Malboro Gains

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With the marginal gains philosophy entrenched across the majority of the top teams these days, I find it surprising that most use a bulky radio system in time trials to communicate to their team car. It looks like they’ve stuffed a packet of fags up their skin-suits, surely there’s a better way than this?

Radio Technology

When all of us carry a mobile phone, pro cycling teams are using a much larger & bulkier unit than an i-phone to relay information to & from their riders. I’m was very confused about this, it blatantly gets in the way of the airflow over the rider, a device like a mobile phone would have a much smaller profile & save a few more watts.

After my ranting on twitter about this, I think I’ve overlooked a few things, these radios are not designed for bike racing, and mobile phones only work if they’re in range of a transmitter. When we see bike races, we admire the amazing scenery, but as anybody who’s been to the mountains of Europe (or the general rule in Scotland, if you’ve got a nice view, you’ve got no phone signal), they probably don’t work for the majority of European race routes, traversing 200km of wilderness.

So lets imagine somebody who’s in charge of in-race communication at Team Sky, we’ve discounted the light & compact mobile phone option as unusable during any normal race, so we go back to radios. As anybody who’s experimented with anything other than ‘CBs’ in domestic race organising, as soon as you use the light & low power radios, once the event gets split up, or there’s a hill bigger than a railway bridge, you can probably forget communication. So we generally revert to ‘CBs’, but even these get out of range pretty easily & voices become crackled. Now what units are available? Not many that meet our requirements unfortunately, it has to be slim, aero, without a giant antenna. It may be the case that Sky & others are using the least worst option here, finding communication more important than the lost watts they incur by having a ‘packet of fags’ under their jersey. There are other very short distance radios that are much smaller, so I’m assuming that riders are not just communication with the following car, but also getting info in time trials from other sources who also have radios.

Aero Profiles

The placement of the radio on the back may seem like the worst place to put it, but perhaps this is simply to get the best signal at all times. We saw Fabio Aru with a pocket sewn into the outside of his skinsuit to carry his, which must be an even worse option than the under-the-suit position. The radios we see also have very sharp corners and as anybody who’s done even basic studying of aerodynamics, this is far from ideal, smoothing out corners to even slightly rounded can have a significant effect (I can’t find an actual photo of the Sky radio unit anywhere, can anybody help?).

There are likely some other places to put these units, but maybe these have been tried & discounted. Such as under the tail of the helmet (may raise tail & disrupt flow), inside the helmet (probably against UCI rules), fitted aero on the bike (again UCI rules) or behind the saddle as the track team do with their SRM units. The latter idea may be blown out of the water by the final item on this blog, carrying a six pack of beer, where there’s less drag with the beer in a rucksack on your back, than on the rack behind the rider. Beer used in aero performance tactics, you heard it here first!

But looking into the aero effects a bit more, I found some surprising sensible information from the Specialized wind tunnel, which showed that carrying a bottle in the back pocket was more aero than carrying it on the bike, although not a radio, it should give some idea of what’s going on. But bear in mind this was with a cross rider, so not in an aero position, we can assume an exposed item on somebody’s back would have a greater impact. Here’s the video.

Conclusion

It looks like wind tunnel tests may have shown the teams that the position on the back, under the skinsuit, although slower than no radio, is the best option currently available. It may also be that they’re looking for a product that doesn’t yet exist on the market. This may be one of the next innovations that we see in the peloton over the next couple of years, a communication company teaming up with a professional cycling team to develop a lightweight, waterproof, low-profile radio with excellent range that can be used in other sports. Maybe sports car racing where drivers can wear the radio, so cuts down time on having to plug in to the car radio, marathon runners if it’s featherweight, there are likely many sports applications and even more leisure ones. The problem is with a product like this, it’s currently only allowed to be used in the top level races in cycling, under the rules would have to be commercially available, so they can’t sell very many until other markets are identified, it would probably be incredibly expensive. Looking back, I was probably wrong to give the teams a good slagging, it seems they may have some valid reasons, but it’s not pretty & there are improvements to be made in the near future. I’ve no doubt that teams such as Sky have already identified this & are working on it, who knows, they may be saving up their innovations for the Tour.

Further viewing for the everyday cyclist

If you’re still interested in the more practical uses, and judging by the interactions I have with readers on this blog on twitter, the following data on the most aero way to carry a six pack of beer may be an everyday benefit to most riders, over saving a few seconds in a time trial.

Sky High on Salbutamol?

Embed from Getty ImagesTwitter has reacted quite badly, in the normal way expected to the piece on road.cc about ‘A third of Team Sky’s riders are asthmatic‘. It’s probably worth taking a look at some pretty obvious reasons why asthma diagnosis is higher in professional athletes than it is through a sedentary population.

For convenience, lets split the UK’s population into four groups, I’m going to make some estimates on percentages of the population, it’s not necessary to be precise on this small study, just indicative of what’s actually going on & where the statistics come from.

  1. The professional sportspeople. Lets be very generous & include the top amateurs in each sport too & give this lot 1% of the total population. These people test themselves to the limits in training & competition, if there’s any exercise induced asthma going on here, it’s going to be caught & diagnosed as such. It’s a condition that cannot go unnoticed at this level.
  2. The fun, competitive & hobby athlete. These may account for up to 10% of the population, I’m including people who take part in any sport, at any level other than elite. So runners, cyclists, martial arts, etc. These people probably push themselves quite hard, if they’re getting serious about their sport it’s likely that they’ve pushed themselves beyond the point where exercise induced asthma may kick in. So there’s a reasonably high chance that somebody in this category will have been to the doctor if it’s happened & got themselves an inhaler, but not nearly as many as in the category above, it may just not be that important to them or affect them that much for what they want to achieve.
  3. Obese & overweight sadly account for approximately 63% of the adult population according to studies. It’s highly unlikely that many of this lot actually push themselves to induce exercise induced asthma. We can assume if they did regular exercise, they wouldn’t be overweight. So I’m also assuming that the bulk of them don’t get diagnosed with asthma due to this. A very hefty part of the population who will be almost removed from the statistics based on this assumption.
  4. The normal fit & healthy part of the population. Unfortunately we’re left with only 26% of the population who fit into this category. I would imagine that they do some sort of exercise, so are reasonably likely to have been diagnosed if there is a problem.

The Assumption

I think asthma exists in many more than the 8 to 10% that have been diagnosed, probably more likely at the levels noticed in elite athletes. If we look at the groups above, I would assume that the same percentage across each group have exercise induced asthma, but the diagnosed percentage is very different. If Asthma is present in an individual, it probably has very little effect on groups 3 & 4, some effect on many in group 2 & would cause anybody in group 1 very big problems. So asthma is more likely to be diagnosed in groups 1,2 & 4, but less so in group 3. So we’re missing a huge proportion from the statistics, 8 to 10% is simply wrong, it’s much more prevalent than that.

You’ve probably noticed that in your bike club there’s plenty of folks using inhalers, probably more than that 10%. You wouldn’t assume that your club-mates are doping salbutamol in order to beat you on your local chain gang, would you? If you do, that’s the same mindset that assumes that somebody on team Sky is doping with salbutamol.

We can obviously discount the extremes here, there are some riders who have been caught with huge quantities of salbutamol in their bodies, they probably are cheating. As an asthmatic myself, I’ve found that if I felt a bit wheezy before a race I’d take a couple of puffs, that usually sorted it, but if not 2 more later. If I still felt wheezy I normally didn’t start. My peak flow was never more than 15% below what it should be for somebody like me, so even with 4 puffs I was still at a disadvantage to an ‘able bodied’ rider. I did experiment once to see if I could get my breathing level with a ‘normal’ person, I couldn’t, beyond 4 puffs across an hour it made no difference whatsoever, I was still well below average, plus the additional puffs made me feel particularly ill, probably not ideal if you were in a race.

If somebody’s cheating with salbutamol, they’re not going to be doing it with an inhaler, it’ll be injected in large quantities, an inhaler will make little difference, if at all to a non asthmatic. The guy in your club, Chris Froome, or any of the huge percentage of pro cyclists who use an inhaler & are diagnosed with asthma are not cheating, they’re still below the peak flow of a non asthmatic. The nonsense posted on twitter has probably got road.cc plenty of hits, which I suspect is what it’s all about, but it’s a non story.

References:

Decaf’ JTL

Some things are not quite the same when you add an extra process, like decaffeinated coffee, skimmed milk & Sky’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke. There’s a very good interview with him on Velonation HERE. It’s the first I’ve seen since he started riding with Sky in 2013, there have been plenty of rumours that he may not be happy, but nothing concrete, this interview fills in a few gaps & hopefully allows some insight into exactly what happened with the tricky transition to the big time.

Where did it go wrong?

Lets first look at 2012, his performances were Record, but his circumstances were Athena, he performed well above what would be expected from a lower level UCI Continental categorised rider, beating high quality riders from the top UCI World Tour teams. He won the tour of Alsace, the Tour Méditerranéen, Tour du Haut Var & the Tour of Britain, taking stages along the way, a winner through & through, performing in the best races he could start at the level the Endura team was riding at in 2012.

Roll-on 2013, now signed for the Sky team, things just didn’t come together for JTL, better explained in the Velonation piece linked above. Rather than following his successful self-trained approach of previous years, he was now doing things the Sky way. Some types of training just don’t suit every type of rider, you can imagine a rider stepping up to World Tour level, they are going to go along with what is asked of them by the sports scientists who prepared riders to finish in 1st & 2nd places in the Tour de France. It’s all very well any of us saying we’d have tried what worked for us previously, but you’re not going to argue with the guidance from a team of this stature, you just have to read Charlie Wegelius’ book to understand why you’d toe-the-line (read ‘Domestique’ by the way, it’s excellent). The method didn’t work.

Sports Science

Sky are experts at identifying a certain type of rider, well, not Sky as such, but the British Cycling system, where many of the Sky coaches have progressed from, they are very very good at this. But they missed Dan Martin, they almost missed Cav, & they originally missed JTL himself, so there is something not quite perfect with talent identification, the normal power ‘buckets’ they use to decide the talent of a rider require to have some other characteristics added so they don’t miss anybody else. So could this lead us to the view that if you’re not used to that type of rider (a more punchy aggressive style that a pursuit specialist or a long mountain climber), you probably don’t have too much experience of training their strengths correctly for road racing. This looks like what has happened with JTL, he’s obviously supremely talented, his 2012 results speak of that, he’s also presumably not thrown up any odd blood results, otherwise Sky’s alarm bells would have been ringing last year when they were in talks with him.

Where Now?

Sky’s method isn’t perfect, but it works a treat for some riders. We can safely assume that Tiernan-Locke has thrown up a good number of questions, questions which we know are being researched & answers formed methodically & with a clearly defined solution. My prediction, Sky have learnt loads from this experience, they can produce Grand Tour winners, they made a mistake with one rider in 2013, I think they’ll remedy that in 2014. The teams poor classics performance requires a rider such as the 2012 Jonathan Tiernan-Locke to spearhead it, so he’ll be taken off the original 2013 programme, to be turned into a mountain lead-out metronome, that’s not how he rides. They’ll play on his strengths next year, high short-term power output, but perhaps a rider not able to generate the Grand Tour winning aerobic power required for the long mountains, they’ve not had a rider like this before, it could be crucial. He’s got a very bright future as a classics rider, last years Worlds showed that we may see him again in that protected role at Pontferrada in 2014, but this time, he may have had a year of the correct & type of tuning for his physiology, something he’s not had up to now, even during 2012.

I expect bigger things next year, JTL’s been decaf’d this year, next year he’s getting it back, but it’s going to be a double espresso.

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Geert outa here!

Geert Leinders, the doctor employed by Sky during 2011 & 2012, while previously employed by Rabobank, where riders are testifying that Leinders doped them, what are we to deduce from this about Sky’s ethical policy & what he was doing there in the first place? He’s now the subject of a criminal investigation by the Belgian public prosecutor, the story is in Cyclingnews here.

Did Sky know?

It’s very hard to believe that somebody high up in Sky didn’t know about the good doctor, we can safely assume that the man at the top Brailsford didn’t have a scooby, otherwise listing somebody like Leinders as an official doctor to the team would have been one incredibly stupid thing to do. If Brailsford had known about Leinders past, then officially linking him to Sky would be tantamount to a brazen “hey we’re doping, and there’s nothing you can do about it”. This isn’t what happened, obviously, so who did know & why didn’t they tell Dave?

Expulsions/Zero Tolerance

The massive change in staff over the winter is probably very closely linked to Sky being involved with Dr Leinders. Consider that Brailsford’s advisors, the one’s who have prior knowledge of doping in cycling, have all left. What would have happened with this zero tolerance policy if one of these Sky staff members had said that Dr Leinders was a doping doctor, Brailsford’s first question would have been “how do you know that”, which leads to many more questions, essentially an admittance that staff members were involved in dodgy practices at some point and had insider knowledge of doping practices & an immediate end of contract. This would lead to anybody with knowledge to keep their mouth shut, or you’re likely losing your job. A case of don’t tell & hope you’re not found out, until the revelations hit the fan over the last few months and the truth had to be told. It looks like anybody ‘in the know’ got booted out after the Leinders truth became known to Brailsford, who had potentially poor knowledge of road racing after focussing solely on track for the past few years with the GB team. Essentially these individuals he naively employed to keep him straight let him down, so they had to leave, their crime was failing to give a warning about Leinders & allowing him to operate within Sky’s structure. We can only hope that the doctor wasn’t up to his old tricks.

Previous information

To us ordinary punters & fans, if we kept our eyes open we already knew about what was going on. The good Dr Leinders was mentioned in Joe Parkin’s 2008 book “A Dog in a Hat” (a great book about an American’s life as a cyclist in Belgium, well worth a read by the way), as a doctor who doped riders, witnessed by the author. So presumably nobody at Sky had read that book, or nobody who wanted to suggest it was the same Dr Leinders, it’s hard to believe that not one rider had read the book and linked that Dr Lienders to their Dr Leinders, perhaps they’re is an atmosphere of fear, which is surely only magnified by the zero tolerance policy. The peloton must surely also be full of ‘revelations’ regarding the doctor, as any rider who had passed through the Rabobank team must have information, so again, it implies a culture of fear.

Moving On

I don’t believe that Sky operate a systematic doping system, I think that if any riders do dope, they act with their own specialists outside the ever prying eyes of the management. The biggest mistake Sky made was allowing a character such as Dr Leinders into their inner circle, if a rider was considering doping, then providing an introduction to a reputed doping specialist is a hugely irresponsible thing to do. This is why heads had to roll at Sky, Brailsford must be under a load of pressure now to run a clean house, while Sky have quite rightly made themselves a target for doubters, the Leinders issue is constantly brought up by people like Kimmage. You can understand why.

The zero tolerance policy is obviously raising other issues, among them fear & withholding of information for fear of termination of employment, the policy is flawed & hopefully Brailsford will be modifying it to avoid these issues in the future and regain some respect. Perhaps opening the doors to David Walsh, allowing his open access to all members of the team this year will help, but this is also a risky & somewhat panic influenced tactic, all it takes is one rider to refuse access and the headlines will again be very bad for Sky.

At the end of the day it all comes down to publicity, plenty of mistakes and bad choices have been made from the very top of the Sky machine, it’s likely everything will be even more closely controlled over the 2013 season. It’s currently playing out very well, with Froome winning the Tour of Oman in front of the current Tour favourites & the Colombians riding very well in the Algarve, so with a ‘cleaned out’ management structure & enforced policies, Sky are still producing the goods, time will tell if that continues.