Froome’s Mont Ventoux data hack claims and the questions they raise
No comment; we are going to speak only about the Tour de France. That was the gist of Team Sky’s reaction Tuesday after its Principal Dave Brailsford suggested late on Monday that data pertaining to Chris Froome had been stolen in a case of computer hacking.
“If he does well tomorrow [in the first Pyrenean stage], the rest of the Tour it’s ‘How do you know he’s not doping?’ We’ve thought about [what we can do to convince the doubters] but again we’ll be back to [discussing] pace of climbs, physiology, power data etc,” Brailsford said, according to the Telegraph.
“Well, actually we have done something about it … we think someone has hacked into our training data and got Chris’s files, so we’ve got some legal guys on the case there.”
Hours after the claim was made, a video appeared on Youtube featuring power data from the Mont Ventoux stage in the 2013 Tour de France. It showed television images from the final climb together with second-by-second heart-rate, cadence and power output figures displayed on the screen.
The video quickly disappeared but the claims about the data theft plus the questions raised by the video itself persisted well into Tuesday. That was hardly surprising; the notion that persons unknown would target a rider seemed extraordinary, and it was certain that the team would be asked about it on Tuesday.
You can view the video with the leaked SRM data here reposted on Vimeo
Journalists had a long wait outside the Sky team bus for Brailsford, with the press officer telling them that others couldn’t and wouldn’t comment on the matter. When Brailsford did appear, though, he was adamant that the subject was not for discussion.
The exchange went like this:
Q: We understand that Froome’s numbers have been hacked. What are your reaction to that?
Dave Brailsford: My reaction is I’m looking forward to the race today. We’re here to talk about racing and looking forward to the first stage in the mountains and we’re looking forward to the mountains.
Q: But I mean it must be serious for you that you have been hacked?
DB: At this moment in time I’m just thinking about today’s race. That’s all I’m going to think about. You can ask me 20 times if you want — today we’re here to race. I’m going to think about racing and nothing’s going to take my mind off that.
Q: So you’re not concerned about it?
DB: We’re here to race *exasperated chuckle*. I’m going to think about that all day and that’s all I’m going to think about this morning.
Because the Tour de France is the biggest bike race in the world. The first stage of the Tour, big exciting mountain stage ahead and that’s what we’re here to do. And we’re really looking forward to it, we’ve been training for a long time, and it’s a big day for us. So we’re going to focus totally on that and not allow anything else to distract us.
Q: Does the team know about the leak?
DB: We’re focused on the racing. I’ve just said it 20 times and I’ll say it again.
Q: Can I ask you any more facts about what we know about the potential hacking?
DB: I’m going to say it once more, and I can say it 20 times, I’m focused on the race this morning. We’re here to race the Tour de France.
“I can assure you that the estimate is very exact”
The question of rider data and whether or not it can prove doping is one which has been a topic of conversation for several years. During the 1990s and 2000s the increase in climbing speeds compared to earlier eras was directly attributed to the use of EPO, which essentially supercharges the system and boosts the output riders can do.
Climbing speeds soared and new records were set on a multitude of climbs.
As sport scientist Ross Tucker wrote recently, journalist David Walsh told him that Lance Armstrong’s climbing speeds were a major reason why the Irishman believed that the Texan was doping.
However, Tucker states that although Walsh encouraged him to follow this line of investigation, the journalist then turned away from that in recent years once Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome were questioned about their performances. He joined those condemning the calculation of climbing speeds and power outputs as pseudoscience.
| Read more: Can performance be used as an indicator of doping?
Brailsford and others within Team Sky have been vociferous about this, rubbishing claims that similar climbing speeds by Froome and others mean that there is grounds for suspicion.
One of the analysts who believe legitimate questions can be raised is Antoine Vayer, a longtime cycling coach who worked with the Festina team in the 1990s and who goes by the Twitter name of Festinaboy.
Vayer stated on his @Festinaboy twitter account on Tuesday that he had acquired the data and passed it on to the twitter user @oufeh. The latter worked on the Froome/Ventoux video, which was temporarily displayed on Youtube late on Monday but then taken down.
CyclingTips spoke to Vayer on Tuesday and he confirmed his involvement. He refused to name the source, saying that it was given to him by the hacker Lisbeth Salander. She is a fictional character from the Millennium books and films; his answer was clearly tongue in cheek.
The subtext: he knows where the data came from, but he’s not saying. In other words, sources will be protected.
As some analysts such as Tucker have noted, the figures from the data correspond almost exactly with the calculations drawn up by those who were labelled pseudoscientists.
“The power output data is really interesting – back then, we estimated the power on that climb to be 389W (or 388W using Dr Ferrari’s method),” he wrote on his Facebook account. “I can assure you, having seen the raw file with second-by-second data (it’s doing the rounds), that the estimate is well, very exact.”
Vayer was asked if he believed the data he had obtained backed up the calculations.
“I think they are more than correct,” he answered. “The only way to know if they are correct is to ask him [Froome] if they are…100 percent sure.”
Second question: did he believe the data was suspicious?
“I don’t want to judge,” he said with a laugh, although he has raised doubt about the Briton’s climbing speeds on many occasions in the past. “I have got my judgement. I just did that video with Oufeh because he came back to me and asked if he could have the files with the video. I said yes.
“The goal is to let Joe Public, fans, experts, everybody can judge by themselves. I gave the tools to the people so that they can open their eyes, look at them. Are they magic numbers? I don’t know.
“It is important because cycling is visual. And people are not stupid. They look at that and they have their own judgement. That is all.”
He confirmed that data was available from other stages, although he was guarded about whether or not that would be made public. “Maybe. But one is enough. One is enough,” he repeated.
So, what about Sky’s threat to involve lawyers. Did that concern him?
“No, no,” he said with a big laugh. “No. It would be really fun.”
“This is all a sideshow”
The notion of people hacking into team files to try to gain damaging data on a rider appears far-fetched to some. Others believe it is part of a push to damage Sky.
CyclingTips spoke to Melbourne-based cyber security expert Shane Miller, who gave his thoughts.
“I highly doubt they were ‘hacked’ in the traditional sense,” he said. “If their systems were compromised you’d expect a lot more data to be leaked, including emails, documents, invoices, etc. This is all too specific, it was only one ride file with 2900 data points?”
He suggested several possible scenarios.
“The data was passed on by a privileged party. (think Snowden style). Shared data source within Team Sky maybe? Team DropBox for training data? Email with the file attached forwarded to the wrong people? The recipient of that email being compromised?….[There are] many ways one training file could be set free. Or, it was lifted from a head unit SRM/Garmin/whatever. Or, it was taken from a USB key/laptop/etc.
“Calling it a ‘hack’ is an easy and convenient way for them to play victim when there is absolutely no evidence other than one file being ‘out there’.. somewhere… I suspect this was an administrative mistake. The file made its way into the wrong hands.
“As above, if it was a hack, there’d be a lot more information worth publishing than just Froome’s good day up a hill.”
Miller added that the whole scenario raised what he described as ‘interesting concerns about ANT+ being a non secure protocol.’
“There’s nothing stopping me from using an iPhone + dongle to recalibrate a competitor’s power meter on the start line of a race (or during a warm up),” he explained.
He also said that if the new Garmin head units were not secured, or if there was a default password with no interaction required on the unit end, then there may exist the possibility of lifting files from them anonymously. However he said that this would need to be verified.
CyclingTips asked Team Sky’s press officer if the team considered the possibility that a disgruntled former employee or someone similar could have been the source. That press officer was dismissive, saying that such theories had come from the Twitterati and that we needed to be very careful with such suggestions.
However, while Brailsford was in a position to give clarification of what he had alleged on Monday, he was in no mood to do so on Tuesday.
Ditto for Chris Froome, who was asked about the matter after he dominated stage ten of the Tour de France and reinforced his grip on the yellow jersey.
“That is all just a bit of a sideshow,” he said. “We are all just focussed on the race at the moment. I haven’t given it much attention, to be honest.”
He was asked again about the matter by a different journalist.
Q: Dave Brailsford said that computers were hacked and that your data was taken and used as evidence against you to suggest that you might be doping. What would you say to the people who are trying to use that data to suggest that?
CF: No, that is nuts. Especially seeing that the data in question is over two years old anyway. As I said, we are focussed on the race. Nothing is going to deter us from that. We have got a job to do here and that starts with tomorrow’s stage.
In response to a question about doping allegations, he went on to say that he considered he had already made an effort to show he was not hiding anything.
“What haven’t I done? I have tried to be as much as a spokesman as I can for clean cycling,” he stated. “I have spoken to the CIRC. I have made suggestions to the governing body to implement things like night-times testing. I have pointed out when I felt there hasn’t been enough testing in places like in Tenerife. What else is a rider – a clean rider – supposed to do?”
It remains to be seen if that will be the end of the matter. However while Vayer said that the disappearance of the video from Youtube plus @Oufeh’s twitter account was most likely due to him or her becoming scared of the threats of legal action, the video resurfaced on other social medial channels on Tuesday.
He suggested that it would also be published elsewhere soon.
“I think that on the Le Monde [newspaper] website we will republish that video with a better one. Oufeh did it [the first one] but I think he is afraid, so he deleted it. I am working now with other people, with an engineer, and he will finish a new video.
“It is the same but maybe better and we will publish it on the website of Le Monde. We will see then if they [Sky] will attack Le Monde.”
Whether or not Sky follows through with its threat of legal action, the matter raises some interesting questions. Was it truly a hack, or did a former employee or someone with other internal connections else leak it out?
Was there a genuine campaign to maliciously damage Sky or Froome, or was the release of data motivated by a feeling of concern about the Ventoux performance?
In terms of the transparency the team promised when it was set up, was Brailsford justified to raise the matter on Monday but then refuse to speak about it Tuesday?
Did Vayer and others break laws in acquiring the data?
Is it still pseudoscience if the calculation of power data and climbing speeds is shown to be accurate?
Finally, will the release of the data, the claims of hacking and the focus they brought back onto past allegations affect Froome’s defence of the yellow jersey between now and Paris?
In that case is there – as the team claims – an ulterior motive to these claims being raised now?