FrUnderdog Part 2: Ax 3 Domaines

I wrote a piece on Chris Froome a few weeks ago, found HERE. This was as a response to the mass of armchair ‘fans’ who love to post their views on Chris Froome doping, I have no idea if he is or not, but like the other armchair fans, I also have no proof either way, so this post is speculation, just as valid as others speculation. So let me put forward a possible scenario in this post.

Climb Times

Froome’s time on Ax 3 Domaines is currently being debated on twitter, originally it was posted as 15 seconds slower than Armstrong’s fastest time, placing todays climb as the 3rd best recorded. Now it may be 30 to 60 seconds slower than that after a dispute over which bridge the timing is taken from, plus another twitter user @journalvelo has posted the published profiles from a previous climb of Ax 3 Domaines HERE. They look different & the finish altitude in not the same, so I’m not seeing any evidence I can completely rely on yet for the climb analysis, lots have jumped the gun. I’m going to ignore climb times until we know the facts.

Reference Points

Unfortunately, many are still using riders like Contador & Valverde as climbing reference points for others. I have a few issues with this, firstly that reference point is not a valid constant. Lets take Contador as an example, he is a convicted doper (based on actual evidence) and under the enhanced scrutiny the bio-passport puts on riders, we can assume he isn’t able to do what he used to. There is also rumoured to be additional testing at this years Tour for the plasticisers found in blood bags, so things have stepped up on the testing front. If anybody is doing anything, it’s a hell of a lot less than they used to to remain undetected, in fact it might not even be enough to take the risk of getting caught for, riders like Contador may now be clean.

So in the past we’ve seen Contador to be an Armstrong beater, now he’s at least a couple of minutes behind where Armstrong would have been on this climb during the dark years. We all remember the old Contador, but he is now a rider who would lose a couple of minutes to Armstrong on Ax 3 Domaines, i.e. like Zubeldia in 2005 (who is still racing & lost over 3 minutes today). Our old reference points are now invalid, we are seeing more real performances, if they were able to perform at the old levels, we wouldn’t be seeing such a vast amount of riders suddenly dropping minutes on their previous times when they couldn’t get caught. Sometimes we have to look further down the field, not to the differences in the front riders, but the almost uniform drop in climbing ability of vast segments of the peloton. We question the front, but don’t question the back.

Reasons for improved performance

My hunch is that the rise in blood vector doping in cycling has opened up a new branch of sports science, I think they’ve learned a lot from studying the effects that EPO & blood transfusions had on performance & have tried to replicate it naturally, having seen the performance gains.

Take transfusions, they were adding 500ml of additional blood to boost performance, increasing blood volume improves athletic performance by allowing more blood to be transported to the muscles. It’s well documented that endurance training increases blood volume, I’ll just throw it out there that perhaps somebody has unlocked the key to understand exactly what type of training can progressively increase blood plasma volume, to make transfusions unnecessary or downright dangerous due to blood pressure. Reference THIS on blood doping & THIS on blood volume for athletes, where it states that endurance athletes could have 30% more blood volume than normal.

We don’t know the extents that sports science is going to to understand this, but we did see Rob Hayles getting tested with a tiny amount over 50% haematocrit before a track race, could he have been a guinea pig for BC developing a means of naturally increasing haematocrit too. All pure speculation, but very interesting to people like myself if this kind of work is going on, I can’t really see why it wouldn’t be going on, it’s a stone they won’t admit to turning over, but one they couldn’t really ignore, the reasons blood manipulation increases performance. Once you know the physiological reasons, you can presumably start work on methods to replicate them without affecting your riders health, I’ll just put that one out there.

The Theory

So once the majority of the riders in the peloton give up EPO use (due to bio passport) & transfusions (due to bio passport & plasticisers test), what happens? Surely the teams & riders who previously relied on very good sports science would rise to the top, while others who relied on doping would be a few steps back, playing catchup for a couple of years, form like Contador now displays. I believe that’s where we are now. The formerly doping riders & teams are now attempting to gain knowledge & manpower in sports science, to get them competitive again, their riders are just as talented as the sports science riders, but the difference now is that the tables have turned, sports science now beats detected doping, if the controls lapse then doping will start overperforming again. We are at the crossroads, I can see next years Tour being very different once the knowledge has spread, we’re in for some exciting races in the next 5 years.

In effect, I think the massive overuse of blood vector doping has provided a platform for extensive study & solutions to counter it. Inadvertantly replicating the effects with some very specific training methods gained from state-of-the-art sports science.

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  1. Extremely interesting read, one thing that it brings up is the psychological effect of “real” performances on the mindset of former dopers. Are we going to see different attempts at unnatural blood manipulation in the interim as teams that previously relied on doping to play catch-up?

    1. I don’t think it’s possible to manipulate their blood to an effective level without getting detected. They can see riders they assume are clean, who are just as talented as themselves performing incredibly well, they’ll go along that path. Nobody really wants to dope, they just see it as necessary to be competitive, if being competitive now involves sports science & technology, surely they’d pursue that without any chance of testing positive.

  2. I suppose that original question shows my embarrassing assumption of the Dick Dastardly-style doper (or ex-doper) who’ll do anything to win in the easiest possible fashion!

    Do you think unnatural blood manipulation will continue in line with any medical advances – presuming there will be new drugs developed in the interim, before the natural haematocrit-increasing techniques become “the norm”?

    1. The blood passport indicates the age of blood cells, so any unnatural manipulation is going to be detected, anything outside what is humanly possible. So there will still be doping, but will the risks for the tiny gains possible within the bio-passport constraints be worth the subtifuge & expense?

  3. It was great to see Froome unleash after last year. Climb times can not really be compared with previous years due to a combination of hot weather yesterday and the pressure on the previous HC climb taking its toll. Froome may be a bit of a heat lover considering his african upbringing.

    What will be interesting to see if we are truly in a post doping era is a lot more variation in form.
    Cadel Evans is great example of a clean rider to compare Froome too. Like Froome, Cadel took a while to find his roadie legs for grand tour after coming over from mountain biking and more importantly Cadel showed that pre tour form is a great guide for performance.
    Do not be surprised if Froome looses this tour to ill health or wear and tear at some point.
    Blood replacement/doping biggest boost was in recovery between stages, if froome is clean i fully expect him to have bad days at some point.

  4. Having spent time enjoying the stage, only for Twitter to explode with theorycraft regarding Froome & Armstrong’s times up Ax 3, there are a few things that came to light.

    Firstly, no-one could agree on if Froome was faster, or 3rd fastest – mainly because people were using different timing points at the base of the climb. Not the best way to start a discussion, I’m sure you’d agree. The stage profiles were also significantly differerent – with the 2001 profile being alot more hill prior to hitting the last 2 major climbs. Not only does the profile have an effect, but when you think that 2 stages earlier they had to ascend Alpe d’Huez – the comparison is beginning to look very weak indeed.

    But then you need to watch the actual stages themselves, and how they played out. By the time Armstrong hit the flat section at the top, he looked completely in control – as they say, he was breathing through a straw, and had alot more left in the tank. Froome on the other hand, was burying himself, trying to extract as much time as he possibly could.

    But it’s not just about what is seen, but about all the variables that are missing from the comparisons. Post-stage, many riders complained about the heat, but as many have pointed out Froome was wearing what someone called a “negligee”. Water was also more readily available (beyond the riding, Quintana’s bottle grab was a thing of beauty).

    How about other variables? Road surface improvements since 2001, crowd position, wind, injuries (to self and team), drafting, technical improvements to bike/equipment, attacks, pre-race preparation, effect of radio comms, etc. If people spent 1 hour looking at all the possible variables, they’d fill a side of A4 with little problem – but instead, the relative times were out with 10 minutes.

    Instead what happens, is people make assumptions about important factors. This isn’t scientific method whatsoever – it’s theorycraft. Feynman would be spinning in his grave if he could see some of the shocking claims made in the name of science.

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