Can We Trust the Peloton?
In the wake of Chris Froome's brilliant stage victory, the critics have turned on the rider. To silence the doubters, Team Sky needs to address its problem with transparency.
We expected Chris Froome, the 28-year-old Kenyan-born and odds-on Tour de France favorite, to come out swinging in the mountains, but none of us expected a win as brilliant as his victory on Stage 8. After leaving the pace-setting to his Team Sky lieutenant Richie Porte, Froome rode to the front on the day’s final climb—at 7.8 km, s relatively short, but very steep, Pyrenean ascent—and attacked with 5k to go, quickly distancing the only non-Sky rider in the lead group, Nairo Alexander Quintana. With Quintana cracked, a resurgent Alejandro Valverde clawed his way back to finish as Froome’s top challenger, 1:08 down, an eternity for a climb of that distance.
“This is a level of performance not seen in the Tour de France before the introduction of EPO.”
Froome’s performance was a thrill to watch, but it also raised eyebrows in the cycling world. From The New York Times to the denizens of Twitter, people were left wondering how Froome—who, until 2011, was considered a mid-pack pro with only moderate potential—emerged to become such a dominant climbing force. On the influential Science of Sport blog, the generally reserved Ross Tucker went so far as to write that Froome is either “one exceptional individual, or…well, we know the rest, we have seen this movie too often in the sport.”
The start of Froome’s pro cycling career was far from exceptional, but over the last several years he’s transformed himself from a reliable domestique to a potential—even likely—Grand Tour winner. The credit may largely belong to Team Sky. With their “marginal gains” motto, altitude training on Tenerife, and obsession with bodyweight, the squad has cultivated top riders like last year’s Tour winner Bradley Wiggins and climbing sensation Peter Kennaugh, who helped Froome to his Tour of Oman victory this spring. Sidelined by an intestinal parasite during the early part of his career, Froome’s subsequent performances may appear unfairly staggering and uneven. Team Sky has remained tight-lipped on the specifics of Froome’s training, repeatedly refusing to release the rider’s power data. Some claim this info is the most reliable way to show a rider’s “natural” progression (though the team did share power curves from several of its riders at a press-camp earlier this year).
As Froome took a pummeling on Twitter, riders like David Millar who received a suspension in 2004 before returning to the peloton as an anti-doping advocate, took to his defense. “Team Sky rode a perfect race, and for the record, I believe they are clean and deserve respect and admiration for it,” he wrote on Twitter. “I don’t think they deserve to have mud thrown at them when they work so hard to do it right. It doesn’t seem fair.”
With tensions high and opinions split, we reached out to Michael Puchowicz M.D., a sports medicine physician in Arizona with experience working with elite athletes. Puchowicz is also a strident anti-doping advocate, and has acquired a large following on his quirky-but-compelling blog, Veloclinic. That’s because Puchowicz and some fellow anti-doping colleagues have developed one of the most rigorous systems of historical analysis comparing rider’s performances, indicating in which instances a ride is likely “enhanced.” Dubbed DpVAM—for “Doped predicted Vertical Ascent per Meter”—Puchowicz divides past Tour data into two distinct but admittedly imperfect bins: the tainted 2002-2007 era, and the post-biological passport and supposedly clean(er) 2008-2013 years. Veloclinic then creates two predicted times for how quickly a rider should be able to climb a mountain—one clean and the other dirty.
While the wider public remains skeptical about cycling despite the 2008 crack-down on doping and development of the biological passport, the wonks outright claim that sophisticated cheats can still be tested and go undetected by using EPO micro-dosing or giving themselves smaller, less noticeable blood transfusions. In response to the impotency of the anti-doping tests, doctors and self-appointed experts have begun using detailed historical data in a sophisticated and rigorous way to flag potential dopers. And within this emerging field at the vanguard of anti-doping efforts, Veloclinic has taken the visible lead as the go-to anti-establishment expert.
Froome’s performance on Stage 8, while dazzling, raises some big questions—ones that Puchowicz has sought to interpret. Take the following analysis for what it is: a thorough scrutiny, not an indictment. But until Froome and Sky provide full transparency, suspicions will sadly remain. If, however, as David Millar insists, Sky and its riders are all playing fair and have simply deployed better training and tactics, then Froome will be celebrating a well-earned yellow jersey in Paris. In the meantime, they would do their bruised sport, and the long-tainted Tour, some real good if they would offer up their own comprehensive data illuminating Froome’s startling climb to greatness.