Sunday, December 28, 2008

LeMond, Armstrong, and the SRM Dope Dog

I’ve been studying cycling from every angle for the last few years. It’s increasingly rare that I encounter a truly new idea or perspective that “opens a new door” or provides me a completely original line of thinking about cycling performance or culture. But I stumbled upon one on Friday.

A little background: In preparing for a 3-hour drive to Ringgold to see the inlaws (a visit which was enhanced by a 40-mile ride over new Tennessee roads with my Lovely Wife), I downloaded onto my Shuffle several cycling-related podcasts: a couple Fredcasts and a couple from The Spokesman. One of them contained stuff from Interbike 2008. That’s where Lance gave a press conference this fall to discuss his return to competitive cycling. A sort-of-hard-to-hear recording of his press conference was included in the podcast.

I already knew that Greg LeMond had attended Lance’s press conference and, based on what I’d heard, had made an ass of himself with all of his repeated questions about Lance’s new doping controls. Lance has, in lieu of a salary, requested that Astana hire a dope testing specialist to set up and carry out a continuous testing program for Lance for the 2009 season. All of his data will be published on the web in real time.

Well, Greg repeatedly attempted to grill Lance and his consultant about it. In the recording you couldn’t hear the questions very well, but you could tell that Lance and pretty much everyone else in the room wished he would just shut up and go back to selling bikes.

Greg and Lance in '94 - before they had much to argue about.

But that’s not the interesting part. Greg’s been doing that for years and everyone’s used to it. The guy who runs the Fredcast hung around to work on some technical stuff after the press conference. A little while later, Greg LeMond and Lance’s drug testing consultant entered the room and continued in private their heated discussion. As Greg turned to leave, he held a brief interview with three or four journalists. That’s the part that got me thinking.

One last caveat before I finally get to my point: Although I’m an admirer of Greg LeMond for his accomplishments and for what he’s contributed to American cycling, I’m not particularly fond of his constant Lance attacks (airing of American cycling’s dirty laundry in public goes against my grain and hints at a character flaw in LeMond – although Lance has his share of those as well).

In the interview after the press conference, which can be heard at, Greg made his point. Essentially, he said that no matter how the doping labs test professional riders, and no matter how sophisticated their testing methods get, the riders and some of their teams will always be a step ahead and be able to evade some of the testing. Maybe that’s true. I have very little doubt that Lance will race clean in 2009, but will everyone in the peloton be clean – no. CERA stays in your system for about 60 hours. Blood doping with your own blood is virtually undetectable.

LeMond proposed that there is one ironclad way to catch dopers: use an SRM. Measure their race power output.

He argues that through chemistry, physics, and physiology, we’ve established very accurately the relationships governing the energy systems of cycling. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. And a watt is a watt is a watt. VO2max, or the amount of oxygen that your body can process per minute, limits and controls how much energy your body can produce. Everyone's career-best FTP (and other power outputs) has a set ceiling.

Your VO2max is largely determined by genetics. Training level and age can also play roles. For a 25-year-old, very highly trained cyclist it’s virtually a constant number. It will drop slightly with age, but not much until you reach your upper thirties or forties. And even then it changes pretty slowly if you remain highly trained. {And for Causey and Ron I think it’s a universal constant.}

Improvements in racing tactics, training methods, teammates, nutrition, and your mental approach can all make you a more successful cyclist. But if you are a very highly trained professional cyclist (alreadying eating and training at the highest level possible) your maximum power output won’t change much after a young age even though your endurance can be greatly improved with additional years.

LeMond argues (and he has physiologists to back up his argument) that there should be a baseline VO2max established for every professional rider. Based on that VO2max, assuming the highest mechanical and metabolic efficiency that’s possible for humans, there would be a maximum functional threshold power (FTP) calculated for every rider in the peloton. Competitors (randomly or all of them – he doesn’t say) would have their bikes fitted with SRM power meters during race stages. Any rider who demonstrated long-term power output exceeding the theoretical maximum would be considered a doper and immediately removed from the sport for life – end of rule. LeMond says riders like Merckx and Anquetil never produced a FTP of 8 watts per kilo and doesn’t think modern riders are doing it honestly. (Van de Velde reportedly stayed with the front Tour group in the mountains in 2008 with 5.85 watts/kilo – something he’d not been able to do in the past with the same power output).

While this approach would be a very radical idea - I’m certainly not sold on it -- it’s a fascinating one. It would also be terrible for cycling and cycling fans.

Would the SRM dope dog weed out dopers of all types – I don’t see why not. But it would turn professional cycling into more of a video game than it already has become. It would be like having Johan Bruneel, Bjarne Riis, and Jonathan Vaughters sitting across the table from each other with monitors and joysticks. Dopers would shift their focus from max power output to maximum recovery ability, and the dope race would continue.

Knowing the exact FTP of every rider in the peloton and having race radios to completely control all of them would remove from cycling what magic that remains in the sport. The echoes of Anquetil and Merckx would finally and completely be dampened by technology and the modern era. Let's find another way.

Jaques Anquetil

Eddie Merckx