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Comment: drowning in cycling’s data deluge

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Art versus science: does modern cycling’s growing obsession with numbers threaten its romance?

Photographs: BrakeThrough Media

I’ve never been a science person. My eyes used to glaze over during biology lessons at school. The same thing has been happening recently with professional cycling and the increasing use of buzzwords and puzzling acronyms. Watts, HRM, BPM – WTF?

 

More and more professional riders seem fixated on the numbers from their power meters. The best cycle fitters use lasers to obtain the perfect position. It’s filtered down to us rank-and-file too: Strava means a distillation of times and speeds on every bike ride, be it a century or a commute.

 

We’re heading into a data revolution in professional cycling, previously a lo-fi sport comparatively uncolonised by metrics and analytics. Knowledge is often power, especially in the fight against doping, and it is good to have precise answers for what we’re seeing. But are we losing something in the process?

 

Firstly, we rarely get the precise answers we seek. As important as the data itself is the person evaluating it. Take Chris Froome’s recent physiological test: we learned information like his weight, VO2 max, peak power in watts and OFF-score. Very few qualified folk can intelligently analyse that together – and they did, presenting informed accounts to the public. That didn’t stop so many more from speculating or touting their own agendas.

 

Froome’s test was the latest in a creeping trend. As Timothy John wrote on this website a couple of months back, we are drowning in information and starving for knowledge. At its best, data can be a force for good, able to substantiate what we see; at its worst, it is a blunt tool which perpetuates agendas or skews important issues, such as in the Pierre Sallet-Tim Kerrison debate over the wide range of watts per kilo for Chris Froome (below) at the 2015 Tour de France. Even clear-cut science is sometimes unable to stop the games of ‘he says, she says’.

 

Chris Froome by BrakeThrough Media

 

I’d wager the reason most people fall in love with cycling is the art rather than the science, spectacular feats above physiological fascination or empirical numbers.

 

This sport is not done or won on testing rigs in sterile laboratories, it is replete with myth and legends, far-flung – and sometimes far-fetched – feats on queen stages through bad weather or with 200-kilometre solo breakaways, the kind of exploits which leave commentators and fans open-mouthed, thinking ‘how on earth did he do that?’

 

Much of our attraction to professional cycling is subjective and romantic, wrapped up in inexplicable things. Why does one develop strange attachments to a certain gaudy jersey design or a small French race; to the plucky, small rider who wins by playing it crafty; or the powerhouse huffing and puffing in a solo break?

 

It’s very personal. And I acknowledge there will be those who love data, obsess over riders’ watts per kilo and crave the latest gadgets. Me, I haven’t had a cycling computer or anything like it for several years. I know when I’m pedalling easy or going hard, and certainly don’t need anything to tell me the precise, pitiful number of miles per hour I’m registering when busting a gut in the saddle.

 

Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

 

In the fight to quantify everything we see, I feel we risk losing some of the emotional element to the sport. Yes, a Tour contender weighs this much, has such-and-such VAM and pushed so many watts in his training ride. That data is dryer than a plate of Christmas turkey. What does it actually tell me about the man?

 

In Froome’s case, for instance, I’m more stirred by the fact he raced his debut Tour de France in 2008, weeks after the death of his mother. Sure, we know how his maximum BPMs, but that’s true heart.

 

Of course, I don’t deny the importance of data and physiological testing; it is a great aid. Besides, resistance is futile: being all King Canute about this would mean ending up with wet ankles. In the future, we will only know more about the inner workings of a cycling champion and how a winning ride is done. I welcome that, done carefully and moderately.

 

The worry is that there could be an over-reliance on it – from riders and analysts – and racing will be distilled to more of a physiological Top Trumps.

 

Photo of Lieuwe Westra: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media | www.brakethroughmedia.com

 

All the numbers only tell you so much. Mark Cavendish stepped off an early-season lab test halfway through two years ago. “I ride a bike like no one else does,” he said afterwards. “I’m not efficient on a stationary bike because you can’t ‘use’ it.”

 

So, remember, the data is just one piece of the complex jigsaw puzzle.  What lends cycling its wonder is the unpredictables; what makes champions are elements like mentality, application, willpower, character and instinctive moves in certain moments during races. Try plotting those on a graph.

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