Friday Group Ride #21

So this week the well-respected journal the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study that human growth hormone (HGH) does, in fact, improves athletic performance by helping to build fast-twitch muscle fiber. Specifically, the study found that in men HGH would improve performance by 3.9 percent—shaving .4 of a second from a 10-second sprint time in the 100-meter dash. And while sprinting performance was dramatically improved, HGH did nothing for endurance (unsurprising) or overall strength (somewhat surprising).

In cycling, an improvement of 3.9 percent isn’t the difference between steps on the podium, it is the difference between pack fodder and crushing the competition. Whether you look at the results from a Grand Tour or from one of the Monuments, a single percent range in performance can include the top-20 finishers.

Some of the men in the study also received injections of testosterone. For those men, the performance increase was a whopping 8 percent. Imagine for a second being an 8-percent-improved rider. That’s going from a 1-hour 40k time trial to a 55:12 40k time. Eight percent could turn you from a climber into a time trialist or a nobody into a god.

The study begs several questions. First, is anyone really surprised by this? There has been strong anecdotal evidence that HGH produced results for anyone looking for an illegal edge.

A bigger question is, what is the dosage size that athletes taking HGH normally use? Dr. Ken Ho, who ran the study, gave his subjects modest doses for only eight weeks, as compared to what guys like Mark McGwire were taking, which is alleged to be a much higher dosage for extended periods of time. Obviously, the gains could be more than 4 percent. Much more, perhaps.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) helped fund the study. One wonders why they wanted the results printed in a peer-reviewed journal. This would seem to be information that they wouldn’t want athletes willing to dope (or their doctors or coaches) to find out. One can safely assume that some aspect of this study will aid those who are trying to evade detection of their drug use.

The amateur athletes who participated in the study reported several side effects. The HGH caused fluid retention that resulted in some swelling as well as joint pain. One man reported that his breasts grew.

Maybe drug testing in the future should include looking for pros who are wearing jog bras.

More seriously, the media has reported the publication of this paper with a certain amount of surprise. As I read about it, I’ll admit my jaw went slack, but my expression was more “duh” that “holy cow.”

There have been whispers about who in the peloton has been using HGH, but so far, the most substantive accusation was that the entire T-Mobile team was using the stuff along with EPO. And of course, boatloads of the stuff was in Willy Voet’s Festina team car when he arrived at his fateful border stop in 1998.

I don’t want to accuse you readers of being a cynical bunch, but are any of you surprised by the results of this study, either in general or the more specific aspect of just how much performance can be improved by either HGH alone or in combination with testosterone?

And in other news … there’s this little cycling tour that’s going to take in some great sights in Italy. Disingenuousness aside, most of the cycling media outlets are saying this is the most wide-open Giro in years. That may be right. With no Menchov, no Killer, no Pellizotti and no Contador, Evans would seem to be the heir apparent; he seems to have developed a taste for actually winning instead of just showing.

Does anyone think Garzelli has something like a chance to win? Even Simoni seems to have conceded that he is over the hill and will hope for a stage win in this, his final Grand Tour.

So two questions to you all: Who will take the maglia rosa in the prologue? We’ve got stickers for the first correct answer on that. Also, who do you think will get to go home with the pink jersey once the last kilometer is ridden? Stickers to the first correct prognosticator.

I’ve got my money on Evans.

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28 comments

  1. Rusty Tool Shed

    I would’ve said Pellizotti but now I have no idea – there truly is no favorite in a race where the mountain stages can be as brutal as these.

  2. todd k

    I can’t say I am surprised with the studies conclusions. I like to think it is not because I am cynical so much as I lack substantial levels of naivety. It is interesting to see the actual metrics, though, as it does underscore the impact doping can have on performance.

    I’m going with Wiggins for the prologue and Sastre for the last kilometer.

    I actually missed Sastre when we were talking about class. I guess I missed him because he has been quiet since last year’s tour. But I really like his style. He is quiet. Not boastful. Seems to have his head about him. We will see if the time off combined with the nature of this Giro course suits him. I am only leaving Evans off the table because I have yet to see him take the bull by the horns on a mountain stage and this Giro lacks time trials. That said, Evans does ride as though he is slightly transformed. I would not be surprised if he comes out on top.

  3. SinglespeedJarv

    Prologue: Wiggins
    Maglia Rosa: Sastre

    Basso will make the podium in third as first Italian home, Pozavizzio(sp?) will also make the top-10 as long as he doesn’t get busted first and there will be an unknown/surprise Italian in the top-10 who will might/might not get busted after the event.

    Evans will be second again. Because something will go wrong.

  4. Touriste-Routier

    Just because the HGH study showed an improvement in sprint performance of 3.9% doesn’t mean the corollary can be drawn to an equal improvement in a 40k TT; they are different beasts all together.

    Since there was no improvement in endurance, one should not assume that the difference would be between pack fodder and podium at the Pro Cycling level. While no one would be surprised by improvements, a study replicating these conditions would be required for us to draw safe conclusions.

  5. Robot

    My understanding of the benefits of HGH is that endurance athletes will mostly use it will rehabbing an injury, as it helps return them to full speed significantly faster than simply sitting on the couch talking about how awesome your Road ID is. (That last quip was NOT a suggestion that Levi Leipheimer, Liz Hatch or Bob Roll take HGH).

    Looked at a different way, if a random sprinter in the bunch, a regular top ten finisher, but seldom a winner, were to take HGH in an organized way, could an increase in fast twitch fiber, put them first on the line?

    I think the overarching point is: Maybe.

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  7. Joe

    For the stickers I’ll have to go with David Miller for the prologue as he seems to be on forum this spring. For the overall I’ll take Ivan Basso. Everybody seems to think this is Cadel’s chance for Grand Tour glory. I can’t really see it myself. Outside of the Mur de Huy I can’t recall any kind of aggression from Evans on a Mountain top finish. With no long time trials I just have trouble seeing Evans running away with it. Of course I would have said the same thing amount Menchov a year ago.

  8. C.Monaco

    Yes, the only association that Leipheimer, Hatch and Roll have to HGH is in the form of its lesser-known acronym, Heck-of Great Hair.

    More seriously, fast-twitch muscle fibers are less likely to win you a road race, as they are quickly fatigued and affect very specific parameters of a parcours. It is the slow-twitch fibers that we use throughout the long day. This article very succinctly outlines some basic information on the muscle fibers for those interested.
    http://sportsmedicine.about.com/od/anatomyandphysiology/a/MuscleFiberType.htm

  9. Jeff B

    Pinotti for stickers. There won’t be an Italian in pink in three weeks, so they’d better wear it tomorrow.

    Evans overall, but it’ll be a great battle between him Basso, Sastre, Vino and Wiggo.

  10. James

    Prologue: Craig Lewis
    Overall: David Moncoutie

    No hope I know but what the hell! Maybe I’ll get lucky! Actually I feel 3.9% smarter because I took Human-Brain-Hormone! See what it has done for me!

    I’m hoping for a great race with with no clear cut favorite. It should be exciting.

  11. bikenerd

    Everyone who said Millar for the prologue after WSY is just going for the right to be right, not the stickers. I don’t care who wins, I want the stickers, so I say Vino for the prologue. Please do not take this to mean that I like him – I like stickers more. For the overall? No idea.

  12. cthulhu

    I have to agree with Robot from what I’ve read about HGH. They are suppose to really help with the recovery after efforts well above they normal load, reducing the time until the person is fully regenerated, meaning more hard training is possibl, thanks to less recovery days, and less decline in form throughout a stage race. I also read they play quite some role in the “deconstruction” of body fat. But I seriously doubt top athletes still use HGH because of the side effects. While I think uncontrolled growth of body parts and organs can be kept to a minimum through right medical supervision, the main problem stays, the body gets accustomed to the external consumption and produces less HGH itself and after some time one is back to normal despite injecting the stuff. The same goes for testosterone. Also I think most of them are easily discovered in the tests by now. And because of these reasons most dopers have moved to growth hormone releasing peptides (GHRP), which stimulate the body’s own HGH production. They are relatively unknown, speak not detectable (yet) and don’t come with the tradedown of reduced production as far as one knows at the moment.

    But to get back to the sport.

    For the prologue I say Pinotti. He seems in pretty good shape and I believe that course and length are exactly his thing.
    For overall…That is a hard question.
    I think Sastre will be stronger than last year as he won two stages if i recall correctly but I think he is still in build up and the missing race experience (When was the last time he raced?) will result in not constantly good enough performances to win the overall.
    Vino, he is in good shape an targeting the overall. But he has a tendency to underachieve in the overall classification at grand tours. Sure, he won the Vuelta once and had to be a helper for Ullrich at Telekom for some time. But even as he had the go he generally impressed with incredible stage wins but not his overall classification.
    OK, the italians are hot for this race, but Basso doesn’t look to me like a GC contender, more like Pellizottis super domestique, but he got busted. And I cannot really rank Scaponi and Garzellis’ form.
    Cunego has become more of a classics guy and I doubt he will be a factor in the GC and I believe this Giro is too hard for Wiggins to make it Top 5.
    Leaves everything at the obvious choice Evans. He seems to be in form, he couldn’t be 100% sure to be in the TdF (though I guess the odds have been close to 100%) and after so much bad luck Lady Luck might now be on his side for once. And I personally can’t see a dark horse coming out of nowhere as I look at the starting list. Maybe Basso.
    So I pick Evans, and Basso as dark horse, maybe he’s been playing poker and surprises me ;)

  13. souleur

    Surprised, by another ‘thank you mr obvious’ scientific study…nope.

    Robot is on the money, HGH would help recovery in an injury and overall general is a pro-growth hormone. So not only would you benefit from just red ‘fast-twitch’ fibre, but that would help overall as well.

    But free from that, and to throw a dash of the expectant cynicism, is the guarantee that there are more things they are using for performance enhancement that we don’t even know about. I would wager at least 2 generations ahead of the tired and worn out ole HGH/testosterone cocktail and 1 generation ahead of WADA/UCI and anyother piss testing bean counter. These boys are beyond CERA for a dose of aerobic capacity. Who knows, it indeed may even be more ingenious than your latest methamphetamine recipe’ which can be made from household carberator cleaner, lithium batteries and a pinch of Sudafed.

    Everyone beat me to the pick, so kudo’s to all
    Evans to don the maglia rosa
    Wiggins for the prologue

  14. BullRider

    I think it’s obvious why WADA would fund this study and want it published in a peer-reviewed journal. The cheats know the benefits of cheating better than anyone else and they don’t know a double-blind study to convince themselves that it’s worth a shot. The people who do need convincing are funding agencies and regulatory bodies. A study like this does helps to legitimize the importance of WADA’s efforts. This type of evidence is what makes the difference between investigation and prosecution versus witch hunting.

    Wiggins for the overall win.

  15. JZ

    Check out this site for a good discussion of the HGH study:

    http://www.sportsscientists.com/

    They also do a good job of discussing what the study didn’t answer and some limitations. As for WADA’s wisdom in publishing the study, I wonder the rumored HGH test is real and if perhaps it is ready to be used.

    Although no cycling related the stuff on the above site about the “fatty world record” recently set in running is pretty cool as well. If you have 28 minutes to kill, watch the video of that race. Someone needs to get that guy on a bike.

    Vinokorouv for the win! I wonder if he will get booed.

  16. randomactsofcycling

    Bodybuilders have been into HGH for decades, so no, I am not surprised to see other groups of athletes using it. It really seems to be a study that delivers exactly the results that anecdotal evidence had already produced.
    I’m looking forward to this Giro. It’s a shame the UCI once again waited until the eve of a GT to announce some ‘non negatives’ but we are all becoming immune to their attempts at biting the hands that feeds it.
    Prologue: Cadel Evans
    Overall: Christian Van de Velde (there’s a TTT and his team is stacked! Plus they are bluffing about him preparing for the Tour)
    Dark Horse: Chris Anker Sorenson

  17. Lachlan

    Every study that gets don eon almost every drug you can name shows really really great gains can be made using them. Like you say “duh”.
    If i understand your summary correctly however there is one interesting point on HGH… ie it will helo a sprinter but not help you get to the sprint… if its no good for endurance or overall power, its only of selective use for a road cyclist. Right?

    As for the Grio… well Wiggo won the prologue already…. But for the GC I’d love to see Sastre pick up a Giro :o)

  18. Souleur

    stage 7…through tuscan mud, muck, mire…simply classic!
    We will talk about this one for a LONG time.
    Congrats to the world striped jersey, and Vino, they both rode themselves proud.

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