Many athletic sports have their references, benchmarks and records. Running a mile under four minutes, breaking 10 seconds for the 100m sprint, sailing around the world in under 80 days and maybe one day doing a marathon under two hours. But road cycling has none of these, we barely notice the time taken to complete a race and usually the average speed is immaterial. Absolute speed counts for little. Everything is relative.
Sometimes it can be hard to review. When a rider wins a race were they the strongest on the day, are they the fastest in history? When Fabian Cancellara took Simon Gerrans to the finish in Milan-Sanremo who was the better rider? This caused debate at the time but history records only one name. But what if we could take more measurements during a race. Are there new measures we can use to compare performances or do these not matter?
We can compare times in specific examples in the sport. Probably the best example of this is the ascent of Alpe d’Huez where each time the Tour de France climbs up the times are noted. The last time it happened the day’s official results included the climbing times, something that doesn’t happen elsewhere. There’s reference for other climbs even if they’ve appeared in the race more often like the Col du Tourmalet. There is a record for Mont Ventoux which means times next year could be compared but Ventoux is famously windy meaning comparisons are hard.
There are other timings to capture. We measure the time taken for the final 200 metres of a sprint stage in a grand tour to measure the speed of the sprint, something a human with a stopwatch could do. But today technology offers the chance for much more. The timing chips used could allow perfect timing and better still, tracking technology should be able to monitor riders in the final kilometre to time them and even give us the rider with the highest top speed. It need not just be for a sprint finish, anything can be timed such as the time taken to complete a cobbled sector in Paris-Roubaix. Personally I’d be fascinated to see the split times for each portion of pavé to see if the data show anything but it would probably bore many.
But does all this matter? Perhaps one rider might hit the highest speed of the day and, say, reach 75km/h in the sprint but if they finish third then it doesn’t matter, everyone wants to know who won. The same for climbing times which might be of interest to keen fans but the wider public finds it hard to make the comparisons, they are not well-known references. Nor are they comparable because the wind is so determinant on Mont Ventoux that it defines how riders tackle the final climb. Indeed tactical considerations always come to the fore, if Alpe d’Huez is rarely windy then the main factor is the race itself, riders rarely pace themselves uphill but judge their effort against others: it is not the time taken to climb the Alpe that matters but what happens on the slopes.
Plus these benchmarks might be ones to forget. EPO and blood doping have polluted the results meaning times taken from recent years are as meaningless as a Lance Armstrong victory, that’s why his Tour titles were not reallocated because so many other riders were doping meaning the results became pharmaceutically falsified by the likes of Michele Ferrari, Eufemiano Fuentes and others.
But Ferrari’s contribution is not all sinister. He has created the measure of VAM or la velocità ascensionale media meaning the average climbing speed. It expresses the vertical gain over time, for example take the Bola del Mundo climb in Vuelta. We know the difference in elevation between the start of the climb and the finish and so armed with timer we can clock the riders. Climbing is always good for comparisons because riders benefit less from drafting each other as the speeds are slow, therefore it is much more about individual performances. But VAM is imperfect as the steeper the slope, the higher the score. Taken to the extreme, you can score a giant VAM number when sprinting across a canal bridge in Belgium but a low number when tackling the Passo Pordoi in the Dolomites. In other words the number is not comparable and even amongst Alpine climbs because changes in slope matters. Here’s Wikipedia:
For example, a 1650 VAM on a climb of 8 percent average grade is a performance equivalent to a VAM of 1700 on 9 percent average grade. Ambient conditions (e.g. friction, air resistance) have less effect on steeper slopes (absorb less power) since speeds are lower than on gentler slopes.
As we see it starts to get technical, it is suitable for coaching and technical analysis but not the kind of rankings the public can adopt because it varies, it’s technical.
The most comparable and viable analysis is the use of watts adjusted for rider weight. The measurement of W/kg is the gold standard when it comes to comparing climbing performances in a race. But the numbers are rarely made public, leaving some to make estimations.
And again I don’t think the public will take to this either. Readers of this blog and those with an interest in sports science might want to see the numbers but they’re hard to understand. Again the numbers vary according to the climb. In an excellent interview FDJ coach Fred Grappe explains the numbers (my translation):
“In between a climb like Verbier that lasts 20 minutes, and climbing the Tourmalet which is an hour, there’s a gap of 40 minutes. This time period weighs heavily on the power output. We know today (thanks to research conducted over several years in my lab in Besançon) that a rider loses on average one watt for every extra minute between 20 to 60 minutes at their threshold. In other words it means that all athletes will lose between 40-50W going from a climb like Verbier to the Tourmalet.“
Verbier’s a Swiss ski resort and the climb is relatively short 8.7km, compared to about 20km for the mighty Tourmalet. There are other factors too and even if the atmospheric conditions are identical (wind and air pressure alike) then the road surface is a factor too. Again I’m having to explain this measure and we have to check the factors on the day so W/kg still doesn’t quite work, at least not for the wider public if they want to compare riders.
We need to be careful with data. As we’ve seen over recent years there’s been a tendency to latch onto particular numbers. If the climbing times are low then this is “proof” that doping has gone away. If a rider gets a high VAM then this is “proof” of doping. Even the average speed of the Tour de France has been used to make the same claims. But in reality the numbers can only support a hypothesis, they are not proof.
It seems references over the years are too hard. Even in athletics where stadiums and tracks are designed to specific rules a result only counts for a world record if the wind speed is suitable so looking for comparable times on the open roads, whether the plains of northern France or the passes of the Pyrenees, looks impossible. Perhaps the only comparison is the overall number of wins. Cycling is rich in history, not data. When Tom Boonen won Paris-Roubaix this year nobody timed his speed through the Arenberg nor his final lap of the velodrome. Instead the comparison to Roger De Vlaeminck arose because only Boonen and De Vlaeminck have won four times in Roubaix. Similarly some roads take on notoriety because history to the point where we know we cannot compare climbing the Galibier today with the first ascension of the Tour de France in 1911 because the roads have been surfaced, the bikes have changed and so has the distance of the stages. But this did not stop the Tour de France building a narrative around this in 2011.
Indeed often the best races are the slowest, the ones where riders have emptied the tank too early, where they crack live on TV as their rivals ride on up the road. In other words, it’s about forcing your rivals to use up their energy before you use yours. Some famous words from Tim Krabbé’s The Rider:
“Racing is licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own.”
– Hennie Kuiper
Or take the drama of a sprint finish where a breakaway approaches the finish and starts to play around, even slowing to a crawl before sprinting to the line for a photofinish. The only pacemaker here is the one inside the chest of some viewers as the suspense of a race rises and spectator heart rates soar. It’s not about the absolute speed but the relative efforts.
It would be good if we could compare performances over the years but there are so many variables on the open road that making comparisons is fraught with problems. We cannot compare simple times and other attempts soon end up mired in spreadsheets, phrases like “margin for error” and “adjusting for” appear.
So whilst cycling is a sport about athleticism and human performance, often absolute measures of output are only anecdotal when telling the story of a race, races are relative. We might be curious to know the watts or even how many calories a rider burned during a stage but the public want to know who wins and the only timing that matters is usually the margin of victory. Indeed even in a time trial the average speed is a curiosity but it is still the time gaps relative to others that tell the story of the race.
I’m sympathetic to providing information for what we could kindly call “sports geeks” so that the information is there for analysis but often victory in a race is about tactics rather than performance and the only absolute measures are those in history where riders of today are compared to those of the past via the number of wins.