Monday, July 27, 2015

2015 Tour de France

Racing in the Post-Armstrong Era

The 2015 Tour de France (or "Big Ol' Race Around France" as Grant Petersen calls it) concluded yesterday, and Chris Froome of the U.K. is the winner. It was his second tour win, and makes him the first U.K. rider to win the race twice.

Chris Froome and his Team Sky teammates cross the line together in Paris.
I'm pleased with Froome's win - if I could be said to have had a favorite or prediction for this year's winner, it would have been Froome. He's an impressive cyclist in many ways - good in the mountains, a decent time-triallist, and calm under pressure. But to be honest, I only "half" paid attention to this year's Tour. It's an unfortunate fact of life about bike racing in the "Post-Armstrong" era that it's hard to take the sport seriously. The thing is, as much as the UCI would like us all to believe otherwise, doping didn't begin or end with Lance Armstrong (yes - I use his name. It's not like he's Voldemort or something). And one has only to look at the list of tour winners from the last 20 years to see the problem:

Who won the race between 1999 and 2005? Nobody!
I don't just mean the 7-year gap where the results are simply crossed out - though that does still raise an interesting question. Who the hell won all those races? In other years when a winner was disqualified later, the title was transferred to the rider who had finished 2nd. See Oscar Pereiro in 2006 (thank you Floyd Landis) and Andy Schleck in 2010 (thank you Alberto Contador). So why didn't they do that in the Armstrong years? Probably because all the top finishers in those years were likely to have been as doped as he was. Officials would have ended up awarding the title to whomever the poor schlub was who finished last - giving somebody the otherwise impossible distinction of being the Tour Champion and the Lantern Rouge simultaneously.

But it's not just the Armstrong Gap. Look at some of the other winners there. Bjarne Riis? Doped to his gills on EPO (confessed after the statute of limitations expired). Jan Ullrich? Credible stories abound about his doping, and he retired from racing after being implicated in Operation Puerto. Marco Pantani? His drug-fueled record on Alpe d'Huez inexplicably still stands. He was disqualified from the '99 Giro d'Italia for doping, and was also implicated in Operation Puerto, as well as several other doping investigations. Despite dying from a drug overdose (surprising?) he is still seen as some kind of hero to many - some of whom insist his death was actually murder. Then there are also the aforementioned disgraces with Landis and Contador.

Sorry, but the fact that nobody has been stripped of a tour title since 2011 hardly makes it easier to be a believer.

So, unfortunately, any time someone starts to shine in the race, that rider is immediately suspected of doping. It hardly seems fair to the racer who is capable of winning the Tour, but as soon as someone pulls on that yellow jersey, people start asking questions. As for me, I get tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Doping Allegations

This year, the rumors started flying after Stage 10, when Chris Froome just seemed to dominate all others on the climb of La Pierre-Saint Martin on the first day in the Pyrenees. Performance numbers on Froome were analyzed by a French physiologist who concluded that either Froome is naturally superhuman (unlikely), or he's artificially enhanced. Of course, the media jumped all over that, and fans started screaming "Doper" at Froome as the peloton raced by. One fan even jumped out into the road and threw urine at him.

But even as people took that report as instant condemnation, it's also possible that the physiologist's analysis of the numbers is flawed - that any small variations in the data collection (from power meters, etc.) could lead to a pretty wide margin of error. One article I found on the subject seems to bear that out (see HERE).

Further complications come from the fact that it's basically impossible to prove someone is racing clean, and while teams keep releasing data on their racers, there are always people who will claim that it's not enough, and they must be hiding something. So early in the race there were reports that someone hacked into Team Sky's computer data, probably looking for evidence of foul play. And Team Sky also released numbers to the media voluntarily, which only led to more accusations.

"Mechanical Doping" Too?

As if performance enhancing drugs weren't enough, there is the ongoing specter of a different kind of performance enhancement going around bike racing -- dubbed "mechanical doping," or in other words, hiding an electric motor in the massively bloated carbon fiber frames of today's racing bikes.

Rumors of hidden motors have been going around for a while now. The first time I heard such a rumor was when Fabian Cancellara dominated at Paris-Roubaix in 2013. Such rumors gained intensity when a bike ridden by Ryder Hesjedal seemed to take off by itself after a crash at the 2014 Vuelta. Although one could almost dismiss such claims as a joke, the UCI is taking it seriously and now routinely checks bikes for hidden motors.

An official is inserting a small camera into the bottom bracket of a bike at this year's TdF. Chris Froome's bike was one of those bikes checked. No, so far, nobody has ever found a motor.

Could such a thing be done? While there's still no proof that any professional racer has done such a thing, it is apparently possible. For a long while, power-assist motors for bicycles have been large, obvious hunks that would be impossible to hide. But there are now some powerful motors that are compact enough to fit inside a frame tube, with battery packs that are similarly compact and concealable. One such motor is the Vivax Assist:

The Vivax Assist could easily be concealed in the seat-tube of today's carbon fiber bikes. The bevel gear works at the bottom bracket. The battery could be concealed in the down tube, and the power button or switch could be disguised or hidden on a brake/shift lever. That doesn't mean it's been done, however.
So now anybody who starts to succeed in a bike race has to submit his body to the drug tests, his bike to the motor inspectors, and divulge every bit of available data to the media -- and somewhere in the midst of all this circus, there is supposedly a bike race going on.

Get Serious

All in all, it just makes it hard to enjoy watching a bike race. And if all the doubts about cheating make it so hard to take it seriously, then bicycle racing is in danger of becoming a slightly less entertaining version of pro wrestling -- people know it's all fake, they just watch it for the spectacle. I just don't see myself becoming one of those people who says something like, "Of course it's all fake - I only watch it for the crashes."


  1. Thanks for this. Another fine example of saying what I ponder about better than I could.

  2. A friend summed it up best, "I like sausage too, but I don't want to know how it is made".

  3. From CanAmSteve:

    I tend to put the "motorized bike" conspiracists in with the anti-vaccine/homoeopathic crowd. As in People Who Slept Through Science Class.

    Look at F1 race cars, which have a KERS system that stores energy from regenerative braking and then allows it to be released in "spurts" for overtaking. A bit like a hybrid Prius. It is, however, quite complex and heavy - and that's a regenerative system, so no "fuel supply" need be carried.

    With a bicycle, you have several problems. First, the system has to be tiny. Second, battery technology isn't very "dense" so even if the entire frame was a battery, it would only offer a slight boost or for a brief period. OK - that could be a sprint to the finish. But you had to drag the thing around on the entire stage by then.

    A regenerative option wouldn't work very well. It would either be obvious just by looking at the bike or by actions. It would have to be switched on and off like a brake and only when you actually wanted to slow down - otherwise you'd just be, um, slower.

    And the nature of the stages precludes the usefulness of such a device. Long uphill slogs and long downhill sections. So, flat battery on the way up and re-energized on the way down? Hardly worth the effort, I think.

    No - there is a reason drugs have been the preferred choice - results :-)

  4. Looks like it has been done.