Friday Group Ride #300

Friday Group Ride #300

It was either luge or skeleton I was watching. I forget. Run after run, these guys would come down the ice track, bumping and chattering, the Swiss timing flashing away at the bottom of the screen. The final winning margin was .02 seconds.

Think about that for a second. Think about devoting large chunks of your life to sport-specific training over a period of months or years, and then either winning or losing by .02. How do you quantify what you did or didn’t do wrong?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the limits of human performance. As sports have grown and grown in popularity over the last 150 years, we’ve seen a steady increase in performance. Times in timed events have gone down. Distances covered have increased. With nutrition and healthcare progress, humans have gotten bigger and stronger. But there must be an end, or a dramatic decrease in the pace of improvement, right? The four-minute mile can’t really ever be the two-minute mile, can it?

I can imagine that it’s extremely frustrating, on an almost ontological level, to lose a race by .02 seconds, or even by two minutes over the space of 21 days. I can imagine that, having honed your body and craft and nutrition and psychology, it must be shattering to contemplate the idea that you have no way left to improve, that you may, in fact, be at your performance limit.

And so what do you do? Change coaches? Go vegan? Try pilates? Get more aero?

You and I will probably never be confronted with this particular problem, so that’s nice. It’s easy to ride when there is always upside, but what about when it’s your living?

This doesn’t want to be a Group Ride (the 300th, did you notice?) about doping. Doping is one of the answers to the question, what do you do next? There are a lot of other good and viable answers as well, ones that aren’t morally suspect.

This week’s Group Ride asks if now is the time to confront our human limits, in cycling, and in sporting performance in general? Unlike Roger Bannister, straining for the tape in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, we are not seeing milestones fall. We have stood on the shoulders of giants, and what is left is incremental gain, flukey feats that shave milliseconds from past efforts.

I believe that on some level, resorting to chemical or mechanical cheating, is a response to this untenable situation where we are paid to strive for a limit that can’t actually be reached. But the question is, what do we do next? Can we accept our limits and compete against each other within them? Or is there another age of achievement in front of us, some great physical breakthrough that will take the human body to levels we aren’t even imagining today? In some ways, the question is what if we don’t dope?


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  1. John Kopp

    As an example of where we are at with improving records, consider thoroughbred horse racing. Many records for the sport were established decades ago. Some are occasionally broken, but only by tiny margins. Consensus is this is due to no changes in the gene pool. The horses are as good as they are going to get. The same can be said for men’s running. Only small increments in performance are achieved. Contrast that to women, who have only recently begun serious competition. They show greater margins in new records being set. However, they will eventually also reach a plateau.

    Robot, in your example, the skill in luge or skeleton is navigating the course. If you do it perfectly, the outcome comes down to aerodynamics, or drag from the runners, which will be very small.

    Men’s cycling has reached that limit, unless there are equipment changes (How about a full fairing recumbent!) Women still have some room for improvement.

  2. Paolo

    Not sure who said: the best athlete is the one that never competed.
    I think with cycling one of the issue is still, and even more now, the one of accessibility. Think about how much talent will never try cycling because it is so expensive. You see it every time an accomplished runner gets on a bike and has great results.

  3. Tom in Albany

    Happy #300, Robot! I was anxiously awaiting it last week but, i guess your kids had the week off so you had to entertain them, rather than us!

    I agree that we’re reaching a sort of limit. How manty of our current improvements are really technology based anyway? I mean, lighter shoes, bikes. Slipperier clothing. Wind-tunnel testing. There’s your proof right there. They’ve resorted to legal, mechanical doping in terms of doing all of the work to cheat the wind and gravity.

    What will have to happen is we’ll have to change the game. For decades the 100 yard dash was the be all and end all. Now it’s 100 meters. What’s next? Tweaks just to establish a new game?

  4. jonathan

    why do there need to be breakthroughs in performance and ever lowering times or longer records? while I agree, smashing a record is exciting, at the base level of sport is competition – who is better on any given day should be what matters.

    This is exactly why some say the 2hr marathon may never be broken – the runners in the field race against each other, not the clock.

  5. GeorgeL

    Large performance breakthroughs are actually pretty rare. Take the example of the Olympic 100m sprint (which I’m using because I was able to easily find the data for it: Over the last 100 years, the times of the runners have essentially linearly decreased. There certainly are jumps in-between some individual years, but the overall progression is gradual (i.e. doesn’t look like steps).

    Furthering Jonathan’s point, in a bike race, racers are competing against one another rather than against a clock, which complicates things to say the least. The renewed interest in the hour record is great because that’s the proper venue for measuring raw speed in a (mostly) controlled environment. I think we can expect humans to make gradual gains in speed over time, but due to physiological limitations and the nature of bike racing, I doubt we’ll see large jumps in speed. However, it’s nice to root for the smashing of records (assuming it’s done cleanly), because that’s what motivates us to do better.

  6. Geo J

    There are pitfalls to one’s perception of ‘morally suspect’ which is a very vast interpretation. Subject to conjecture, scrutiny, the pure logic of science and one’s own set of values that have been often shaped by a host of varying opinions. Rather than fact, or a mix of opinion and fact but never just pure fact.

    The term ‘doping’ in a popular vernacular, (which is always biased when it comes to performance enhancing supplements) refers to or alludes to illicis street type drugs. Narcotics, opiates. Heroin opium and cocaine are very dangerous and deadly. It doesn’t take very much narcotic substance to stop one’s heart.

    By contrast for someone to overdose on steroids or HGH would require someone to take heavy and constant doses. And while certainly abusing performance enhancing supplements can lead to all types of physical and mental ailments, the incidence and prevalence are very low compared to narcotics and opiates.

    The term doping is used and implemented by media government and governing bodies, these holier-than-thou hacks who frame their words and articles to look like legitimate journalism. While doling out massive misinformation and propaganda.

    Performance enhancing supplements are manufactured by big pharmaceuticals, which goes back to the early 1950s. HGH steroids and EPO are all used to treat serious physical conditions in human beings which produce mostly positive results. Unless I am mistaken there are no prescription narcotics used to improve and enhance the human body. But rather only serve as pain blockers and are highly highly addictive.

    The term doping or the implied context of doping when writing or speaking is a clear attempt to discredit the positive attributes of performance supplements. Again any substance that abused will have negative effects but while narcotics and opiates have zero positive effects performance supplements have many documented positive results.

    Subsequently using the term doping attempts to condition and sway the average person who is unable to think independently critically and logically. the issue of morality can be applied to anything and everything in life . The fervor that surrounds performance-enhancing supplements versus the nonplussed reaction to mechanical cheating or dirty fraudulent money sponsoring sports teams and cycling teams is a clear indication of apathy ignorance and emotional and psychological thought processes rather than logical.

    Sports are first and foremost entertainment, but because they are a billion dollar industry they are controlled by politicos with political agendas. The only reason something is not allowed or deemed illegal is because the powers that be have not found a way to benefit from it ($$$) has nothing to do with morals and ethics.

    If morals and ethics were actually truly and really at the core than most major sports would cease to exist. Certainly if that were the case Saxo Bank, MTN, and dimension data would have been banned from the sport. From money laundering to financial fraud. These current teams and many more in the past have operated and been operating with dirty money. But apparently that is morally okay. Why? Because it fits the popular narrative… like the Muppets down at Fraggle Rock, as long as the masses get their jelly filled pellets all is okay.

    1. Author

      @Geo – Everyone knows the rules of competitive cycling. Behavior that violates the rules is morally suspect. I don’t think that’s over-reaching or heavy-handed. I don’t even think taking the drugs I referenced is medically recommended, even if it doesn’t cause death, because there are side-effects and risk factors that are unnecessary.

      The semantics of your comment are good, though, and I appreciate your view of sports as entertainment and business controlled by monied interests. I would say the same of our government to some great degree, but that doesn’t invalidate the laws we’re governed by as regards our day-to-day behavior, does it?

  7. Drago

    Seems sports that only go for World Records eventually fade (Speed Skiing) Need good person to person competition (or teams).
    That being said, I Love the hour record, especially when the competitors almost always say, Never again.

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