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?