Friday Group Ride #291

Friday Group Ride #291

This week the U.K. edition of Esquire Magazine published an article on Chris Froome. In it, the article publishes for the first time Froome’s power data from testing done following the Tour. Froome’s wife set up the testing with GlaxoSmithKlein Human Performance Lab, a relatively independent body, depending on your view, or cynicism.

Those numbers were surprising, full stop. His weight at the time of testing was 154 lbs. (69.9kg), up from 147 (67kg) at the Tour. His body fat at the time of the testing was 9.8 percent and even if the entirety of his post-Tour weight gain was fat—unlikely—it means that during the Tour his body fat percentage was 5.6 percent, a number that seems oddly high for a Tour de France winner. At the testing, his VO2 Max was 84.6 milliliters per kilogram per minute; corrected for his Tour weight, it rises to a whopping 88.2 ml/kg/min, a number that makes him a one-in-a-million genetic freak; it would still be stunningly high even if he wasn’t a pro cyclist.

Where things get interesting are his power numbers. He’s able to produce a peak wattage of 525 watts—not really sprinter material, but his sustained power, the 30-minute power most coaches look at, was 419 watts, or 5.98 watts per kilogram. Correct for his weight gain and what you get is 6.25 w/kg. We’ve seen numbers like this before; they have been common to grand tour winners. They’ve also been common to dopers.

PE teacher and doping gadfly Antoine Vayer has done a pretty good job of helping the public get an idea of what is natural vs. unnatural. Vayer has been careful to call Froome’s values suspicious. Indeed, his VO2 Max numbers put him in rare company. Greg LeMond’s Vo2 Max, at 92.5 ml/kg/min, is the highest ever recorded among cyclists. Nordic skier Bjorne Daehlie recorded 96, while some Norwegian junior recorded a 97.5.

Then there are the concerns about motorized doping, a discussion that remains laughable. Sure, the technology exists, but it’s too loud to hide. High on an Alpine pass with the group whittled to six, hitting the “go” button would be heard by spectators. That said, the EPO problem grew the way it did because the UCI did nothing. The inspections the UCI is doing are smart though; prevent it from ever happening by inspecting now.

Which brings us back to good ol’ pharmacology. Is Froome doping? Some are certain he is. Others are certain he isn’t. Some folks think that because his answers are just like Lance Armstrong’s, that must indicate he’s doping. But what could he say different that would give us confidence?

Here at RKP, we’ve backed off on our posts about pro cycling because the readership had soured so on racing following the release of USADA’s Reasoned Decision. Though we had been under, shall we say, few illusions about what was going on in the sport, the Reasoned Decision contained some details that surprised even us; it took the wind out of our sails as well. So much of our coverage had been based on the inspiration that we draw from those monks of the road, but if they were busy living by one code and professing another, it was hard to view them as holy men.

Looking at the sport today, I believe it’s the cleanest it has ever been. Further, I’m willing to go on record and say that I believe Tejay van Garderen, Andrew Talansky and Taylor Phinney are clean. But I have to concede that doping hasn’t been eradicated—Astana anyone?—nor will it ever be.

Then there’s the Goldman Dilemma. It’s a question that has been posed to elite athletes: Would you be willing to take a drug that would guarantee a gold medal at the Olympics, but would also cause you to die five years later. In the original surveys more than half the athletes said they’d take the drug. A more recent survey showed a drop among positive responses, which suggests that changing attitudes on doping may be shaping athlete values, but there are still plenty of athletes willing to pay that price; it suggests that there will always be a slice of elite athletes willing to go to any length for glory. And if there’s any place that might issue a siren’s call to those athletes, the Tour de France is sure to be one.

It’s for that reason that I’m agnostic on the Froome question. We don’t like agnostics because they fail to have any conviction and Western Civilization seems to value certainty. So this week’s question is: What do you think? Do you believe in Froome? More broadly, do you believe in the grand tours and in pro cycling in general? And while we’re at it, should we be devoting our editorial energy to these athletes or remain focused on the participatory end of the sport?

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  1. Pat O'Brien

    As far as Froome goes, I just don’t know. As far as pro cycling, especially in Europe I have an unresolved conflict of thought. I would like to see clean racing, but I can’t condone the treatment of the riders by the teams, sponsors, and the UCI. Their rights as employees are ignored or worse. So, I no longer watch or support pro racing including the grand tours. You seem to have the right balance of coverage right now between pro racing and the rest of the cycling world. In fact, you seem to be the only place that does.

  2. Jason Lee

    The thing with Tejay is that he rides with Armstrong, BMC is run by Jim Ochowicz. There is still a relationship there with the worst procycling doper in history. That’s a red flag.
    I trust BMC because of Cadel, and Phinney, etc. I think the team is clean overall.

    There is an interesting article on Cycling News right now interviewing Frédéric Grappe.
    He clarifies what should be published and why the data presented is not enough to make any judgement either way.

    I think the sport is cleaning up. You see many different winners of stages and the racing is more unpredictable. It’s not the same kind of racing as the 90s.

    I don’t think you guys should be focusing on pro cycling, except in what you feel is directly relevant to the ‘regular rider’.
    There are plenty of other venues that cover pro cycling ad nauseam.

  3. Shawn

    I agree there are other places for discussions of pro racing (which I continue to follow) but I don’t agree that “We don’t like agnostics because they fail to have any conviction.” Agnosticism can be rooted in a conviction that we cannot gain the required evidence that would either verify or falsify a claim. I have this conviction regarding the questions of how clean or dirty the pro peloton is or whether any particular rider is clean or not. Regardless of my agnosticism on these topics, I still find the daily drama of pro races compelling (but I understand why others are disillusioned).

    1. winky

      Agnosticism is the correct response to lack of conclusive evidence. It is perhaps easier to “believe” something than to admit that we don’t know, but that doesn’t make it so.

  4. Aar

    I’m agnostic on Froome. My belief in the TdF is 0 out of 10 (too much money involved), the other grand tours about 2 and pro cycling in general about 4. Even though you didn’t ask, my surprise meter would not blip to future positives of van Garderen or Talansksy but my interest in bike racing might never recover from a Phinney positive (what can I say? I like the kid to the point that my blinders are on). So, my belief in bicycle racing in general is quite low. As far as racing content on RKP is concerned, I tend to like your point of view, especially as opposed to the mainstream cycling media. So, I might enjoy your adding a bit of racing commentary back into the mix but not to the detriment of what you do so well today.

    A perspective I considered this year was “how do you eliminate ‘legal cheating'”? This season, Sky showed their willingness to spend massive amounts of money to maximize their rider’s recovery using means that could never be regulated out of practice. The degree to which they did that was obviously beyond the means of their less well funded competition. To me, that may arguably be equivalent to needle usage on the cheatometer. Just food for editorial thought. On a somewhat related topic, I used mild hyperbaric oxygen treatment in my recovery from total knee replacement. The results were significant to the point that I’m fully convinced that the athletes who have access to a chamber have a huge advantage over those who do not. Is mild hyperbaric still in use in the peloton?

  5. Scott G.

    You can ignore pro cycling, cheating and screwing with peoples
    health to make money is not edifying.
    Cheating was fun in NASCAR back in the days of Junior Johnson,
    nobody got hurt.

    1. Tom in Albany

      Junior Johnson! Now there’s a blast from the past. Oh, he was still a cheat. Nothing to respect there. Move along.

  6. JohnK

    I still watch professional cycling with fanboy interest, but I must say it has diminished a bit and is always with a grain of salt. I am a brain tumor survivor, also with a grain of salt because most with my type of tumor do survive, but I must confess that Lance provided me with helpful inspiration. I still find myself aping his position on the bike during hard efforts. We want to believe that people of our own nationality are clean, right? I feel the same way. Tejay, Talansky etc…, but it seems wrong to assume their morals are different just because they are more familiar to us. (forgive me if you have the numbers to prove otherwise). Where does that leave us? We will always root for someone with an unfair advantage, whether it is bestowed by God or Smith-Clyno-Glexin. The conundrum, it seems to me, is asking an athlete to do everything to win, while demanding the super-moral effort of turning away form the things that might help him do so. (and more on pro – cycling!)

  7. Quentin

    Based on the statistical evidence, I believe cycling is cleaner than it used to be, but there will never be enough evidence to say anything conclusive about any individual rider. I tend to believe Froome, but I acknowledge that much of that is probably based on personality judgements about him, and we all know how reliable that has been in the past.

    I admire Froome a lot for how he has handled the scrutiny. In contrast, as much as I respect the accomplishments of Wiggins on the bike and find them believable, his refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the questions that came up was a real turn-off.

  8. Hoshie99

    I think pro cycling is sufficiently covered; I’d focus your creative efforts elsewhere.

    this sport is a bounty; just look at your grasshopper and grinduro coverage.

    Between gear, events, and adventures there are plenty of media opportunities

    Plus, you guys are at your best on things about the ride and its associated culture.


  9. Miles Archer

    With no evidence of doping, you have to give Froome some modicum of doubt. So color me a very dark shade of agnostic. I think it’s very likely he’s doping. We will never know for sure that he’s not.

    The tour in general? I assume pros are doping, why wouldn’t they be? I don’t really care myself. A reasonably level playing field is what I’m after.

    I wish we’d change the rules so they’d publish and the rest of world can take advantage of the research these guinea pigs are subjecting themselves to. Some of these substances could turn out to have legitimate medical benefits for people recovering from injury, hip replacements, or frailty caused by old age.

    1. Jason Lee

      @Miles Archer
      Where to begin…
      If you’re after a “reasonably level playing field” than doping has to stop.
      There are so many reasons this is cheating and unfair, but instead of hashing all that out here, suffice to say it’s illegal.

      You have the “guinea pig” thing backwards.
      All these drugs were created to be used for legitimate medical purposes.
      For example, EPO is for cancer patients, whose red blood cells are destroyed by chemo.
      The list goes on.
      The cheats use these these drugs, using the legitimate patients as ‘guinea pigs’.

  10. Marc Lajoie

    First time poster here… I’ve been following pro cycling now since the age of 12, the year Greg Lemond won by 8 seconds on the Champs… My first sports hero for sure… And I believed. Then, all of a sudden, Indurain started winning everything, without even seemingly giving an effort… These guys were more like machines than the Fignon’s and Lemond’s… I was impressed, and was always surprised… And I will always remember Indurain totally dominating a certain US world champion in a TdF time trial, before that champion’s famous cancer…. And unbelievable comeback… For me that was all the proof of doping I needed, and I stopped watching cycling from then on, maybe the only North-American to do so. Every time I saw shots on TV of Lance winning, and giving an interview right after he crossed the line looking like he just rode a tempo ride for 30 mins, I knew for sure they were doping… But funny thing happened, I started watching the pro’s again when Lance came back! I really wanted to see the former champion get beaten, like they all do when they are past their prime… Like Fignon, Lemond, Indurain… But, there was still a “stink” in the air, with the Shleck’s, and Contador… And then comes Wiggins, and even for all of Sky’s tactics, they seemed more human… One day great, the other bad… Their expressions at the finish lines, a certain Froome feeling good needing to give her and drop his leader… Racing that seemed to have become real again… More like the days of Fignon than in the last decade. So, from my perspective, Froome has my benefit of the doubt… Yes, they are using today’s “still-legal” technologies to win, marginal gains to the extreme, but I believe without any major PED’s. Much more so than other very recent grand tour winners, which I have much bigger doubts about… So, just another opinion… And RKP is an awesome site, I follow you all the time, and enjoy knowing your positions on the pros, just no need to do “reporting”… As everybody else is saying, we can all get results elsewhere…

  11. Tom in Albany

    First off: I think you have the right mix of pro-cycling vs. ‘typical’ rider experience. Padraig’s book title is right on: Why We Ride.

    As for Froome, I tend to see the good in everything and everyone. At least, I try to do so. If LeMond could have those numbers, why can’t Froome? Was LeMond cheating? When you have billions of people on the planet, you’re going to see the statistical anomolies. That’s how it works, folks.

  12. Mike C

    The burr under my saddle with Froomr is not with the numbers. It’s not with his team and all of their money. It’s not with their marginal gains system.
    Here it is in a nutshell. Or in this case, a pressurized container of corticosteroids he keeps in his back pocket. Sure, maybe the guy really does have asthma. Does he really need a shot just prior to a time trial or the base of each mountain.
    I call total BS on this.
    How would he feel if Contador suddenly got a TUE for the stuff.
    I bet team Sky would go to court over it

  13. phaedrus

    The FTP to Peak Power ratio are highly speciousness. I see no way that his 1 second peak power is less than my 115 lbs wife (she does 750 in her sprint).
    I’m guessing this must be a 1 minute peak? Something is up with that number. Has anyone read more into this?
    It would make a little more sense if it were a 1 minute number…..but still seem a little low.
    The 419 FTP sounds like a more valid number…or at least one I can relate to my experience with power numbers.

    As far as belief goes, I’m agnostic too. I’m just unsure. I know my power numbers and I’m not surprised to see the the high numbers of the pros. I’m not sure if theirs are so much better than mine because they are gifted, ride more, or if pharmacology is involved.

    1. Craig

      That isn’t his peak power number, that is his maximal aerobic peak number (the average of either the last 30’s or 1 min in his ramp test). Sort of confused why Padraig didn’t catch that in his write up). This translates to a bit above VO2 power and FTP is in the 68-70% range of it …. no where was he tested for his maximal 1sec power. Though I suspect it isn’t too far north of 1000.

    2. Author

      You’re absolutely right. For the sake of keeping the piece as short as possible, I didn’t want to disagree with Esquire or engage in a long-winded explanation, but I should probably have done something to try to clarify.

  14. peter lin

    To me, it’s a sport. They aren’t heroes, gods or people to be worshiped. All pro sports have doping, and I really doubt that is going to change. I have no clue if Froome is doping, but I really don’t care. He is boring to watch. The question I often ask is “how much does mental side play in a grand tour?”

    clearly there are others that have similar power numbers, but they will never win a grand tour. The discipline and mental toughness is a big factor. No amount of EPO doping is going to change poor tactics and mental toughness.

  15. Tom in Albany

    So, here’s my issue with the TUE discussion…

    If we’re supposed to want these guys to be all natural, 100% undoped, then there should be NO TUEs. Got asthma so you need stuff to race? Tough nuggets. You are going to ride and have your asthma attack or horrible performance or you don’t race.

    Does that sound fair? Yes, I’m aware that asthma attacks can be fatal. I’m not making a joke. I just wonder which side of the divide you land on. Or do you hike the divide…

  16. Chris

    I’ve been thinking about this and here is my take. If Froome was doping then why did he race the entire tour with his head down looking at this computer?
    My take at the time was that he’s watching his numbers and staying in them at all times. If he was doping would be so concerned or would hyped up ego force his to ignore the data and chase his opponents?

  17. Isaac

    While agnostic on Froome, I think it’s importiant to distinguish between unethical and illegal behavior in regards to performance enhancement. As fans and journalists, when we think of “clean” riders, which standard are we applying? Which should we apply?

    My personal belief is that Sky (and other teams) may be legally clean but have behaved unethically in their quest for marginal gains. From the Tramadol use, to the stupid camper at the Giro, to signing riders with questionable pasts and then making them sign a doping declaration (JTL, Landa), Sky have pursued a course that is explores the grey areas of legality and fair play. Their logic is similar to the teams mentalities in regards to institutionalized doping in the early-90s before the EPO-ban. If its not illegal, it’s good to go. Okay, I get that there is a lot of money at stake and bike racing is not a tickle fight, that teams and riders should push themselves to get their maximum performance. I’d personally prefer that Sky (among other teams), hold themselves to a higher ethical standard as well.

  18. Marshall

    The destruction of my reverence for pro cyclists mimic the same destruction I’ve experienced for the top talents in other sports/hobbies I enjoy. To be the best in the world in most any activity (perhaps all of them), you’re forced to skirt ethics at a minimum or flout the rules altogether to gain the edge needed to win at the top levels. There’s no way around it.

    The bike technology is cool. Seeing hundreds of thousands of people on a mountainside at one time is cool. The terrain the riders ride through in the Grand Tours is cool. Thinking about the amount of power the riders put down during their efforts is cool, but the concept that all of those efforts are being done legally is simply not reasonable.

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