Can Miguel Indurain Make a Comeback?

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

A new research paper suggests the five-time Tour de France winner is still a force on the bike and could even hold his place in the pro peloton today.

The International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance claims he has lost little of his fitness and his power values “still compare favorably with those exhibited by active professional cyclists”.

Indurain has been for an effort test in the lab and the Spanish sports scientist Iñigo Mujika has written up the results. The paper’s abstract says

“age-related fitness declines in athletes can be due to both aging and detraining. Very little is known about the physiological and performance decline of professional cyclists after retirement from competition. To gain some insight into the aging and detraining process of elite cyclists, 5-time Tour de France winner and Olympic Champion Miguel Indurain performed a progressive cycle ergometer test to exhaustion 14 years after retirement from professional cycling”

and concludes:

“His maximal values were: oxygen uptake 5.29 l.min-1 (57.4 ml.kg-1.min-1), aerobic power output 450 W (4.88 W.kg-1), heart rate 191 bpm, blood lactate 11.2 mM. Values at the individual lactate threshold (ILT): 4.28 l.min-1 (46.4 ml.kg-1.min-1), 329 W (3.57 W.kg-1), 159 bpm, 2.4 mM. Values at the 4 mM onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA): 4.68 l.min-1 (50.8 ml.kg-1.min-1), 369 W (4.00 W.kg-1), 170 bpm. Average cycling gross efficiency between 100 and 350 W was 20.1%, with a peak value of 22.3% at 350 W”

It also adds:

“Larger declines in maximal and submaximal values relative to body mass (19.4-26.1%) indicate that body composition changed more than aerobic characteristics”

This is a polite way of saying he’s put on some weight. He now weighs over 92kg, compared to 80kg back in the day.

Indurain has long been regarded as unique physical specimen, captured best by the memorable cover of Cycle Sport magazine from 1996. So perhaps today’s conclusion is that Indurain still has the ability to ride at an intensity needed to stay with elite riders despite being 46 years old is no suprise? I’m not so sure, I’d welcome comments but suspect his numbers might be a bit low. Obviously he’d have to lose some weight too.

Whilst he is retired, Indurain regularly rides with his son, also Miguel and besides, at 46 he’s only a bit older than the likes of Jens Voigt and Christopher Horner.

Plus this seems to be one test on one rider. For it to be more meaningful we’d want to see a bigger sample size.

The good news
You can keep a lot of your physical strength into old age, although Indurain isn’t exactly ancient. Contemporaries like Maurizio Fondriest, Michele Bartoli and even the more senior Francesco Moser still ride their bikes today with the same style as the past.

For me it’s always a pleasure to see ex-riders continue to cycle, many have had enough after making a career out of it, the thrill is gone for many who suffer almost daily.

The bad news
If you’re in the masters or veteran age bracket then the candle-count on your birthday cake might not be the excuse you need to account for any decline in your fitness and power levels. Sorry.

Conclusion
I don’t have a subscription to read the full paper. Happily Indurain seems fit, healthy and still content to ride his bike. Can he make a comeback? Well perhaps he could cope in the bunch but I can remember the moment he retired. It was in 1996 in the Vuelta: he was dropped on the Mirador del Fito and climbed off the bike, never to race again. So I’m not sure he’d even want to trot around as pack-fodder. Although if he’s short of a Euro, a post-Vuelta criterium could be fun.

But we can all take heart from the suggestion that youthful fitness does not have to decline. And as we all know, cycling is not an impact sport so hopefully Indurain can keep riding for decades.

Thanks to reader MMG for sharing the story

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{ 37 comments }

johnm55 August 14, 2012 at 9:10 pm

My guess is that Mig like a lot of his less successful British contemporaries (who are still racing up and down bypasses at 6 am) could still manage a respectable performance against the clock but would struggle in a road race. The power might still be there but the jump will probably have gone.

Erik Assum August 14, 2012 at 9:15 pm

In Born to Run it is claimed that an eighteen year old training to reach his peak endurance will reach it at the age of twenty seven. His decline in performance is so slow that he will reach the level he had at eighteen at the age of sixty something.

Vanilla_Thrilla August 16, 2012 at 2:30 am

64. That research is referenced here for anyone with a spare 15 mins. (I believe this presentation formed the basis of the Born to Run doco – I haven’t seen it yet)
http://www.ted.com/talks/christopher_mcdougall_are_we_born_to_run.html

It seems that there are strong evolutionary reasons for why humans can maintain high levels of endurance well after explosive strength and speed have faded away. That being we evolved as persistence hunters in the African savannahs thousands of years ago. Anyone who couldn’t keep up with the pack chasing an antelope for 2 hours over 20km in the hot midday sun didn’t eat.

Jeff August 14, 2012 at 9:20 pm

I wish I was putting out 450 watts when my heart rate is 191.

But it does seem a bit low (or HR seems a bit high) compared to the numbers Team Sky has been talking about. All comes down to watts/kg over 20 min. or so.

Igor August 14, 2012 at 9:27 pm
Tovarishch August 15, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Note the Pinarello jersey – Sky haven’t announced their new rider line-up yet.

Toby August 16, 2012 at 12:54 am

If I could ‘Like’ that comment, I would.

heather August 14, 2012 at 9:32 pm

But, he is only 5 years older than Jens….. that’s scary… Indurain has been away for yeeeeaaaarrrss. Can we get Jens to do the same tests – that would be interesting.. and Big George… although he may be in hiding..

Q August 14, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Ned Overend is 9 years older than Indurain and he still occasionally races and wins, like last year’s Mt. Washington hill climb. It would definitely be more interesting if we knew whether these guys are statistical outliers compared to their cycling colleagues.

J August 14, 2012 at 9:54 pm

I think he’s 49 actually (born 1964?)–so even more impressive…

Jørgen August 14, 2012 at 10:12 pm

I dont trust any proffesional cyclist that was in the top in the 90s and early 2000. No matter what their names are.

BTW: 49? 1964 to 2012 makes 48.. but the test could be done two years ago, it takes some time to get a paper published also..

Piet Pompies August 14, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Yip. I am sure he doped up just before the test…..

jeremiahbishop August 14, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Hmmm.

I have seen performance by clean athletes like my Cannondale Factory Racing teamate Tinker, and Ned and can tell you most of it comes down to training the decline can be fought, It IS more important to maintain form as opposed to getting 3 months out of shape and peak power/resistance training efforts become a key component of staying strong. Ask Lopes winner of 2 sprint eliminator World Cups at 40!

I’m inspired seeing those guys rock!

Jeremiah Bishop.

Aquarius August 14, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Max aerobic power output : 4,88 W/kg, which is something he could sustain for a couple of minutes.
Power output at threshold : 3,57 W/kg, which he could virtually sustain forever.

If you’d match those figures with the 70+8 kg model that is used by the likes of Antoine Vayer and Frédéric Portoleau, that’d mean Indurain’s power would be respectively 340 and 250 W.

Still considering that 70+8 kg model, Brad Wiggins managed around 420 for the second figure during this year’s TDF, and, while I lack datas about it, he could probably manage 500 or more as his max aerobic power.
The grupetto level is about 320 W (to compare with Indurain’s current 250).

Sorry to rain on the parade, but I’m afraid age has really taken its toll on Miguel Indurain, and his current level is nowhere near what it would take to simply follow the peloton in a random amateur race.

The Inner Ring August 14, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Thanks for this. I thought the numbers were perhaps low but this suggests the certainly are. I know Mick Rogers was hitting 500W on the Planche des Belles Filles before he swung off.

Josh August 15, 2012 at 8:02 am

http://www.sportsscientists.com/2012/07/tour-in-mountains-analysis-discussion.html

That might be of interest to you, it has some power outputs and calculations from The Science of Sport guys.

ave August 15, 2012 at 2:51 am

I think if he would make a comeback he would lose that extra 10kg, and not loose any power because of this. Still not good enough. Perhaps he would also need to train a bit? ;)

Alex Simmons August 15, 2012 at 11:06 am

I think you’ll find that if Indurain lost his excess baggage, his absolute power would not decline, hence his W/kg would go up. In fact his absolute power would probably improve with the training.

His 1-hour TT power (functional threshold power) can be roughly estimated to be ~ 370W, and if he trimmed down to his former 80kg, that puts him at ~4.6W/kg, which would see him as a solid masters level racer, but certainly not as good as many masters I know. Good on flatter TTs if his aero was back to good (I imagine he could do that if he wanted) and in flatter road races, but at that level he would struggle on the longer climbs against the top masters racers.

I would suggest he could add another 10% to that through some dedicated specific training, which would put him in the 5W/kg club (I’m told he had done ~ 8,000km of training in the 6 months before this test). A pro-tour race would be a really really tough day out for a 5W/kg rider.

Tom August 16, 2012 at 6:17 pm

Informative as always Alex.

FWIW I’m a point scoring 3rd Cat rider, and I’m in the 4.65 W/Kg range when at race weight (FTP @ 350, 78kg). IME, I would consider 5 W/Kg at FTP would be an absolute minimum for a pro level rider, even one with the skills / experience of Big Mig. Tbf, he has 10 years on me, but I know of others older than I who race consistently at a much higher level.

Don August 17, 2012 at 8:03 pm

I couldn’t access this paper but I know of another giving comparable data for Indurain during the run-up to his 1 hour world record. The PubMed link for that study is http://www.jappl.org/content/89/4/1522.full. One conclusion specifies his oxygen uptake then: “Based on direct laboratory data of the power vs. oxygen uptake relationship for this cyclist, this is slightly higher than the 497.25 W corresponding to his oxygen uptake at OBLA (5.65 l/min).

At that time, IIRC, Indurain was regarded as unique or nearly so in his VO2Max. What’s impressive is how little of that he has lost, having gone down only from 5.65 l/min to 5.29 l/min in 14 years of retirement. But (1) to maintain a speed (on hills) consistent with his oxygen uptake he would have to lose that extra weight he has put on, and (2) the 7% loss in oxygen uptake (which in principle should be proportional to climbing speed on a steep grade), is arguably enough to keep him from being competitive.

Jan August 14, 2012 at 10:34 pm

With 3.6 Watts/kg at treshold he could not even race a c-grade road race. Ned Overend is pretty sure putting out 5 Wattts or even more…

John Rushby August 14, 2012 at 10:40 pm

I wonder how he compares to Malcolm Elliot. Malcolm is older than the Grand Canyon and was still winning national level crits with Candi- Marshall.

peloton.pl August 14, 2012 at 11:44 pm

But HR max is very impressive. His heart is c.a. 30-years old

Richie August 15, 2012 at 1:23 am

He looked really fat the last time I saw him in a magazine.

ave August 15, 2012 at 2:53 am
Lindsey McWilliams August 15, 2012 at 5:54 am

All the power stats are nice, even intriguing, but the bottom line is desire. Horner and Voights have the desire to compete, train, and suffer to be competitive. Miguel decided long ago he didn’t have the desire to compete (granted, against rampant doping) at the highest level.

Alan August 15, 2012 at 6:36 am

No matter what, it gives this 41 year old hope to be mediocre someday.

Adi August 15, 2012 at 9:16 am

The power figures aren’t great, but I wonder how much riding he’s been doing. If he hasn’t been doing much then it’s only to be expected that his power will have slumped.

Great to see him riding the Maratona though. Cipollini did it the year I rode it. Think I would have preferred to have done it with Big Mig.

grumpyoldman August 15, 2012 at 10:33 am

I’m 72 and just a bog-standard fun-run club cyclist. I get through around 200 km a week. I haven’t done any formal analysis of my fitness levels and I’ve got a hip replacement (due to a bad crash a few years ago) but I can ride quicker than a fair number of fellow members who are 10-15 years younger than me but who don’t ride regularly enough to maintain fitness.

My doctor gives me regular tests on BP, resting pulse, LDL and HDL colesterol, triglycerides, glucides etc and tells me that my scores are all those of a much younger man.

I know for a fact that there are guys who are older than me and far more talented (ex-pros) living in the Pyrenees who are still regularly doing the big climbs.

So the message seems to be: keep on riding to the best of your ability and respecting medical advice, and you won’t regret it. At least you won’t be in the position of the American musician who, on reaching his 100th birthday said, “If I’d known I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself”.

steppings August 15, 2012 at 10:39 am

I have no doubt Mig could make a comeback , but why the hell would he want to?

Bd August 15, 2012 at 10:40 am

I’d like him to turn up to Masters Worlds and towel up a few of these guys who think they could have made it as a pro 20 years ago”if they had the chance”.

Larry T. August 15, 2012 at 8:37 pm

+1 The old line was “I coulda won the Giro if I’d only had the time”. And as steppings opined above, WHY? I’m afraid a BigMig comeback would end up pretty much like BigTex’ attempt. I’d bet BigTex would not make a return to the sport if he had a do-over…look at the mess he’s in now.

Big Mikey August 15, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Miguel Indurain making a comeback?

Does he have a book coming out or something?

MattK August 16, 2012 at 10:41 pm

I regularly ride with some ex-pros and it isn’t so much that they can’t output the levels of the younger guys for one day, it is the ability to do it for 3-4 days straight. Once you are 40+ your ability to recover takes a nose dive since your body is no longer outputting the hormones and chemicals it once was. This can be counteracted by HGH or other non-UCI legal methods, but sadly it is a fact of life. I have no doubt that a lot of ex-pros who have kept up their riding would still be able to tear up a lot of the younger competition, hell I have seen them do it, but they don’t get up the next morning and repeat it.

Jim August 17, 2012 at 8:00 pm

I saw Indurain at the Maratona July 1 since he was staying at the same hotel we were at. He certainly looked fit and, to me at least, a lot skinnier than he had in his racing days. Perhaps he’s lost weight since those tests were done? However, he looked to be enjoying himself. Why come back just to be somewhere near the front? Remember Lance at his return compared to his peak?

Daniel September 25, 2012 at 4:08 pm

DOOOOOOOOOOPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPEEEEEEEEEEEDDDDDDDDDDDDD

The Inner Ring September 25, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Unless your keyboard is broken, why not keep the comment more subtle?

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