Friday, July 30, 2010



Angry Team RadioShack demand cycling shake-up after Vuelta exclusion• Manager Johan Bruyneel furious after team's omission
• 'It's high time for professional cycling to become professional'
(10)Tweet this (10)Press Association, Tuesday 15 June 2010 11.46 BST Article history
Team Radioshack rider Lance Armstrong (second right) during the Tour of Luxembourg. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

Team RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel has called for a shake-up in the running of professional cycling following his team's exclusion from the Vuelta a España.

Bruyneel was angered that his team, co-owned by Lance Armstrong, did not receive one of the six wildcard places on offer from organisers Unipublic for the 22-team Spanish tour, despite moving up six places to eighth in the world rankings released on the same day as the list.

They also have the 11th- and 12th-ranked riders in the individual rankings: Janez Brajkovic, who rose 39 places from number 50 after winning the Criterium du Dauphiné Libéré on Sunday, and Christopher Horner, who won the Tour of the Basque Country. And Levi Leipheimer was victorious in the Tour of the Gila.

Bruyneel feels the time is now right for changes to the way the sport is run and that he is the man to take on the International Cycling Union (UCI).

"It is high time for professional cycling to become professional," he said. "The structure of our sport needs to change towards a model of other successful professional sports like soccer, tennis, formula one etc.

"Even if some parties don't like to see or hear this, I will do anything in my power to contribute to making this happen. Up until now it has never been accepted that a team manager stands on a soapbox to defend the rights of the teams and the riders. We always have to accept; we don't have many rights.

"After this I take it as a personal mission: from now on I will fight for the interests of the cycling teams. It will be more than just a goal. I will work for it as hard as I've worked for my own team.

"In cycling there are three parties: UCI, organisers and teams/riders. Unlike in other professional sports, the teams and riders are the main actors who are never heard. I will fight for our rights and for other things that rightfully belong to us but we never get.

"There is an abuse of power. Some organisers take away the hunger of potential sponsors to invest in our sport. It is unjust that a new sponsor [RadioShack], coming into cycling with a lot of enthusiasm, is not rewarded for their financial input.

"I cannot accept or understand this decision. With Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden, Chris Horner and Jani Brajkovic we had four potential Vuelta winners on the roster we sent to Unipublic.

"For me it is hard to explain to my sponsor that 22 other teams are apparently better than us – especially when it isn't true. These actions are unfair to our sponsors as well as a blow to our fans."



MY view is a 4 years ban from any contact with work in the cycling industry whether building, training or travel related minimum perhaps even tagged to stay in the house !

Naming sources and other related issues can earn a reduction of the sentence towards 30 months but return to racing has to be at 2 or 3 levels lower so as to minimise the "holiday/rest effect" that seems to give returnees an edge on those who race continually and thus are tired even after annual holidays.

"Feature date: July 29, 09:22 Features Archive Thomas Dekker: A doper’s desire for redemption
By: Daniel Benson
Thomas Dekker banned until 2011

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Dutchman speaks frankly about past and future ambitions to race clean
In Lausanne, Switzerland, Anne Gripper nervously shuffles papers from one end of her desk to another. She looks up at the clock. 10 A.M. exactly. She sighs at the inevitable but grim task she must carry out and picks up the phone.

In Monaco, Thomas Dekker is dashing around his apartment. The Tour de France starts in three days and he’s not packed. As he scurries from one room to another, collecting enough kit to last three weeks of racing, the phone rings.

Dekker notices it’s a Swiss number but has no idea who it could be. He answers.

“Hello Thomas? Thomas Dekker?”


“This is Anne Gripper from the UCI. I’m calling to inform you that you’ve tested positive for EPO.”

The rest of the call is a blur for Dekker. He says little. His body taken over with shock, surprise and fear as Gripper’s remaining words wash over him.

“When? How?” Dekker manages to mutter in a low, broken voice. She’s already told him but he hasn’t been listening.

The call ends and Dekker, now sitting at the end of his bed, is trembling. He looks at his half-packed suitcase, glimpses a look of himself in a mirror before bowing his head in tears. “I’m fucked,” he says to himself.

He calls his family, his friends and then his team. There won’t be a Tour for Dekker this year. There won’t be any racing for two years in fact. As a drug cheat in professional cycling he’ll be fired from his team and face two years out of the sport.

More importantly he’ll always be known as a cheat, someone who injected himself with illegal substances in order to con the sport of cycling, his employers, his fans and himself.

Dekker tested positive for EPO in an out-of-competition test carried out by the UCI in December 2007. Only after retrospective testing and careful study of his blood profile was his cheating exposed.

It’s now July 2010, exactly a year to the day since Gripper called Dekker. Looking well but slightly above weight for a professional rider, he’s in Belgium putting the finishing touches to his new house. The walls are still wet with paint and furniture is sparing to say the least but it’s a grand house nonetheless, with an expansive garden. As we walk towards the top of the lawn there’s a repetitive hiss coming from the sprinklers.

“That phone call turned my life upside down,” says Dekker as we sit in the garden. “I told her it wasn’t possible. I was clean then and she said that I was positive from December 2007. I knew exactly what she was talking about. I put the phone down and I called my family and my team.

“Of course there were a lot of rumours and I’d heard them. I heard that my blood values were suspicious. But I thought I was invincible, that they wouldn’t catch me. They saw the values were going up and down and then they decided to do some re-testing,” he says.

The following weeks after Dekker’s positive test read like a typical casebook of doper defence syndrome. First came the denial, then a call for re-testing before he began hitting out at the lab and vowing to clear his name. Amongst it all he even had time to have a pop at Ricardo Ricco, who received a far lesser sentence after apparently helping authorities.

“I was that stupid,” Dekker admits. “I look back now at what I was saying in the press and I can’t believe it.

“I doped in the past,” he says without too much prompting. “The story came out that I doped one time in the winter but when you think about it, when the blood passport is not okay…. I made some mistakes and I doped in the past. I am very sorry and I want to come back clean.”

When Dekker finally admitted his guilt it came with a footnote: that he’d taken EPO once, in December 2007 and tested positive, end of story. An insult to intelligence of fans but now Dekker is trying to turn a corner.

Perhaps in an attempt the wipe the slate clean and start again, the Dutchman is finally admitting that EPO was prevalent in a part of his career, or at least used for a substantial amount of time. Enough time for his blood profiling to arouse suspicion throughout 2008 and for the sport’s governing body to go back and retest his samples; enough suspicion for a number of teams to stay clear of him, including his old team Rabobank.

“It wasn’t just once. It was a longer period.

“I felt invincible,” he says again, looking down as his eyes begin to well-up. “At the time you don’t realise what you’re doing. You’re in this bubble and, and I doped in the past and that’s the story.

“Everyone can take what they want from the past and make their own conclusions. I didn’t dope to win Romandie or Tirreno, but I know what I did.”

According to Dekker, somewhere between those wins in the spring of 2007 and the end of the year, the Dutchman had switched from being one of the most gifted and clean sportsmen to a rider dependent on EPO.

While a rider like David Millar has become synonymous with talking openly about doping and naming the exact races he doped for, Dekker won’t go down that route. For him it’s not necessary.

“I get asked which arm I injected EPO into. I mean, I don’t want talk about that. Is that what people want? Do they really want me to talk about that? I’ll tell the truth, that I doped but I don’t go into too much detail. I know what I did and did not do and I know I won those races clean.”

He pinpoints the end of 2007 as the start of that slippery slope. At the Tour that year, Dekker’s first, his Rabobank team held the yellow jersey through Michael Rasmussen, but four days from Paris the Dane was ejected from the race for lying to authorities as to his whereabouts. Rabobank, who initially stood by their man, fired him and a re-structure of the team begins.

New management came into the Rabobank team, men Dekker describes as non-cycling people, and he quickly made a rod for his own back, speaking out against them at every opportunity. He’s had everything his own way for the last few years and now people that have no knowledge of cycling are telling him what to do. What do they know? They certainly don’t know that he’s invincible.

“I was wrong in my judgment about those people, because I was living in my own bubble. Now I know I was so wrong,” he says.

“I’d had problems all winter with my hip and then with the new team so at the end of 2007 I was feeling a lot of pressure. I wasn’t feeling myself in the team anymore. There was never any pressure from them though to use doping. I went out of my way to dope, I was responsible.”

Yet despite the drugs 2008 was a poor year results-wise. Dekker went from race to race in search of form, unable to find the legs that had helped him in 2007. But it wasn’t his legs that were the problem. He’d lost his head. The regimented life of rising early and training every day had disappeared as he became more reliant on drugs, ego, partying and being the centre of attention.

“I wasn’t living for my sport anymore and I was trying to make up for it by doping. Cycling was my life when I was winning races like Tirreno, I was waking up early, living like a professional should. I was never going out, just doing the same thing always living for my bike. In 2008 that was all different. I lost my seriousness and my focus.”

When his split with Rabobank finally came, the rumours of Dekker’s misdemeanours had already filtered through to the gossips, internet forums and blogs. The rider was without a team heading into the 2009 season, and with no results to speak of few teams were willing to take a chance. One prominent team even met with Dekker, took one look at his profile and decided to walk away. Run, in fact.

Eventually Lotto came in. The same team that hired Bernhard Kohl.

“It wasn’t hard to give up doping in the end. I was searching for a team, I just wanted to ride my bike again and get to a good level. I came to Lotto and I closed the door on what I’d been doing. I suffered so much with all the rumours and the controls and the doubts so then I didn’t want to do it anymore. Stopping was a relief and it felt great.

“I’d heard all the rumours about my blood values. Eventually I knew I had to stop. You can’t ask anyone for advice, I’d stopped making the stupid mistakes by then.”

According to Dekker he began living like a pro again. Riding clean, cutting down on the parties and extravagance and finding the passion and love for the sport he’d somehow lost. “I went to altitude for the first time in my life, I bought an altitude tent. I did everything the right way. It was really hard, I won’t lie, but then suddenly the positive test came out.”

Dekker pauses, his eyes still just at the point of crying as he draws a deep breath.

“I just wanted to ride my bike again and get to a good level. I came to Lotto and I closed the door. I suffered so much with all the rumours and the controls and the doubts so then I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

The question remains as to where Dekker found EPO, who provided it and how did he learn to administer it. On this he becomes vague.

“If you’re using recreational drugs you can’t buy them in the supermarket but everyone knows how to find them and it’s a little bit the same in cycling. Of course some people in my environment knew I was doing it but no one was saying to me, Thomas you have to do this or do that.”

No names, no trace of where the drugs came from. For Dekker it’s a closed door and something he won’t open.

“I was an amateur when it came to doping. I was losing grip on my life but it was me that went and found the EPO and me that took it. I’m responsible, so why blame someone else?”

We sit in silence for a few minutes, the repetitive hissing from the sprinklers still in the background.

“I want to come back and I think I can win races,” he says, smiling for the first time.

“I know that I have to prove again that I’m a good cyclist and I believe in myself. I know that guys like you, journalists, cycling fans, don’t believe me at this moment and I would do the same but I want to put it behind me. I have changed my life completely. I have moved from Italy to Belgium. I am working with a new trainer (Peter Pieters). I am living a tough training regime again and I have hired professional management in order to get me back in the peloton. The only thing I can do is win some races and show that I’m a good cyclist.”

Dekker pauses again. He perhaps knows I’m about to point out that winning races is almost pointless now, that riding clean and advocating for a drug-free sport are what will count if redemption is what he’s looking for.

“All my life I’m going to carry this, I’ll forever be a rider who tested positive and that’s something I have to live with but I don’t want to always live in the past,” he says.

“It’s going to be difficult to find a team, I know that. I’m just hoping to find a good team, come back in a clean team and ride my bike and ride some good races.

“I was young, I was stupid and I’ve seen a lot in my life. I’m 25 years old and I want to come back and have a long career. I love cycling. I just want to show that when I come back. I want the people to see that.

“Some riders have an opinion about me and that’s normal but I know I still have friends in the bunch and when the two-year suspension finishes I hope they give me a second chance and let me prove that I’m a good rider.”

The interview ends and Dekker lets out a sigh, as if to suggest that he’s got as much as he can off his chest. I look at him quizzically still like many, unsure.

He’ll face more of that once he steps back into the public eye and starts promoting himself as a clean rider. He walks me to my car and we say our goodbyes. The hissing has stopped and the only sound from his garden come from the chirping birds in the trees.

“You know what I really want?” he asks before I leave.

“When I’m 37 or 38 I want to look back and say that I did it all again but in the right way. I just want to come back and prove myself again.”

Dekker will find a team, there’s no doubt about that, and he will be competitive too. The progress the sport has made in the last few years proves that riders can race and win clean and while it’s still hard to swallow absolutely everything that Dekker says, due to the partial wall he still guards himself with, it’s clear that he wants a second chance. Let’s just hope that when he’s 37 or 38 he and the rest of the sport can look back at a rider who kept his word and whether he won or not, raced clean.



Data of optimism?
By: Greg LeMondPublished: July 26, 10:05, Updated: July 26, 10:23Good news on this year's Tour

LeMond won the 1989 by eight seconds and that Tour is still talked about almost 20 years later.

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Hating to be the bearer of bad news too often, I am really happy to be able to see some real positive statistics come out of this year's Tour de France. The race between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck was great to watch. Either one could have won this year’s Tour de France. What made the racing so exciting was how close the competition was. Most importantly their rides are believable and fall within the historic norms of athletic ability.

I have been very critical of the sport and, I believe, justifiably so. I am a cyclist who took up cycling by accident. This sport is so exciting, so romantic and so beautiful that I spent half of my life dedicated to it. My only hope is to see cycling right itself and gain back the credibility that any sport needs to thrive.

With that said, how do we eliminate the huge advantages of doping? The best way is to use the science and technology that already exists today to help eliminate the possibility of getting the huge benefit from taking doping products. This way a clean rider will have the chance to win in any event that he decides to compete in.

To get a better idea of what I mean, go to this website,, and read what two very knowledgeable scientists have to say regarding the performance of the riders in this year's Tour. I have read quite a few of their studies and they seem to know what they are talking about. They are very knowledgeable about the physiology and science of cycling, and have been doing this for years now.

When I read what their data indicates, I get hopeful that there has been a big effort to change the old habits of the past. This does not mean that the Tour is 100% clean but it does hint that things are possibly changing for the better.

I think that when you see levels of 5.8 or 5.9 watts per kilo for over 20 minutes, it is believable and falls into historical norms. It depends on the VO2 Max, of course, but I believe that a rider like Contador has a lot of talent and is therefore capable of that.

After reading their article, all I could think of was why doesn't the sport embrace scientists like these two to help figure out a better way to control the doping that has destroyed the integrity of cycling? I am a big believer in science and in the end it is the science that will stand the test of time.

The guys were saying that in the 90s and early 2000s, most of the climbs were done at 6.2, 6.3 and even up to 6.7 watts per kilo; this is a sign of blood doping.

As regards the future of drug testing, a better term might be drug controlling, controlling the drugs that really boost an athlete's performance. That would be done by using a combination of blood profiling, wattage output, using a system like the SRM Power meter, and profiling of O2 intake.

If you combine the above with criminal consequences for drug distribution and with the possibility for a positive rider to plea bargain his return back to racing (though only if the positive rider names his or her supplier, and with a life ban for those who refuse to cooperate), you might be able to slowly take out those people who have been a large part of the doping problem.

By controlling the hormones and blood boosting drugs plus the transfusions, all that might be left will be drugs that might give the rider a minimal benefit. The placebo effect can have more power to change a rider's ability than some of the drugs on the list. Hopefully talent, focus and motivation could make up the small difference.

Every athlete has a genetic max. Yes, there are things that even the best sports scientists might not be able to explain or understand at this point but eventually, science will discover the answer to the unanswered. One thing that I believe to be true is that huge gains in wattage cannot occur in a short period of time in a sport that is as competitive as cycling. This sport has been highly competitive for over 40 years and I believe that the performances of riders like Merckx would still stand up to the best in today's cycling.

There is some very good data out there that indicates little improvement in aerobic capacity when you look back at many of the Tour de France champions from the pre-EPO era. Hopefully steps will continue to be taken to ensure that the Tour de France is won by someone with natural talent who shows that his performance is backed up by his natural ability.

One thing is for sure - Alberto Contador is very talented and I am happy to see some data that indicates his victory could be the result of natural ability.

Overall, to me it looked much more like the racing I knew. There was a lot more fatigue and exhaustion - the attacks go, but then they fade. There is this hesitation in the riders, too - when you feel the suffering, you are going to start racing more tactically. That is what I have seen in this Tour. It's very different to the Tours you saw five years ago - then, the flat stages had the bunch in one long line. And when people got to the climbs, they were being dropped, but there was no sign of suffering. This year looked a lot better.

Finishing up, there's been a lot of talk about the chain problem that Schleck had the other day, and the fact that Contador and a few other riders didn't wait. I don't think his victory should be overshadowed by what ifs, as this is part of racing.

I think if it's 30 or 40 kilometers out, then absolutely - wait. But if it's three kilometers from the finish of an uphill, it is different. When you are racing like Contador was, you are not sitting there lucid and aware [of everyone]. You are completely focused on what you are doing.
If you look at the replay, Vinokourov was between Contador and Schleck and I think that obscured his view. I think that Contador did finally see that Schleck had stopped suddenly, but I don't think that he had any idea that he then got off his bike and had to put his chain back on, being further delayed.

It is certainly tragic for Schleck as it was clear that day that he was strong, and perhaps stronger than Contador, but I don't think Contador's victory should have an asterisk next to it. I don't think that Contador took an advantage.

When I look at my own career, I flatted on the last climb going into Pau in 1990. I think it was the Marie Blanc. Chiappucci saw me, got his teammates and just took off and attacked. I think that's different, when you consciously see someone flat and then you take off.

Anyway, I didn't like it, but the fact is that it was part of the race and I had to deal with it. I was more annoyed that my team car wasn't there. We were two minutes down and if it wasn't for Gilbert Duclos Lassalle and, I think, Kvalsvoll, who were up front yet sat and waited for me, I would have definitely lost the Tour.



Monday, July 26, 2010
Tour power output reflections

Looking back on leTour - the post collection

Thank you for visiting The Science of Sport. Over the past few weeks, we've followed and attempted to analyse the performances of the very best cyclists in the world, and at worst, it's created some great discussion and back-and-forth. At best, it's shown that cycling may just be heading in the right direction in its fight against doping.

Earlier today, Greg Lemond mentioned our analysis in his blog at Cycling News under the title "data of optimism?" and I certainly share that sentiment. So for those arriving "late", below are the links to the three analysis we've done on the power outputs, courtesy data provided by SRM and Training Peaks.

Post 1: Power outputs from the Alps and Pyrenees
Post 2: The Col du Tourmalet - the showdown at 6W/kg
Post 3: Resolving discrepancies in the Tourmalet numbers

I'd encourage you to also read the comments, where you have really improved the overall quality of the debate with your own calculations and questions.

One of the big talking points in all these analyses is the issue of whether a performance is proof of doping. Of course, the answer is no. There are too many assumptions in the calculation of physiological implications of a given performance for it to be "proof". Also, things like tactics and weather and preceding stages affect a rider's ability to produce a given power output. However, when looked at in context and when those assumptions are "controlled" in order to create a 'best-case scenario', the picture is still, I believe, telling, and that is what the above posts are about. There comes a point at which the principle adds value.

Of particular interest given the debate before the Tour, is that not a single longer climb hit the power outputs that we've become accustomed to seeing in 90s and 2000s. Nor have they hit what we debated pre-Tour as the "suspect" power values of greater than 6.2, 6.3, 6.4 W/kg.

And while the 6.2 W/kg number got a lot of people riled, I really think it's telling that the very best climbers, with the highest level of motivation (on the Tourmalet) failed to hit those power outputs. Re that number - in a debate about "unrealistic performances", you have to commit to a value, even if only to illustrate a point. It does not mean this number separates the world into light and dark.

Even Contador and Schleck on the Tourmalet, in what was an absolute 'limit' performance, just touched 6W/kg as an average, and appear to have dropped right down towards the end of the climb (see post 3 above). To me, this largely validates the physiological principle that says that for every performance, there is a physiological 'cost' and at some point, the 'cost' becomes an indication of doping. In the words of Lemond, the performance becomes "believable".

There is no dividing line in the sand, no specific point at which you can say "got you". A rider at 6 W/kg may be doping, and one at 6.2W/kg (depending on the situation) may not, but there is a theory underpinning it and the change in this year's Tour is a positive sign, leading to the hypothesis made in those posts and by Lemond.

It's been a super Tour, with great individual performances on stages, and the confirmation of a rivalry between Contador and Schleck that will hopefully put cycling in the news for the right reasons. And hopefully, it's also produced a step in the right direction for the sport. Bring on 2011, hopefully a mountain time-trial, and another super-tight race!


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Posted by Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas on 7/26/2010 05:17:00 PM 31 Comments

Labels: Cycling

Saturday, July 24, 2010
Power output on the Tourmalet - resolving discrepancies

Ferrari: "6.42 W/kg". Everyone else: "Less than 6 W/kg". Who is right?

Thanks everyone for the great discussion in response to the post yesterday looking at the climbing power output on the Col du Tourmalet. As if often the case, your responses make the comments section to the post is better than the post, so if you have to time, you might consider reading it here!

However, a short post today, because something came across our twitter account yesterday and today mentioning that Dr Michele Ferrari has estimated the power output on the climb and his values contract those presented here yesterday. I was going to post this in the comments section only, but I felt it worth putting out, since the disagreement is so large, and from such an 'infamous' source, that it demands attention.

From the site 53 x, Ferrari writes the following:

"Col du Tourmalet, in the last 9 km they climbed at 1780m/h, equal to 6.42 w/kg."
You'll recall that we said yesterday that:

"My overall estimation is that they took 49:08 to climb what I believe to be the final 17.6km at a gradient of 7.6%. This gives a VAM of 1,633 m/hour, and a relative power output of 5.9 W/kg."
Even over the final 9.3km, after Andy Schleck attacked, we estimate a power output that is even lower than this. We wrote:

Horner's power output over the final 4km will be very similar to that of Contador and Schleck, because of the constant time-gap between them. There is some error thanks to drafting, wind and so forth, but we're talking small differences. From the graph, Horner rode the final 4km at about 350W, and so Contador and Schleck finished the climb in this range of between 350W and 360W - 5.5W/kg to 5.7W/kg
So 6.4W/kg vs 5.9 W/kg? Ferrari's numbers demand scrutiny, because they're so different.

Look at the SRM for the real values

And to find an answer, let's take the guesswork out of this and look at the SRM data - this way, we don't have to assume the length, the vertical gain in height, or the gradient of the climb.

So, for Chris Horner over the final 9.3 km (since this is what Ferrari claims is 6.42 W/kg (graph can be seen in yesterday's post):

Distance = 9.3 km
Gain in height = 736 m
Gradient = 7.91%
Time taken = 28:36
VAM = 1544 m/hour
Estimated power output = 5.53 W/kg

Of interest here is that the SRM gives Horner's power output over this interval as 348 W, or 5.4W/kg. The VAM thus overestimates the power on this climb, and this is telling (bear in mind that if you have a following wind, you'll overestimate, whereas a headwind will produce an underestimate when using VAM - this is one of its 'flaws', and the reason why the SRM is the ultimate source of "truth", notwithstanding issues of calibration)

Now, let's look at Contador and Schleck over exactly the same 9.3km interval. Remember that they all started this part of the climb together, with Schleck's attack creating the time gaps.

So, the stats are the same as above, with the exception of the time. Horner concedes 1:46, and so therefore Schleck and Contador do the 9.3km in 26:50.

Now, VAM = 1646 m/hour
Climbing power output = 5.90 W/kg.

Not 6.42 W/kg.

The only way to explain this discrepancy is if the climb has been mapped differently, so that Ferrari's gradient and the vertical change in height over the final 9km are completely different. Which is reality? You have to believe the SRM. Also, given that Horner is riding at 5.4W/kg, is it feasible that he "only" concedes 1:46 to guys supposedly riding a full 1 W/kg faster? No, it's not, and so Contador and Schleck cannot have been at that power output. And therefore, all Ferrari's assumptions and resultant calculations are doubtful.

The tactical battle - two ways to explain the racing

One final point about what Ferrari writes in that piece:

"the heat influenced the development of the TdF 2010, making the riding all the more demanding and hard, forcing the riders to measure out energies carefully, growing thinner and thinner every passing stage...None among the favorites dared to attack far from the finish, especially on the mountains, just as no team was really capable to make the race hard and selective in the first phases of the stages. "
Ferrari's observation can just as easily be explained by a reduction in the ability of riders to recover from one maximal effort to the next. We know that doping improves this ability enormously - it improves the ability to sustain high power outputs and relative intensities for longer, and it enables repeat bouts at higher intensities.

Therefore, some of the hypotheses around a "cleaner" Tour would be that:

The same rider will not attack every day. The "cost" of attack prevents this.
A single team with the identical cast of characters will not be able to dictate the tempo on the entire climb every day, and their ability to ride up more than 50% of the climb will be reduced (remember the days of three or four men from one team reaching halfway up a climb?)
When attacks are made, they have to be delayed, because the physiological/energy cost of attacking early and then sustaining 6 W/kg or higher for 40 minutes is excessive
The attacks themselves will be 'muted', at a lower power output.
I would argue that all three have happened, and not just in this Tour, but in the last two or three years, and in other 3-week races like this year's Giro. It's not only the 5% to 10% reduction in power that is telling, it's the way races have evolved. Look at Andy Schleck on the final climb - his hand was forced by the race situation - he had to attack early (9km to go is still later than some attacks back in the 90s and 2000s), and for his efforts, he and Contador paid so much that the chase group held them over the final 5km. Their maximum effort was not sustainable. And that's expected of physiology. Doping, on the other hand, would allow it.

So the point is that Ferrari has blamed the heat, but there is another possibility, which must be acknowledged. And sure, it's been hot. I would argue that France in summer is always hot, and some basic thermophysiology is that heat is far less an issue on the bike than in running. It's important, yes, but the thermal load produced by a temperature that is say 1 to 2 degrees higher than normal is not sufficient to produce these changes.

I believe the more likely explanation is linked to what we (and NY Times, New Scientist and even Jonathan Vaughters) have pointed out, that performance suppression indicates a cleaner Tour. Ferrari may have a different take, but then he did once suggest EPO was as dangerous as orange juice...

Enjoy the time-trial later!

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Posted by Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas on 7/24/2010 02:11:00 PM 44 Comments

Labels: Cycling

Friday, July 23, 2010
Power from the Tourmalet - 6W/kg anyone?

6W/kg? Barely. Power output data from the Col du Tourmalet

Yesterday saw the big showdown of the Tour on its final climb. Two great climbers in Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck rode man-on-man up one of the most famed climbs of cycling, in thick mist, in a battle that many felt would decide the yellow-jersey. In the end, it won't, with a time-trial to go and two riders who were inseparable on the climbs. But it was an epic day, and produced some epic performance.

So, to continue our analysis of the power outputs in the Tour, here are some insights, gleaned from Chris Horner, Chris Anke Sorensen and some self-timing of the climb (once again, power output files courtesy SRM and Training peaks)

The Tourmalet dissected. First, some estimates...

To wet the appetite, some interesting estimates of power output emerged yesterday. First, for a really methodical, and I believe quite accurate method of ESTIMATING the power outputs, check out Cozybeehive, where Ron has analysed the climb segment by segment.

This method of estimating the power output relies on using the rate of vertical ascension, or VAM, which can be calculated if you know the distance and the gradient of the climb. And herein lies a problem - there are many discrepancies in how these climbs are 'mapped', and this affects the value you calculate. Also, wind, drafting and changes in the grade also affect the final estimated power output. There's been some pretty strong criticism of it, but so far, comparing the estimates to the actual SRM data has produced quite similar values, rarely different by more than 0.2W/kg.

On the note of distance, yesterday, the 18.6km to go banner for the start of the climb was almost certainly in the wrong place. It took the peloton a full 4:42 to ride from the 20km banner to the 18.6km banner (speed of 18km/h), and that was before the climb. Once on the climb, the first 3.6km took six minutes, a speed of 36km/h. In otherwords, if you believe the banners, then you believe that the speed doubled once the climb began. I don't, and so my conclusion is that the banner for the start of the climb was late by about a kilometer (this is further seen in the on-screen TV distances, which aren't always accurate, but they said 17.6km to go - I believe this).

So anyway, the point is that what you calculate varies quite a bit as a result of this.

Ron has estimated that the power of Schleck and Contador over the final 8km was 6.0 W/kg. I think this is close, but likely a small overestimate, because of drafting effects.

My overall estimation is that they took 49:08 to climb what I believe to be the final 17.6km at a gradient of 7.6%. This gives a VAM of 1,633 m/hour, and a relative power output of 5.9 W/kg.

These are of course estimates, not measurements, and if we want answers, then we need measurement. And for that, we look to Sorensen and Horner...

SRM data from the climb

The graph below shows Chris Anke Sorensen's power from the start of the final climb. If you recall, Sorensen set the climb up with an incredibly hard pull over the first 15 or so minutes.

So a massive pull - 415 W or 6.6W/kg, for 11:12, before Sorensen's day was up, and he dropped down to closer to 310W for the rest of the climb (also, note that the speed ranged between 20 and 25km/h, not 36km/h, which further suggests that the climb was marked incorrectly for TV purposes).

Once done, Sorensen settled down to complete the climb in just outside an hour, for an overall average power output of 330 W (5.2W/kg)

Chris Horner - a barometer for the yellow jersey

Even more interesting is Chris Horner, who had a tremendous day, climbing with the very best in the world. He was part of the chase group, dropped by Schleck and Contador, but who provide for a really useful barometer, because:

The eventual time gaps were relatively small - 1:45 in 50 minutes - which means that while we can't know the power output of the leaders, but it's not too much of a stretch to infer, and
The gap between Horner and the leaders remained relatively constant over the final 5 km of the climb. When Schleck attacked, the time gap grew relatively quickly to one minute, but then it edged up to 1:30, before actually staying in the range of 1:35 from 4km to go until the finish line. Therefore, it's useful because Horner's power output in the final 5km will be very similar to what was produced at the front of the race.
So, here is Horner's graph:

SRM have divided the climb in half, with the separation conveniently co-inciding with Andy Schleck's attack. Here's a breakdown:

Average power output for the first half of the climb - 377 W, at 5.9W/kg
Note the first portion of the climb, which co-incides with Sorensen's pull on the front, which we saw previously produced 6.6W/kg. You'll see that Horner rode in the range of 390 to 400W over this period, or ± 6.3W/kg. Horner's mass is 64kg, compared to Sorensen at 63kg, so the values are comparable. The reason it's lower is the slight benefit of shelter in the group, whereas Sorensen was at the front of the race
After the attack came, Horner completed the climb at 348 W (5.4W/kg).
Note once again, that Horner's power output over the final 4km will be very similar to that of Contador and Schleck, because of the constant time-gap between them. There is some error thanks to drafting, wind and so forth, but we're talking small differences. From the graph, Horner rode the final 4km at about 350W, and so Contador and Schleck finished the climb in this range of between 350W and 360W - 5.5W/kg to 5.7W/kg
Horner's overall average power output on the climb was 360 W, or 5.6W/kg. Interestingly, if you use the VAM method for Horner, you calculate a power output of 5.7 W/kg. Therefore, I am quite confident in saying that Contador and Schleck probably averaged 5.9W/kg over the entire climb.
So, a fascinating graph and insight into the Tour's big day. But what does it all mean?

The physiological implications of the climb

Before the Tour began, there was a great deal of debate about what the performances tell about physiology. I suggested that the power outputs of the 90s and 2000s, where these climbs were frequently done at 6.2, 6.3 and even 6.7W/kg, were a sign of doping. You may recall the notion, developed by Dr Ferrari and communicated by Armstrong in his book, that they aimed for 6.7W/kg as a threshold climbing output.

Nobody has managed to achieve even 6.2W/kg for any length of time in this Tour de France, let alone 6.7W/kg. Unless I am missing something. 6.6W/kg for 11 minutes, yes, but that rider then dropped to 5W/kg for the rest. In days gone by, that was the tempo the whole way (Incidentally, you can play around with this and work out how far ahead a guy would be if he did ride at 6.7W/kg - I estimate close to 3:00 on the climb. Contador and Schleck, dropped by 3 minutes....?)

And the top two climbers yesterday arguably rode at around 6.0 to 6.2W/kg for the first half of the climb, but their power output dropped off in the second half (which we know, because the time gaps ceased to grow over someone who was producing 5.5W/kg).

What is the physiology of riding at 6W/kg? If a cyclist has an efficiency of 24%, then the VO2 at 6W/kg is about 71 ml/kg/min. If this represents 85% of a maximum, then a VO2max of 83 ml/kg/min is estimated. If the efficiency is 23% (measured by Coyle for Armstrong in 1999), incidentally, then the VO2 is 74ml/kg/min and the estimated max would be 87 ml/kg/min. Neither jumps out as not-seen-before-physiology. But, if you go up to 6.2W or 6.3W/kg, then it starts to become, well, questionable.

Horner, incidentally, riding at 5.6 W/kg, would have an estimated VO2 of 66 ml/kg/min.


All told, then, I interpret the figures to be a good indication of the state of the sport. Whether you want to:

Base this on the physiology (which is only part of it, but I believe an important part), or
Compare the climbing times (most of which are 5 to 10% slower than before), or
Compare the estimates of power output this year to previous years (again, they're consistently 5 to 10% down), you arrive at the same point - it's a slower Tour.
Now, tactics are of course important. Many of you have argued this, and of course you're correct. Race situation dictates who attacks, when they attack and how they ride. That's why you need many climbs, and not a single one, to reach a correct conclusion.

One Tour provides many climbs, and I think there's still huge value in this year's numbers. However, because it's still a small number, this is a hypothesis, not a finding - what would be fantastic would be to track these stats over the next ten years, and compare the 90s to the 2000s to the 2010s. And also, to look at averages for top 10, top 50, top 100, to get an idea of depth.

Yesterday, on the Tourmalet, there were tactics - ride as hard as possible. 6.6W/kg from the bottom, followed by an attack, and I don't see any signs of 'hedging' of physiology on the day. It was as hard as was possible at that stage in the Tour, and I would continue, then, to hypothesize that the more stringent doping controls, the biopassport and the scrutiny on the sport have helped bring it down.

Call it "physiologically believable" (which many don't like, but I use it with its obvious intention), or call it signs of change, I do believe that the Tour is slower, and that the days of 6.3W/kg for 40 minutes are now the stuff of highlights and commemorative DVDs.

A massive time-trial to come, where the Tour will be decided!

Enjoy it!

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Posted by Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas on 7/23/2010 11:31:00 AM 52 Comments

Labels: Cycling

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Jonathan & Ross
Who are the Sports Scientists?
Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas completed their Ph.D.'s in 2006 in the Exercise Science and Sports Medicine Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.

Ross Tucker, PhD
Current residence: Cape Town, South Africa
Employment: Self-employed. Consulting, including SA Rugby, SA Sevens, private. Strategy for high performance sports science and management and marketing
Research interests: Exercise performance, fatigue and pacing - how the brain regulates performance
Sports interests: Running, cycling, tennis, rugby, swimming, cricket, rowing

Jonathan Dugas, PhD
Current residence: Chicago, USA
Employment: Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago
Research interests: Temperature regulation and exercise performance, with a special emphasis on how fluid ingestion affects those two things.
Sports interests: Cycling, running, triathlon, endurance sport

The views expressed on this site are not those of UCT, the Sports Science Institute of SA, or UIC.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

LANCE AS SEEN IN 2005 by barry coyle/booknoise?

BORROWED FROM CYCLOCOSM: really interesting item about Lance !


Burning Questions

The author, on all things Lance

Booknoise: What’s our biggest misconception about Armstrong?

Daniel Coyle: That he’s a nice guy. Lance is smart, charismatic, incredibly hardworking, and he does a lot of good works, especially within the cancer community. All that has led most of us to the misimpression that he’s saintlike or even cuddly. He’s not, by a long shot. Like DiMaggio, like Sinatra, like Babe Ruth, Armstrong is one of those who lives life all the way up. When it comes to his sport, and especially winning the Tour, niceness is just not part of his decision-making.

So what’s he really like? Let’s put it like this: He’s the kid from nowhere who became best in the world at a sport that is very difficult, painful, and dangerous. He’s the proof that Darwinism works. As his best friend, John Korioth, says, Lance is animalistic, the ultimate alpha wolf. On the bike, and often off the bike, he’s a competitive beast. It’s what makes him a fearsome competitor—it also makes him a complicated human being to deal with.

Booknoise: You moved to Spain to follow Armstrong and write about his season. What surprised you most about him?

Coyle: How much control he liked to have, over everything. He called every shot—not just with the bike, but with what backroad-route the training ride was going to follow, what brand coffee was on the team bus. You name it, he controlled it.

Most world-class athletes and businessmen—and Armstrong is both, to the nth degree – insulate themselves from the mundane details of their lives so they can focus on their jobs. Armstrong does the opposite. He removes all the insulators. If you were to diagram his world, it would look like a galaxy, with Lance in the middle and a dozen or so people in orbit around him, sending a constant stream of messages and questions. They actually call it Planet Lance. Some people believe he doesn’t trust anybody to do be his filter, which is partly true. But the larger truth is that Armstrong likes it. He thrives on the constant interaction, all these questions and answers constantly flying back and forth, and nobody really knows what’s going on except for him. It’s not about the bike—it’s about the information.

The last time I saw Armstrong, he’d just gotten a news-alert service on his BlackBerry that beeped whenever it located a news article with his name in it. The thing was buzzing every couple minutes. And he looked at it every time.

Booknoise: What surprised you most about his sport?

Coyle: In America, bike racing is associated with happiness and health—it’s a sport for middle-to-upper class suburban kids. In Europe, it’s exactly the opposite. Bike racers are nearly all poor, rural kids from the wrong side of the tracks—sons of coal miners, butchers, farmers, often orphans. They are literally trying to ride away their dead-end lives. In some ways, it’s closer to boxing: whoever can take the most pain, succeeds.

The ones who make it are scary-tough, partly because many of them don’t have anything to go home to, especially kids from the former Eastern Bloc. They crash, they break backs, they take insane risks, they don’t care. In this way, Armstrong’s background—absentee dad, single mom, working-class Texas—is closer to what his rivals had.

The rivals are a fascinating bunch. Jan Ullrich, whose father left when he was three, was raised in a crumbling East German housing project. Alexandre Vinokourov, Ullrich’s wingman who finished third in the 2003 Tour, is the son of chicken farmers from Kazakhstan, one of the bleakest spots on the planet. Iban Mayo, who was nearly crippled in a car crash when he was 19, comes from a poor Basque family. Yes, Armstrong is a remarkable guy who survived cancer. But his rivals are also survivors, from the world’s hardest places.

Booknoise: Six Tour wins in a row, now trying for seven. What gives Armstrong his edge over these guys?

Coyle: His mind. He doesn’t just want to win, he needs to win, and so he tries to win every single interaction with his opponents. Armstrong is the kind of guy who wants to win not only the race, he wants to win the handshake­. He wants to have a faster bike. He wants to have a cooler-looking uniform. As his coach, Chris Carmichael, puts it, he’s not interested in making history as much as he’s interested in showing up every year and kicking the shit out of everybody in the big race.

Armstrong spends hours reconning the roads, but he spends more time reconning his rivals. He trolls the news every day for items about them—he calls it “doing homework.” If there’s a photo of Jan Ullrich’s butt online, Armstrong will find it and study it and comment on it—how fat he is, how this year’s butt looks compared to last year’s. In all this, his message to his opponents is I’ve got something you don’t.

The funny thing is, a large part of Armstrong’s effectiveness lies in the style in which he delivers that message. The more important something is, the more casual Armstrong plays it. A good example happened after the first big climb of last year’s Tour, at La Mongie. Armstrong destroyed his contenders—really destroyed them—then afterward he downplayed it. He wished them well, and he yawned. Who’s more intimidating, the guy who simply beats you or the guy who beats you and seems bored by it? Classic Lance.

Booknoise: How strong is he, really?

Coyle: Here’s a primitive test: Take two five-gallon buckets and fill them with water. Then lift them from the floor to waist height in one second—a move which requires about 500 watts of power. Most fit people can last a minute or so. When he’s in top shape, Armstrong can produce around 500 watts for an hour.

The secret does not lie in his muscles—in fact, plenty of athletes could beat him in the leg-press. Rather, it’s in Armstrong’s amazing ability to transport oxygen to those muscles. He can work very hard for a very long time—a function of his heart and his blood. He’s got a great motor, and the world’s greatest fuel-delivery system.

Booknoise: So is Armstrong the world’s greatest athlete?

Coyle: A fine question for a bar-room debate. He’s definitely the world’s greatest human power-plant. He’s quite possibly the world’s most obsessed and competitive athlete. Bike-racing is also far more dangerous than people think—he’s as good as any downhill skier when it comes to whole-body coordination.

That said, you have to remember that bike-racing is an endurance sport—therefore it needs to be judged on a different scale than skill-oriented sport. For instance, there’s no doubt that, with the right training, Kobe Bryant would have a better chance of becoming a pro bike racer than Lance Armstrong would have playing point guard in the NBA. So it’s apples and oranges.

Booknoise: What are his vulnerabilities, if any?

Coyle: Armstrong’s power margin over his top rivals is 10 watts, or about 2 percent. To go back to our test, that 2 percent is about what it would take to lift one quart of water to waist height over and over. It’s not much—so Armstrong guards it, checks it, gets a nuts about it. Friends and teammates can tell how he’s doing by his mood. If the numbers aren’t where they should be, he’s not very fun to be around.

Booknoise: He’s 33 now, which is old for a Tour rider. How has age affected his abilities?

Coyle: Armstrong doesn’t like to admit it, but his hips have given him trouble for years. The night before the 2003 Tour, his hip went out of joint and he was barely able to walk up a flight of stairs. He was able to get it fixed—and kept it quiet, of course. In fact, his chiropractor said he never mentioned it again.

Last year Armstrong experimented with a top-secret $250,000 bike with pedals set 18 mm closer together—it was called the Narrow Bike, and it made him more aerodynamic. But when he tested himself on it, his power numbers dropped off dramatically. Other people, including Jan Ullrich, were able to ride the narrow bike with no power loss. Which is one reason Armstrong worries so much about a crash. It could throw his hips out of alignment, and the 2 percent would be gone.

So what’s Armstrong’s margin of success? In the case of this bike, it was 18 millimeters—about the width of your pinky finger.

Booknoise: How can we tell when Armstrong’s struggling?

Coyle: Armstrong is the best at concealing weakness, but even he has one giveaway: His face takes on a distinctive look that people call the Dead Elvis Grin. His head tips forward, his upper lip goes into a kind of a snarl, he goes pale. That’s what his opponents want to see—and what Armstrong doesn’t want them to see. If you see it, you know things are about to get interesting.

Booknoise: What caused his 2004 divorce from his wife, Kristin?

Coyle: Like most things in Armstrong’s life, it happened suddenly—and it surprised people very close to the couple. But it’s clear that the divorce seems to fit a larger pattern in Armstrong’s life. As his teammate Jonathan Vaughters puts it, you get close to him, and then inevitably something goes haywire. A few years ago, Armstrong had a dispute with his best friend, John Korioth. The two went two years without speaking. It happened again with teammate Floyd Landis, who will ride against Armstrong this year for the Phonak team. You have to remember this is a kid who grew up without a father, and who might have a few issues in that department.

It’s also worth noting that bike racers—like astronauts and race-car drivers—are not particularly known for their abilities in the monogamy department. In the spring of 2005, both Jan Ullrich and Italian champion Mario Cipollini separated from the mothers of their children.

Booknoise: We have to ask: What’s Armstrong’s relationship with Sheryl Crow like?

Coyle: In some ways, they’re a good fit: she’s sporty, he’s a huge music fan. They share a down-to-earth style. But fundamentally, she’s quiet and reserved—definitely the opposite of Armstrong. She bought him a book on meditation, but he couldn’t get through it. She told friends she was interested in starting a family, something Armstrong has told friends he’s not interested in doing right now. But they’re together, and they seem happy.

Booknoise: What role does Armstrong’s mother, Linda, play?

Coyle: Anybody who wants to see the source of Armstrong’s intensity needs to look no further than his mother’s blue eyes.The daughter of an alcoholic Vietnam veteran, she got pregnant at 17 and decided to keep the baby. His relentlessness, his positivity, his organizational drive finds its wellspring in her—along with a certain willingness to keep moving forward, no matter what. Now married to her fourth husband, Linda shows up at each Tour, and is greeted like the Queen Mother.

Booknoise: How big a role does his cancer survivorship play?

Coyle: It’s defining. He’s incredibly committed to the cause, and the cancer community is committed to him; for a lot of people, it’s like he’s a living saint. It’s a feedback loop: he inspires them, and they inspire him. It also separates him from the other riders. He faced death, they didn’t.

Booknoise: How hard is the Tour de France?

Coyle: It’s the hardest event on the planet: nothing comes close. Studies have shown that Tour riders spend more daily energy than Everest climbers. During those three weeks they spend energy at a rate that exceeds the capabilities of all but four animal species. Imagine running a marathon a day for twenty days. The food alone is ridiculous: on big days, they eat the equivalent of 28 cheeseburgers. Watching them eat is like watching a cartoon: they lean forward, inhale, and the food disappears.

Booknoise:What’s Armstrong’s relationship with his team?

Last year Armstrong experimented with a top-secret $250,000 bike with pedals set 18 mm closer together—it was called the Narrow Bike, and it made him more aerodynamic. But when he tested himself on it, his power numbers dropped off dramatically. Other people, including Jan Ullrich, were able to ride the narrow bike with no power loss. Which is one reason Armstrong worries so much about a crash. It could throw his hips out of alignment, and the 2 percent would be gone.

So what’s Armstrong’s margin of success? In the case of this bike, it was 18 millimeters—about the width of your pinky finger.

Booknoise: How can we tell when Armstrong’s struggling?

Coyle: Armstrong is the best at concealing weakness, but even he has one giveaway: His face takes on a distinctive look that people call the Dead Elvis Grin. His head tips forward, his upper lip goes into a kind of a snarl, he goes pale. That’s what his opponents want to see—and what Armstrong doesn’t want them to see. If you see it, you know things are about to get interesting.

Booknoise: What caused his 2004 divorce from his wife, Kristin?

Coyle: Like most things in Armstrong’s life, it happened suddenly—and it surprised people very close to the couple. But it’s clear that the divorce seems to fit a larger pattern in Armstrong’s life. As his teammate Jonathan Vaughters puts it, you get close to him, and then inevitably something goes haywire. A few years ago, Armstrong had a dispute with his best friend, John Korioth. The two went two years without speaking. It happened again with teammate Floyd Landis, who will ride against Armstrong this year for the Phonak team. You have to remember this is a kid who grew up without a father, and who might have a few issues in that department.

It’s also worth noting that bike racers—like astronauts and race-car drivers—are not particularly known for their abilities in the monogamy department. In the spring of 2005, both Jan Ullrich and Italian champion Mario Cipollini separated from the mothers of their children.

Booknoise: We have to ask: What’s Armstrong’s relationship with Sheryl Crow like?

Coyle: In some ways, they’re a good fit: she’s sporty, he’s a huge music fan. They share a down-to-earth style. But fundamentally, she’s quiet and reserved—definitely the opposite of Armstrong. She bought him a book on meditation, but he couldn’t get through it. She told friends she was interested in starting a family, something Armstrong has told friends he’s not interested in doing right now. But they’re together, and they seem happy.

Booknoise: What role does Armstrong’s mother, Linda, play?

Coyle: Anybody who wants to see the source of Armstrong’s intensity needs to look no further than his mother’s blue eyes.The daughter of an alcoholic Vietnam veteran, she got pregnant at 17 and decided to keep the baby. His relentlessness, his positivity, his organizational drive finds its wellspring in her—along with a certain willingness to keep moving forward, no matter what. Now married to her fourth husband, Linda shows up at each Tour, and is greeted like the Queen Mother.

Booknoise: How big a role does his cancer survivorship play?

Coyle: It’s defining. He’s incredibly committed to the cause, and the cancer community is committed to him; for a lot of people, it’s like he’s a living saint. It’s a feedback loop: he inspires them, and they inspire him. It also separates him from the other riders. He faced death, they didn’t.

Booknoise: How hard is the Tour de France?

Coyle: It’s the hardest event on the planet: nothing comes close. Studies have shown that Tour riders spend more daily energy than Everest climbers. During those three weeks they spend energy at a rate that exceeds the capabilities of all but four animal species. Imagine running a marathon a day for twenty days. The food alone is ridiculous: on big days, they eat the equivalent of 28 cheeseburgers. Watching them eat is like watching a cartoon: they lean forward, inhale, and the food disappears.

Booknoise:What’s Armstrong’s relationship with his team?

Coyle: If there’s anybody he watches closer than his rivals, it’s his teammates. Especially since Armstrong is part-owner of Tailwind Sports, the for-profit company that manages the team—he is literally paying their salaries. Like a good boss, Armstrong is a great motivator and rewards those who do good work. But as his teammates know all too well, if they don’t do their job, they’re out. Dead Man’s Rules, they call it. Friendship comes second—and they all know it. As his ex-teammate Floyd Landis says, everyone is a scared of Lance. If you’re not, you haven’t been paying attention.

Booknoise:How did the book come to be?

Coyle: During the 2003 Tour, an editor friend and I were talking about Armstrong, and cycling in general. We were both fans, but in the course of the conversation we realized that we didn’t really know all that much about Armstrong or his world. As a culture, we’ve been watching Armstrong win the Tour like new baseball fans might have watched Babe Ruth hit home runs. There’s a collective sense that we want to move closer, move down from the upper deck, understand what’s going on, how the game is played, and how Armstrong plays it.

So the idea hit us—what if I moved closer to the field? What if I went to Europe, lived through a season—the season of his attempt to get his record sixth Tour de France victory, it so happened. I ran the idea past my wife, Jen, and our four kids, and to their credit, they were up for it. So I pitched the idea, and when HarperCollins said yes, we started packing our bags.

Booknoise: How’s your relationship with Armstrong?

Coyle: I’d call it carefully cordial. He knew about the book from the get-go; he did all his homework on me, and he treated me in a friendly, if distant, way. We’d been in Girona about a day when Armstrong rode by on a bridge and yelled to my son, “Don’t jump.” Later, he jokingly called me “LoJack,” because I always knew where he was.

I went to all the races, from February in Portugal to the Tour, and our living in Girona helped. He permitted me to hang around some—though of course not as much as I would have liked—and I gradually gained a degree of trust and access to the key people around him—especially Johan Bruyneel, the team’s director and probably the guy closest to Armstrong, sports-wise. Also, I spent a lot of time researching Armstrong’s rivals, in case one of them would emerge as Tour winner. From a reporting standpoint, I had to be ready for every possible outcome—win, lose, or crash.

My goal was to tell the story clearly, fairly, and accurately. In March, I sent Armstrong a draft of the book to read for corrections and clarifications; he didn’t respond. I don’t know if that means he hates it or loves it, or (maybe more likely) somewhere in between.

How important is bike technology to Armstrong?

Coyle: Very, but not only in the way that I’d assumed. They call him Mr. Millimeter for good reason—he’s very persnickety. But what he’s after isn’t just the extra fraction of a second from the wind tunnel. He’s after the feeling of having that extra second, showing the competitors he has that extra second. He uses technology as a tool to build his own confidence and demoralize everyone else. He’s in love with the process. As the mechanic told me, at some point, at some point the math stops mattering. When he has a piece of equipment he likes, he calls it The Shit, and when he really likes it, he calls it The Shit That Will Kill Them.

Booknoise:How do his top rivals—Jan Ullrich, Iban Mayo, Ivan Basso—react to Armstrong’s strategies?

Coyle: As a group, they seem to have settled on a strategy where they try, as much as possible, to simply ignore him. Ullrich, who nearly beat Armstrong in the 2003 Tour, gets real smiley and casual around Lance. Ullrich has developed an approach where he flaunts his simplicity—a low-tech, easygoing style. Ullrich has become an alternate-universe version of Armstrong—after all, how do you beat the guy who comes at you with everything? You lean back, you stay casual and mysterious. So far, it hasn’t worked.

Booknoise: What about the allegations of Armstrong’s doping? Are people out to get him, or is there actually something to these charges?

Coyle: Going into the book, I hadn’t hoped or planned on spending much time on the doping question. Doping is part of the shadow-side of bike racing or any sport—facts are often murky, contentious, hard-to-prove, and stories tend to end up in a courtroom or a lab. Plus, I had the sense that I probably wouldn’t find anything new. As a relative outsider to the sport, I thought I knew the routine. People—sneaky French journalists, it seemed—accuse Armstrong, Armstrong denies, there’s no proof. It didn’t exactly increase my interest to know that Armstrong had a well-practiced habit of suing people who questioned his integrity on the subject.

As it turned out, doping was a subplot of the bike-racing season—there was David Walsh’s book, Tyler Hamilton’s shocking positive test result, Armstrong trainer Dr. Michele Ferrari’s guilty verdict, and, as the season ended, a flurry of lawsuits between Armstrong and his former personal assistant, Mike Anderson. But to me, these weren’t just stories—they were people whom I’d gotten to know during the season, people whom I found utterly fascinating. And after two years of research, all I can say for certain is this: the doping issue has been around Armstrong and cycling for a long time, and it’s probably never going to disappear. I found that, as a relative outsider to the sport, there was a lot about cycling that I didn’t know—not all of it pretty. In my book, I try to share that information so that people can come to their own decision.

Booknoise: What are the facts?

Coyle: They fall into two categories. On the one hand, you’ve got Armstrong’s spotless record: 150-odd doping tests over the past six years, all clean. You’ve got the fact that he donates money to testing programs, that he’s probably the most-tested athlete in the history of sports, that his $20 million in endorsements would end if he tested positive. You’ve got the fact that some journalists would clearly love to nail Armstrong. You’ve also got the sheer epic stakes of the present situation. As Armstrong’s agent, Bill Stapleton, put it, “Can you imagine what would happen if Lance tested positive? Can you imagine what would happen if it turns out we’re screwing with people on this?”

On the other hand, you’ve got the fact that doping is inseparable from bike racing. (If you’re interested, check out The Crooked Path to Victory: Drugs and Cheating in Professional Bike Racing, by Les Woodland.) In 2004 alone, three current and former world champions were busted for dope, one team was nearly disbanded, and several pro cyclists went public with detailed, harrowing stories of doping practices on their teams, including one who said he was given a substance designed for anemic dogs. What would people say about the NBA if Kobe, Shaq, and Tim Duncan all tested positive in a single year? If a bunch of them died of heart attacks—as eight cyclists did in 2003-4?

You’ve also got the accounts accumulated by David Walsh, who spent two years trying to prove Armstrong might be a doper. His book, L.A. Confidentiel, came out on the eve of the 2004 Tour. It was 375 pages, and it went into exhaustive (and exhausting) detail. (See this link for more detail on Walsh’s allegations.)

Walsh has his own backstory—he’s anything but objective about doping, and people have pointed out that his personality resembles Armstrong’s, most particularly in stubbornness. But the accounts Walsh unearths–including testimony from seemingly credible ex-teammates, Armstrong’s former masseur—are interesting and detailed. Those accounts, it must be pointed out, are not clearcut proof of any wrongdoing—which is part of the reason, along with the inevitability of lawsuit, that the book was published only in France.

So maybe it will turn out that all these accounts are made-up, fantastic tales, vindictive baloney from disgruntled people. Walsh and his sources knew full well he was going to be sued—that’s part of what makes it so interesting.

Booknoise: What about the lawsuit with the ex-assistant, Mike Anderson?

Coyle: After the 2004 season, Armstrong’s former mechanic—Mike Anderson, a guy I’d gotten to know in Girona—alleged that he’d found a box of steroids in the bathroom of Armstrong’s Girona apartment. (see the pdf filings of the lawsuits here and here).

I didn’t know Anderson well, but as I say in the book, he didn’t strike me as the vindictive gold-digging type. Like much of this, it will probably get settled—to the extent that anything gets settled—in a court of law.

Booknoise: How does Armstrong handle all these allegations?

Coyle: He gets angry, and he attacks—the same as he does on a bike. At the start of 2005 he had ten lawyers in his employ, in various suits in France, England, and America.

He also uses the press effectively. Essentially, Armstrong drug-tests journalists. The ones who write about doping are put on a blacklist; the ones who don’t are his friends—which is not a small thing to a writer for whom Armstrong and his team are frequently the only story.

Booknoise:Do you believe him?

Coyle: I think we all want to believe him. I want my nine-year-old son to be able to believe him. I want my friend who’s suffering from cancer to believe him.

At the same time, when I looked at all the facts, I found it tough not to come away with a few questions—questions that I hope can be answered fully someday (Like a lot of people, I’ll be watching those court cases closely). Are those questions big enough to have us question Armstrong’s accomplishments? His character? That’s for each person to decide. My goal in the book is to give people some tools and some context to come to their own decision.

Why do we want to believe Armstrong and not believe Barry Bonds or Marion Jones? Is it because his story is so powerful? Because we don’t know much about his sport? Because, on balance, he creates a lot of good in the world? That’s an interesting question, and one that probably has more to do with us—our need to believe in our heroes—than with what Armstrong or any of these athletes have done.

Booknoise:What about the case of Tyler Hamilton? He was busted for blood doping during the season.

Coyle: That was a shocker, a real twist in the plot. Nobody thought this would happen to Hamilton—who lived right above Armstrong in Girona and who had a reputation as a nice guy, a clean rider. But at the same time, the evidence seems strong. He’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on tests and lawyers, and he hasn’t been able to beat it. It’s on appeal.

Booknoise: What’s Armstrong’s legacy?

Coyle: The power of his story, for most of us, remains its perfect simplicity: A young brash athlete gets cancer, beats it, then wins the world’s toughest race once, twice—six times. It’s mythological—in fact, it’s just about every myth combined into one. He crosses the river into death, defeats it, and returns with a lesson for us. It’s beautiful. He’s changed a lot of lives for the better.

At the same time, I think we all understand that life’s just not that simple, particularly when you live it on his level—having a family, being a celebrity, running a team and a business, being a father. There’s human relationships, there’s pain, there’s kids, there’s questions and complicatons and fascinating shades of gray—shades that need to be understood if you’re going to fully understand the man and what he’s accomplished.

Booknoise: What should we watch for in the 2005 Tour?

Coyle: Circle Tuesday, July 12th. It’s stage 10, from Grenoble to a mountaintop finish at Courchevel. It’s the first big mountain stage, the place Armstrong loves to send a message—and where his rivals are going to be trying to send one of their own. If Armstrong finishes alone, or clear of his main rivals, number seven is likely. If not, the next twelve days could get very interesting.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


* Sport
* Tour de France

Pau to Col du Tourmalet (174km)
Tour de France 2010: Stage 17 - live!

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* John Ashdown
*, Thursday 22 July 2010 11.10 BST
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Sheep on Tour Why did the sheep cross the road? Don't know, but they might have picked a better time to do it. Photograph: Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

Preamble: After a well-earned rest day, the 172 remaining riders (25 have fallen by the wayside, while Columbia's Mark Renshaw was drop-kicked towards it by the organisers) will travel the 174 kilometres from Pau to the finish line on top of Col du Tourmalet, the famous Pyrenean peak that stands 2,115m in it's socks.

To give you an idea of just how steep this particular climb is, bear in mind that at least one rider was clocked at 95km as he descended today's climb in Tuesday afternoon's stage, won by Pierrick Fedrigo.

In his fascinating preview of today's stage, which highlights the role played by the Tourmalet in the history of the Tour since it was first included in the eighth edition of the race in 1910, Guardian chief sports writer Richard Williams points out that "before this year's riders even reach the Tourmalet they will have to tackle the Col de Marie-Blanque, barely half its big brother's stature but offering almost 10km of gradients that average a punishing 9%. And then to streth legs further and perhaps to sow further doubts, comes the 1,474m Col du Solor, with a plunging, twisting descent - particularly dangerous if the predicted rain arrives - before the riders gather themselves for the final major climb of this year's Tour, and a mountain-top finish that may have a decisive effect on the final standings in Paris on Sunday."

Richard concludes: "As Contador and Schleck soar up to play among the peaks where the birds of prey wheel on the thermals, which of them will be the eagle and which the vulture? [Andy Schleck] knows this is his last chance to claw back an eight-second deficit and open up the lead of three minutes or so that would make it hard for the Spaniard to exploit his known superiority in Saturday's 52km time trial."

11.53am: Richard's wonderful preview leaves little for me to add. Suffice to say, today's going to be a day for this:

A bit of this ...

And, because it's been in my head all day, a soupçon of this ...

11.59am: So you've had the written word, you've had some music, now see today's stage with your own eyes. Have a click on our fancy interactive guide to the Tour, click on stage 17, then click on the eye icon for a breathtaking (it says here) fly-through of today's stage. Perhaps listen to John Farnham while you're doing so. It really does bring home the challenge facing the riders today. The Tourmalet is a true monster of the Tour. On the fly-through it's like you're going up in a lift.

12.03pm: We join today at a dramatic moment – Sammy Sanchez, third in the General Classification at the start of the today, has just been involved in a crash. I've not seen a replay of what happened, but he looks in a huge amount of pain, barely moving on the concrete.

12.04pm: To everyone's huge relief Sanchez is back on his feet and, somehow, back on his bike. The Euskatel riders have all stopped to help him get back to the peloton and Contador, up at the front, has clearly heard the news and told everyone to slow down. All have, except Carlos Sastre who is riding away on his own.

12.11pm: HOW IT STANDS IN THE GC: Alberto Contador has an eight second lead over Andy Schleck, and two minutes on Sanchez in third and Denis Menchov in fourth. Short of something utterly astonishing, though, this is a two-horse race between the top two. Schleck really needs to take time out of Contador today, because the Spaniard will have the edge in the time trial on Saturday.

12.14pm: HOW IT STANDS ON THE ROAD: A group of seven – Flecha, Hagen, Koren, Kolobnev, Burghardt, Pauriol and Moreno Perez – are five minutes ahead of the peloton, with Carlos Sastre and his Cervelo team-mate Konovalovas about midway between them. Sanchez and Euskatel have finally rejoined the pack.

12.16pm: We've got two category one climbs – Col de Marie-Blanque and Col du Soulor – before the final ascent of the Tourmalet, where we are likely to see the stage – and the Tour – decided. In the meantime, you can win a copy of William Fotheringham's new book and also bag yourself a jersey signed by Thor Hushovd and the rest of the Cervelo team.

12.24pm: It's raining chats et chiens in the Pyrenees today, so much so that the TV helicopters have been grounded for the day. Could make a couple of the tricky, technical descents very dicey.

12.27pm: A couple of emails:

Here's Guy Hornsby: "The romantic in me would love to see Schleck and Saxo Bank put pressure on Contador and his Astana coven on the Marie-Blanc and Soulour then attack Contador at the base of the Tourmalet, pulling out three minutes on him by the top, and taking the tour back to Luxembourg in a ride that brings back misty-eyed memories of the Tour's classic stage victories, but I'm not sure he'll be able to take enough time out of him to stay ahead in Paris. It will be good to see Contador under some pressure at least, as few have been able to do that in past Tours. One can only imagine what the presence of two Schlecks may have meant to this year's GC. I hope they're both in form and fit for the 2011 race. That would be a classic."

And here's James Cavell: "Big cycling news of the day: Tyler Hamilton is talking to the FDA team investigating Armstrong. He rode with Lance from 98-01, and thereafter managed to get one penalty for blood doping with someone else's blood, another from the Operacion Puerto, and more recently for DHEA. Now suspended for life. Heck of a nice guy, though, really. Smart too. It looks very much like nails are now being gathered."

12.32pm: Of the breakaway riders, the highest placed is Remi Pauriol, who is a distant 36th, over 52 minutes behind the leader. Sastre is nine minutes behind Contador and currently more than four minutes ahead on the road.

12.38pm: I'd imagine most reading today's rolling report are aware of it, but for those that aren't the bike blog over on the Environment site has had plenty of Tour-related material over the past week or two. Go check it out.

12.42pm: The riders are on the slopes of Marie-Blanque now - under 10km to go.

12.44pm: Sastre, if he catches the breakaway group, could be the virtual yellow jersey at some stage today. The super soaraway seven are nearly nine minutes clear of the peloton.

12.48pm: There's strange sense of calm-before-the-storm out on the road at the moment. We know there'll be fireworks later, but for now everyone is happy just to pootle along (if you can pootle at 40kph). Pootle, by the way, is a great word. A day spent pootling is a good day. Even better than a day spent pottering. Or even mooching.

12.59pm: Apologies for that little pause. I was trying to find an answer to this email. "Why does Contador have an advantage over Schleck in the TT?" writes Mark Schow. "Schleck weighs 150lb compared to Contador's 130lb, which means that Schleck is putting out 15% more power as he climbs. With the yellow jersey on and chasing Contador, it seems he should be able to TT faster. Schleck is taller which will cause a couple of a percent loss in aerodynamics, but not 15%." It would take someone a little more technically-minded than I to say why, but he always does. Last year he took over two minutes out of Schleck on the two time trials and he took another 30 seconds on the Prologue this year.

1.02pm: "So, after all the debate as to whether Contador's behaviour on Monday was acceptable, will there be unanimity in condemning Sastre for attacking while the peloton was waiting for Sanchez?" writes Josh Robinson. "Or had he already started to go with the aim of joining his counter-attacking team-mate and catching up with the escape?" Well, TV pictures show Contador talking to him before he shot off up the road. He was certainly planning to attack anyway, but hadn't actually hit the afterburners when news of Sanchez's tumble came through. Don't think it'll have any huge impact on the race as a whole, though ...

1.04pm: The peloton have slowed to a crawl now as the they rumble through the increasing gloom at the top of Marie-Blanque – the gradient is up around 11% here, the road is narrow and winding, and there's a half-naked man with an umbrella attached to his head, waving his shirt about on the side of the road.

1.07pm: "I've just had a nosebleed after flying along the stage 17 on the Guardian Interactive Guide," writes Andy Tabberer (who fails to disclose whether his fly-through was accompanied by Survivor, Europe or John Farnham). "These cycling chaps really do have balls of steel. Speaking of which, I think Schleck will win the ball-off today with Contador. He's looking as lively as a particular athletic greyhound with a complete and balanced diet."

1.08pm: Blessed relief for the seven leaders as they crest the hill and begin dropping like stones down the other side. Blessed relief for me too – Barry Glendenning has just delivered a cup of tea.

1.10pm: The peloton leaders at last reach the top and begin what could be a pretty hairy descent.

1.12pm: "You can't blame Sastre for doing exactly what Contador did," reckons James Proto. "Do as I say and not as I do doesn't really work for most."

1.14pm: "Have you got as far as a pootle in alphabet dating?" wonders Sean Boiling. "Where exactly are you up to?" For non-Football Weekly listeners, this is the onging saga of my attempt to go through an alphabet of dates with my other half. We started off with the play of Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall, then did something beginning with B that escapes me, for C I think we had a Chinese meal while watching La Vie En Rose with Marion C(!)otillard, D was a daredeveil weekend that was somewhat foiled by the weather, then we went to the Emirates for a Carling Cup game, and F was a Fright Night experience at Oxford Castle. Pootling remains a distant hope.

1.18pm: Spectators out on the road are fairly thin on the ground today, a few hardy souls in a variety of cagoules. They all look cold.

1.19pm: "Any chance of a Wiggins & Roche update?" writes Mark Quinn. "There may now be a showdown between these two in terms of finishing position. Nicolas said as much in his daily diary in the Irish Independent. It'll be like that infamous match at Landsdowne Road, except hopefully Wiggins wont start ripping his bicycle apart and chucking it like a big fat baby in a pram. Equally, Im sure Roche won't call in the trusty Garda to deliver baton-bruising 'justice'." I'll try my best to follow them, but unless one is very prominent then it's difficult to follow specific riders (other than the leaders), particularly with the weather the way it is. At the minute, they're both trying to keep warm in the bosom of the peloton.

1.23pm: Thanks to Chris Magee for this interview with a very chirpy, chatty Jens Voigt following his high-speed crash yesterday. "I didn't crash on my face, so things could be worse ..."

1.24pm: Is it me or does Voigt sounds a little like a camp Rainier Wolfcastle?

1.27pm: Less than 100km to the finish now for the leaders. What a 100km they are though. The final 30km are all uphill and rise from the final sprint at Adast (470m above sea level) to the the top of the Tourmalet (2114m above sea level). I reckon that's [attempts to work it out ... then ashamedly reaches for the calculator] 1644m worth of climb. Or 160-odd double-decker buses. Or just over 500,000 pound coins.

1.33pm: I've been trying to work out what makes Contador a better time-trialler than Schleck. And now I know. Because James Cavell has emailed in to tell me:

Cycling is not always about numbers and formulas.

The time trial is a totally different discipline than just riding hard on the flat, or uphill as you're forced into a very specific position and have to be able to get maximum power out of it. Also how "aero" you can get makes a difference, and how that affects how hard you can pedal. There's a couple of very fast riders who aren't monster time triallers because the TT bike doesn't "work" for them and they lack the perfect aerodynamic position. Or they can get in a good position, but aren't able to put all their power into their stroke when tucked up like that. Basically Contador has been an excellent time trialist ever since he was young so he's totally comfortable on the TT bike and can get the very best out of it. Schleck, never having excelled at it, has never expected to excel at it, and presumably has taken it less seriously and probably simply expects to be average.

Another reason might be that Schleck is nowhere near 150 pounds ... he probably weights 135 tops. Additionally, I think contador is 135-140 ... They can probably generate similar threshold wattage, but in light of what I wrote above you'll see that isn't everything. Contador can probably generate slightly more over a sustained longer duration, while Schleck can perhaps (we'll see later) "explode" better for short bursts which doesn't help with a TT.

1.35pm: The gap between breakaway and peloton is 8min 24sec, with Sastre just over two minutes behind.

1.37pm: Contador's Astana team-mates are all over the front of the peloton, with the maillot jaune sitting back maybe 20 places from his fellow sky blues.

1.40pm: Eurosport cut to some adverts, one of which is ruddy Tyler Farrar, but then the next is a shocker. A man and a woman heft rifles to their shoulders in HD slo-mo, until the viewer is staring down the barrel. Then the tagline 'Enjoy Shooting' pops up. It's from the European Shooting Confederation, so we're talking clay pigeons rather than mafioso shoot-em-ups, but still. Gave me a right shock.

1.43pm: A little more from James Cavell on the time trials:

Also some riders are more suited physically and mentally to holding a threshold pace over a (longer) given distance. Others need the competitive element of racing others to get the best from themselves. Also, a climb in a road race tends to be after a few hours of being worn down, and is always explosive jumps, then a ceasefire and looking
around, then another "spike" in tempo. It's repeating V02 max efforts from threshold, when knackered, rather than "grinding" at threshold for shorter duration when rested.

I've always thought I'd make a better time trialler than climber – I've always been much better at pootling to the shops than tearing round a BMX track with my mates. In fact, I'd back myself in the Tour de Pootle to the Shops. Although, of course, you'd need a couple of domestiques to carry any awkward items. Baguettes. Or wine boxes.

1.48pm: Just 80km left now. The peloton are heading to the mid-stage refuelling point, where they'll pick up those little pouches of nourishment.

1.50pm: Sastre, by the way, is struggling to make that final leap and connect with the breakaway group. He's dropped back to almost four minutes behind.

2pm: Like the peloton, I'm also now refuelled. And we're going to continue spraying the love about the site by directing you over to Travel (lovely bronzed smiling people) who have an audio slideshow of Kevin Rushby's ride of today's stage.

2.02pm: The peloton are now on the foothills of the Col du Soulor – things are getting increasingly tense. Nothing, particularly, is actually happening yet, strictly speaking, but we're edging closer and closer to what will surely be the Tour's defining showdown.

2.07pm: "Speaking of ads on Eurosport, the dodgiest surely has to be the Sidi cycling shoes ad featuring Pozzato," writes Simon Picton. "His defence: 'Andy Schleck called me a metrosexual and I suppose the commercial confirms that I am. But I'm not scared of getting oiled up and showing myself like that. I enjoyed it and I understand lots of my female fans did too ...'" You can find it here, if you click through to cycling then latest news and video. It's the slightly knowing Carry On voiceover at the end that gets me.

2.11pm: It's not quite as gloomy on the Soulor as it was on Marie-Blanque, but it's a bigger climb and the breakaway group have slowed to a crawl.

2.13pm: No action yet on the Soulor – a few commentators were wondering if Schleck would attempt to put some distance between himself and Contador before the Tourmalet, but my hunch was that it was all going to be about the monster at the end of the stage is so far proving suprisingly accurate.

2.16pm: Castre is slowly being roped back by the peloton, like a spider slowly being flushed down the plughole.

2.18pm: The looming presence of the Tourmalet means this climb has been a touch downplayed, but it's a serious hill. Leg-sapping stuff.

2.20pm: The Sorensen boys are doing a fair bit of work on the front of the peloton, dragging them up this hill. They're getting a little stretched out now.

2.23pm: "I think Schleck will try and put some pressure on at the Soulor but there's not much to be gained from getting a minute or so over the top as he's not the descender that Contador is, and with a good 25km between its summit and the start of the Tourmalet, it'll probably be energy wasted," reckons Guy Hornsby. "The final climb is a monster, and I'm sure he'll have more than enough time on it to attack, but to gain two plus minutes you'd think he'll have to go pretty early. Maybe he'll have to go it alone, as the key will be catching Contador's domestiques off guard. If he has Vino with him on the chase, he'll be able to save a lot of energy."

2.25pm: Just over 60km and there's some serious effort being put in on the front of the peloton. By the way, if you've got nothing better to do this afternoon you can follow me on Twitter, where I'm vaguely attempting a new WORLD RECORD of MOST FOLLOWERS WITHOUT A TWEET! Join the, er, lack of fun.

2.29pm: The gap between peloton and breakaway is down below six minutes. They'll do well to stay clear now.

2.33pm: It's almost eerie out there on the Soulor – the mist, or possibly low cloud, is closing in, the sky almost white, barely a specator to be seen. The riders look increasingly gaunt and thousand-yard-staring. Each rotation looks heavy. The only sound the low hum of motorcycle engines, the odd clipped sentence of French on the Tour radios and the background swish of rasping breath.

2.36pm: "Can anybody (i.e. James Cavell) explain how it helps to have somebody to follow when climbing a brute of a mountain?" wonders Tom Brett-Young. "I'd have thought that at such slow speeds you wouldn't get the benefit of slipstreaming that you do on the flats. Is the main benefit from pacemaking?"

2.37pm: "I've driven along a bit of the Col du Tourmalet," writes Tom Watkins. "On the way down the mountain with my foot on the clutch rolling (to save fuel) I thought I would save even more fuel if I just turned the engine off. So I did. It turns out that turning your engine off has a quite marked and instant negative impact on both steering and braking. Let that be a lesson to your eco-readers who might be wondering how to save fuel."

2.38pm: Under 5km to the summit for the peloton now, and a further 55km after that.

2.39pm: Another question: "With the sprints, how do dedicated sprinters get the points?" ponders Tom Barneby. "Surely the breakaway riders will cross the sprint intermediates before anyone else, but Hushovd doesn't seem to be there or thereabouts in any breakaways, so how does he get so many points?" I think I can field this one – it's because the breakaways aren't always big enough to slurp up all the points, so being on the front of the peloton is enough to bag a few each time. That coupled with being there on the sprint finishes (and any early-stage pre-breakaway sprints). Hushovd is a fantastic all-rounder in this regard.

2.42pm: "In answer to his question about mountain stages is that, like any situation, it makes more sense to have assistance on the road," writes Guy Hornsby, pitching his tent and getting the gas stove out right in the middle of James Cavell's turf. "Whether it's on a breakaway on a flat stage, or a descent (where slipstreaming will come into it to an extent) or a climb, with someone else there the workload at the front can be shared, allowing the second rider to take a (relative) break while the other does the work. Add more riders, and the effort is shared even more. Which is why solo breaks on the big mountains are so revered when they lead to victory. Groups of three or four are a good bet, but too many and you'll risk not all pulling for the same goal and the momentum will be lost. If Schleck goes it alone, it'll be a supreme act of strength to win."

2.44pm: Carlos Sastre has being paying for his decision to ditch the peloton after Sanchez's crash – the 2008 Tour winner has had two and a half hours out on his own in the Pyrenees.
Sheep Cyclists: Beware! Photograph: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

2.47pm: SHEEP ON THE ROAD!!! The peloton almost comes to a standstill as some rather bedraggled-looking ovine interlopers fail to follow the green cross code and trot out into the road just as the peloton heads past. They're plucky little fellows, though, and seem pretty determined to get across, despite the presence of a couple of hundred cyclists bearing down on them. A few skitter uphill on the tails of the riders looking like loose horses in the Grand National.

2.51pm: Guy Hornsby – the backlash begins:

"With all due respect to Guy Hornsby, his answer lacked the eloquence of a Cavellian response; not to mention the fact it didn't seem to answer the question," writes Stephen Aldington.

"Guy Hornsby hasn't really answered the question though has he?" rages Matthew Percy. "Bring back James Cavell!"

Hey, give him a break. He brought his meat to the grill. It might not have been a prime Cavellesque bit of fillet, but I'll take a couple of Hornsby's ropey sausages any day.

2.54pm: OK, just over 50km to go now. The peloton is close to the peak. The weather is horrendous. It's grim. It's cold. It's wet. It's a day to leave the bike in the shed and get on the bus.

2.55pm: "I missed the piste invasion by the sheep," writes Les Brown. "If someone recorded it, could they upload a copy to ewe-tube?" Ho, ho, ho.

2.56pm: And there's more: "I can take no personal credit for this, it was from my twitter friend in Melbourne, Stephen Downes.," writes Sean Boiling. "Re: the sheep, 'it looked like a whole team, EWE-skaltel EWE-skadi'." Ho, ho, ho.

2.57pm: Down they go! The low cloud/mist is so bad that a rider at the head of the peloton can't see much more than 20 bike-lengths back. You can just make out the yellow jersey about four from the front.

2.59pm: The fate of Guy Hornsby, currently being whipped to all four corners of the interweb by Cavellites, hasn't put off Damian Walsh: "The biggest benefit of following someone else up is surely mental - you don't have to make any decisions apart fromp 'follow that wheel', you don't have to lift your head to see where you're going and get discouraged by seeing the sheer wall in front of you and most important of all you don't have to feel guilty about whatever energy you're conserving and are therefore not tempted to over-exert and blow up."

3.00pm: The breakaway – containing two Team Sky riders, by the way, in the shape of Hagen and Flacha – have little more than 4min 30sec on the peloton now. Sastre has under two minutes.

3.02pm: Down, down, down they go. The descents make you realise just what a bold day this has been for a breakaway. You could be sat somewhere in the middle of the peloton, barely touching the pedals on the way down these slopes, but no. You're out in front and you've got to keep the hammer down. So, while others are having a rest, you're still mashing the pedals.

3.07pm: The work that they've been doing though is paying off – the gap is creeping up again. Will one of these men – Flecha, Hagen, Koren, Kolobnev, Burghardt, Pauriol and Moreno Perez – have enough left for the final climb?

3.09pm: Look what today's forthcoming excitement has done to our chief sportswriter. Here's our very own Richard Williams emailing in from the Pyrenees: "The consensus in the press room is that those sheep they looked like MilRAM animals ..."

3.12pm: We knew he'd get there in the end. Here's James Cavell:

Damian is right to point out that following someone else's wheel is mentally advantageous. But you do need to be aware of what might be happening ahead of you, especially if you are not in the first 20 riders uphill or in crosswind situations, and at all times when the speed is so high that the bunch is in single file.

Focus too much on the wheel in front and you might miss someone four places ahead of you who cracks, and if the guy right behind him doesn't come around him and close the gap the peloton can split, and you can end up losing several minutes or having to absolutely destroy yourself to get back on.

Often at the start of a climb the line breaks in multiple places, and you don't want to find yourself having to bridge gaps between fragmenting groups when the strongest teams are cranking a murderous tempo at the front. To close the gaps in such circumstances you need to ride harder than the guys at the front. Mostly this is impossible.

A particularly unpleasant situation is to go deep into the red to close a gap someone else allowed to open, and just after you reconnect with the line, someone ahead cracks, and the guys behind him start looking around flicking their elbows hopefully for someone else to close it.

3.15pm: Little more than 34km to go now – we're nearing the day's final sprint in Adast at the foot of the valley between these two mountainous peaks. The official Tour time schedule has the riders arriving at the top of the Tourmalet an hour and 14 minutes after the sprint.

3.17pm: "If it wasn't clear from my answer - which I thought it was fairly well explained - having someone to follow means you can share the workload, or if you're cunning, do no work at all," writes Guy Hornsby. "Standard breakaway or attack rules really, if you have company, then the task is easier. You'll gain no benefit from slipsteaming uphill though. Clearly I'm not fit to lace James Cavell's drinks, let alone do the velcro up on his hi-tech cycling shoes. I'm donning sackcloth and ashes as we speak."

3.18pm: "Cavell didn't really answer the question either!" shrieks Matthew Percy. "For the love of jesus can someone explain why at such slow speeds you get the same benefit of slipstreaming that you do on the flats..." No. We're moving on to bigger and better things. Sheep puns and the like.

3.23pm: The Tour have figures that purport to explain how much work each rider has been putting in on the front of each group. Of the leaders Burghardt, Pauriol and Hagen have been doing the least – just 10% apparently.
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) a France's president Nicolas Sarkozy takes the easy way up the Tourmalet. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

3.25pm: Nicolas Sarkozy is in one of the Tour cars today. I wonder how much you really get to see from there? I suppose you get a real sense of the inclines and the speeds, but it must be quite hard to see any big picture.

3.28pm: Under the 25km to go banner. Not far now ...

3.29pm: "Will everyone stop BLEATING on about slipstreaming and keep us updated with the breakaways and RAMping up of the suspense," offers Steve Borrell. Four minutes 52 seconds is the gap. Sastre is all but back in the pack now.

3.30pm: "I suppose it will be difficult for Sarkozy to see anything out of the Tour cars unless they're fitted with booster seats," chuckles Stephen Aldington.

3.32pm: Heart-rates are up, palms and brows are getting sweaty, feeling a little drained but the adrenaline is kicking in – and that's just me. On the road we're down to 22.2km to go. The next 60 minutes are make or break for Andy Schleck. The biggest hour of his cycling career.

3.35pm: The peloton pace has picked up, as if the unheard drum beating out their rhythm has stepped up a beat or two. It's brought the gap down to a second or so over four minutes.

3.37pm: "If ewe're still looking for sheep puns, maybe a lamb post would shed some light on it," writes Paul Szabo, picking up the horse carcass and commencing flogging.

3.38pm: Schleck looks good, head just rocking a hint from side to side. Contador, equally unflustered, takes a slurp from his bidon. They're both perfectly placed just off the front of the peloton, seperated by half a dozen other riders.

3.40pm: Sean Kelly on Eurosport reckons Schleck needs at least 1min 20sec over Contador heading into the final time trial. I have to say I can't see him doing it. But I we're about to find out ...

3.41pm: The breakaway hit the bottom of the Tourmalet. 18.6km of agony ahead.

3.44pm: Two kilometres in and Hagen has gone! That didn't take long.

3.45pm: "Can't wait to see Cancellara do a big, big turn at the front for
Schleck," writes Sean Boiling. "What kind of super-domestique would that be to call on? Come on Fabian, do your job." The Saxo Bank boys have already started. They've got a train on the front of the pack already, four riders in there.

3.46pm: The breakaway group has become a break-apart group - it's crumbling before our eyes. Flecha has gone too.

3.47pm: Stuart O'Grady is doing the hard yards on the front of the peloton, before handing over to Cancellara. They're trying to give Schleck every chance here. Contador is loitering on Schleck's rear wheel as the peloton begins ripping apart behind them, like paint peeling off an old yacht in a gale.

3.48pm: Evans and Basso have dropped off the back now, but this is no longer their race.

3.50pm: Kolobnev and Burghardt are the last remaining fragments of the breakaway group, but the gap is down to two and a half minutes. Cancellara peels off the front, utterly spent, and Chris Sorensen takes over.

3.51pm: Schleck has an Astana rider on his shoulder, just helping to keep him in his box for now, with Contador on his team-mate's rear wheel. At the front, Kolobnev has ditched Burghardt.

3.53pm: The main peloton pack is down to maybe 40 riders now. Still Saxo Bank putting the work in on the front. Still Contador sticking to Schleck, never letting the gap stretch to more than the odd inch.

3.54pm: Vinokourov's going to be no help to his team leader today – the madcap Astana rider is the latest dropping off the back of the group.

3.55pm: Van den Broeck, currently fifth in the GC, is right there near the top of the group, as is Sammy Sanchez despite his tumble earlier. The wonderfully-named Jakob Fuglsang takes on the pace for Saxo Bank. He's the last team-mate there with Schleck.

3.57pm: "Any chance you can let us know when there's about five/10 minutes to go so I can slip off to the kitchen at work to watch the finish on TV and pretend to my colleagues, apart from those that are following your commentary, that I'm making a tea?" pleads Tom Watkins. Shouldn't be a problem (as long as you leave your auto-refresher on).

3.59pm: Kolobnev has 1min 46secs of lead and 11.1km to go.

4.00pm: Just a couple of dozen riders left in the peloton now, and all the big names are there.

4.01pm: My, this is steep. The road narrows with flag-waving spectators – up, up, up, in, in, in. Meanwhile, Kolobnev seems to have hit the wall.

4.02pm: Barredo makes a move at the front of the pack. BUT HERE COMES SCHLECK!

4.03pm: AND CONTADOR FOLLOWS! A brief flurry but the the Luxembourger sits back down, Contador bobbing up and down just inches behind.

4.04pm: Sanchez is struggling to hold on, Van den Broeck is also having a tough time. Menchov can't hold on either. Yet again it's down to these two.

4.05pm: Under 10km left. Schleck v Contador. The rest of the top GC riders have regrouped 20, maybe 30 seconds behind.

4.06pm: "No mention of Wiggins since the plea earlier in the day for updates," writes Geraint Morgan. "Is he with the front group?" Not any more. Schleck goes again. Contador matches him. They are flying up this hill.

4.08pm: Kolobnev looks back and sees the two greatest riders in the world looming out of the gloom. They tear past him. Schleck tries to increase the pressure once more, but again Contador has enough.

4.09pm: Sanchez and Menchov are struggling in that chasing pack. 8km to the summit. Contador almost looks like he fancies taking Schleck on, but he's reining himself in.

4.11pm: These TV pictures are fantastic. Such is the gloom that the sky is simply a white sheet. There's nothing but the road, a few trees, some clapping spectators, and these two remarkable riders. Schleck's attacks haven't had enough bite so far. Well, at least not to sink the teeth into Contador.

4.12pm: Still 7km to go. Still Contador follows Schleck up the Tourmalet. Schleck stands up once again, the Spaniard again goes with him.

4.14pm: Schleck looks over his shoulder and it must be a dispiriting sight to see the maillot jaune dancing up and down on his pedals behind him. 6km left.

4.15pm: If Schleck is to open up the gap he needs, he'll need to produce something pretty damn special, pretty damn quick. Does he have one big kick left?

4.16pm: Nicolas Roche is struggling, but the gloom makes it hard to tell exactly whereabouts he is. I presume he was in the chasing pack behind the front two, so it's been another strong ride from the Irishman.

4.18pm: Schleck is up out of the saddle and opens up a couple of feet – probably the biggest margin he's had. Contador closes back up. 4.5km to go.

4.19pm: "I really don't think Andy wanted to be alone with Contador so soon," reckons James Cavell. "He must have either wanted to be totally alone, or in a smaller group with guys like VdB, Menchov and Sanchez. Then he could try and explode out the back again and try and get a gap on Contador and hope the others can't help.

"I think he's blown it now. Contador won't ride on the front, and Andy needs to keep the speed high enough to tire Contador, then attack him from the front. More likely now is Contador attacking Andy closer to the line and taking the stage and another 10-15 seconds."

4.20pm: These mountainsides are utterly packed with specators – it's a phenomenal specatacle. As I type 'phenomenal spectacle' the two finest riders in the world are chased by a man, trousers round his ankles, baring his wobbling buttocks.

4.21pm: CONTADOR ATTACKS! And attacks hard! Schleck is struggling for a couple of seconds, but he digs deep and drags himself back in, hauling himself level and fixing the Spaniard with a look of near-loathing, Luxembourgian epithets swishing round in his head.

4.22pm: Just 3km to go, Schleck tries to crank things up once more. Even if he breaks Contador now, though, has he got enough road to make it count?

4.24pm: HONK! HONK! The Tour cars are struggling to get through these exuberant fans. More butt-cheeks emerge from the gloom. The sublime and the ridiculous.

4.25pm: A giant cigarette goes charging up the mountain beside the two leaders. Le Tour, eh? Schleck still can't throw his rival off. Only 2km to go now.

4.27pm: The road winds up once more, Schleck does likewise.

4.28pm: This is astonishing climbing from these two – they've put 90 seconds between themselves and the best of the rest. 1.4km left.

4.29pm: "The idea that three weeks ago both Lance Armstrong and our own Bradley Wiggins reckoned they could stay with these guys in the mountains is looking utterly ridiculous now," writes James Cavell. "What a pair of wallies." There are plenty of wallies on this mountain – most of them not on bikes. 1km to go – Schleck still leads it out. There's barely enough space for Contador to get past, such is the crowd.

4.31pm: The road clears just a touch. Still Contador follows. 500m to go. This is surely the Spaniard's race now.

4.32pm: At this stage it'd be great to see Contador power past and put down a marker. He doesn't look interested, though. Just 200m left.
Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador cross the line at the top of the Tourmalet. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

4.33pm: They head to the line side-by-side. SCHLECK PUNCHES THE AIR AS HE CROSSES THE LINE but he must know he's not done quite enough.

4.34pm: That was a battle. Rodriguez is the next over the line, and here comes Hesjedal out of the gloom. Sanchez is next, 1min 32sec behind, then Menchov another seven seconds back and eight seconds later it's Van den Broeck.

4.35pm: Replays show almost a wry smile on Schleck's lips even as he punched the air. The two shook hands after they clambered off their machines, a grudging respect between the pair. Nicolas Roche crosses the line 3min 26sec back. Another fine ride from him.

4.37pm: "Completely agree with James Cavell now. Some of the predictions at the start of the tour look ludicrous now," writes Guy Hornsby. "No one else has come close to this pair. Simply supreme riding today. You can only wonder what Frank Schleck would've done here, or both of them attacking Contador would've resulted in, but credit where it's due, Andy had to make all the running, and he couldn't shake the Astana man. This is surely all but over, barring a miracle on Saturday or a crash."

WELL WHAT A STAGE THAT WAS. Or, more precisely, what a hill that was. Utterly absorbing racing. We didn't get any showstopping, defining moment, but we did get an hour-long duel between the best in the business. Schleck never really looked like breaking Contador, and the Spaniard thought he'd done the job with his huge attack with about 3.5km left, but Schleck held on and fixed his rival with a memorable, defiant, is-that-all-you've-got? glare. They embraced immediately after the line, both battered but unbowed.

It looks like the Tour will be Contador's but there is still three stages left (two of which will be properly contested). It'll take something very, very special to change the GC, but you never know ...

Whatever happens, we'll have live coverage right here, so be sure to head back tomorrow. But for now, that's it from me. As ever, thanks for all your emails – apologies that I couldn't include them all. I'm off to get my bike out of the bike shed and cycle home pretending I'm called Alberto or Andy. Cheerio!