Sunday, July 26, 2009

That's Dope!

Le Grande Boucle is over, and like the results of many of the recent tours, these are a bit dubious. Now, I don't actually have that big a problem with doping- the training still has to be done, the genetic advantages and mental fortitude present. All the EPO in the world isn't going to make me into a pro cyclist- among other issues, I don't have the mental strength, love of pain, or dedication. And the same is true within the pro peloton- doping isn't going to turn pack fodder into a grand tour contender. Doping makes things faster and punchier, although it does reduce the chances of a game-changing, uber-dramatic collapse on some important col (schadenfreude lends armchair sporting a particular potency). I wouldn't mind a leveling of the drug playing field (as well as some better safety regulations), but all the same, the prevalence of doping doesn't really change the way I watch cycling. And there's the bonus thrills of the "who's doping and what are they taking" game. Quelle thrilling!

But I am amused by the increasing brazenness of doping among the GCers. El Pistolero, I'm looking at you.

Let's review, shall we?

1. Homeboy is a climber, that much is clear. But suddenly, he is also beaucoup time trialest! Winner of the Spanish national championship (not that that's saying a whole lot), able to go toe to toe with the best TT specialists in the peloton. 2nd in the prologue! Beats Cancellara in the TT! There's a reason that climbers are rarely great TTers- like sprinting, the disciplines require different physiology. Yeah, you can offset this with training, but only to an extent. And here is Contador, head and shoulders above EVERYONE on the climbs and the very next day, beating everyone against the clock (on the flats!). Think of the Schleck TT performances. Solid, perfectly respectable for GC favorites, but not exactly leaving a trail of fire behind their tires. Exactly what you'd expect from top-tier climbers. Just like Contador used to be- in his 2007 Tour victory, he placed 15th in the prologue (35" back) and 5th & 7th in the two TTs (2'18" back). And these results were after Contador changed his training to focus specifically on time trialing for GC purposes.

Now here's where you jump in with "but Armstrong was dominant in both disciplines too etc etc". Well, for starters, I don't think Armstrong's blood is quite...pure...either. But the other rejoinder is that Armstrong was never a great climber, especially on the steepest ones- he was naturally more suited to a powerful TT. Pantani, for example, and other pure climbers were often able to drop him. He was a smart climber with an insanely strong team, but he was much more vulnerable in the mountains than his results would suggest. Yeah, he could climb Ullrich off his wheel, but that's not really saying much. And, as awful as it is to say, Armstrong had that fortuitous bout of cancer to help him out. He was able to essentially rebuild his body from scratch into exactly what it needed to be for grand tour victory. Anyone who's tried to lose those last five stubborn pounds (ahem *Ullrich*) can tell you its incredibly hard to change your body. Contador, on the other hand, apparently didn't even need to change his body from that of a wispy wee climber to that of a power-rider in order to suddenly rock TTs.

2. Let's talk about that climbing. Dr. Ross Tucker over at The Science of Sport wrote a fascinating analysis (and follow-up) of Contador's climb up the Verbier on Stage 15 of the Tour. It was impressive as hell to watch- Andy Schleck couldn't even start to respond (that pain-grimace as he made a futile attempt to follow, and failing that, to bridge, ugh!). I've never seen anyone accelerate on a hill like that (I mean, until his attack on the Colombiere a few days later).

But apparently it was even more impressive than it looked- Ross' analysis is long on calculations and variables but the bottom line is that, even conservatively estimated, Contador's climb was straight-up (get it?) record-setting. Contador's vertical climbing rate (VAM, velocita ascensionale media, one of the accepted means of comparing rides on different climbs) on the Verbier was faster than EVER before in the Tour. And not by a little bit- Ross' original estimate was 652.8 vertical meters at 1,900 m/hr. He later revised that downward (to 640 vertical meters) because of ambiguity over where the climb actually began, which still gives an ascension rate of 1864 m/hr. Ross has data for all Tour climbs in the last twenty years, and the highest previously recorded was Bjarne Riis' climb up the Huatacam in 1996. And, as he quite rightly says, we all know what powered Riis to that summit.

So here's a handy chart of the top 12 VAMs in the last two decades:


Riis- admitted doper
Armstrong- meh, probable doper
Pantani- busted
LeBlanc- admitted doper
Ullrich- busted
Indurain- who knows? he was at his peak during the pre-Festina, undetectable EPO era...
Peloton? That fucker's juiced to the gills!

So Contador not only topped this list of druggies, but he blew them away. Hmmm...

As Jacques Anquetil once said, the Tour de France is not won on mineral water alone.

(PS Props to this year's breakout star, Brad Wiggins! From trackie to unlikely GC contender! Doped or not, watching him claw his way back after every acceleration on the climbs was nothing short of amazing. He was the only one that made Ventoux interesting- Darco and I were cheering him on in his quest for fourth place retention like total dorks.)

Incidentally, if you google-image "wiggins ventoux" this is the first result.


  1. Interesting to come back and read this a year and a half after the event. Contador's climbing was just too good to be true with VAM scores that were off the scale. If any other readers want to put the climbs stats and times into the VAM formula to see for themselves then is easy enough to use and fun for comparing your own efforts on your local climbs to a turbo charged Contadope.

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