Editor’s Note: Here’s the long-awaited third installment to my series on Floyd Landis and his epic Tour de France and subsequent doping controversy. While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I do have a unique perspective that is based in part upon my career as a professional cyclist and in part upon my education and work in biochemistry and exercise science. If you’re just finding this article for the first time, you might want to read Part I and Part II first. You might also find my views on pharmacological sport performance enhancement interesting or amusing. That post is here.
In part two we talked a bit about doping in cycling and how it is a systematic program and not a fly-by-the-seat of your pants (or fly with the help of a needle more accurately) athlete-as-physician circus act such as the press and the sports governing bodies would like to, and would also like the public to believe. We discussed the stage and how hard the GC contenders had to go on the final climb and finally we saw a quote from Floyd that I believe was an overlooked but enormously important indication of why what happened next well…happened next.
TDF Stage 17 a Miracle on Two Wheels or Something Else?
The 200 kilometer stage 17 from St. Jean de Maurienne to Morzine was the final day in the Alps and represented the last chance any serious TDF contender had of making a significant move in the overall general classification.
On paper this stage didn’t look like a monster. Unless, of course your perspective was colored by the fact that you’d already raced sixteen previous stages including monster climbs in the Pyrenees and the Alpes, and particularly if you’re perspective was also determined by the fatigue you’d added to your already acumulated fatigue by virtue of a leg shattering, lung searing effort on the final climb to the finish at La Toussuire.
The Role of Cumulative Fatigue and Superlative Effort
On the other hand, if your perception was colored by the facts above the seventeenth stage looked like one to be survived – to be endured – it was a perfect stage to let a bunch of no-hopers role on up the road and gain fifteen minutes and suck up all the points for the KOM and the Green Jersey along the way. It looked like the perfect stage to have your lieutenants ride “tempo” all day – just fast enough that no one got any ideas but not so fast that the leaders would have to call upon those weary legs to do anything more than the minimum required to just finish the day in the same GC position as from the day before.
If you’ll recall in Part II of this series I wrote about the effort that the leaders must have made up the final climb to La Toussuire. As you might imagine you pay a price for an effort of this magnitude, a price that is made all that much steeper by the previously acumulated fatigue, by the fact that it was made at the end of a long, hot stage, by the fact that every rider was dehydrated before the effort began and of course by the fact that the following day they had to get back on the bikes and race once more.
You might also recall that I pointed to Floyd’s statement the he could “only go one speed that wasn’t very fast” on that final climb. In other words his bad day – whether he was bonking, fighting a virus, or whatever – so limited his performance that even though he was trying as hard as he possibly could he simply didn’t have the strength or the energy to go any faster or – and this is important- to hurt himself very much.
This last may seem counterintuitive so let me try to help you understand it. Lets say you lift weights. Lets also say you have a coach that is a few points shy of having a genius IQ and he has you do biceps curls every day for a month. Then, on the 31st day he has you try and do your 5 rep maximum.
Now you might try very hard, but if your arms are trashed from the 30 prior days of lifting your five-rep max isn’t going to be all that impressive. What’s more, since you’re probably sore as hell already you’re not going to be able to push yourself so hard that you’d make yourself all that much sorer. In fact, the impact of your five-rep-max effort would probably be so minimal that on the 32nd day you wouldn’t be any more sore than you were on the 31st day, follow?
Now on the other hand, lets say you have a coach that’s a bit more capable and he has you train biceps only once every five days – he knows that your maximum strength and recovery capabilities are going to be on the fifth or sixth day post your last effort. So he has you train biceps only five times during that same month and then on the 30th day (which will be five days after your most recent biceps workout) he has you do a five-rep-max. I can guarantee that you will absolutely crush your five rep max from the prior coach. Your arms will have been fresh, but well trained and totally recovered.
Fresh enough and well enough recovered in fact that they’ll be strong enough to allow you to do an awful lot of damage to yourself in those five reps. I can also promise that you’ll be sore beyond belief on the first and second days after your big effort.
This same principle is at work in the tour. Floyd was too fatigued and flat on the stage to La Toussuire to do himself much physical damage, but the other riders, the ones that were taking it to Floyd on that final climb felt better and they had the adrenaline of a cracking tour leader coursing through their veins. They buried themselves. In fact they did themselves so much damage that I am surprised that more of them didn’t crack completely the following day.
To Drink or To Chase, That Was the Question
But that’s not all by a long shot. If you look at the route on the seventeenth stage you’ll see that it was tailor made for a long break by a small group or an individual. The course was serpentine and undulating with small, winding roads that make it especially hard for a team to get a big chase organized and rolling. It’s also tough on a course like that to see what is happening up the road.
The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” is really true and on a course like the seventeenth stage it was possible to get out of site almost right away and from then on the peloton never saw the leaders again the whole day.
The other thing that the seventeenth stage made difficult was for the riders in the peloton to get enough to drink. With the small narrow roads the cars couldn’t come up next to the peloton which meant that the domestiques had to keep dropping back and ferrying water to their respective team leaders.
This was also a difficult situation – if the same guys that you need to be up front chasing are constantly going back to fetch water they aren’t going to have enough left in their legs to mount an effective chase.
Plus, with that many riders packed together and people getting nervous about the rider up the road the pace was probably very uneven which meant that there were likely brief accelerations where everyone was going nearly flat out followed by extended lulls where the pace dropped to barely 22 miles per hour.
In contrast Floyd, alone in front, had a car right there feeding him water whenever he wanted it. In fact you saw on the coverge that he was actually dowsing himself with water – you won’t see any footage of the guys in the peloton doing that. They needed every ounce of water they had just to keep minimally hydrated.
The same thing goes for food. When you’re alone or in a small break, it is a lot easier to get the food you want and to eat it without worrying about someone crashing next to you or someone attacking just as you grabbed a musette bag full of snacks.
Floyd was also able to ride at a steady tempo. No huge accelerations, no big lulls, just a steady, AT effort for several hours.
These Guys Forgot Who They Where Dealing With
It’s important to mention something else here too. Did all the guys in the peloton forget Floyd’s background? A moutain bike world cup race is basically a two kilometer sprint flat out, followed by blowing up and then scraping yourself together and riding at your AT for the next three to four hours. Funny, that sounds a lot like the way Floyd rode the seventeenth stage, doesn’t it?
When you take all these factors and add them up, it doesn’t take illegal drugs to balance the equation – it seems to me that it balances pretty nicely all by itself.
Let’s examine it in summary, shall we:
- The riders that rode away from Floyd on stage 16 nuked themselves in the process
- Floyd was so flat on the final climb of stage 16 that he couldn’t hurt himself nearly so much
- The peloton rode a very uneven pace on stage 16 while Floyd was able to ride steadily
- It was nearly impossible for riders in the peloton to stay hydrated during the 17th stage
- Floyd was able to hydrate very effectively during the 17th stage
- Floyd was able to get and stay out of sight easily on the 17th stage
- The domestiques that had to fetch water were also the ones that were supposed to be mounting a chase on the 17th stage, a task that was all but impossible given their own fatigue, the small winding roads and their leader’s need for water that they had to fetch from the cars following the race
- Floyd was a pro mountain biker, very familiar with and exceptionally well-suited for an effort just like the one he made on the 17th stage.
In summary it seems to me that when you take all these facts and lay them out before you on the table, any rational person is going to see that there are plenty of reasons to explain the respective performances of Floyd and the other riders in the Tour.
Yes, it was an exceptional effort. But was also the culmination of a series of factors and events that created a “perfect storm” for a miraculous solo win. Also, don’t underestimate the fact that this was an enormous tactical blunder on the part of all the teams that should never have let Floyd gain so much time. By the time these guys realized that they had an emergency on their hands it was already too late to do anything about it.
Honestly – and I hope by now you can see that I really do call it the way I see it – I don’t see how you need doping to explain Floyd’s results on this stage. Far from it. I think that the facts that are readily apparent to all concerned, facts that can be conclusively demonstrated to be true, definitively prove that Floyd’s performance can be completely explained without resorting to speculation about doping.
Needles? We Don’t Need No Stinking Needles
I’ll save the lengthy explanation about why using testosterone would have been one of the most ludicrous decisions imagineable for another post as I’m sure I’ve given you plenty to think about already today. Before we wrap this up though let me remind you of what I said before: that on a Tour team of the caliber of Floyd’s the doping is not left up to the riders. The doctors know this stuff as well as anyone – certainly as well as I do so I am absolutely certain that no one on Floyd’s team stuck him with testosterone before the stage. I think that Floyd would have had a pretty tough time finding testosterone to shoot up with too. Remember that in previous tours teams and riders had been raided in the middle of the night – recall people even going through the garbage in Lance’s room after he departed from motels during his final tour.
I hardly think that Floyd (as the American leader who was clearly under the microscope) would have been wandering around with syringes and testosterone in his bag or some tube of transdermal testosterone gel in his personal effects. Puhlease. Why didn’t the “investigation” into his alleged doping ask any of these sensible questions?
Anyway, I’ll delve into the myriad reasons why only a moron would have used testosterone in my final post on this topic. I hope you’ve enjoyed this one. Please let me know what you think in the comments.
Oh- and I promise I won’t take another four months to write the final installment. Oliver