vayer & Portoleau to calculate the average power, i.e.:
- ascent times & distance (or avg speed),
- ascent metres (or average gradient),
- bike + rider mass, and
- what they did to assume a coefficient of rolling resistance (Crr) and coefficient of drag x frontal area (CdA)

then I can run those same assumptions through a mathematical model I have to calculate power (model based on the paper by Martin et al).

Then I can establish how close/consistent my estimates are to theirs.

Presuming good consistency, then all I'd need are the same mass, speed & gradient data to provide the same power estimation for the "missing" years.

Alex Simmons said...

One answer for colenso:

Mechanical efficiency in endurance road cycling is typically of the order of 21% +/- 3%. i.e. energy delivered to the cranks is ~ 21% of the body's total energy conversion (with the vast majority of the balance dissipated as heat, and perhaps a little for swearing at your coach for making you ride so hard LOL).

There are a range of factors that vary our efficiency during a ride (e.g. duration, cadence, heat), so I am talking about on average. Also, our efficiency doesn't vary an awful lot over the years although AFAIK (and the guys here are better placed to answer this) the longitudinal studies on this are a bit thin on the ground.

On average, pros are not significantly more efficient than a good club rider.

Alex Simmons said...

Oops, I should have added, if there is also data on environmental conditions, most notably air density (or temperature, barometric pressure, humidity and average altitude), then that can also be included in the calcualtions, although on steep hill climbs, air density variances don't have a large impact on the result).

e.g on an 8% climb, a difference of 10C =~ 0.33% change in power required for same speed, or 25hPa difference is about 0.2% change in power required for same speed.

If an average wind vector is known, that can also be factored in. This would be far more influential on the resulting power estimate.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi all

Thanks as always for commenting!

To respond:

To Colenso

Good question. Alex has already provided a pretty good succinct response to the efficiency question. There was some controversy about that - some spanish scientiss who worked with the Banesto team reported efficiencies as high as 26%. That was criticized, and they defended their methods in one of those debates that takes place in the scientific journals.

When Ed Coyle did his infamous study on Lance (which we were highly critical of, as you'll recall), he showed that his efficiency increased from 21.4% to 23.1%, which is why I used 22%. That evidence was also disputed. So there is not really consensus as to whether training can improve efficiency a great deal. Alex is right, the evidence is thin, and there was, as I said, great debate when the Banesto paper was published (because of how high the values were for some cyclists) and when Coyle suggested an 8% increase in Armstrong.

There is a lack of research in this area - certainly I don't know of specific papers that have looked at how speed, gradient, temperature, state of fatigue and state of training affect efficiency, though there may be some out there...Alex certainly indicated that in his response to you, and I would imagine it has been studied.

As for Pantani's, who knows? The only published ones I know of are those from Banesto (Alex Zulle was the guy with 26%, by the way), and then Armstrong. Perhaps I should look this up at some stage. I'll chat to our resident cycling guru and see if he knows...

Oh, and finally, yes, there is a theoretical heatstroke risk for cycling uphill in hot conditions. No doubt about it. I didn't mean to suggest that it wasn't real in my response to Andrew, sorry if it came across that way. But you're right, as the rider produces more and more heat, the risk of his body temperature rising to limiting levels exists.

However, the heat production during cycling is relatively lower than during running, and also heat loss is generally greater because of great convective cooling. Therefore, I suspect that even the 10% performance boost from doping does NOT push the athlete close to heatstroke on a typical French summer day.

That said, if it is very hot, and if the cyclist is able to generate massive heat (as happens, for example, after taking amphetamines), then the result is Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux back in the 1970s. So you're right about the limit in theory, but I think (would have to work it out accurately to know for sure) that the limit is still just out of reach.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Alex

Thanks for the offer, it would be great to see what that looks like!

Would you be able to email me so that we can correspond back and forth there instead of having to use the comments section? It would be a little easier!

Our email is sportsscientists@gmail.com

I'd been meaning to get hold of you after your last offer, which I'd still like to take you up on, but just got into the mountains and distracted!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Colenso

Just came across this article, which was posted on a letsrun forum thread.

"Intrigued by the Armstrong study a group of physiologists tested 12 world-class cyclists over a five year period "to determine the effect of accumulated years of training and competition on the muscular efficiency in world-class cyclists"(2). This group of cyclists was truly world-class, consisting of some of the best cyclists in the world and included one winner of the Tour de France, one winner of the Vuelta a Espana, one three-time Tour de France podium, two Vuelta a Espana podia, and one Junior World Time Trial Champion.

Subjects were tested annually for five years but only data from the first and fifth seasons were used for analysis.

The results? "The most important finding of this study is that DE (i.e. muscular efficiency) increased in world-class professional cyclists during a five-season training/competition periods, whereas VO2max did not change.

The cyclists improved muscular efficiency an average of 14.83% over the five year period. The range of improvement in efficiency was 0% - ~50% (two riders had no change in efficiency, one rider improved almost 50%, and all other riders fell between the two ends). Conversely, VO2max actually declined slightly, even though the decline was not significant.

The only difference between Lance's change and these cyclists is one of magnitude. We see that Lance Armstrong is not unique; changes within the muscles and not the cardiovascular system enabled improved performance in this group of world-class cyclists, just as changes in muscular efficiency explained Lance's improvement.

Contrary to what conventional wisdom teaches, this study provides additional evidence that it is the muscles, not the cardiovascular system, that is the primary influencer of performance and improvements.


A five year study of world-class cyclists found that muscular efficiency increased nearly 15% while there was no change in VO2max. The results of this study were the same as those of a previous study of Lance Armstrong that found that improvements within the muscles enabled improvements in performance. The only difference between this study and the Lance Armstrong study is one of magnitude - the same physiological change occurred in both studies but the magnitude of the change differed.

1. Coyle, E. Improved Muscular Efficiency Displayed as Tour de France Champion Matures, J Appl Physiol, 98: 2191-2196, 2005.

2. Santalla A, Naranjo J, Terrados N., Muscle Efficiency Improves over Time in World-Class Cyclists, Med Sci Sports Exerc, 41(5); 1096-1101, 2009"

That last paper seems interesting - it's only just been published, and I haven't looked at it. But I'll get it now and hopefully look at it in more detail soon.

Just thought I'd let you know, seeing as how we'd discussed this very point earlier!


Johan Jordaan said...

To limit the possibilities to two things, namely that the guys after lemond were al doping because Ullrich, Riis and Pantani most likely did, or that doping products don’t work and the change is all due to technology progress is by no means a complete view. The only time we can conclude that doping does not work, is if we compare Ullrich doped to Ullrich clean or Riis doped to Riis clean and we see little or no change. That fact that Ullrich doped and ended up at over 6W/kg alone, says nothing. Who knows, maybe he should have been at 5W/kg and was seriously lacking in talent. To answer the question of bike technology for yourself is quite easy. Grab one of your old bikes and time yourself up a steep climb. I have a 3km @ 6% climb near my house. I went up that climb on a Raleigh RC3000 (SA model) @ an average speed of 18km/h. A few weeks later I went up the same climb on a Schwinn Peleton at the @ 21km/h. I changed from Alex rims on my schwinn weighing in at 2kg for the set to Eastons @ 1650g with better hubs and got a decrease of 300Cal on 60km route I ride daily. That 300Cal is almost 20%. The 60km route climbs 500m in total. I expect the benefit on a steep hill would be even bigger.

Rob Claus said...

Since Indurain was such a dominant time trialist, wouldn't we expect he could win the tour with a lower power to weight ratio? You don't have to be the best climber when you win the TT by 3 minutes, as he did in 1992 (I think that was the year). That doesn't change your conclusions any, but it might explain why he is so much lower in 92, at least.

Anonymous said...

Some more numbers for the recent tdf climbs: http://www.53x12.com/do/show?page=indepth

great blog

Anonymous said...

Regarding the times up the Andorra Arcalis climb it was reported that this year there was a strong headwind. This presumably lowered both climbing speed and motivation to attack.

Also how much has the road surface changed over the years? Maybe now there is asphalt where there was chip and tar before?

Anonymous said...

Great post! Certainly doping has influenced the performances in cycling, as you nicely demonstrated in this article. However (and not to the surprise of many), this is the case for most other sports, too and can be seen easily by tracking the season´s best times (or distances) over the years, f. ex. in track and field. Check "Performance profiling: a role for sport science in the fight against doping?" by Schumacher YO, Pottgiesser T. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2009 Mar;4(1):129-33. for some examples...

Tom said...

Great post! Is the methodology fundamentally flawed, however, by only looking at the power output of the eventual winner in each year? Some cyclists are better climbers than others, but perhaps the eventual winner won the tour based on outperformance on non-climbing stages. So the low power output years are just indicative of a non-climber winning the tour and the high power output years are simply because a climber won the tour.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Tom

Fair point, but I don't think it makes the analysis "fundamentally flawed". I think it's a consideration that can inform one's interpretation of it, but I do think that in that list of winners, the only one who did not win the Tour in the mountains was Indurain. Admittedly, in the Riis/Ullrich/Armstrong years, Pantani was the best climber, but the race winner still provides the best barometer of the overall Tour pace, because they've all been the most consistent rider in the mountains.

Only exception was Indurain, and even there, he held his own in the mountains, dominated TT. All the others won big mountain stages, and were the most consistent riders on the climbs, and that means the trend is most meaningful.


Felix said...

Stop doing such interesting post I can't work!
First, isn't a bit twisted to critize Coyle's methodologies so much in so many posts, and then to use his method of calculation of efficiency to infer that the power output of L.A. implies he was doped?
As to L.A. doping, I personally think that the answer boils down to the validity of the 399 watts at 5 L/min in August 1997 reported in Coyle's paper , when L.A. just started back training after cancer. You demonstrated the serious flaws in this paper, but if this 399 W is real, then I think L.A. did not need dope to win. One cannot possibly argue that he was doping at that time because ALL physiological parameters were down by a lot, and he was not sure if wanted to race again or not (cf It's not about the bike). Then this value at, as you calculated, ~83% VO2 is only 4% from his average power output over the 4 climbs of the TDF in 99 (your table). Assuming two years of intense training and assuming he must be able to steadily climb at 90% VO2 ( I mean I can!), this 4% increase is even low, but the 9% increase for his peak power output that year makes sense.
Then your table indicates a steady ~3% yearly increase in average power output between 99-01.
During these 3 years, the difference between the peak power output and the average is consistently 5-6%. Assuming it was the case again in 2004, one gets an average power output of 465 Watt for 2004, which means that the yearly improvement leveled out to 1-2% during these three years. Of course, we need actual data, but these seems reasonable assumptions. Then isn't that a normal curve of improvement for a guy who started at almost nothing after a cancer? Or maybe this isn't? You tell me.
As disciples of Dr, Noakes, I'm surprised you guys never considered (or maybe you did and I haven't read it yet) the effect of mind in the L.A. case. Again, if the 399 W in 97 is real, isn't the most likely explanation of L.A. incredible improvement pre- to post-cancer an improvement in pain tolerance? We already know that the guy's attitude in racing completely changed, so there has been profound alteration taking place in his brain. Why not pain tolerance?
Of course if the 399 W was put there by Coyle to fit his curve, then all speculations are valid...

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Felix

Sorry...I also can't work though, so we're in it together!

Just to respond:

I wasn't using Coyle's findings exclusively. A number of studies have looked at cycling efficiency, and the range is always between 20 and 25%, with the exception of one or two cyclists, and that finding was disputed. So the assumption of 22% was done mostly on what is known among elite cyclists - it also happens to be in the middle of what Coyle found. Coyle's errors, you'll recall, had to do with the long term repeatability and the fact that he reported the wrong measurement over the period that he measured Armstrong. The absolute value was never really in question, so I took the middle of his values.

That value has little bearing on the calculation I used in my response to a comment above though - like you, I've taken the power output at 5L/min, and then using a typical efficiency (22%, also the middle of Coyle's range), worked out the implications. So I think it holds, Coyle's errors still exist.

You make a really interesting observation though on that 399W, that's a good point. He's riding 400W at 5L/min with a VO2peak of 5.29L/min, which is 94% of VO2peak. But one assumes that the VO2peak will rise - this is not always the case, but his test in 1999 seems to say it would. One thing I will point out is that all these values are for a 79kg rider - the Tour values when he is reportedly at 71kg would be lower - his VO2peak is unlikely to be 6L/min, but more like 5.7L/min.

In any event, if he is at 400W and 5L/min, then to ride at 420W would put him above that, obviously. How far? Not 100% sure - might be up to 5.2L, might be 5.5L. We don't have that data, unfortunately. Now, that means he's at least at 90% of VO2max - guys generally don't ride at that intensity for longer than 30 minutes. I know you have said you can, but I don't think I've ever seen a rider do that for more than 30 minutes, and only then on a once off occasion, not twice a day and four days in two weeks.

Coming back to it, I'm not sure I entirely follow your next step. We know that in 1999, his VO2peak has increased significantly, and his power output at 5L/min has not. Therefore, the suggestion that you can compare his 1997 values to the Tour values for 1999 is slightly off - the results of the physiology tell you that he didn't change the way your prediction says he should. By 1999, he's still riding at 404W (5W/kg) at 5L/min, and he goes on to race the Tour at 5.88W/kg as an AVERAGE power output.

That's a 16% increase in relative power output - you have to factor in this supposed reduced weight (that's only fair, because all the values in the table are calculated for a 71kg rider - if we want to ignore the weight change, then those power outputs suddenly become 500W, and it's 15% increase anyway). Some of this increase, of course, would be accounted for by a change in body weight, because he'd lose weight prior to the Tour. But the implication of this is that he'd be riding the Tour climbs at well above 5L/min. We know from reams of research that VO2max won't increase much beyond that 6L/min level, which means that he'd be riding well above 90% of VO2max, for up to 45 minutes each time. That's where it becomes a physiological impossibility.

So I'm sorry if I don't fully follow your argument, but to me, it's a question of the absolute power output and the VO2 it would produce - if 400W produced 5L/min, then 420W in a smaller rider (by 8 kg, if the weight is to be believed) will produce a VO2 of in excess of 5.5L. The paper unfortunately don't show the data at 90% VO2max, because then we'd have the figures here. And to ride at 5.5L/min is not possible for that long, I don't believe

Continued below...

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Continued from above...

But, the thing is, the paper neither proves nor disproves anything - there is too much missing, so it's not the black and white "proof" or either position, unfortunately. What would be nice, and this would answer it, is to know what his numbers were at 90% VO2max, and also in the peak of the season, not preseason!

Then on the next point - what do you mean "peak power output"? I'm not sure I follow what you're getting at here. Which is "peak" and where does 5 to 6% come from? Is it his peak on any given day? That would be the highest average on a climb, and you couldn't really call it the peak, if I follow correctly.

I'm not sure about a normal curve - there's no basis for thinking anyone would continue to improve beyond year one in this kind of race. Again, I may have missed your point though.

Finally, the central governor is far more complex than pain tolerance, and so no, I don't believe that to be a just reason. The pain is a physiological process that is generated to protect, but the notion that you can "will yourself to win" through a strong mind is the unfortunate translation of the governor by the media. It's still very much physiology, and if the limit exists (for oxygen delivery, for heat, for ATP, for anything), then no amount of willpower will change it. So despite being Noakes disciples, the idea that he wins because of greater pain tolerance doesn't wash with me. I'm sure his mental capacity is tremendous, like every other elite athlete, but if you're riding at 90% of VO2max for almost an hour a day, there's more to it than pain tolerance.

Thanks for the comments! Hope you've done some work!


Jai said...

Great post.

I would be very interested in seeing a comparison based on the long time trails in the tour.

The reason a say this is that I heard recently, and haven't been able to confirm of deny it, that Lemond has the fastest average speed on record for the time trails. Lemond is very vocal in his doping accusations. I find it difficult that with the technology advances affecting time trailing the most, that he could still hold that record if, as he says, Lance and everyone doped.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jai

I think that David Zabriskie beat that average speed in 2005 - he did a 19km time-trial (Stage 1) at 54.65km/h, Lemond had set the record in 1989 during that famous trial on the Champs Elysees.

The problem with looking at speeds is that they don't tell you anything about rider output. For example, the fastest Tour in history at the time was in 1999, when Armstrong averaged just over 40km/h. But if you look at the graph in this post, that year was relatively low on power output, so something else helped drive the speed up. Point is - speed and power are not necessarily related.

So speed alone doesn't say much, one needs to know the power output values. They'd certainly be very interesting, and I'd love to see those to complement this analysis.


Ron George said...

Dear Ross and John

Not all stages in the Tour are climbs. If you just want to ride most of it (what does it take to ride the tour), you must be prepared to have the group skills and concentration necessary to keep yourself and others out of trouble. You can quickly jeapordize your chances to ride the Tour if you crash.

The slipstreaming effect of the entire peleton is massive, so I would imagine you could sit in and save a good portion of your energy than when you were riding alone. For instance, CFD analysis has been done on energy savings for each rider in a TTT for example. The drag co-efficient of a rider in such a group is around 27-30% lower than a solo effort. This is not something most of us cyclists experience in our daily rides alone. Well, you can have that luxury in the Tour. This is something you have to put into perspective because people think it very surprising how these folks can ride hundreds of kilometers every day. I'm sure anyone with the training and who is able to ride in a big group like that in the Tour can ride it (energy savings). Not a big deal. Now staying with the group of the climbs is another matter. Honestly, we can say that those who are blessed with some serious genes are the ones who show up in the top 10-20 in the GC.

Another factor to consider that makes things a little more easier is that these guys are riding at high altitudes where the density of the air, and hence aero drag is reduced. Almost 10-16% reduction in drag. Something like that is huge.

W/kg has little meaning for short and long time flat Trials, as bigger riders with higher absolute power output "at AT" always manage to win. Take a look at Fabian Cancellara. He not only has the massive musculature needed to produce that kind of power but has the endurance to sustain it. More muscles means more force.

You also cannot neglect the evolution of the sport of bicycling since the 80's. The bike, wheels, shoe-pedal system, tires, helmets and kits have all gotten lighter and more performance oriented and I'd imagine it'd take more power and oxygen consumption to ride on equipment 20 years ago than it is now. Every little helps.

This topic of discussion is not anything new. Lots of books have been written on it. I'd refer you to the excellent book 'Training and Racing with a Power Meter' or my post on Power To Weight Ratio

See also my post on Contador's VAM analysis on the Alto de Angliru, the most feared climb in Europe. Gives you a better idea of what's needed to climb the most horrid climbs these Grand Tours dish out to riders.

Cozy Beehive

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Dear Ron

Thanks for the link, I know the topic is nothing new, but I was not aware we claimed to be providing a revolutionary idea.

And as for slipstreaming, bike technology, riding on flat stages, Fabian Cancellara, yes, all true. Some of it I dealt with in the post, the rest is actually quite irrelevant to the context of this post...

Ron George said...

VAM is irrelevant for climbing? Not so.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Ron

No, not VAM - that's not what I meant. That is relevant. But the part about Cancellara, the slipstream effect, even the air density, all true but the title of this post is "What does it take to climb with the elite?" and it's an historical overview of what the typical climbing power outputs are in the Tour.

You could take the graph in this post, and translate it into VAM for each rider in each year, and it would look very similar, so all VAM is is another way to present relative power output - your own formula of will confirm this. Relative power is inversely proportional to VAM, with a constant of 300 inserted (I must confess I am also not sure where Ferrari gets that equation from)

So VAM is absolutely relevant - it's another way to express relative climbing power. What I was saying was not relevant (but still true, mind you) was the detail on slipstreaming, flat time-trials and the like.

That would be a topic for another post altogether, not this one.

Anonymous said...

To many ifs buts etc. Every day an athlete is getting fitter or less fit never mind variation in desire. I tried all my 5 bikes with a power meter on a 5km climb with 300 metre altitude gain with 10 different wheelsets and 10 different tyres.
Even with 20 years of cycling it was impossible to take the exact same line manage my body chemistry and pedaling efficency never mind my desire to get an accurate judgement.
I have used this climb near my home for so many years and have so stats for time, pulse, rate power output, wind direction, humidity tempurature, air pressure that I could write a Phd on it alone.
However my results suprised me it was the Titainium bike which was the most effecient at a cadence above 100. Wheel and tyre choice made succh a difference with shallow rims the best. The deep section carbon ones were not.
Even on a short climb like this overall comfort and the rider and bike feeling as one seemed to make the difference. The bikes varied in weight from 7g to 9kg I weighed in at 75kg 181cm .
The "calped" method of pedalling has seemed to make a difference. The am pm time at different exercise intensities low med and high also was so variable. Portable lactate testing was preformed and recorded each month over 5 years and at different test distances and altitude gains.
Though my altitude gain is now only 1400 metres per hour a pro should have 1800 plus. This is a very important maker as depending on how your pedal to pass power from pedal to tyre is critical. The gradient doesnt really matter.I can easyily change style at the same power reading but cause greater tyre and chain deflection to increase time on climb. In conclusion use a bike, tyre wheelset combination that suits you. Be as efficent as you can train for exactly what you are going to do. Be able to understand manage and control your body chemistry and desire.
Fully understand the weather, road surface, equipment choice etc etc etc. Ride a bike to suit you not the current fashion or marketing trend.
Happy climbing and in a race dont leave anything in the tank.

Tony Verow, MD said...

Just a minor technical point, but perhaps it may explain some of this magical increase in VAM. Is it possible that the widespread use of extremely light/stiff carbon fiber wheels today may account for some of the increase in speed on the same climbs relative to the Pantani/Riis era ?

Another point about VAM is that Dr. Ferrari apparently used the same climb near his training base in Italy to test his clients. In that context, perhaps repeatedly testing on the same course may be more reproducible or relevant in assessing training effects or weight loss than trying to compare VAM on diffirent cols in the TDF. Great discussion BTW!

Marius-H said...

When you guys are using VAM you need to include the time you were doing it. And when you are comparing you need to use the same time.

My record is 2660 but that was only for 23 seconds.

Anonymous said...

I find a rather glaring error in many of your calculations. When you are calculating for obviously above average atheletes, you do not base your calculations on averages.

If you do not have a concrete measurement for lances efficiency, you don't assume he is somewhere in the middle of the pack, because obviously he is not. You do the calculations using the highmark in your data set.

There is also no mention of technique.

It is undeniable that the most important factor effecting the amount of power reaching the wheels is the timing of when that power is applied within the pedals stroke.

It is easily possible to setup a situation where the same amount of power does only half the work, and conversely, it is also possible to increase the amount of work done by a set amount of power by working on the timing of power delivery within the stroke.

Lance spent countless hours in wind tunnels, infront of cameras, and hooked up to all kind of machines in an effort to increase the efficiency of aerodynamic position and pedaling stroke.

If the results were not present, they would not have continued to waste time and money on having him in the wind tunnel and the lab.

I believe it to be unfair of you to exclude the improved understanding of biomechanics in your analysis.

djconnel said...

Make sure when comparing to powers calculated from other sources, that you have the same assumption on drivetrain losses. For example, it's common for power to be downstream of the drivetrain, measured with a PowerTap, versus upstream, measured by an SRM, and calculations sometimes fail to include this. 3% is a decent estimate for drivetrain loss at high power on a geared bike, from what I've seen (although it varies with chainline).

GWR said...

Ross & Jonathan - more great stuff!

I'm sure you've seen this from FP, where he posts regularly:

Question: I'll look forward to your discussion of the results of the new study you mention in the response to comments; if efficiency can increase by that amount, what should be the increase in power? I don't understand the relationship of efficiency in the power output equation.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...


Thanks for the link - I think I get what the graph shows, but I wish I could read the French.

Regarding the issue of efficiency, I'm planning a really in-depth post to look at this. Graphs of how predicted power changes with efficiency, and what the implications are for other aspects of the physiology. Hopefully that will clear up any questions.

I've kind of promised that I'd cover the IAAF World Champs starting Saturday, and so this cycling post will be done only the week after, but it will be done.

This week, I'm planning some previews of the athletics, and also a really great interview I did with Prof Yorck Schumacher, on doping control. THat should be tomorrow.

But the cycling will come, don't worry!

Thanks for the comments!


Dannux said...

Very nice article. I love cycling it is my favorite sport but it is very dirty. It will be fun to either have open doping race or no doping at all. I believe no one racing the tour is clean. The amount of days and effort and the way they ride are not real. It will be fun to see a clean race. I noticed that many of the riders from my country Colombia has been erased from performing well there and the main reason is doping. We used to dominate the mountains and now you see this big giants riders climbing like a car. So the sport has lost many of its beauty. Those number are unreal and they are a product of doping. Very sad for cycling.