Cycling's self-appointed watchdogs seek doping clues from a distance
A collection of sports scientists are trying to pinpoint possible cheats online, though their methods are questioned by many professionals
As riders in the Tour de France churned their way up the towering Alpe d'Huez on Thursday, not once but twice, Ross Tucker watched on television in South Africa 5,500 miles away, laptop and stopwatch at the ready, looking for clues to the Tour's perennial question: Are any of the riders doping?
Tucker, a 32-year-old physiologist, cannot know for sure, of course. But he said he believes that by using basic physics to estimate riders' power output up the 13.8-kilometre climb, he can compare current Tour performances with those of riders past, particularly those from the heyday of cycling's doping culture.
His focus was on one man in particular: race leader Chris Froome. In Stage 8 in the Pyrenees, Froome, a British rider on Sky Procycling, sped away from the pack with a power and speed not seen since Lance Armstrong, whose seven Tour titles were stripped because of doping.
Tucker is not accusing Froome of using banned substances, and Froome has never been tied to doping. But Tucker's efforts to raise concerns have prompted Sky to deride his calculations as "pseudoscience". Many scientists in the field also question the accuracy of his data and the fairness of his methodology. "They want to sensationalise certain results," said Edward Coyle, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin.
But Tucker said uncomfortable questions are what the sport needs right now to clean up its image. "The scrutiny the questions bring helps, in my opinion, to drive transparency and build credibility," he said.
In his gadfly quest, Tucker is part of a small cabal of physiologists, sports doctors and cycling enthusiasts who have formed a loose alliance on the internet to weed out doping in cycling. Like investigative journalists armed with calculators instead of note pads, they are pressing professional teams to allow independent analysis of riders' doping tests and physiological data.
Their outside scrutiny is essential, they argue, because many of the athletes revealed as dopers in recent years - including Armstrong - were not exposed by drug tests.
"People want to believe the sport has changed," said Tucker, a senior lecturer in sports science at Cape Town University, who runs a website called sportsscientists.com "But the sport is saying: 'Trust me.' Well, we trusted you before and before that and before that. And you've never, ever delivered on your promises. So let's get some data."
Though their work is contentious and often criticised, it is also read by riders and cycling journalists. The debate it has sparked may be having an impact.
Annoyed at the constant insinuations, Sky handed over data to French sports paper L'Equipe this week, and said they were in contact with the World Anti-Doping Agency to offer them the same details. The expert L'Equipe used to analyse the data said there was nothing abnormal about Froome's performances.
"Nobody asked me to do this. I suggested it would be a good idea to contact them, they didn't contact me," said Sky's principal Dave Brailsford. "I have gone to them and said: 'Actually guys, we would like to give you everything that we've got. How do you feel about that?'"
In his mild-mannered way, Froome seems genuinely wounded by the questions. Hard training, including at high altitudes, and not drugs, is behind his remarkable run at this Tour, he said.
Tucker and his allies talk in the cautious language of science, but at heart they are like scorned lovers, burned by doping revelations about their favourite racers. For Tucker, it was Armstrong. For one of his allies, Michael Puchowicz, a sports medicine doctor at Arizona State University, it was Floyd Landis, whose 2006 Tour victory was stripped after he tested positive for testosterone.
"That was pretty hard," Puchowicz said.
Puchowicz, 34, is a former collegiate racer whose interest in cycling performance data was piqued after data on Armstrong was released a few years ago. He concluded the information showed that Armstrong had masked his doping during his comeback year of 2009. (Even after admitting to doping during his seven Tour victories, Armstrong has maintained he did not use banned substances in 2009.) To Puchowicz, it was evidence that the testing regimen could still be fooled. He posted his analysis about Armstrong anonymously on a blog, and it drew so much attention that he continued to study performance data and place anonymous posts on Twitter as Doc. Only in the past few months has he begun attaching his name to his analyses, first in VeloNews and then in an essay on Outside Magazine's website that questioned Froome's Stage 8 ride.
"At first I didn't want my boss to know," he said of his cycling work. "But then I felt it was important enough to go public, to let people know I have credentials."
There are others in the alliance who remain anonymous, including a Finnish writer, known as Vetooo on Twitter, who maintains a trove of historic records on cycling races. There are also scientists, doctors and cycling enthusiasts from several countries. Among them is Antoine Vayer, a former cycling coach who became an anti-doping activist and helped write a recent e-book, Not Normal? that questions most of the top riders of the past generation, based on performance data analysis.
The watchdogs do not agree in all their conclusions, and Tucker has said he feels Vayer is too harsh in his judgments about the sport. But they eagerly share data and observations on Twitter and Facebook, and a few have formed collaborations to do research. Boiled down to its essence, their methodology uses basic physics to calculate the power required to climb a mountain at a certain speed. They study climbs because that is where wind resistance, a major factor in the equation, is least important. Using elements such as the length and gradient of a stage segment, the time taken to climb it, the weight of the rider and his bike and estimates on things like rolling and wind resistance, they calculate a figure in watts per kilogram that represents the power produced by a rider for a particular segment.
Their rule of thumb, not universally accepted in the cycling world, is that power above 6 watts per kilogram deserves scrutiny. They consider anything above 6.5 watts per kilogram to be extraordinary and perhaps not humanly feasible. By some of their calculations, Froome in Stage 8 was over 6 watts per kilogram.
For comparison purposes, the watchdogs have also calculated results for top riders in Grand Tours since 2002, breaking the data into two groups: the "doping era" of 2002 to 2007, and the "post-doping" era from 2007 to the present. During the post-doping period, times and power output have dropped, providing evidence for cautious optimism, Tucker and Puchowicz said. But for that reason, they believe that individual performances that spike into the doping-era range need to be questioned.
Critics question the accuracy of their calculations, saying they do not account for all the factors that can affect a rider's performance, including not only wind and rolling resistance but also technological advancements in bikes and clothing, riding efficiency and team dynamics.
A more accurate picture of a rider's physiology would require a much fuller range of biological and laboratory data, those critics said, including blood surveys and measurements of aerobic energy production. Without that fuller portrait, no one can fairly say whether an improved performance was the result of doping, genetics or hard training, the critics said.
"They don't have enough baseline data," said Coyle, who studied Armstrong early in his career. "They run the risk of accusing someone of doping when in fact they're not."
The watchdogs' methodology also does not seem to allow for the possibility of remarkable athletes who break the mould without cheating, critics said. A rider like Froome may simply produce power more efficiently than other riders because of his natural physiology, said Andrew R. Coggan, an exercise physiologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis.
"There is no sound physiological reason" why performances that once seemed superhuman might not now be possible, Coggan said. As the cycling world expands beyond Europe, he said he expects record-breaking riders to be found routinely. Froome, a Briton, was raised in Kenya.
"The odds of finding a Secretariat cyclist would seem to be higher than ever," he said.
Tucker agreed there is a margin of error in his work, but he noted that when riders have released their power data, it has corroborated his estimates. He also acknowledged that he and his allies are not producing a full picture of the riders. But without biological data from doping tests and blood surveys - data the teams will not release - they are working with the next best thing, he argued. "No formula will ever conclusively show that X equals doping and Y equals clean," Tucker said. "Mostly we'll be in that grey area of uncertainty." Their calls for cyclists to release power data and blood work have been met with scepticism from even riders widely thought to be clean. Those riders said that giving away personal information would be like a company releasing trade secrets to rivals because it would allow other riders to understand their training techniques. Riders also worry that no one other than their personal coaches and trainers can fully understand what the data means. "Everybody's physiology is different," said Andrew Talansky, an American rider with Garmin Sharp on his first Tour. "You'd have to study a person's individual physiology and understand what they are individually capable of, and that goes far, far beyond any threshold test."
For all their scepticism, Tucker and Puchowicz said they believe doping is less common today. The introduction in 2009 of the biological passport, which uses baseline blood measurements to detect changes that might indicate banned substances, has made a big difference, they said. Positive results on drug tests are down and speeds in races have declined. But riders have long found ways to fool testers. Some scientists believe cheating continues today, using new masking techniques and hard-to-detect drugs.
"The idea of using performance data is to flag times when you can say: 'Hey, maybe the EPO tests aren't working,'" Puchowicz said. "It's not an indictment of any one rider. But instead of getting blindsided by another Armstrong era, we have to think about doubling down."
The New York Times