Doubled Donkeypower

Back at the Tour de France, the “team time trial” that constitutes Stage 4 yesterday resulted in a strong victory for Lance Armstrong’s Astana team that put him up to second place, just two-tenths of a second behind the current leader, Fabian Cancellara. “Astana cruised so fast along 24.2 miles . . . of narrow and snaking roads,” wrote New York Times reporter Juliet Macur, “that the pack looked like a giant blur of blue and yellow.”

That’s all fine; but we also have, observing from the sidelines, one Antoine Vayer, once a trainer of the Festina bicycle-racing team, but who for ten years now has instead studied athletic physiology intensively, to the point that he is currently Professor of Physical Education at a French university. More to the point, however, is the research organization he has founded, called “AlternatiV,” devoted to the problem of bicycle-race doping. Because now Antoine Vayer has the sort of implacable hostility to that practice that can only come from those who used to be knee-deep in sin themselves.

Along the way, Vayer has also grabbed a cushy summer gig for himself as expert commentator covering each July’s Tour de France for a newspaper, first for Le Monde back in 1999, now for Libération. And it’s in a recent article there (entitled Loaded down like mules) that he puts forward the new approach for detecting doping that he has worked out. (Vayer sets the right tone at the very beginning of his piece with an apt derivative of an ancient saying: Male sanus in corpore inhumano, or “Unsound spirit in an inhuman body” – it’s supposed to be “Sound mind in a healthy body” – but I frankly found the exposition of his ideas to be clearer in a an article appearing somewhat later in Le Monde, Tour of Fraud: from “miraculous” to “mutant” doping, by the writer “E.M.,” which is also what alerted me to this issue in the first place.)

In actuality, Vayer worked closely to come up with his new system with an engineer, Frédéric Portoleau, and that makes sense. In fact, his new system makes sense, at a level you and I can understand. Forget all the song-and-dance about blood and urine samples, and trying to keep up with all the cutting-edge doping techniques that riders (or their medical advisers) come up with just as soon as the old techniques are finally discovered by the authorities. There’s another, better way to track doping, as he writes in his Libération article:

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the products or methods which oxygenate blood, combined with all the other toxic medications described ever more fully by former “champions,” have permitted [race] leaders to produce on their two wheels an amount of power, expressed in watts, almost double that of a donkey of the beginning of the century pulling a load, and equal to that of a steam-engine before the invention of mechanical propulsion.

That “donkeypower” is officially set at 250 watts. But, as Vayer has just noted, that unit is not quite what we need to measure a top cyclist’s power-output. So he defines a new one, a “cyclopower,” and sets it equal to 410 watts, or the amount of power expended to move a human body 100m (that is, by running) in 9.7 seconds. Not many human beings can accomplish that; in fact, that’s basically just, like, Ben Johnson, right? – and he was caught and stripped of the Olympic and World Athletic Championship gold medals he won for doping!

Every Top Cyclist = Ben Johnson? No way!

How reasonable is it to expect to see even a top cyclist achieving a “one cyclopower” level of performance without taking advantage of any extraordinary medical assistance – especially when he does this in the middle of a long bicycle-race, meaning not from a fresh start but rather after some high amount of exertion already expended? Never gonna happen, right? That is why Vayer sets that one unit of “cyclopower” to a level signifying “Verified Doping”; if you can determine that a given cyclist is outputting 410 watts of power (or more), then that should be considered as prima facia evidence that doping has occurred. And, while such a determination can be made really at any time during a bicycle-race competition, it’s particularly easy to do during those infamous “ride-up-a-mountain” stages of any of the major cycling events, the Tour de France definitely included. (The first “High Mountain Stage,” Stage 7, is due on Friday.) Not to worry: Vayer assures us that his method includes taking into account all relevant physical indicators to get an accurate power-reading: the frontal surface presented by the bicycle (which induces drag), the “rolling coefficient,” the percentage of slope, the average air-density, and others.

But back to that “410 watts of power (or more)”: naturally, in retrospect Vayer can point to many uphill performances that have exceeded that “one cyclopower” threshold of “Verified Doping” – sometimes substantially, but usually in questionable circumstances, i.e. involving riders who afterwards (or during, or even before) came under suspicion of doping. The Le Monde article breaks down for us the three doping thresholds that Vayer has proposed:

  1. Verified Doping (410 watts): Covering more than 400 meters at a world-champion level of athleticism, without getting tired and after five hours of effort;
  2. Miraculous Doping (430 watts): Raising your leg by one meter, with 45 kilos [= 99 lb.] attached to it, more than 2000 times without faltering, after five hours of effort;
  3. Mutant Doping (450 watts): Riding a bike at 10 km/hour up a slope of 10% steepness (which does not exist in France) while towing a cargo of 100 kilos [= 220 lb.], after five hours of effort.

Some specific examples? Well, I put “usually” up there (“usually in questionable circumstances”) because one rider whom Vayer has publicly accused of doping in the past (in 2000) is Lance Armstrong: “Lance Armstrong, averaging 56 km/h. I find that scandalous. That rhymes with nothing. It indirectly proves that he doped.”

Or Jan Ullrich, long-disgraced as a Tour de France doper, who, among other feats, generated an output of 480 watts as he climbed the 6.7% D’Arcalis mountain for ten kilometers during the seventh stage of the 1997 Tour – “in full EPO euphoria,” as the Le Monde article puts it. (EPO, or erythropoietin, is a natural hormone that promotes human red blood cell production, and which for a while there was a doping agent that top cyclists firmly believed they could use without ever getting caught – and it is also something we have had occasion here at EuroSavant to discuss in the past.) That same on-line article is kind enough to embed a YouTube video enabling readers to witness and marvel at Ullrich’s chemically-induced “super-mutant” feat – and so I do the same here:

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