Tuesday, September 4, 2012

changing trends in cycling and the ever-present doping question

In the Vuelta this year, Joaquin Rodriguez has been untouchable. Not only is he able to outclimb Chris Froome, arguably the dominant climber of the Tour de France, but he's able to respond to every one of Alberto Contador's attacks. Sure, Contador is a convicted doper, and without the good stuff he's simply not going to be at the same level he was before, but it's almost unprecedented in cycling history before the EPO era that riders were able to so dominate stage races they they never once lost time to a rival. Not only is Rodriguez able to mark his rivals, but he's able to finish these climbs with absolutely ferocious attacks which put 5 seconds or more on everyone else (excepting perhaps Valverde when he's still with him) within the last 500 meters. I've never before seen a rider who was able to do that, nor am I aware of any rider in cycling history who could combine such searing intensity with the ability to excel on extended climbs. And that he's attained this degree of dominance only at age 33, having begin his career in 2000 with ONCE, is even more remarkable.

Indeed, in addition to the combination of intensity and endurance exhibited by Rodriguez is the "35 is the new 25" phenomenon. The most obvious example of this was Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer, riding better than ever before into and through their mid-'30's. Then along comes Bradley Wiggins, going from never having won a pro time trial to becoming untouchable at 31-32. Joaquin Rodriguez, at 33, has been unleashing his ferocious attacks at the summits of 1st category climbs in the Vuelta, making everyone else, including Contador, look silly. There's a rational explanation for this: the biological passport, and endocrine thresholds are established with age-independent limits. You set the limits so a 21-year-old, his hormones running full gas, can pass, and you provide a lot of head-room for that masters-aged pro who needs to replenish what time has taken. I know, they say that the reduced racing schedules associated with increased specialization, at least for men (Merckx and Hinault basically raced all year long) results in less wear and tear. But if that were true then in other sports with less wear-and-tear in cycling we'd also see athletes peaking in their mid-'30's. It simply doesn't happen.

A third change in cycling is the German bodybuilder-road sprinter phenotype. First Andre Greipel, then Marcel Kittel, and now Degenkolb have all come to the scene within the past few years with bodies which looked more suited to a remake of Conan the Barbarian than to surviving 240 km road races.

Traditionally cycling road sprinters have been road racers first, sprinters second, which limited them to a relatively slight physique, although with the door open for some impressive leg definition. Here's the amazing legs of Sean Kelly, probably the top sprinter of the 1980's:

Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly's legs (VeloRambling.org)

Kelly's supremacy was followed by those of Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, Mario Cipollini, Eric Zabel, Robbie McEwen, and now Mark Cavendish as the best sprinters in the stage race game. Each of these riders had (or has) impressive leg muscles for sure, but still relatively light. It's hard to move a lot of muscle mass in circles 70-120 times per minute, 60 minutes an hour, 4-6 hours per day.

Abdu, whose career ended with a suspension for steroid use, had particularly impressive legs:


But then these German sprinters entered the scene, looking more like track specialists than roadies. Greipel puts his predecessors to shame:


Kittel was next: Kittel

Then John, who while not to the standards of Gripel and Kittel, still has tree-trunk like legs with which he's totally dominated stages in this Vuelta:

I am reminded of baseball in the early 1990's when the body shape changed. Players to that point had been relatively lean, natural for a sport where running faster is correlated with success. The power hitters tended to be bigger and slower, but they were the exception. Then that all changed. Rosters became dominated by guys who'd adopted a markedly spherical shape, with necks as thick as my waist. These guys looked as if they should be hardly able to move, yet they were still obviously able to run down balls in the field, to turn a bat quick enough to hit a 160 kph pitch. The argument was made that players had discovered the weight room. Excuse me? Something as simple as doing what every high school athlete does, lift weights, doubles a player's home run output and top-level pro players took 100 years to discover this? Of course it was later revealed steroid use became rampant during this era. Baseball claims to have cleaned itself up but the body shape remains. That alone is proof enough for me.

Similarly with cycling. When things change in profound ways it's a good sign something's up. The story will come out eventually; it always does.


Berzin said...

Absolutely hit the nail on the head. I've been talking about this for years, how in the amateur ranks there seems to be a fountain of youth found in no other sport except cycling, where aging yuppies hit an athletic "Renascence" in their late 30's and early 40's and get better as they get older.

I called BS on it and get hammered relentlessly, because the offended parties want everyone to believe that it's their dedication and hard work that enable these feats.

chris said...

Hmm, I am with you on some bits here but I think you're bending the truth a little. The greats (looking pre-EPO) have always been able to compete to around the ages we've seen from GT winners this year - see Hinault in 86 (a couple of months off 32 years old), Sean Kelly winning his first and only grand tour at the Vuelta aged 32, Lemond was 29 in 1990 & maintained that he was putting out exactly the same numbers in his subsequent tours, despite now being dropped on every climb (hello Edgar). So the contention that pre-Epo top cyclists couldn't compete at an older age is wrong. Also slightly bemused at your dismissal of specialization - have you ever actually looked through Mercxx's race schedule? It was ludicrous - in season, between classics and the grand tours he'd ride crits & track meets any days he wasn't sat in a car jumping from one B & B to the next. It was incomparable to today's top racer's schedules and burn out was really inevitable.

All cards on the table, let me start by saying I believe Wiggins, Froome & Hesjedal were clean this year. The giro as a spectacle was, I believe, the cleanest grand tour in the last 20 years (at least within it!) which I believe gave Hesjedal the chance to win, along with a series of other fortunate events (such as no other GC contender with outstanding ability against the clock). Italy's Olympic committee has popped virtually all of their top cyclists in the past 7 years and I think the risks of carrying round fridged blood are too great during the giro for them to risk it. The same applies to France to a certain extent but the stakes at the tour are now so much higher that the gain still outweighs the risk there, I think.

I'm sure we could disscuss the tour in length but lets save it as it's one thats been played out for months & months online.

So, the Vuelta - have you seen this article? http://inrng.com/2012/09/vuelta-power-analysis/
For me the nail in the coffin of the Vuelta is our 'Proto' rider referred to here. In the Giro, he would've had to put out 400watts to stay with Hesjedal. These were mostly steady climbs with Liquigas at the front tapping out a steady pace for Basso, which suited all the big diesels up there on GC (bar Rodriguez) fine. Same at the tour with Team Sky, proto rider needs 415 watts to stay with Wiggins. Again, seems reasonable to me - the Sky train tapping a constant rhythm at threshold with some of the best riders in the world peaking for one event equated to a 3-4% increase in Watts from the Giro.

Now - Vuelta. Proto rider suddenly needs 445 Watts to stay with the front boys. 10% increase from the Giro, which, funnily enough, is directly comparable because Rodriguez finished second in both! TEN PERCENT. Ahem. And the style of racing was absurdly different - we have generally isolated GC contenders attacking the fuck out of each other at every opportunity. Anyone who knows cycling knows that racing like that kills times & overrall watts - its the least efficient form of racing. See the (oft referenced as very slow) group behind Sastre on AlpeD'Huez in 2008 - no organisation, attacks coming, Schlecks covering, they crawled up it relative to the years around it.

All that in a country where the judicial actively protect their doping athletes & out of competition testing from the national feds is non existent. I think we're now seeing the true impact of the Bio Passport & disparity between testing and policing country to country - big jumps in performance depending on where you are, with more calculated risks being taken by the dopers. I enjoyed it but the Vuelta was a joke really, as you said - Valverde looks like a better cyclist now than he did pre-ban, which isn't possible when he'd been taking transfusions and EPO unless he was.....still taking them. You can bet your boots Garmin riders will never win one.

Interested to hear your comments,

djconnel said...

Good comments, but I'd respond by saying there's big, big difference between 32 ands late 30's. It's ironic that Purito cracked so soon after my blog post: perhaps riders who fail to crack during stage races should be disqualified under evidence of doping :).