Is It Really Possible?

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One thing that you notice as you progress further into the sport of cycling is that you can’t be good at everything.  Different disciplines of bike racing require very different physiology.  As you train one system of fitness, another one will often suffer.  It’s a balancing act and therefore your training approach should be very specific to the type of event that you’re targeting. As an event nears, your training should be specific to the demands of that event.

A race like the Tour de France throws everything at the riders.  Long time trials, short time trials, flats with sprints, flats with crosswinds, steep rolling hills, long climbs, etc.  The opportunity to win these Grand Tours largely comes down to gaining time on the climbs and the time trials. It’s unlikely that the winner will gain time elsewhere unless you’re Oscar Pereiro in 2006.  This begs the question, can a top climber also be a top time trialist?  Here’s a couple of question that one skeptical reader recently sent me:

Question 1: Is it possible for a pure mountain climber to beat a pure time trail specialist? or vice versa? Last night’s time trail stage raised a lot of questions for me. I can remember the last Tour when Cancellara was beaten by Schumacher.

Question 2: In the modern day with all the technology and rapid info sharing, is a surprise performance possible ?- Bradley Wiggins. Last Tour’s surprise package was Bernard Kohl.

All these are quite deja vu!!  Love to hear your view on this.

Always wanting to give the benefit of the doubt, I even defended Floyd Landis for a long time.   Unfortunately cycling  has given us reason to be skeptical of performances that are too good to be true.  The recent news of Di Luca being busted just adds to the skepticism.  I want to believe that Contador is as good as he’s shown us.  I love the domination that riders like Contador and Armstrong display.

A reader sent me an excellent article written by the Science of Sport website.   This chart below basically shows a comparison of Contador’s climb up Verbier (stage 15) with the other 12 fastest ridden climbs in history.   The Climbing Rate (m/hour) that this chart shows is called the VAM (vertical rate of ascension in meters per hour).  VAM is a  measurement developed by Dr Michele Ferrari as a comparison between riders and climbs to calculate relative power output.  Note that gradient affects VAM.  The higher the gradient, the greater the VAM at a given power output.

There are a few disagreements on some baseline assumptions used for this analysis, but you can see based on the calculations that Contador blows the doors off every other riders’ climb in TdF history.  According to Ferrari, the Verbier, an 8.7km climb at 7.5% calculates the relative power output of 6.73W/kg.  The analysis below calculates Contador’s relative power output of 6.78 W/kg (difference because of some different altitude assumptions. Either way, they’re very close).  This is calculated by: Relative power (Watts/kg) = VAM (meters/hour) / (Gradient factor x 100)

It’s important to note that this analysis of Contador’s climb is not to suggest that anything dodgy is going on here, it does however spark some great debate.  One thing to take away from this is that there are many variables at work here that are not (and cannot) be taken into consideration and you cannot make any judgments on Contador’s performance based on this chart alone.  I’ve now received this chart in my inbox numerous times with quick judgment being passed.  But then again, I originally had faith in Floyd Landis!

So how did Contador beat Cancellara in Stage 18 time trial if climbers are only supposed to be good at climbing?  Well, look no further than the Science of Sport website and these guys give another excellent analysis of where the TT was won – none other than on the climb.  You can see from the time splits that on the climb, Contador made up 31 seconds on Cancellara to be ahead by 46 seconds at the 3rd timecheck.  Cancellara smashed the last 12.5km of the TT finishing 43 seconds faster than Contador, however, it was still not enough to make up the time Contador made up on that small 3.5km climb.  The fact that Contador is a climber (along with being an excellent time trialist to begin with – 4th in Olympics, Spanish Champion, etc) enabled him to win this TT.


So while Contador is bombarded with questions from the media and Greg LeMond that doubt his clean performance, I do not believe these accusations can be made based on isolated calculated data. I certainly want to believe that it’s possible that someone can win the TdF while being clean.  You cannot say that Contador’s performance at this year’s  TdF is incosistant with any other Grand Tours he’s won over the past 3 years.

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