The most captivating moments of this year’s Tour de France, for me, came on the soggy final climb of stage eight on day one in the Alps. Mike Woods, the injury-prone Canadian under-four-minute miler who started cycling as a form of cross-training in his twenties (and whose racing exploits I covered for his hometown newspaper, the Citizen of Ottawa, almost two decades ago), launched an all-out bid for a stage victory.
Woods crossed the penultimate climb of Cat 1, the Col de Romme, more than a minute ahead of his rivals. But the final ascent, the Col de la Colombière, involved nearly five miles of ascent at an average grade of 8.5 percent and little by little Woods’ margin started to melt. If he got to the top with a lead, there was a good chance he would hang on to the stage victory. But it soon became clear that it would only be a matter of seconds either way. Had he attacked too soon, or not soon enough? Too hard, or not hard enough? Or had he, as I desperately hoped, understood correctly?
A few days after the end of the Tour, I had the chance to chat with Paulo Saldanha, longtime Woods coach and performance director of his team, Israel Start-Up Nation, about how these decisions that change the race are caught in the heat. of a stage of the Tour. I first met Paulo in the mid-1990s when he was a former professional triathlete pursuing a master’s degree in exercise physiology at McGill University (where we both trained with the cross country). He had just founded PowerWatts, an early example of the data-driven and technology-driven approach that now dominates cycling. The tools and data feeds he has nowadays exceed anything he could have imagined back then, but, as he told me, that doesn’t mean racing performance is never fully predictable. . Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Everyone has a plan, but …
I had a mental picture of some sort of Dr. Evil-esque control room with a lot of screens and real-time data and so on, where the big decisions about tactics are made. In reality, the Tour imposes strict limits on the data that can be transmitted and received during the race. The governing body of professional cycling, the Union Cycliste Internationale, even attempted to ban two-way radio communication a decade ago, but ultimately backed down in the face of opposition from cyclists and teams.
This means that team managers can communicate with their runners, but they cannot micromanage every movement. “People have this misconception that everything is planned,” says Saldanha. “It’s such a chaotic sport that the best runners are able to live in this context of chaos, and able to subjectively sniff out, based on their experience, the best time to go. A guy like Dan Martin has a good nose for that. And it is very dependent on the cyclist. A guy like Mike who started out late in the sport still develops that sense. “
Still, the team makes meticulous preparation before each step, developing preferred strategies and back-up plans. They produce a heat map that divides the race into a dozen or more individual segments, color coding each segment with the ideal approach for each runner. Green means ‘conservative’, when you are sitting in the pack and saving energy. Yellow means “light up”, for example if it is a section where the servants have to watch the breaks of other teams. Red is for “attention”, if there is a narrow course where positioning is crucial or a decisive climb. Blue is for the ‘bonus’, once the formal duties of the support riders are completed for the day and they can ride as they wish.
Next to the heat map are individual notes on strategy at different stages of the race: for example, everything in Stage 15 revolved around giving Martin a chance to win the stage and helping Woods continue the race. polka dot jersey of the king of the mountain. . “What we would like to do often falls victim to the thousands of variables that come into play when the race actually takes place,” admits Saldanha. “I would say we probably have a 30-40% success rate to be able to implement the strategy. “
The cyclist as a player-coach
Once the race has started, the runners are on their own. Even radio contact can be messy if they stray too far from the team car, so the goal is to give riders enough information about their bikes so that they can function as coach-players if needed. . Saldanha and his team worked with Hammerhead to develop a module for their Karoo 2 bike computers that essentially substitutes for what the sporting director, the field boss of a cycling team, would normally be shouting into the runner’s ear on a big climb: the gradient is on each stretch of the climb, how it changes on the next turn, how long you have to go to the top.
This CLIMBER module, which is similar to Garmin’s ClimbPro feature, was hurriedly launched for this year’s Tour and was also made available to the general public at the same time. (See DC Rainmaker’s review for a deeper dive into its features. It was then updated several times during the Tour itself, based on rider feedback, to optimize details.
“A guy like Mike can take this tool and say, OK, I know my sweet spot is, say, 4-12 minutes at anything above 12% where the other guys have to get up,” said Saldanha. “And if it’s not a headwind, it’s a perfect storm of success opportunities for Mike. So we use it to find these opportunities live within a race. “
And Saldanha has other dreams about what the bike computer might show in the future. “I would like to put in a visual of your anaerobic reserve battery, with our own algorithm which depends on the rider and shows how much of your anaerobic reserve you have burned on the climb, and at that rate how much are you going to burn on the top of the hill. climb.
This is a really powerful idea, because anaerobic reserve (what I’m calling W ‘in this article) is a great predictor of whether you’re going to crack on the climb. Anytime you ride above your lasting critical power, you’re draining that battery; each time you drop back below critical power, the battery will begin to recharge. Hit zero and your pace will drop off a cliff. Woods’ fundamental challenge at Col de la Colombière was to judge perfectly his effort to exhaust his anaerobic battery from the top, then let it recharge on the descent.
The problem with data
Much of the fun of watching Woods on the Colombiere was that I wasn’t sure if he had correctly assessed his battery level. And neither did he! As he trudged through the climb, victory and defeat remained plausible for the rider as well as for the spectator. But would it be also fun if, by giving Woods a real-time readout of his own physiological state, you removed that uncertainty?
Saldanha gave me an overview of the vast treasures of data the team collects before and after races, using files downloaded from each runner’s power meter and heart rate monitor, as well as other sources of information. data such as continuous glucose monitors, pulse oximeters, etc. For each stage of the Tour, for example, they estimate each runner’s calorie needs within a narrow range, then use the post-race power data to verify their prediction, which is correct 91% of the time. For stage 11, which included two climbs of Mont Ventoux, the forecast for German powerhouse André Greipel, by far the biggest man on the team, was 5,816 calories. He ended up burning 6,080, a reminder that by some metrics sprinters need to work harder than anyone in the mountains.
In addition to objective data, they also collect a lot of subjective data. After each race, all athletes, mechanics and managers give themselves five point scores in categories such as fitness, health, race IQ, attitude and equipment. If a low grade pattern appears, it indicates a problem that needs to be addressed.
The list of things you can measure, graph and analyze these days is endless, which means Saldanha has to hold back: “We have to be careful about how much data we collect on these guys. They are not robots, you know? And the same restraint applies to what he tells runners. “It’s easy for me to see so much value in it that I over-educate runners about things they don’t need to know,” he says. “I had to learn to watch it sometimes and just say nothing. Because they don’t need to know anything, there is nothing to worry about, they are good.
As for the bigger philosophical question of what the assault on big data means for sports, Saldanha acknowledges the risks. “I like the way the Tour de France has gone this year. While we could see Pogacar was head and shoulders above it, there were elements of unpredictability, breakaways where you thought, Wow, why don’t they pursue this? As a physiologist, he craves more and better data to help his athletes get the best of themselves. But as a viewer, he likes question marks, surprises, and maybe even mistakes.
Woods did not succeed. Belgian Dylan Teuns passed him shortly before the summit, followed by two other riders. But Woods held on during the descent and rallied on the last mile to secure a podium spot with a third place finish. “I can’t be disappointed, however,” he said after the race. “I ran to win. And sometimes when you run to win, you will lose.
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