Meet Robby Ketchell. He has been described as the secret weapon in the Team Garmin-Sharp camp. The Director of sports science has successfully broken down rider performance into manageable pieces. With detailed analysis, measuring aerodynamics through to durability, Ketchell’s eye for detail and use of technology has seen Team Garmin-Sharp lead the way as the early adopters of a new technological approach to the sport, with their competitors now following suit.
Ahead of his exclusive monthly column for Humans Invent we sat down with Ketchell to talk about his background in sports science, changing perceptions of the anti-tech crowd and his quest to measure the unmeasurable.
I studied computer science, engineering and biology while I was a student in Colorado. I became really fascinated by how these disciplines and different fields inter-related. I was constantly looking to develop medical models and see how all these fields could relate to cycling. I was a cyclist myself growing up, so it has always been a passion and the main sport I have been involved in. Ultimately I was really interested in evolving and integrating science into the sport.
One of the biggest things we have going on with sports science in cycling currently is that it is becoming inter-disciplinary. And this is the school that I came from. You have to specialise in different fields, from physiology, technology to the ability to develop tools to measure and analyse data – all of these disciplines are very important. I think that is why I have always looked at sports science in a broad manner and that is the road that cycling is going down.
I was a graduate student at Colorado State University when I was working on a wind tunnel, that was about the time JV (Jonathan Vaughters) picked me up. I was studying bio-mechanics and engineering at the time there and that was when the opportunity presented itself. It was a perfect fit – the team and my history.
When did a focus on technology enter the world of cycling? It seems in the modern era, you cannot compete without it. But Team Garmin-Sharp have led the way.
That is a really good question. You know JV came to me last year and said it was interesting that other teams were starting to get more interested in the technical aspects of the sport. We have been working on this a lot longer than other teams, but he thought it was interesting that other teams were starting to realise that in order to be competitive you have to pay attention to all the smaller details and the only way to do that is through technology.
We were having this discussion – thinking about when technology and the science of it really started to pick up – and we concluded it’s really only been in the last couple of years as teams get more interested in measuring different things so they could perfect things, particularly topology, aerodynamic drag, the bio-mechanics, and all these things that inter-relate. To be successful you need incredible attention to detail.
For me being durable is being able to overcome all those uncontrollable conditions and still perform well
It’s fairly recently that it has become a core focus. I mean you are right, other teams are starting to do similar things to us in order to be competitive. But you have to remember, it’s such a hard sport to dial everything in to, if you think about it we have 300 races a year, all the technology that is involved with the bike and how complicated that is, and then having to be able to select the right riders for certain races – it requires a lot of analysis and a lot of dialing in and a need for different technologies to better service things.
Did you face any skepticism at the start when you wanted implement the use of technology? Obviously, the older guys weren’t used to it.
Absolutely. There are some riders that have been professionals for 10-15 years and then may have gone through the sport as part of a generation that didn’t ever feel the need to use technology or implement any new methods. These are guys that were training 10-15 years ago and they just weren’t used to it. In the same way there are lots of riders who are really young and they have grown up with smartphones, all the measuring tools, applications and data that you can gather yourself, but they still required convincing as well.
It’s a bit like when you develop a new idea that no one has ever heard of before and you want to sell that product – you have to go in with a presentation and the right marketing tools in order to sell it. I feel that is the same way with anything you try to do in life, not just this sport. I mean when I sit down with a new aerodynamic position for the riders you need to prove to them first that it is aerodynamic, otherwise why would they waste their time trying it. Of course, you gain credibility over the years by getting things right a multiple number of times, and they believe you more easily the third, fourth, and fifth time. But I think there are still some of the older riders who have reservations about new ideas, but in the same way as I said earlier, so do some of the younger riders, even though they are generation of new technology. Essentially, it’s down to results.
Do you have to be quite guarded about what techniques you are using. Is there an element of secrecy behind the manner in which you analyse data?
There is and there isn’t. You know, when people ask me this question I say, if people can copy and paste what you are working on, then it probably wasn’t worth protecting anyway. There is always some element to things that you want to protect as you don’t want other people coming across similar discoveries and then developing similar tools. I think that is a fair statement, but I truly believe if you continue to work hard and do as many innovative things as possible, it really doesn’t matter so much because you are concentrating on your own path.
What have been the most important sports science and technological influences on cycling?
It was really interesting, say 4 or 5 years ago, when aerodynamics really started to come into cycling. Wind tunnels became a really hot topic and a buzz word across the industry. There was one wind tunnel in San Diego and everybody was going to it – now there are 5 or 6 wind tunnels across the USA purely for cycling testing. That was the big thing that everybody started working on. That was probably one of the most significant tactical changes you could make because aerodynamics has such a large impact on performance.
But when you look closely at bike racing and the relative importance of everything around it – it really depends on what the event it, the type of riders you have going into it, the environment that it is going to be and a number of different variables, – so I think from aerodynamics it has moved onto simultaneously looking at physiology alongside it, then it really went into equipment and then really dialing in all the details between everything.
We were really looking at the communication between riders, the tactics that are going into it, then thermal regulation, and I think the biggest thing that we try to measure in the heart of things is the durability of a cyclist. By durability I mean, how they perform on a day-to-day basis, how they recover, how they cover the obstacles that they encounter -whether that be aerodynamics, crashes, unlucky events or being in a breakaway and being able to recover from that. Physiological durability is such a significant factor in order for a rider to be able to perform at the top level on a day-to-day basis.
The biggest things we have going on with sports science in cycling currently is it being inter-disciplinary
It is extremely hard to quantify. And that is exactly what makes it such a powerful tool if you can really start to understand it. I know I am using the term durability really freely, but what I mean is how can a cyclist perform with all these different factors and obstacles in front of him. We look at how aerodynamic someone is, his bicycle position, the nutrition methods and his body composition – essentially we look at a whole host of different variables. Then we look at how they are performing. If they are performing at such a higher level and you’ve got all this resistance against that and you can see where you can improve on it, you can see the potential for that cyclist because you can use sports science to make these changes.
For me, a lot of what people don’t look at are the uncontrollable circumstances. You are looking at crashes, flat tyres, dropping a chain – any sort of thing that is mechanical, but things are inter-related. You could have a mechanical failure that causes a flat tyre or that the peloton is going to split and you are in the wrong position. You can analyze the uncontrollable and unpredicted – things like crashes – and learn from it, so that you are better prepared for the next set of circumstances.
For me being durable is being able to overcome all those uncontrollable conditions and still perform well. In order to quantify something like it takes a lot of analysis and the ability to have a lot of data and information and make sense of it all quickly. To have an immediate edge over the competition it simply means being the best prepared for any circumstance.