Tour de France climbing speeds analysed: what does it all mean?

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The dust has settled, the riders are recovering and the fans are already thinking of next year while also looking forward to a star-studded Vuelta a España. The exploits of the 2014 Tour de France still burn bright in the memory, though, and the analysis continues as to what was on show and how it compares to what came before.

The calculation and scrutiny of power numbers and climbing times have been the subject of debate for several years. Some are critical of it, claiming the mathematics involved are open to error and that comparisons with historic climbing times may be misleading due to factors such as road surface, wind speed and cycling equipment.

Others place a strong value on it, saying that when the numbers are calculated accurately and when data from power meters is used to verify that the right corrections and adjustments have been made, that climbing times and calculated power are invaluable tools in assessing and comparing performances.

Dr. Mike Puchowicz, Ross Tucker and the Finnish Twitter analyst @ammattipyöräily are amongst the best-known analysts of such data.

Puchowicz is a sports medicine physician from Arizona working in collegiate sports. He is actively pursuing research in performance physiology and consults on anti-doping programs internationally.

Ross Tucker is an exercise physiologist who specialised in fatigue and the limits to performance, and currently researches and lectures at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He also runs The Science of Sport website, where he has been analysing performances in various sports including the Tour de France since 2007.

@ammattipyöräily has been following pro-cycling since 1994, and has collected climbing times and estimated power outputs since 2008. He told CyclingTips that he chooses not to give his full identity ‘for personal reasons,’ but he is regarded as perhaps the most accurate in terms of extrapolating power output data from times on climbs.

Each agreed to answer three questions on the data gleaned from this year’s Tour. The responses enable several comparisons, including one between the climbing speeds of this year’s winner Vincenzo Nibali versus last year’s Tour champion Chris Froome, another looking at the various performances between the 2014 general classification contenders and also an estimation of how this year’s data compares to historic climbing speeds and what that means.

In terms of whether they believe the sport is clean or not, @ammattipyöräily said he preferred to leave such estimations to others. Puchowicz and Tucker both give their thoughts on the matter below.

CyclingTips: What is your assessment of the climbing speeds of Nibali, both compared to Froome last year, and also to historical data?

Mike Puchowicz: Nibali’s estimated Power Duration curve from this year’s Tour de France is effectively indistinguishable from Froome’s 2013 curve. They very likely would be matched evenly and both likely would be competitive compared to the podium finishers from the 2002-2007 baseline.

Ross Tucker: I think you can view it in one of two ways – given the admitted “error” in estimating power output and the obvious issue that we’re comparing one year to another, different race situations, different tactics, different weather, different stages, you can say that the performances of the two are at least equal. There was little Nibali did this year that Froome did not at least match last year, in terms of a performance for a given length of climb.

So for instance, Froome did for over 20 minutes on Ax-3-Domaines what Nibali did for 17 minutes on Belles Filles. Froome and Nibali would also very equally matched over those mid-length climbs of 30 to 40 min, and it was in the longest climbs that Froome was a little faster.

As I say though, you have to be careful about making one-on-one comparisons, because what if you have an error of 2% (which is small) too high for one, and 2% too low for the other, and now your comparison is completely inaccurate.

So all told, the conservative/prudent response is that Froome was likely faster in 2013 than Nibali in 2014, but at ‘best’, they were equal. And we’ll never know whether either could have gone faster, because they had relatively commanding leads and race situations that didn’t necessitate it (Nibali had few rivals, Froome had the security of the TT).

@ammattipyöräily: Nibali’s performances on 5 major climbs in 2014 Tour de France were at the same level compared to Froome last year (also 5 major climbs). I think the difference between Nibali and Froome is that a British rider was more impressive and his attacks more powerful. Contador reached higher avg. power output on major climb in 2009 Tour de France compared to 2013 Froome and 2014 Nibali. Also Armstrong 1999-2005 and Contador 2007 higher power numbers on climbs. Nibali’s values are higher than Pereiro in 2006, Sastre in 2008, Evans in 2011 and Wiggins in 2012.

By using Dr. Ferrari’s formula:

Froome 5.96 W/kg on 5 major climbs in 2013 Tour.
Nibali 5.99 W/kg on 5 major climbs in 2014 Tour.

Average duration of 5 climbs: 35 min (both 2013 and 2014)

CyclingTips: What about the other main GC riders?

Mike Puchowicz: This year Nibali was simply on a level above the remaining GC contenders. It is not likely that Pinot, Peraud, Valverde, or Bardet would be competitive compared to 2013 or the 2002-2007 baseline. In 2013, aside from AX3, Quintana and Rodriguez put in performances that would likely be competitive compared to Nibali 2014 as well as the 2002-2007 baseline.

Ross Tucker: All (including Nibali this year and Froome last) are within the boundaries of “normal” physiology, as we understand it. That is, they are all physiologically plausible, which means, I guess, whatever you want it to! Those who want to believe, for reasons of hope, patriotism or wilful ignorance, will say that they’re plausible, now we’re happy. Those who don’t will find ways to say that everyone in the GC is right up at the limit, and right up in the same territory as known dopers from the past.

What Mike Puchowicz’s method showed, however, for this year, is that Nibali was always faster than historical predictions or benchmarks, and that the other GC guys were faster half the time, slower half the time. So the rest of the GC, and guys like [Rafal] Majka and Tejay [Van Garderen], were performing at a level that is consistent with the past, whereas Nibali was performing better than the past would suggest.

I could have written the same last year, except swap Nibali for Froome – last year, Froome was always better than history benchmarks, Quintana was mostly better than historical predictions, and the rest were basically equal to them.

Where the “concern” enters is that Nibali, like Froome a year before, occasionally exceeded those historical benchmarks that they sometimes even outperformed the predictions made based on an era where we absolutely KNOW that doping existed. So Nibali, Froome and Quintana have produced performances that put them in the same ‘range’ as dopers. You don’t need complex regression and formulas for this – all you have to do is look at the fastest times ever on Hautacam for Nibali, or Ax-3-Domaines for Froome, and look at the names they’ve beaten and matched. It’s a who’s-who of dopers, and cycling unfortunately has made its own bed – you’re always suspicious by association.

@ammattipyöräily: Peraud, Pinot, Valverde, Van Garderen and Bardet were very close to each other, 5.7 – 5.8 W/kg on major climbs. Majka was very strong on Chamrousse, Risoul, Pla d’Adet and Hautacam. His avg. power on those 4 climbs above 5.8 W/kg.

CyclingTips: Do these figures reassure you or give you cause for concern?

Mike Puchowicz: This year my assessment is that it is very plausible that a podium step was within reach of clean riders. If this assessment could be corroborated by reassuring bio-passport data it would go a long way toward the ongoing rebuild of the Tour’s credibility.

Ross Tucker: Both, paradoxically, and also frustratingly because I know people want a definitive answer. They want to believe it’s cleaner, but I think most would even want to know it was still dirty, as long as they KNOW something. But that’s not possible, so I’m left with both hope and cause for concern.

The hope is because it is slower than in the doping peak – Nibali was almost 3 min down on Riis, 1km on the road, which is incredible to think. Even Armstrong would have done to Nibali what Nibali did to the 2013 race. So you can’t not take SOME HOPE from that, right? It’s better. And we know that the practice of doping has changed – it changed when the EPO test was introduced, it changed when the passport was developed.

It probably didn’t disappear (well, it certainly didn’t – look at Menchov and a host of others for proof), but even the testimony of riders is saying that it is now more difficult, more expensive, more ‘dangerous’ to dope, and so before, if the level was X, it’s now Y, and the good thing is that Y is less than X.

However, the presence of such dominance, the lack of transparency, the poor handling of doping, the presence of those unrepentant dopers, adds concern. The performances themselves will also make me sit up and wonder – they’re physiologically plausible because we’ve all made very aggressive assumptions about what the human body can do. We’ve given the benefit of the doubt to the cyclists, which is only fair, but the physiologist in me is looking at this and saying “in a perfect world, they’re plausible”. That’s not possible to do blindly and without thinking “what if”.

Point is, to wrap up, I remain skeptical, but hopeful, based on performances alone. It’s the stuff that happens off the bike that is more concerning.

So cleaner, but not clean, and with a bigger problem off the bike than on it.

@ammattipyöräily: We saw a good Tour. I’m not an expert to analyze whether a Tour is clean or not… At least this year’s Tour was much cleaner compared to Tour editions in 1990s and early 2000s. Sorry, I can’t answer… Ross Tucker and Mike Puchowicz are experts in this part of the sport.

Also read: Can performance be used as an indicator of doping?

Additional information: Ross Tucker has given detailed conclusions from the 2014 Tour here.
See more analysis from Mike Puchowicz here
@ammattipyöräily has compiled the data table below. La Planche des Belles Filles was not included in the average calculations as it is considerably shorter than the other climbs.

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