Is Pro Cycling Too Clinical?

tour de france rider with car behind_dreamstime_l_15744532_gm60Cycle racing elicits feelings of tradition, guts, toughness, emotion, passion and excitement. The recent Giro d’Italia showed why this sport is so enthralling. Images of freezing riders struggling in the snow and rain, pedalling up ridiculously steep mountain passes; the speed and adrenaline of the mass sprints; the tactical implications of stage racing; scary painful accidents, these make me a lifelong fan of this sport. But, lately I have become a little perturbed of how professional, scientific, methodical and almost boring the sport has become.

Scientific developments have definitely affected my perception of the sport. Greg LeMond won the 1983 Tour de France through his scientific approach to the sport. He beat Laurent Fignon on the final stage, an individual time-trial, by using a more aerodynamic tri-bar. Fignon may have been the more deserving rider on the day, but lack of foresight cost him dearly. His traditionalist approach (no aero helmet or tri-bars) cost him vital seconds that ultimately lost him the Tour.

Now I am a scientific cycling coach by trade and earn a living by making people cycle faster, so you may ask: “What do I mean by this contradictory statement?” The sport has become all about facts and figures, controlled by scientists, managers and Director Sportifs.

In searching for new talent, modern day scouts tend to consider the following:   
– Age
– Body fat percentage, height and weight
– DNA make-up
– Haematocrit (packed cell volume) and blood levels
– Lactic acid levels at maximum output, functional threshold and threshold
– VAM (Velocity and altitude gain in metres, made famous by Dr Michele Ferrari who is now banned)
– Wattage output at threshold, functional threshold and maximum output. And at what pedalling cadence and heart rate levels

Is the personality, skill and passion of the rider considered?

Scientists and the Director Sportifs (DS) control the outcome of racing more so than the riders themselves.

Typical scenarios of robotic-type behaviour
1. Rider and team actions are controlled by the input of the DS via radio to the rider. The DS dictates decisions through info from:
– Intimate television coverage of the event which relays time gaps and visuals (TV screens in the team cars).
– Knowledge of each rider and team’s ability in the peleton, including scientific fitness figures for rider’s physical outputs.
– Collusion between DS’s (officially illegal) causes strange and illogical actions from riders. Riders have to religiously obey the demands and orders of their DS.

2. Riders are controlled by readings from their onboard monitors. For example, Brad Wiggins and the SKY team riders are so aware of their outputs and physical capabilities that they do not compete against the opposition,  but ride mainly according to their own outputs. Riders look at their display and control their outputs to their own best advantage.

In the Individual TT, riders ride according to wattage and heart rate outputs, not to their feel and pain threshold. Detailed info of all riders (time gaps and outputs) is relayed to the rider, who then cycles faster or slower.

And what’s with the boring breakaway group that gains over five minutes in the first section of the race, but is then caught in the final run in to the finish? This has become such a predictable aspect of stage racing. Why you may ask?

Too much info is in the hands of the DS. They have the means to relay info to their riders and control the catch of the breakaway group.

Breakaway groups would win a lot more if the chasing peleton has no relevant info on hand.

I would rather watch a lower level race where riders vie for honours with limited info on hand. The rider himself has to read and respond to the race situation himself according to his own skills and savvy and what he visually understands.

Are the characters of the sport disappearing from the stage? Riders do not race according to their heart, but rather according to the decisions of the DS.

Lance Armstrong understood the value of science and drugs to his advantage. EPO, steroids, testosterone, blood doping and HGH (Human Growth Hormone) are all scientifically developed products that can boost strength and performance, but illegal if used in sport. Use them wisely and scientifically and you gain a definite advantage.

Most pro tour teams are dictated by science and absolute output values. Wiggins admits that training sessions are without feeling, with the coach’s instructions and outputs being more important.

The latest cycling champions are great physical specimens, but their successes are dictated more by their trainers, coaches and the DS than by their own personalities. Scientific strategy is used to win, even if it’s boring and predictable.

I prefer the old fashioned way of cycling but times do change of course.

by Gary Beneke

After 36 years of intimate involvement in the sport, Gary is like a parent; he still loves cycling but sometimes he is unhappy with it. He is the 50-54 age group World Champion for 2012 and stays competitive because it makes him feel alive.

Originally published in the July/August 2013 issue.

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