26 February 2008

2001: a RACE ODYSSEY (Looking back to Lance's victory)

Fellow ZEN'ers, this is an absolutely priceless treasure you are about to read.

In vacuuming out the kilobytic cobwebs from the ZEN Central laptop, wondrous eyes came across the following translation of an article, that appeared in the French magazine Vélo, back in that fate and destiny–filled month of September, 2001.

This English translation is a pre–ZENmud effort, originally shared with friends on the Yahoo! Group 'EuroBIKE' grouplist sometime that fall or winter.

It's an important read for the WADAwatch or ZENmud audiences, for two reasons:

  • It offers a thorough and semi–scientific analysis of the 2001 Tour de France performance by the greatest tour de France victor of this modern era – Lance Armstrong – and, more importantly,
  • It may be one of the last French articles that admitted that Lance displayed a supra-normal capacity to train and to 'understand' his physiological capabilities, with a methodology that remains a quality that did set Armstrong apart, and above, the average or way–above–average Tour cyclists.

[It should be noted that this translation, for the purposes of copyright law, is properly protected as a 'Fair Use' exemption as educational material which would not otherwise be found translated in English. Finally, the interspersed notes within the text are those from 2001: only minor changes were effected this weekend, to 'disappear' some evidence of poorer French competence some seven years ago.]

Enjoy this 'Time Tunnel' experience!

'Profil de Killer’

(vélo Magazine; N° 379, September 2001)

Doped, or not? With each of his victories in the Tour de France, the question comes back onto Lance Armstrong. However, the American is a grand champion, worth more than this sterile debate. July brought ‘tangible’ elements on which one attempts, in five points, to define the real ‘profile’ of the racer.

By Fréd. Grappe

[An Abridged ZENmud translation: “LA” is Lance Armstrong,
some paragraphs have been split without other edits...]

The Tour has just finished, and again Lance Armstrong had a crushing victory over his rival Jan Ullrich. As in earlier years at this time, the same questions arise over his astonishing fashion of finding seconds in the mountain stages and time trials, in always ‘spinning’ [‘moulinant’: 'like a millwheel'] faster than his competitors. Over the last fifteen years, the striking image was that of racers pedaling in a much slower fashion.

Today, one has the impression that the videos are accelerated when watching the racer from Texas. However, the “Armstrong case” passes beyond what regarding him would suggest. [‘depasse ce que le regard peut suggerer’]

Armstrong’s arrogant success along the Tour routes - in time trials and in the mountains - seems to hold in a large part to the “mental” faculty he has to optimize his rate of energy expenditure as a function of the course’s characteristics, the terrain’s topology and the intensity of furnished effort necessary.


Tenth stage – (Aix–les–Bains to L’Alpe d’Huez): Look at how LA won in analyzing his strategy 'du jour'.

Four Cols on the menu, 209 km.

Roux was the lone breakaway until climbing L’Alpe d’Huez. The battle started at the base of the climb, Armstrong having been ‘hidden’ in the leaders’ peloton all day. Strategy, to show the signs of a ‘really bad day,’ and make the others believe it. During the long day in windy conditions, this advantaged LA by allowing him to stay buried behind the few taking turns cutting the wind. [recalling mostly Telekom?]

LA’s estimated average power values on the two prior Cols (Madeleine: 24.8 KM at 6.3%; Glandon: 19.9 KM at 7.3%) were, respectively 360W (5.2 W/kg) and 340W (4.9W/kg). These are relatively high power levels, but no greater than a large enough number of racers are capable of: there were a sizable number of racers (and French) that were in the pack of leaders. The Glandon numbers show how Roux was able to conserve his lead; the leaders weren’t rolling intensely: arriving at the base of l’Alpe d’Huez “with strength” was on everyone’s strategic plan. Yet, some were ‘in the red’ already.

In this phase, LA rolled with relatively the same pedaling frequency as his competitors. He hadn’t put the ‘windmill’ into action! Explanation: rolling in a climb of average intensity, in a basically aerobic condition (and efficient oxygen utilization) as LA was pre-d’Huez, served to increase the ability to oxygenate the muscles, using strength while preserving the greater part of his energy reserves for the end of the race. This rate is defined by the relation of the power developed (Watts) divided by the oxygen consumed (VO2). As such, during the climb, there is a correspondence between the oxygen-consumption values and the power level generated. Power level is a value of force onto the pedal and cadence of pedaling. Yet, for any generated power level, there can be a variety of VO2 readings based on the number of force-cadence choices utilized. Therefore there are optimal values for force and cadence, to develop the level of power using the littlest oxygen possible. A graph of this relation shows a U-shape: VO2 rates are elevated when the force used is high and cadence slow, and again when force is weaker and cadence elevated while in both cases the power developed is the same. Oxygen use is elevated in slow-cadence situations due to a too-high muscular tension; on the other hand, high–frequency pedaling often results in ‘gesticulation’ by the racer and results also in being oxygen–costly. The optimal frequency for sustained climbing is around [+/-] 80 rpm.
In this case, it’s no use to turn the legs too fast. It would become too energy-costing, and more, while an important Col lies ahead. 80 rpm was the observed cadence with LA and a number of the racers surrounding him. However, others in the group were certainly under this optimal rate.

(photo: Lance and Floyd on
Col de la Faucille, above Geneva,
ZENmud copyright 2004)

(la ‘moulinette gagnante’)

Now, when the race is heading to its climax, the rhythm augments significantly, the race's principal actors ready for the finale, strategy changes; including rate of power used in terms of force-cadence. As in a time-trial, the goal is to climb this last section (d’Huez) in the most rapid time possible. To not worry about physical repercussions that could follow. This was where LA put to the test his strategic “winning windmill” technique while the others were planted in their habitual low-frequency methods. Even with an elevated cost of energy to commence pedaling at 100 rpm, the resulting speed gain is a benefit.

In summing it up, augmenting the pedaling rpm in a critical exercise of power (to anaerobic limits) permits to increase 'running speed' of movement [‘de déplacement’)] all while optimizing oxygen-consumption. In fact, it’s the best bio–mechanical compromise.

Climbing d’Huez, 14.1 KM at 7.9 per cent, LA averaged 430 Watts of power (6.3W / 22.1 km/h). This impressive average level, sustained throughout the 38 minutes, included a cadence between 90 – 100 rpm. At 80 rpm, the gearing used must have been at 4.61 m (39x18), at 90 rpm, 4.09 m (39x20 OR 21) and at 100 rpm 3.86 m (39x22 OR 23). Knowing this, it serves to have a freewheel without ‘gaps’; to be able to optimize cadence with the intensity of the moment. LA thus utilized a freewheel going just to 23 teeth, with progressive spacing. Some racers use gearings that jump two teeth: this often has a negative effect to maintaining optimal cadences. So, racers ‘submit’ to the slope, instead of ‘accommodating’ it. Just what they DON’T want to do.

In the following stages, LA economized in much the same way, during the first 90% of each stage, then going for it in the finals. This was to do nothing other than apply the well-founded techniques now well-known that report that, as power augments, the faster the frequency must be, rising equally to minimize energy spent. [. … .] LA in effect furnished about 45 minutes of effort a day, in the finals of the mountain stages. He knew also that doing this for a series of days in a row would force him to ‘leave some feathers’ on the course. Let’s check those figures.

Stage – Foix to Saint-Lary-Soulan (194 KM); six Cols. Jalabert’s great day … LA didn’t catch him until with only 5 KM left to Pla d’Adet. Jaja did Portillon (8.4 KM at 7.3%), Peyresourde (13 KM at 7%), Val-Louron-Azet (7.4 KM at 8.3%) at the following estimated power levels, respectively: 350W (5.1W /kg), 320W (4.7 W/kg), 310W (4.5W /kg). The values decline, as Jaja fatigued, doing the lonesome cowboy.[’faisait cavalier seul’] In Portillon, even, his effort was rather strong. Yet the group with LA had made up time in every climb. For Armstrong, on Peyresourde and Val-Louron-Azet, his values were estimated for both climbs at 370W (5.3W /kg), showing a good tempo. Yet, also showing it was not as high as at L’Alpe d’Huez. Still, Armstrong’s efforts on the last two climbs would show up in the next day’s analysis.

stage – Tarbes to Luz-Ardiden (144.5 KM) : Three big Cols: Aspin (12.1 KM at 6.5%) Tourmalet (16.9 at 7.4%) and to Luz-Ardiden (13.4 KM at 7.5%). Armstrong & Co. did la Tourmalet at an average of 350W (5W /kg) . As is his habit, LA exploded in effort to Luz with an impressive 430W (6.2 W/kg), nearly duplicating his d’Huez performance. Clearly, LA can turn it up a level on command, exposing his full potential after riding hours without anaerobic efforts.

What can one say, however, about racers who do not or cannot augment their cadence while augmenting their power? They have every chance to induce:

  1. an augmentation of the mechanic constraint imposed on the lower muscles and joints coming from the high tension developed; effects can include blocking of capillaries, alterations of blood flow and muscular pains;

  2. lactate buildup in the muscles, producing the well-known fatigue to legs and arms;

  3. neuromuscular fatigue, corresponding to central and peripheral sensations;

On the other hand, augmenting the cadence can reduce the accumulation of lactates in the active muscles by the diminishing of the force furnished. This would retard the onset of fatigue sensations. Muscular trauma is also reduced, recuperation is better.


LA is simply using well-founded scientific principles. He can augment his cadence because he can ‘turn it up’ on demand. Having his “fast” pedaling technique allows him to do something Jan Ullrich just cannot do – he is locked into his classic, heavy-pedaling style. LA’s supple pedaling includes good elevation of the heel on each upstroke, gives a slight release in the muscle tension and an optimal pulling of the pedal by the rising leg. But the key to that is perfect coordination. Thanks to this technique that is associated with excellent pelvic alignment on the saddle and the shoulders with the handlebars, he can optimize cadence. Did these discoveries come to LA via his SRM crankset, which measures power developed, and hyper-pushing his training? Or has someone guided him and coached him into this high search for excellence? Is there always no mystery about that or is it that he just can, in mountains and time-trials, employ these techniques? Easier to understand why Ullrich is blocked – he cannot adjust for augmented force with an elevated cadence: he cannot find the good connection between force and cadence at the crucial daily moments. He doesn’t have the reserve of a fast cadence in his training program. However, while Ullrich could be potentially stronger than LA, Armstrong however, with his bursts of speed, develops a power advantage grace of his extraordinary velocity. If Ullrich could augment his cadence 5 to 10 rpm without losing his level of force, we’d be watching a ‘match equal’ between the two. Ullrich should do so, as it is easier to train to spin faster than to augment force levels.

[French for climbing out-of-saddle]

One other dominating factor for LA is his ability to alternate time spent in the saddle with that spent ‘dancing’ on the pedals: this created big differences in the mountains. Again, a bio–medical explanation clears it up. Switching from one position to the other (standing to sitting and reversed) relieves the muscles which strain in one position and not the other. LA can work in alternation, on the two sets of muscle combinations, optimizing again his expenditure of energy. Even with ‘dancing’ taking more energy, the gain in force is higher and the reduced effort expended by the muscles which are primarily used when sitting is a benefit. By dancing into a heavy acceleration, LA initiated each of his daily victorious attacks. That permitted him to make a difference in only two kilometers, with an augmented level of force. Afterwards, he ‘played an equal game’ with Ullrich and the other leaders, settling for that earned advantage and then marking time to the finish. Just normal as he recuperated from the effort. Preserving the cadence used at that point, permits LA to not explode, optimising energy expenditures.

His domination in the mountains rests principally on the ability to alternate from sitting to dancing, at one optimal cadence and with a energy reserve allowing the accelerations. One must know that such reserves improves with training. That training forces the body to accept working in a state of lactic acidosis (in the presence of toxins) after the difficult-to-support training sessions.

To climb while dancing, at a fast cadence, Armstrong-style, requires a good mastery of flexibility, an excellent fixation of the pelvic basin and the shoulders, and a special pedaling dynamic that is difficult to master without long and intense training. With each leg extension, while holding his body far forward allows him to push very efficiently, almost as a sprint runner pushes on the starting blocks. One thing is certain, after specific training, to climb a Col at an elevated cadence both sitting and standing is very much possible.


In a flat time-trial, performance is largely dependant on a critical power elevation (anaerobic ceiling) and a very aerodynamic position. Uncontestable that LA possesses the former, starting with the high-cadence factor. Once again, that permitted him to expend energy optimally. Yet his other talent is the result from wind-tunnel testing the optimal riding position. Nothing is left to chance, as for example his helmet’s form, adapted to his body lines. The entire rear half is enclosed, so no air enters, and ‘drags.’ The helmet is an important element in the diminution of drag turbulence behind the head of any racer. Forearm position on the pads of the aeros, and their spacing on the bars, are perfect. Even more, LA’s high pedaling cadence ALSO helps diminish slightly the air penetration equation (confidential information!). Being aerodynamic is so important because for any given position, the power developed evolves in function of the cube of the air speed.

This implies that the more the speed is elevated, the more the variation of power must be significant to augment even slightly the speed. The position astride the bike determines what we call the SCx (drag coefficient), a function of the frontal surface (a shadow projection from the front serves well) and the racer’s form (round back, flat back). As such, shrinking the SCx 10 per cent has direct repercussions on developed power by augmenting significantly the speed. [? ‘vitesse de deplacement’] Profiled helmet, forearms very close and the flattest head-spine line possible could reduce the SCx as much as 5, 3 and 10 per cent respectively, or cumulatively 18 per cent SCx reduction (SCx passing from 0.28 m2
to 0.23 m2) .

In the first 13.5 KM of the time-trial to Chamrousse, Armstrong was the ONLY of the favorites to have a helmet. And it was he, that rolled at the highest speed at this part of the course, doing 41.2 km/h against 40.8 for Ullrich. A difference of 0.4 km/h corresponds exactly to that which one gains with an aero helmet. Why did the other racers not do the same thing? Certainly because that appeared no sweat to skip it for only 13 km. But why hasn’t Jan ever effected the wind tunnel tests (even if his position seems already very aerodynamic)?

Armstrong won the TT in managing his effort in two times: The first flat half (0 – 13.5km at 1.6 per cent), where LA was estimated at 370W (5.3 W/ kg). A priori, his departure was prudent. In revenge, the second climbing part (13.5 – 21.5 km at 8.1 per cent and then 21.5 – 32 km at 6.1 per cent) was measured at 410W (5.9 W/ kg). The previous evening, he’d climbed d’Huez at an average of 430W for 38 minutes. Normally, with an exercise of slightly more than an hour’s duration, his strength would be lower.

Back at the prologue (Dunkirk – 8.2 km), the specialists were all tricked out, from helmet to spokes. Obviously nothing is left to hazard. Attention to the smallest detail; positions are studied and restudied. Estimates for the first five finishers show about 470 to 450W. This type of effort corresponds universally to an supercritical exercise realized between the critical intensity (Red zone or anaerobic ceiling) and the maximum optimal aerobic power. That’s done at roughly 90 per cent of the PMA [No definition…] It is physiologically impossible to sustain such a high level of effort for more than 15 minutes.

In reality, the mastery of effort for such a prologue is physiologically more complex in its analysis. Moreover, the performance is bio–mechanically dependant on the relation between developed power and the SCx (power/SCx). The ideal is to develop maximum watts and minimizing the friction induced by the bike/ racer ensemble, who passes swiftly through the relatively still air molecules. Weight is primarily a factor when re–accelerating. Prologue results show that LA did not pass a PMA superior to other participants (which should be somewhat encouraging, somehow).

That suggests that the performances he established elsewhere are essentially dependent on the manner in which he exploits his aerobic potential (oxygen utilization). One can think that he’s capable of exploiting a percentage of oxygen consummation very high from his training realized in ‘critical strength mode’ which corresponds just right with his other performances up final ascents and in the TTs.

One more information that could permit to bring back LA and his performances ‘to earth.’ During the last TT (Montlucon – Saint-Amand-Montrod; 61 km), which LA won, if Didier Rous had rolled with a more aerodynamic position, he wouldn’t be far from an nearly-equal match with Armstrong. In fact, given his position (SCx estimated at 0.25 m2
) one can say that Rous did the TT at an average of 370W. This same measure gave LA force to roll at an average of 49.2 km/ h and to take 2’25” on Rous (time split between them at finish), based on LA’s better aero position gave a 12 per cent lower value to his penetration through the air (SCx of 0.22 m2). This aerodynamic gain cannot be very far from reality. This analysis suggests that, on that day, the strength levels of two athletes should be relatively close. Remember this, however, that Rous gave as great a performance, but was simply ‘glued’ by his lack of aerodynamic position. This should serve to bring LA down to earth for his competitors and certain detractors, and incite a number of racers to work – in a certain dimension of cycling that they perhaps have never explored.

Finally, if one could risk to give a physiological profile of LA, it would be the following: a PMA of 500W (7.2 W/ kg), a critical power level of 430W (6.2 W/ kg) (for which he can sustain a 45 minute duration), a great lactic resistance (which permits his accelerations), a finely-honed aero position, very flexible supple pedaling style stemming from his excellent pelvic – thoracic stability on the bike. That package, equipped with a mental force beyond the common and a body prepared to suffer real pain to a high level. A profile to dream about!

Last point, is that the described pedaling and mountain techniques don’t have anything to do with that usual style needed in 80 or 90 per cent of the year’s races, the mostly ‘rolling hills’ [‘vallonée’] style. To tame [’apprivoiser’] the mountains, it’s necessary to love them, respect them and give to them an amount of time, LOTS. They don’t spare the foolish!

So, Lance Armstrong, extraterrestrial? Of course not. An ‘obsessed’ worker with an eye to the details, yes of course. He represents the extraterrestrial only to those who swear only by dopage. If there was any doubt, it would concern the ability LA has to string his fantastic performances together, day after day. Such recuperation seems incredible. All the while, he’s not the only in the peloton to be capable of stringing performances together. Other racers, of whom one may be quasi-certain that they’re racing “à l’eau claire” [clear water] were equally intrinsically very performant all the time…

[A postscript stated that the values stated in the article, while based on estimates, are done so taking into account racer, weather and other factors, and should be systemic, meaning any estimate for one racer should have a certain level of “inter-individual” reliability]

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ZENmud's comments pertain only to the following point:

If a section SIX could have been developed, it may have detailed how Armstrong's mental force, merited through becoming the champion to beat, was yet another tool he used; developing tactics that effected and tamed competitors. They knew how strong he'd become, they’d seen him, raced against him (or heard reports), and the effect of seeing it happen certainly could have been demoralizing. If Lance knew that and could consciously make use of it tactically, it'd be like throwing each following cyclist a brick – a greater weight to carry: behind the champion.

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welcome back from your trip back into an era when it appeared that at least one competent French author believed that Lance's superiority had valid, scientific, studied reasons for his overwhelming Tour de France successes. Little did we ZEN'ers know how this all would evolve years later...

___çç*******/ ZENmud \*******çç___
© 2001 and 2008

1 comment:

schiffer said...

Good stuff, Zen.
The purple on black drives my eyes crazy, however, and I'm lucky to have made it to the finish. I fear a bad day tomorrow in the Moby Dick Classic.