The peloton has been invaded by body-snatchers
For the last ten years, I’ve been an avid fan of the Tour de France. The drama of the event is intoxicating. Crashes, feuding, courage, bravery, loyalty, tears, blood, joy and every other possible emotion and calamity pepper its days like a television drama gone ballistic. If it isn’t a rider being catapulted into barbed wire by a side-swiping television car, who then finishes the stage, it’s a rider trying to finish the tour with a broken hip. If it isn’t a rider in tears of sadness because he has to retire, it’s a rider in tears of joy because he’s finally won that most coveted of professional victories, a stage in the Tour. Grown men weep and sport wounds that wouldn't be allowed on Casualty. Men fight, sweat and receive odd cuddly toys while standing on very impractical shoes. The Tour is a mesmeric spectacle.
But something's gone terribly wrong.
Last year, I was watching the Vuelta Espana, Spain’s version of the Tour de France, safe in the knowledge that although there might be some minor dodginess going on, like use of the fat-shedding drug Clenbuterol, everyone seemed to be thinking that riders were otherwise clean. I watched it all the way through to the end and saw a man, so old in cycling terms that he really should have been riding with a pipe, slippers and a very long beard, step on to its top podium. I watched Chris Horner, at the gargantuan age of 41, win that prestigious three-week race.
Chris Horner is a chirpy, likeable American professional cyclist who has had many successes in his career, but he has not been a superstar. This all changed when, after a year where he was mostly injured, he won Spain's major tour, easily cycling away up mountains from top-level cyclists in their prime. This was an aberration. This was an aberration so whoppingly aberrant, it was like a man who finds his house is hit by a meteorite every time he watches ‘Armageddon’. It's physically possible that such a thing would happen, but boy does it feel to him like something unnatural is going on.
How could this be the same Chris Horner that fought but failed to reach the heady heights of European Cycling for so many years? How can a 41-year-old pro-rider win a major European Tour for the first time ever? Professional cycling requires great levels of courage, bike-handling skill, mental strength and sheer never-say-die endurance from its competitors but it is, at heart, a very simple job. Riders have to get from A to B on a bicycle. As a result, it’s relatively easy to work out what they’re capable of by simply recording their weight and the time it takes them to get from A to B. In many cases, riders take the same routes from year to year, particularly the famous mountain climbs, and so rider performances can be both compared with each other during a race, but also with competitors doing the same race years before. Nowadays, with the UCI’s (international cyclist union) biological passport system, analysts can even check the state of riders’ blood and see how that has changed. With all this data, it’s very easy to get a detailed, day-to-day understanding of a rider’s level of performance.
Horner said he was concerned about suspicious comments about his performance and, in a bid to quash them, published his blood data. He said that he hoped that by making this available for everyone to see, the negative rumours would end. But the data tells a different story.
This very interesting article in the Outside Online website discusses Horner’s blood values during the Vuelta. The data includes both Horner’s haemoglobin level (the active blood cells that carry oxygen to his muscles) and his reticulocyte count (his young blood cells). As the article carefully states, the graphs for both levels are not consistent with how someone's blood values would change during a long stage race. Why would Chris Horner release figures that point the finger at him?
I realised something strange, something unearthly was going on. I studied the life of a clean rider by reading Christophe Bassons' autobiography earlier this year. Bassons used to be a very talented young French rider, destined for great things. Unfortunately, he entered the sport when it was in the thick of the drug-taking nineties era of EPO (blood doping), testosterone, steroids and other highly dodgy and quite illegal performance enhancers. Bassons, to his eternal credit, refused to take the drugs and was comprehensively ostracised, bullied, intimidated, shunned and ridiculed as a result, until he finally abandoned his cycling career. If you want a thorough lesson in how not to treat an honest colleague who just wants to do the right thing, read his book.
Near the end of the book, Bassons comments about the current state of doping in cycling. He has been working with the French anti-doping authorities for years and he knows what he’s talking about. Here’s his view:
“Currently, questions are being asked about the extent to which pharmaceuticals such as AICAR, GW501516, TP500 and GAS6 are being used. Some of them have already been found during searches of vehicles and have been used by some athletes, doctors and soigneurs. These substances provide an equivalent effect to EPO, because they improve the performance of the athlete by boosting the transport and utilisation of oxygen by the body. Their effect is very well known. AICAR and TP500, for example, increases the number of mitochondria in the muscles. These cells are in a way little energy plants, which transform substrates (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins) into energy through the use of oxygen. The two products also bring about an increase in lipolysis (the breakdown of 'fat' to provide energy). They maintain lipolysis during intense efforts."
"To be more specific, when an athlete is tying at 80 per cent of his maximum, in principle he stops burning fat and only burns carbohydrate. By using these products, he can continue to burn fat as well as carbohydrate, even at 95 per cent of his maximum. This additional power, which stems from the use of fat reserves, offers a huge advantage. It is absolutely impossible to achieve naturally. Meanwhile the public can see another effect of the products in the physical transformation of competitors into athletes who don't seem very muscular and are very lean. They have a very low fat percentage because they are able to burn all their fats, including those in muscle fibres, and benefit from an increase in energy. With regard to growth factor GAS6, this allows the secretion of endogenous EPO. It is completely undetectable.”
The last two sentences of the passage are particularly startling. Bassons is making it clear that a professional cyclist is capable, at the moment, of significantly improving his performance without any danger of being detected by any UCI test. Skinny riders, traditionally good for climbing mountains but at a disadvantage on flat stages, can keep pace with the heavier, muscular riders by taking the drugs mentioned. All riders can improve their climbing ability by taking GAS6. Basically, riders can cheat if they want to, upping their performances in the process and get away with it.
Fortunately, as has been pointed out exhaustively by teams and riders nowadays, I knew that the peloton has moved on from the drug-taking days. There may be a few accidents when certain riders eat meat contaminated by Clenbuteral-chomping cows, but apart from that, riders' bodies are additive free. No one's taking AICAR, GW501516, TP500, GAS6 or any other illegal drug that could pass as a model of washing machine. Bassons is simply being thorough.
But I was still worried. I sensed something very wrong in men's professional cycling. My next step was to look at performance figures, particularly the performance of different riders over the years. This excellent article on sportscientists.com looks into this very subject. I've popped my version of their graph below, with extra helpful performance bands. The graph below shows the performance of Tour-de-France-winning riders through the late eighties and nineties. The increase in performance values during the nineties is an eye-opener, even if you already know what EPO can do to a rider's climbing ability. Keep in mind that these values are measured during long bouts of intense performance and therefore can't be explained away as short-lived freak events.
The first name on the graph is of particular interest; Greg LeMond.
Greg LeMond was not only a brilliant professional cyclist but can be regarded as a benchmark for the kind of career an exceptional clean athlete can have. Exceptional bike riders have to be blessed with an exceptional cardiovascular system. As Greg himself freely admits, his genes gave him a wonderful opportunity to compete for the greatest cycling prizes. Someone with such exceptional natural abilities will shine as soon as they start cycling in earnest and LeMond was just that kind of rider. He was a phenomenon from his very earliest years in the sport, as described in this interview. He has one of the highest recorded VO2 Max levels (93) in history, which is an indicator of cardiovascular performance. He was coached by one of the all-time greats of cycling, Cyrille Guimard, and had access to the latest technology, and yet his Watts/kg value looks positively mediocre on the above graph of champions’ performances. It is only in 1999, when the Festina affair erupted and the French police were raiding pro-team's hotels that the performances drop back to something close to LeMond’s level when he won his last Tour de France.
I took two important pieces of information from this graph; one, that EPO gives riders a massive advantage and two, that a human athlete is highly unlikely to be able to significantly improve LeMond performance value of around 5.7 W/kg on a late eighties bike.
My next step was to check how much bike technology improvements since the late eighties could improve a cyclist's performance. The first useful fact was that UCI has restricted bicycle design in competitions, stopping major improvements in efficiency. Secondly, the bikes in the eighties weren’t that bad. They were made of quality steel and equipped with just as many gears as current bikes, making them only marginally inferior to today’s products.
I estimated how much changes to bicycles have improved performance by looking at a modern professional’s performance and comparing. I used Philip Deignan. Philip is a top-level cyclist riding for the Sky Team (Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins’ team). Sky have helpfully published his performance figures at the 2014 Vuelta here. According to a report I found on the web, Philip has a recorded VO2-Max of about 87, an impressive figure only six points or 6.5% lower than Greg LeMond's. According to Sky’s performance report, the maximum W/kg output Philip produced at the Vuelta in a 20 minute spell was 5.42 W/kg.
I now used that data to compare his ability on a bike in 2014 with Greg's in 1989. I could assume that a top-level pro on a 2014 bike with a VO2 Max of 87 produces a maximum power output in a multi-stage race of 5.42 W/kg; that's a ratio of 0.0623. Greg's ratio, 93 divided by 5.7, is 0.0613. Philip's ratio is therefore only a tiny increase on Greg's at 1.6%. The calculations showed, in a very rough way, that bikes haven't improved riders' performances much at all in 25 years. The two factors of weight and cardiovascular ability are still far and away the main issues for performance.
Knowing this, I decided it was safe to conclude that in any major stage race, the riders can’t naturally produce more than 5.8 W/kg or, being super-optimistic, 5.9 W/kg during a twenty-minute-or-so stretch. Performances over that range would indicate that the rider had somehow developed a body that went beyond all recorded limits. Not only that, but such a rider would have won everything from their very first pedal stroke and already be regarded as the greatest bike rider ever to have existed in time and space in this part of the universe. They’d probably finish each race by taking a small drink, waving to their fans and floating away on a magic cloud to their hotel.
With this very useful fact stuffed in my waistband, I inspected the performance of key riders in recent Grand Tour events. In this new era of clean cycling, with the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs well behind us, I could feel confident and assured that the cyclists zipping by on my goggle-box would have a power-to-weight value from about 5.2 w/kg to, in the case of an utterly amazing clean rider - 5.9 w/kg. Philip Deignan is definitely in that range, what about the rest of the Grand Tour peleton?
This is when a chill went down my spine...
This article on Cycling Tips website gives a very useful analysis of the performances of the major riders in this year’s Tour de France (2014), which Nibali won. The table at the bottom of the article is of particular interest. Here's my version of it below, with snappy colour coding of the values. Green is credible, brown is worrying and red indicates ability to levitate:
The numbers were very scary. In an attempt to calm my growing fears, I remembered that the graph of Tour successes in the nineties was stating overall averages on the Tour, so perhaps only the last column of this table was relevant. It was possible that the first results on ‘La Planche des Belles Filles’ might have been distorted because the climb was too short. Then again, ‘Risoul’ might also have been too short and ‘Port de Bales’ as well. Nuts, I thought, perhaps the Tour is much shorter than people think and it only looks long through the TV coverage, like some kind of lensing effect? Perhaps Dr Michele Ferrari’s formula (used in the graph) is wrong? No, wait a minute, I remembered, Dr Michele Ferrari is the notorious sports doctor that allegedly masterminded Lance Armstrong’s training and his medicinal supplemental product regime. Michele does seem to know what he’s doing, whatever he’s doing.
I remembered something else. Any professional rider on a three-week tour will produce their highest output in the early stages of the race. After that, the relentless miles, crashes, heat, rain and the labrador dogs wanting to sniff his front wheel while he cycles past at forty miles an hour will take their toll. His power diminishes as his blood wearies of the constant cardiovascular effort. It’s only when he gives his body a sizeable break to recover that he can function at full power again. This is an unavoidable effect and can only be stopped or reversed by drugs or an actual blood transfusion, which are both banned… and yet Vincenzo Nibali produced 6.09 W/kg on the Hautacam on Stage 18!
Could this be true? My thoughts drifted back to watching Nibali during a mountain stage of the Tour when I noticed that he didn't seem to be bothering to breathe. He behaved more like he was sitting on a sofa, rather than charging up a mountain. At one point, he seemed to be half-heartedly pretending to be breathing heavily on that punishing climb. Why would he do that? Riders are known to mask their exhaustion so as to prevent the opposition knowing that they’re fading but his hammy, brief pants were… well, pants. Surely, faced with top level opposition trying to out-climb him on a daunting mountain road, he’d actually have to breath heavily?
I’ve had personal experience of cycling at my limit up a mountain and I’ve got to say, the only conversation I was capable of making was grunting noises. If there had been a Neanderthal or a three-month-old baby at the other end of the mike, I’d have been all right, but otherwise, I might as well have been gargling my news. Human beings need to breathe heavily when cycling up a mountain.
Swallowing down a surge of terror, I wondered how long this strangeness had been going on. I looked back at last year's Tour in 2013. Had things been normal then or had something sinister already taken hold?
I read this fascinating article on the Outside Online website where experts examine Chris Froome’s performance when he completed the AX3 Domaines climb on Stage 8 of the 2013 Tour de France. He did the famous climb in 23 minutes 14 seconds which is the third fastest ever time on that climb and, most importantly, it beat times recorded when key members of the peleton were doped up to the eyeballs with EPO. Here's the list:
1. Laiseka 22:57, 2001
2. Armstrong 22:59, 2001
3. Froome 23:14, 2013
4. Ulrich 23:17, 2003
5. Zubeldia 23:19, 2003
6. Ulrich 23:22, 2001
7. Armstrong 23:24, 2003
8. Vinokourov 23:34, 2003
9. Basso 23:36, 2003
10. Armstrong 23:40, 2005
22. Porte 24:05, 2013
34. Valverde 24:22, 2013
Froome's time was faster than Jan Ullrich’s time in 2003. This was astonishing. Ullrich was described by Tyler Hamilton in his book ‘The Secret Race’ as one of the most impressive cyclists he’d ever encountered. Lance Armstrong admitted that Ullrich was the only other rider he feared. Ullrich eventually fell from grace after being found to have taken a shedload of performance enhancing drugs but in his prime, he was seen as a godzilla of a competitor... and Froome beat his best time. I wanted to look away, to shield my gaze from this awful truth, but I had to look. Chris Froome had beaten Jan 'my blood's like iron gravy' Ullrich’s best time going up AX3 Domaines and he produced 6.37 w/kg during that 23 minute climb. By comparison, Richie Porte's time of 24:05 seemed like an excellent clean time but not surprisingly, languished down in twenty-second place.
Here’s a quote from the article:
“Based on the proposed power curve in ‘Not Normal?’, the work of Antoine Vayer, a French journalist and former trainer for the infamous Festina cycling team, 6.37 w/kg for the 23 minute effort puts Froome well into the "miraculous" level of human physiology. This is a level of performance not seen in the Tour de France before the introduction of EPO. It is a level of performance that has all but disappeared following Operation Puerto and the introduction of the Athlete Biological Passport.”
They use ‘miraculous’. On my earlier graph, 6.37 sits firmly in the area marked ‘ridiculous’ and is just shy of ‘alien species’, but it’s not necessary to argue the exact term. Others might use ‘WTF??!!!’ or perhaps ‘a physiology redolent of the Rutger Hauer replicant in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner’. Any of them will do. Whichever term one uses, Mr Froome’s performance was alien, wrong, non-human.
When did this madness start? I found This BBC article, written in 2012, the year that Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France. In the article, Dr Auriel Forrester, a sports scientist who works for SRM (the performance tracking company used by the Tour de France), discusses the power profiles of top riders. She uses data that Vincenzo Nibali himself supplied in 2012, recording his power output in the Alpine Stage 11 of that year's Tour. To quote Dr Forrester:
"His first two climbs are done at 320 and 322 watts and the final ride is 360 watts. This means on the final climb his power to weight ratio is 5.2W/kg. Those figures are where you expect that rider to be. If you compare Nibali to the other riders when they have been climbing, his figures are comparable. They're all ballpark, similar figures. None of those would stick out as spurious."
The reading stared me in the face; 5.2w/kg. Somehow, Vincenzo Nibali had gone from 5.2w/kg on a Tour de France stage to 6.1 w/kg or more, only two years later. Dr Forrester also stated that 5.2w/kg was the normal upper-end power output for the top riders only two years ago. There was no natural way any professional rider could go from 5.2 w/kg to 6.1 w/kg in two years.
I knew there was only one answer. Professional cycling has been invaded by alien body-snatchers! The fifties movie 'Invasion of the Body-Snatchers' was not just a story. It has actually happened.
You may scoff, but look at the evidence! Look at how it's spread, how it's turned normal, 5.2 w/kg riders into 6.2 w/kg creatures of inhuman ability! The pattern is the same as in that movie from yesteryear. In the beginning, a single, anonymous rider becomes infected. His performance miraculously improves. Everyone congratulates him on his new found fame, but they don't know that he's really an alien. Slowly, the alien rider infects others, one by one. These infected riders also improve incredibly and other riders start to wonder what's going on. The infected riders seem to be the same people but they're not. Some riders try to raise the alarm. 'Those riders on the podium aren't humans! They're something else, something alien!!!!' But no one believes them. The team bosses are pleased, they're winning. The sponsors are pleased, they're winning. Everyone is pleased except a few, under-performing riders who the majority agree are just sore losers.
One of the desperate, uninfected riders tells a sports scientist what's happening. The scientist is initially sceptical but then she checks the data. 'Goodness gracious!' She shouts, 'those riders you mentioned are producing values not seen since the days of Frankenstein movies!' 'But what can we do?' Shouts the desperate rider. The sports scientist tries to alert the authorities, the race organisers, the cycling union but no one wants to listen. 'Why rock the boat?' They reply. 'Everything's going really well.' 'But they're aliens!' she exclaims. 'So?' Say the team owners, 'they're aliens that are winning. They're champions. I'd rather have alien champions than human losers.' The scientist gives up in disgust. The desperate human rider abandons the sport and goes to work in his dad's vineyard. The team bosses slap each other on the back and in the background, in the shadows, the alien riders smile unnervingly. 'Bradley Wiggins, Richie Porte,' they say with their flat, eerie voices, 'don't fight it, soon you will be one of us....'
Run, Brad! Run Richie! Get out while you can!!!!!