Several people have been returning to a piece from this time last year when I revealed Quick Step thought about signing Peter Sagan but eventually decided against it and the Slovak wunderkind joined Liquigas. What’s the Dutch word for regret?
QS team manager Lefevere said Sagan delivered good results in an effort test and a reader saw this and got in touch to ask what these tests are all about. So here’s some more info on the tests, what they involve and what they mean.
For cyclists the tests are conducted on a static bike. VO2 Max is short for the maximum (max) volume (V) of oxygen (02) someone can carry when exercising. More formally it’s the “maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen during incremental exercise”.
Once a rider is clipped into the bike and hooked up to measuring devices the test starts with a good warm up and then the rider starts at a set effort. At set intervals the effort is increased, for example the resistance on the bike is increased. Gradually it gets harder and harder and eventually there comes the point where the rider is forced to sprint just to keep going and then exhaustion sets in and the rider stops. A rider can only sustain 100% VO2 Max for a short while, usually a few minutes.
It’s not to be confused with maximum power, a peak number you can might in a sprint. Nor is the VO2 Max reached at maximum heart rate. Instead it’s obtained during the test and marks a point when the body can’t carry any more oxygen, even if you can temporarily up the effort. It’s where your ability to carry oxygen reaches a plateau.
After the test the data are gathered and the rider’s score can be determined. The ability to transport oxygen is obviously crucial in an aerobic sport like cycling. It explains why blood manipulating and doping have such a hold on the sport but that’s for another day. As such a rider’s score in the lab correlates to their performance on the road. The higher the score, the better the racer. Indeed it can get quite reductionist, especially if you want to compare mountain climbing abilities as given the VO2 Max data, the wattages, a rider’s weight and not much more you should see lab results translate quite directly into abilities.
In the real world
But it’s not always so predictable. When the T-Mobile squad gathered at the start of 2007 one of the first tasks was an effort test to measure the fitness of all the riders. Having tested all the riders, one stood out thanks to relatively poor results, a neo-pro called Mark Cavendish. The trainer had words with the young rider, saying he doubted whether the rider was good enough for the Pro Tour. Certainly the lab test doesn’t account for aerodynamics, a low position on the bike means less watts. Indeed today Cavendish puts out fewer watts than team mates Renshaw and Eisel, by a substantial margin yet he is probably the fastest rider going.
But it’s not so simple as saying people who score bad numbers can become champions. When Cavendish took the test he was not in great shape. Commenting on the beginning of Cavendish’s time with T-Mobile, former team mate Roger Hammond said “he started the season so catastrophically that the staff were wondering what they could enter Mark for so that he could finish the race“.
That said Cavendish is not alone in producing relatively uninspiring numbers yet delivering results. Johan Museeuw was a prolific classics winner in the 1990s yet didn’t impress on the static bike either. And there are others too
Expressed as ml/kg/minute, a measure that accounts for body size to allow comparisons, the numbers can vary. The “man in the street” might score 40ml/kg/min, a frequent cyclist 50-60ml/kg/min and a pro normally gets 70ml/kg/min with the best hitting 80ml/kg/min.
Note you can’t always compare numbers across sports since different muscle groups are used. Even in cycling the numbers can vary according to the lab accuracy and height above sea level has a significant effect too.
As ever the VO2 max test is only one tool to measure talent. Take just one measurement and you’ll never get the full picture. Sagan was invited to do some tests after impressive results on the road, the lab just confirmed what he’d got at that moment in time, they probably didn’t alert Quick Step to Sagan’s potential.
Nobody wins trophies, jerseys and medals for high scores in the lab. But the effort test is a common part of the “interview” process for a team looking to recruit a new rider and an ongoing way to measure a rider throughout the year.