In pursuit of a clean race
As the Tour de France winds to a conclusion, experts are looking for clues that might help nab the cheats in the bunch.
As riders in the Tour de France churned their way to the finishline past the punishing Alpe d’Huez, Ross Tucker was watching on television in South Africa 5,500 miles away, laptop and stop watch at the ready, looking for clues to the Tour’s perennial question: Are any of the riders doping?
Tucker, a 32-year-old physiologist, cannot know for sure, of course. But he said he believes that by using basic physics to estimate riders’ power output up the 13.8-kilometer climb, he can compare current Tour performances with those of riders past, particularly those from the heyday of cycling’s doping culture.
His focus was on one man in particular: Chris Froome, the race leader. In Stage 8 in the Pyrenees, Froome, a British rider on Sky Procycling, sped away from the pack with a power and speed not seen since Lance Armstrong, whose seven Tour titles were stripped because of doping.
Tucker is not accusing Froome of using banned substances, and Froome has never been tied to doping. But Tucker’s efforts to raise concerns have prompted Sky to deride his calculations as “pseudoscience.” Even many scientists in the field question the accuracy of his data and the fairness of his methodology. “They want to sensationalise certain results,” said Edward Coyle, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin. But Tucker said that uncomfortable questions are what the sport needs right now to clean up its image. “The scrutiny the questions bring helps, in my opinion, to drive transparency and build credibility,” he said.
In his gadfly quest, Tucker is part of a small group of physiologists, sports doctors and cycling enthusiasts from around the globe who have formed a loose alliance on the Internet to weed out doping in cycling. Like investigative journalists armed with calculators instead of note pads, they are pressing professional teams to allow independent analysis of riders’ doping tests and physiological data.
Their outside scrutiny is essential, they argue, because many of the athletes revealed as dopers in recent years — including Armstrong — were not exposed by drug tests. Not only did the athletes manage to stay a step ahead of the testing protocols, but the sport itself seemed unwilling, or unable, to clean itself up.
“People want to believe the sport has changed,” said Tucker, a senior lecturer in sports science at Cape Town University, who runs a website called sportsscientists.com. “But the sport is saying: 'Trust me.' Well, we trusted you before and before that and before that. And you’ve never, ever delivered on your promises. So let’s get some data.”
Though their work is contentious and often criticised, it is also read by riders and cycling journalists. The debate it has sparked might be having an impact. This week Sky said it might be willing to release physiological information about Froome and other riders for scrutiny by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
“Then they could tell the world — and you — whether this is credible or not,” David Brailsford, the team general manager, told reporters.
In his mild-mannered way, Froome seems genuinely wounded by the questions. Hard training, including at high altitudes, and not drugs, is behind his remarkable run at this Tour, he said this week.
“I think it’s sad that we’re sitting here on the day after the biggest win of my life talking about doping,” he said on Monday, a day after he won Stage 15 atop Mont Ventoux. “Lance cheated. I’m not cheating.”
Tucker and his allies talk in the cautious language of science, but at heart they are like scorned lovers, burned by doping revelations about their favourite racers. For Tucker, it was Armstrong. For one of his allies, Michael Puchowicz, a sports medicine doctor at Arizona State University, it was Floyd Landis, whose 2006 Tour victory was stripped after he tested positive for testosterone.
“That was pretty hard,” Puchowicz said.
Puchowicz, 34, is a former collegiate racer whose interest in cycling performance data was piqued after data on Armstrong was released a few years ago. He concluded the information showed that Armstrong had masked his doping during his comeback year of 2009. (Even after admitting to doping during his seven Tour victories, Armstrong has maintained he did not use banned substances in 2009.) To Puchowicz, it was evidence that the testing regimen could still be fooled.
Boiled down to its essence, their methodology uses physics to calculate the power required to climb a mountain at a certain speed. They study climbs because that is where wind resistance, a major factor in the equation, is least important. Using elements such as the length and gradient of a stage segment, the time taken to climb it, the weight of the rider and his bike and estimates on things like rolling and wind resistance, they calculate a figure in watts per kilogram that represents the power produced by a rider for a particular segment.
Their rule of thumb, not universally accepted in the cycling world, is that power above 6 watts per kilogramme deserves scrutiny. They consider anything above 6.5 watts per kilogramme to be extraordinary and perhaps not humanly feasible. By some of their calculations, Froome in Stage 8 was over 6 watts per kilogramme.
For comparison purposes, the watchdogs have also calculated results for top riders in Grand Tours since 2002, breaking the data into two groups: the “doping era” of 2002 to 2007, and the “post-doping” era from 2007 to the present. During the post-doping period, times and power output have dropped, providing evidence for cautious optimism, Tucker and Puchowicz said. But for that reason, they believe that individual performances that spike into the doping-era range need to be questioned.
Critics question the accuracy of their calculations, saying they do not account for all the factors that can affect a rider’s performance, including not only wind and rolling resistance but also technological advancements in bikes and clothing, riding efficiency and team dynamics.
A more accurate picture of a rider’s physiology would require a much fuller range of biological and laboratory data, those critics said, including blood surveys and measurements of aerobic energy production. Without that fuller portrait, no one can fairly say whether an improved performance was the result of doping, genetics or hard training, the critics said. “They don’t have enough baseline data,” said Coyle, who studied Armstrong early in his career. “They run the risk of accusing someone of doping when in fact they’re not.”
The watchdogs’ methodology also does not seem to allow for the possibility of remarkable athletes who break the mould without cheating, critics said. A rider like Froome might simply produce power more efficiently than other riders because of his natural physiology, said Andrew R Coggan, an exercise physiologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis. “There is no sound physiological reason” to doubt some of today’s top performances, Coggan said. As the cycling world expands beyond Europe, he said, he expected record-breaking riders to be found routinely. Froome, a Briton, was raised in Kenya.
Tucker agreed that there was a margin for error in his work but noted that when riders have released their power data, it has corroborated his estimates. He also acknowledged that he and his allies were not producing a full picture of the riders. But without biological data from doping tests and blood surveys — data the teams will not release — they are working with the next best thing, he argued.
“No formula will ever conclusively show that X equals doping and Y equals clean,” Tucker said. “Mostly we’ll be in that gray area of uncertainty.”