Was Contador up to Verbier so unbelievable?

The 15th stage of the 2009 Tour de France will be remembered as the day where Alberto Contador finally took the yellow jersey and with it, control of the race. He danced away from his rivals on the summit finish up to Verbier and having previously been within a couple of seconds of Armstrong on G.C., he finished over a minute and a half up on the returning Texan. However, instead of a celebration of aggressive racing, this stage has now become known for the ongoing debate over whether Contador’s speed up the climb was a plausible feat without the aid of performance enhancing drugs.

The argument has been voiced by many including Greg Lemond. The three time Tour winner has said that to climb up to Verbier at the speed that Contador maintained would require the Spaniard to have a VO2 Max of 99.5. A rider’s VO2 Max is a measure of the ability the transport and utilise oxygen around the body and is measured in units of milliliters per kilogram per minute. Over at sportsscientists.com there is an excellent article which delves into the mathematics of it all. Suffice it to say that a VO2 Max of 99.5 is unheard of in a human being. Miguel Indurain had a reported value of 88 during his Tour winning years, and even Lance Armstrong ‘only’ had an estimated value of 84.

Until Alberto Contador tests positive for a banned substance I will continue to be amazed by his performances rather than be bogged down with cynicism. Is it so unfathomable that he could have produced such a feat of human physical fitness? I find two problems with the arguments against the legitimacy of Contador’s performance.

Firstly, a mathematical problem. To accurately measure a person’s VO2 Max you need to either place them in a controlled environment and measure their outputs with scientific equipment or you can insert values into an equation to make an estimate based on a particular performance.

Now, the allegations aimed towards Contador have been based on this VO2 Max figure of 99.5 which is after all, only an estimate. There are many equations available to produce an estimate of a VO2 Max. The most reliable of which requires prior knowledge of the rider’s resting heart rate and maximum heart rate, figures which I’m not sure either Greg Lemond or trainer Antoine Vayer who initially made the estimate had available to them. The other equations for estimating VO2 Max do not fully take local conditions into account such as temperature, gradient or wind speed. Therefore, comparisons of Contador’s performance based on this ‘calculated’ VO2 Max value are baseless.

The second problem I find with the allegations aimed at Contador is more theoretical. In a previous article I alluded to the fact that more and more in recent years cyclists have focused their performance on one or two specific races in the calendar each year. It is impossible for a cyclist to maintain peak physical performance for the entire season. Therefore, training régimes are created to ensure that each cyclist peaks at the right time in the year, for the right race. Obviously, Contador’s race of preference is the Tour de France. All the races he entered before July were simply used as preparation for this one race.

To take this a step further, it is also unlikely that a rider can maintain a fitness peak for the entire length of the Tour, 23 days. As such, a rider will start the Tour as he is approaching peak fitness. This peak will be reached precisely at the most important day of the race and then the peak will begin to fall off. It is probable that Alberto Contador had ear-marked Stage 15 as the day he would attack and take the yellow jersey. It was one of only three summit finishes in the race, it came after a number of rolling stages and the position of the stage within the three weeks was perfect, just at the start of the third week, leaving only six days left to defend the jersey.

Another point to supplement this argument is the age at which cyclists peak in their careers. Many believe that the peak age for a cyclist is in their early thirties. I think that a cyclist peaks much younger. In fact, Merckx won his five Tours between the ages of 24 and 29, Anquetil between 23 and 30 and Hinault won his first four Tours before he turned 28. Why it takes so long for some riders to reach their potential in terms of results is simply the pecking order that lies within a professional cycling team. Why should the established riders in a team bow to the services of a younger rider who hasn’t won anything of note? Conversely, how does a young rider win anything when he is never designated as a team leader for a race? Even though a young rider could have greater  fitness and ability than a team leader, it takes time to rack up minor victories and work your way up the pecking order to finally command the respect and services of a team of domestiques.

Obviously there are exceptions, but it requires a rider of remarkable talent like Andy Schleck, Mark Cavendish or indeed Alberto Contador to become leader of a cycling team at a young age. Contador was 26 and a half when he took 20:55 to ascend the final summit on Stage 15 of the 2009 Tour de France. Yes it was a remarkable performance. Yes it deserves to be analysed and questioned. But is such a performance so unlikely given that on the 19th July 2009, Alberto Contador could possibly have been in the best physical shape he has ever been or ever will be?

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  1. Mark Florence - January 6, 2013 @ 2:42 pm


    Fan of the “this week” podcasts…anyway, going through your archieves here, any change in your opinion given “recent” events? Do you know if anyone has done a watts/kg analysis of this stage?

    On another matter, I would be very interested to see if anyone has done a w/kg analysis with some recent classics races. I think of a few years ago when Cancellara was accused as having motor, and this year the way Boonen rode away at PR. Damn me for being skeptical, but in hindsight, when I see performances that look too good to be true, I have to start trusting my eyes. Everyones focus is on the grand tours, but the classics are as much an achievement for non-stage racers, and you seldom, if ever hear speculation about the advantage in those events. I would think the effect of a blood bag or some similar enhancement would be huge at the end of a long classics race, especially if a rider can be shielded somewhat by a team throughout a race. Keep up the good work.

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