Why has WorldTour racing gotten so fast? An investigation
Racing now is faster than ever. So how does a cleaner peloton outperform the dark days of the 90s?
Racing now is faster than ever. So how does a cleaner peloton outperform the dark days of the 90s?
If you have watched any WorldTour racing over the past two years you have likely noticed how intense the racing has become. WorldTour racing styles and speeds transformed after the resumption of the Covid-interrupted 2020 season, with many suggesting the uncertainty hanging over every race day is the catalyst for more aggressive racing.
But the aggressive racing carried through into 2021 and shows no signs of slowing down in 2022. In fact, the 2022 Spring Monuments were among the fastest ever. Both the 2022 Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège were the fastest-ever editions and this year’s Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, the Amstel Gold Race, and La Flèche Wallonne all made the top ten of their respective quickest editions.
And it’s not just the one-day races. Stages 11, 12, and 13 of the recent Giro d’Italia were all raced at an average speed above 45 km/h, reportedly the first time three consecutive Giro stages hit such speeds. This includes the 47 km/h average on a pan-flat stage 11, but also the somewhat insane 45.88 km/h average for the breakaway winner on stage 12, despite almost 3,000 m of climbing throughout the day.
Of course, stage profiles, race routes, and weather, including wind direction, can have a huge impact on speed. There are also plenty of fastest-ever editions of races scattered across the past few decades. That said, racing in general just seems faster in 2022 and we often hear pros confirm as much.
With the help of VeloClub member Cam Harris of bikechart.cc, we looked at the combined average speed of all four Spring Monuments for the past 32 years. While there are individual variances and influencing factors such as weather and strategy, the longer time period and the sheer volume of races surveyed paints a clear picture.
Race speeds have risen steadily over the past two decades until they skyrocketed in the past two years. What has caused this recent spike and more importantly, how is it possible?
Why, and perhaps more importantly, how has racing got so fast in 2022? The past two years are not unique. We have seen similar speed increases back in the mid-90s and mid-2000s. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know some of the unscrupulous antics that assisted those previous leaps.
For some, those dark times have left a question mark over every exceptional performance to this day. If some Twitter feeds are to be believed, increased speeds, especially climbing speeds, are as good as proof of doping. Viewed in isolation, the doping conclusion can make sense. Many of the question marks over past champions from the 1990s and 2000s have long since been replaced with doping admissions and bans, yet the current speeds eclipse those dark days of chemically assisted performances.
That said, many believe pro racing has never been cleaner than today. Certainly, the systematic doping days seem to be well behind us. One can never be certain, but it seems logical that while all sports will always have some athletes willing to break the rules, the endemic nature of doping in the 90s and 2000s are gone. The odd bad apple can’t raise the speed of an entire peloton. So we decided to look into what other, and legal, factors are helping modern riders hit new speeds.
With every new bike, wheel, clothing item, or helmet launch these days comes a host of lighter, stiffer, and ‘X’ watts faster claims. While it is ultimately the riders who push the bikes and dictate the speeds (more on this later) it seems logical to look first at the influence of modern equipment on the increasing speeds.
Going back to that Spring Monument average speed graph again, if we add in some milestones of the past two decades, we see an interesting picture emerge. While speeds rapidly increased throughout the 90s, perhaps unsurprisingly, the only major dip and sustained levelling off in average speed trends coincides directly with the introduction of a test for EPO.
Of course, we now know that while EPO became a trickier but unfortunately still viable doping option, it was quickly replaced by other forms of blood doping. The next “levelling off” in speeds coincides with the period between when the UCI introduced the biological passport in 2008 to the four-year period when the only bans based on the passport findings were announced.
While general tech advancements no doubt played a part, and it’s impossible to tell what would have happened regardless, many WorldTour insiders and pundits point to the clampdown on doping as the catalyst for an increased focus on safer and legal performance aids. The so-called “marginal gains” philosophy.
To try and track the influence tech might have had, we plotted the first time a winner’s bike, in any of the four Spring Monuments, was equipped with a series of new tech interventions. Of course, aerodynamics and aero-curiosity no doubt play a major role and while we can’t plot the first wind tunnel tested bike and rider combination to win a Monument, we have plotted Robert Chung’s development of the Chung Method of field testing, still underutilised in the World Tour, the 2013 opening of Specialized’s Win Tunnel facility as the first by a bike manufacturer and Team Sky’s first documented mention of “real-world aero testing” in 2016.
Following the post-bio-passport dip, what follows from around 2012 onwards is a series of “marginal gains”. Marginal gains in speed on our graph and a marginal gains mindset within the peloton as the Team Sky philosophy crept in.
Until this point, bicycle racing and bike tech hadn’t changed a great deal from when Eddy Merckx was cannibalising the peloton in the 60s and 70s. Apart from the introduction of carbon fibre and more gears, Spring Classics bikes both new and old featured mostly round tubes, 32 spoke wheels, tubular tyres, classically-shaped drop bars, and usually a big ol’ Rolls-style saddle. The kit hadn’t changed much either. The wool jerseys might have long gone, but the modern jerseys were far from skintight or aero.
It’s throughout this next decade that we arguably see the biggest shift in professional bike racing technology than ever before. Fast forward a decade further and the modern peloton is not just unrecognisable but almost a different species to the bunch Merckx would have had for breakfast.
Of course, aero is the beating heart powering the latest innovation of bike tech. Aero frames, aero wheels, narrow bars, race suits, and aero helmets have drip-fed into the peloton over the past decade or so. We, myself included, are often quick to scoff at a single figure-watt saving or question new product aero testing. But step back and look at the past decade as a whole and all these marginal gains seem to build a trend. Those peaks back in the dark darks of EPO are regularly eclipsed by even the slowest years of the past half-decade.
Can aero gains really outperform EPO? It’s impossible to know. Thankfully doping is illegal so the studies on its potential are few and far between. It’s also impossible to isolate all the variables, but all the indications suggest marginal gains have now eclipsed blood gains of the 90s.
As Dr Xavier Disley of Aerocoach points out, while the huge watts we see some pros post on Strava seem unattainable, the reality is pros have been hitting these numbers, and more, forever but we just didn’t have a way to measure or see them. It’s an important and sometimes overlooked fact to consider. If the rumours of some power numbers from the 90s and 2000s are to be believed, the older generations actually had much more power. Yet their race speeds were slower. How so?
Disley explains that just a 3% reduction in aero drag could equal half a kilometre per hour of extra speed for the same watts (~40-45 km/h). It seems safe to assume with all the advancements in aero bikes and clothing design of the past decade a World Tour rider in 2022 is at least 3% slipper than the same rider would have been just a decade ago.
So that partly explains how fewer watts might equal the same speed, but how can modern riders go even faster on potentially fewer watts?
Josh Poertner of Silca has a similar opinion. Poertner has worked with some of the top teams and champions of the past two decades and has witnessed a monumental shift in the attitudes and willingness of both riders and teams to embrace aero gains. He points to the non-linear relationship between power, aero drag, and speed as the major factor and actually one of the mental blocks to many riders’ initial aero-scepticism.
In simple terms, the faster we ride the harder it is to ride even just a little faster. As such, the faster we go the bigger the impact aerodynamic drag has on the power required to increase the speed just a little further and our ability to go faster. It was difficult for riders to buy in on aero gains to make them faster when only slightly faster still felt much harder than only slightly slower.
Poertner provided the graph below which highlights not only the reduced power required for a given speed with decreasing aerodynamic drag but also the frightening number of extra watts required to increase our speed by just 5 km/h at the same CdA. Perhaps the big take-home from Poertner’s graph is the 102 fewer watts a rider needs to increase their speed from 45 km/h to 55 km/h when CdA is dropped from .320 to .220*
*0.220 is well into the time trial position domain.
No single component offers a massively tangible benefit and often the language used in communicating the performance gains is exactly what switches riders off. Yet, combine them all together and the results are staggering. Poertner recently compared a 1990 Motorola team bike and the 2021 Jumbo-Visma bikes and the results were staggering. Granted, the bikes were tested without a rider, but still, the modern aero bike required 37 fewer watts at 45 km/h and a staggering 52 fewer watts at 50 km/h.
Again, the impact of these relatively small advancements went largely unnoticed as they drip-fed into the peloton and, crucially, most of the peloton hadn’t bought into the gains that were available. It’s a topic Alex Dowsett touched on in a recent interview, explaining how he believes many more riders are now alert to the aero gains, if not the majority of the bunch. Furthermore, as brands focus on aero gains, pro riders are forced into aero regardless of how they feel about it. Where before one or two riders getting aero had zero impact on an entire peloton, now the entire peloton is benefitting from the same gains.
And herein perhaps lies one of the great problems with aero advancement. Races are not run to set speeds, rather riders dictate the speeds based on perceived exertion and tactics. Perhaps a better way to communicate aero gains would be in how much faster a rider could be or how much further away the finishing line gets based on a list of aero penalties. Dowsett suggests telling many sprinters they can save 37 watts is meaningless. However, tell a sprinter their flappy jersey and standard helmet makes their finish sprint 201 m while everyone else’s is at 200 m, and suddenly their eyes light up. Still, though, Dowsett points to some mistakes still made at the World Tour level and suggests tyre pressure is still a big one.
Looking at our Monument speed graph it’s easy to assume tubeless tyres were the final piece in the high-speed jigsaw. It wasn’t until 2021 that tubeless tyres were featured on a Monument winner’s bike but already in 2022 all four Monument winners were on tubeless.
Coincidentally or not, the average speeds have shot through the roof in the past two spring campaigns and professional cycling is notorious for resisting change right up until someone wins on something new before almost every rider follows suit.
Of course, tubeless tyres are only one part of the story. Perhaps the main driver towards tubeless tyres is the option to run lower pressures, which more and more teams have identified as a significant factor in reducing rolling resistance.
It is perhaps that reduced tyre pressure and the resulting drop in rolling resistance that is the bigger factor when it comes to tyre gains. Dr Disley suggests all the improved understanding of tyre constructions, and the move towards tubeless and optimising tyre pressure over the past decade, could easily create a 10% reduction in rolling resistance. This 10% drop in Crr could bump speeds up by 0.3 kph.
Taking the same 10% Crr reduction and coupling it with a 3% drop in Cda, Disley suggests the result is even as much as a full kilometre per hour for the same effort. Only slightly more than the average speed trend increase over the past two years.
As for what tech innovation the next decade will bring. Aero shows no signs of slowing down and will surely remain top of the list for manufacturers, even if the gains are diminishing dramatically. As advanced as the understanding of human physiology and the demands of WorldTour racing have progressed, this could still be the next frontier for the world’s best minds and riders.
It wasn’t so long ago when pros could enjoy long off-seasons, a gentle start to the year, and uncomplicated training plans. Anyone short on form was simply told to ride more and race themselves fit. Distance and time were the only training data anyone paid much attention to.
As power meters have gone from being viewed as some form of scientific witchcraft to general acceptance and much greater understanding, so too has training methodology. The old adage of “ride more to ride faster” is long gone as scientists, coaches, and riders all realise the opportunities in more specific and structured training.
Not so long ago coaches could fax a training plan with time, distance, and some generic structured efforts. Now, the modern coach has all manner of software at hand to build truly personalised training plans and intervals based on a rider’s unique physiology. Power and FTP tests came first, but today all levels of coaches are building intervals based on a rider’s lactate accumulation and clearance rates, aerobic and anaerobic contributions, carbohydrate combustion, fat utilisation…the list goes on.
WorldTour teams now have a list as long as your arm of expert staff with fancy titles. Many teams have performance engineers, race engineers, performance coordinators, data scientists, physiologists, nutritionists, and aerodynamicists on hand. The rider still has to perform on the bike, but every rider has a team of experts to maximise their performance.
From all this expertise comes an improved understanding of the demands of specific events, training requirements, marginal and not so marginal gains, as well as athlete capabilities.
Take altitude training as one example. The benefits of altitude training were well-documented long before the recent trend of WorldTour riders heading off on long altitude camps. There is a distinct altitude timeline within the peloton. First, it was discovered, then feared as stories of “getting it wrong” spread throughout the bunch. Then Team Sky became the first to take their entire Tour squad to altitude. Fast forward to today and almost every team will go to altitude with different squads targeting vastly different events throughout the season.
Likewise for wind tunnel testing. Once the reserve for the top riders only, more and more riders now take themselves to the tunnel not just to improve time trial positions, but for all manner of testing.
While the understanding of training has improved significantly, so too has the understanding of how to fuel the human body. Thankfully, the days of a baguette and an iceberg lettuce after a five-hour ride are mostly behind us.
Scientific studies, power meters, metabolic testing, and recently the emergence of continuous glucose monitoring all help quantify precisely how much energy is required to fuel performance. Modern performance nutrition makes ingesting the right fuel at the right time much easier. And surprise surprise, riders who eat and drink enough to match their energy expenditure can repeatedly perform to higher levels for longer. Just ask MVDP’s stem.
It’s impossible to measure how much difference all the recent advancements in the understanding of human physiology and performance have made to modern racing. Like comparing greats from different generations, there are just too many variables at play. While the top riders from each age always stand clearly above most riders, one thing is for sure: the modern peloton has more riders on a higher level than ever before.
The rising tide of human performance understanding raises all ships. The result is harder and faster racing everywhere with riders capable of sustaining such pace for longer. Training races, long offseasons, and piling on the pounds, for better or worse, are all a thing of the past.
Of course, all this increased speed could just be explained by the weather. It is no coincidence that the riders at both the 2022 Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix had a handy tailwind blowing them all the way to the finish line. Weather can make or break any race. From Hour Record attempts to Paris-Roubaix, no performance is immune to weather conditions.
That said, good, bad, or indifferent, there is weather every year at every race. Again, it seems reasonable to believe weather influences could be averaged out across the 126 Spring Monuments over the 32 years we looked at.
Of course, it’s the riders who make a race and ultimately decide how fast any race will be. The new generation of pros coming into the WorldTour over the past few seasons seem to have ripped up the script for pro racing. Thankfully, the control seems to be slowly eeking out of professional cycling, with fortune quite often favouring the brave now. The Tour of Flanders was incredibly fast this year, thanks in no small part to Tadej Pogačar’s ridiculously entertaining approach to making up for his lack of experience in the Classic.
Furthermore, almost every team now has a potential winner for almost every race. As a result, the breakaway or race-winning equation required for a lull in peloton activities is much more difficult to achieve. The sheer number of favourites for any race is never more evident than in the fight for a crucial part in any Monument or Spring Classic. Where previously there might have been four or five teams fighting for position with another four or five individuals surfing the wheels, now we have two or three times as many teams all fighting for position. This not only drives the speed up even higher but ensures the fight starts even earlier.
It’s a topic Luke Durbridge touched on during a recent episode of the Life in the Peloton podcast with Mitch Docker. Durbridge explained that previously during certain sections of a race he could easily relax and take a nature break but now the race is already exploding at the same point in 2022. Furthermore, Durbridge pointed to the feed zone as another example where previously the entire race would slow down but in the 2022 Monuments it was quite often full gas through the feed zone and riders wouldn’t dare take a musette.
Just look at the tail-end of any Monument or semi-Classic now. Gone are the days of a “select group” in every race. The 2022 peloton has 50 riders contending for these same victories. Where once we had stars and water carriers, we now have stars and then stars who sometimes carry water.
Just last week we looked at how breakaways keep holding off the peloton and winning stages previously reserved for the sprinters of this world. A lot of that success comes down to aero trickery and higher speeds, but a hefty dose could be explained by the tighter gaps the peloton affords the breakaway. Gone are the days the bunch could cruise along at pedestrian pace for the opening hours, and although the speed would pick up towards the end of the stage, the damage was done to the average speed for the day.
Now, with everything kept much closer there are no long downtimes. It’s perhaps no coincidence Diego Rosa’s doomed lone breakaway on stage 6 was by far the slowest sprint stage of the entire Giro d’Italia, with even some mountain stages running faster.
There is also the WorldTour promotion/relegation battle/non-battle happening this year. While it is unlikely this has had a major influence on the Spring Monuments, it is arguable that races like the Tour of Turkey have benefitted from better start lists and faster racing due to the UCI points system.
Unfortunately, there is always the chance some riders are still low on morals and high on anything that might make them faster. Thankfully, the systematic doping days seem well behind us and the number of positives is seemingly on the decline, although all that proves is that fewer people are testing positive. Admittedly not a great stat based on some of cycling’s recent history.
Still, the only true drop in speed was after the introduction of a test for EPO, widely regarded as one of the most powerful drugs in endurance sports. How is it that non-doped riders of today can outpace an almost entire bunch of doped riders from yesteryear?
I believe we are witnessing a perfect storm in tech advancement, training advancements, a change of racing style, and an increased pressure for year-round results, meaning every race is now as hectic as the first stage of the Tour de France just a decade or two ago. Of course, being a tech writer, I think none of this is possible without the tech advancements.