Monday, August 01, 2005

The toughest athletes of all

I ride my bike most every day. Weekdays it's 9 miles of commuting each way; Sundays, if I feel like it, I might do 30 miles on roads through Rock Creek Park. I keep up the daily commute through heat and cold, but take a break when there's snow & ice, when it's raining, or when the ozone pollution is up in the red zone. Despite the regularity my fitness seems to rise and fall. Some days are good others not.

On the good ones I breeze by riders who are appear a good deal younger and fitter; on bad ones, some of these guys breeze by me. Every once in a while I catch a compliment from a racer type (well-developed leg muscles and a bike jersey identifying a local team). As my family knows, I caught a couple of them on a ride a month or so ago; one on a hill climb when, as I passed a guy who was steaming along pretty well, I heard a "way to go"; another later on that ride when a guy who had been riding with me said I should leave the motor home next time so other riders could keep up. On the really bad days I feel like I'm coming down with the 'flu: hot, weak, and entirely unmotivated. These feelings are not very predictable and even can change during the course of a ride (usually from bad to good) so that I've pretty much concluded they're mostly mental. The only more-or-less sure thing is that I have to recover after a really hard day; I don't do two strong days in a row.

I bring this up because professional riders, like those who ride in the Tour de France, do much harder days much more frequently. So much harder that I can't imagine the effort.

And over a big tour, like the Tour de France, they are doing these big-effort days for weeks on end. They use up as much as 12,000 calories a day, which means they're ingesting some kind of "food" fairly continuously, even while on the bike. I put food in quotes because they use specially-formulated energy drinks, gels, and bars during races and eat regular food (mostly carbs) in big meals during the rest of their waking hours.

And they expend huge amounts of effort. I suppose I'm using less than 100 watts of power at peak output (that's a guess based on the fact that one horsepower is 736 watts). In contrast, riding up the big cols in the Pyrénées and Alps, professional bike riders each exert 350-400 watts. And they do this day after day.

This VeloNews photo shows the peloton (the main group of riders) beginning to work its way up a high col. Forming a fairly compact group over flat terrain (ignoring the break aways), the hundred riders spread out as the climbs intensify.

This shot gives an idea of the magnitude of the big climbs. There will be four or five mountain crossings when the Tour is in the Alps and Pyrénées, with thousands of feet of climbing in each.

This image shows Jan Ullrich at full-strength effort trying to keep up with Lance Armstrong on one of the high cols.

You get some idea of the hugeness of this effort when you realize that Tour riders maintain an average speed greater than 30 MPH over many miles of riding. What's hard to realize is that the effort required to push against air increases dramatically as you increase your speed. I don't know the exact figures, but it feels as if it's twice as hard to increase from 18 MPH to 22 MPH as it did to increase from 14 to 18. My highest average speed in good conditions is not much more than 20 MPH. On smooth flat roads with no wind, I can sustain 23 to 25 but not for very long.

This image (from VeloNews as are the previous ones) shows a leading group of riders at high speed (though of course you can't actually see the speed).

You might say that most of the riders in a race are drafting behind others, but they can't all be drafting; quite a few area out there in the blast. And, every stage race includes one or two time trials when they have to race as individuals with no help from others. In those conditions, the best of them are still able to average more than 30 MPH.

You might say that professional riders use scientific training to achieve their goals and, beyond that, many of the use performance-enhancing drugs. This last bit is true, but not universally true, or at least, many riders, though frequently tested, do not get caught cheating in this way.

Take Lance Armstrong as an example. He's clearly the best rider in many respects, but the difference between the best and worst rider in the Tour de France is not as great as you might expect.

What's different about Lance and me? Well he's a superbe athlete, one of the best endurance athletes who's ever lived. And he's built perfectly for cycling. In addition, he has enormous dedication, training discipline, and race discipline. And, not least, he's supported by a very expensive and very talented team who dedicate themselves to his victory.

An article in the New Yorker back in 2002 lays it all out:

How did Lance Armstrong manage the greatest comeback in sports history?
Issue of 2002-07-15

Do read the whole thing. It's high-quality New Yorker workmanship and very informative.

Some highlights:

On Armstrong: Armstrong has never failed a drug test, however, and he may well be the most frequently examined athlete in the history of sports.

Lance Armstrong's heart is almost a third larger than that of an average man. During those rare moments when he is at rest, it beats about thirty-two times a minute—slowly enough so that a doctor who knew nothing about him would call a hospital as soon as he heard it. (When Armstrong is exerting himself, his heart rate can edge up above two hundred beats a minute.)

Physically, he was a prodigy. Born in 1971, Armstrong was raised by his mother in Plano, a drab suburb of Dallas that he quickly came to despise. He never knew his father, and refers to him as "the DNA donor." He has written that "the main thing you need to know about my childhood is that I never had a real father, but I never sat around wishing for one, either. . . . I've never had a single conversation with my mother about him."

Not only has his cardiovascular strength always been exceptional; his body seems specially constructed for cycling. His thigh bones are unusually long, for example, which permits him to apply just the right amount of torque to the pedals.

On the Tour de France: The peloton (or pack of riders) can cover up to two hundred and fifty kilometres a day without stopping, like a rolling army; there is a "feed zone" about halfway through each stage, where cyclists slow down enough to be draped with a cloth pouch, called a musette, which is filled with fruit, power bars, and other high-carbohydrate snacks. The team members take turns "working," or pulling, at the front to give each other a rest. (Even competitors, when they ride together, take turns out front, sharing the advantages of drafting.) In some ways, cycling retains an odd chivalry that is more readily associated with the trenches of the First World War. During last year's Tour, for instance, at a crucial moment in the Pyrenees, Jan Ullrich veered off the road and into a ditch; Armstrong waited for him to get back on his bike and catch up. Ullrich almost certainly would have done the same for him.

Since individual excellence can get one only so far in a race of this magnitude, it is also crucial to have the right team, to provide organization, finances, and experience. U.S. Postal has all that; it is, in its way, pro cycling's Yankees—with climbing specialists, sprinters, and a powerful bench. This is why so many cyclists agree to work as domestiques, putting their success second to Armstrong's. "You work for a teammate who is older and more experienced," Victor Hugo Peña told me late one day between stages of the Dauphiné.

I was curious why a talented cyclist would agree to play such a role. "It is an apprenticeship—you have to learn the business," Hugo Peña said. "If you get respect, work well, and are good, you move up." Armstrong himself worked as a domestique when he was starting out. He told me that he finds the system reassuring.

The physical demands on competitive cyclists are immense. One day, they will have to ride two hundred kilometres through the mountains; the next day there might be a long, flat sprint lasting seven hours. Because cyclists have such a low percentage of body fat, they are more susceptible to infections than other people. (At the beginning of the Tour, Armstrong's body fat is around four or five per cent; this season, Shaquille O'Neal, the most powerful player in the N.B.A., boasted that his body-fat level was sixteen per cent.)

The Tour de France has been described as the equivalent of running twenty marathons in twenty days. During the nineteen-eighties and nineties, Wim H. M. Saris, a professor of nutrition at the University of Maastricht, conducted a study of human endurance by following participants in the Tour. "It is without any doubt the most demanding athletic event," he told me. "For one day, two days—sure, you may find something that expends more energy. But for three weeks? Never."

Saris compared the metabolic rates of professional cyclists while they were riding with those of a variety of animal species, and he created a kind of energy index—dividing daily expenditure of energy by resting metabolic rate. This figure turned out to range from one to seven. An active male rates about two on Saris's index and an average professional cyclist four and a half. Almost no species can survive with a number that is greater than five. For example, the effort made by birds foraging for food sometimes kills them, and they scored a little more than five. In fact, only four species are known to have higher rates on Saris's energy index than the professional cyclists in his study: a small Australian possum, a macaroni penguin, a large seabird called a gannet, and one species of marsupial mouse.

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