5th October 2011
Two-wheel code breaking: Number crunching to go faster
By Tom Southam

Mark Cavendish’s win in the Cycling World Road Race Championships at the end of September was a landmark feat, not simply because it is the first time in 46 years that a British rider has taken the prize, but it also seemed to prove beyond any doubt that cycling is as much a game of numbers and figures as it is craft and guile.

Perhaps thanks to the blank canvas of having no real cycling tradition, Great Britain was at the forefront of adopting the ideas of improving performance through sports science and technology instead of the traditional methods. British Cycling conceived its concept of ‘marginal gains’, exploring every single avenue, and defying traditions to become even a nanosecond quicker. Now, as the world of cycling is starting to wake up to the changes it faces, Britain looks to be in the enviable position as a true leader in the world of cycling.

The personality that links man and machine

The actual technology that cycling has adopted so far has been quite basic. What have been integral to this shift are the people who have been prepared to look at the data provided in a new and refreshing light. One of the men whose been doing just this is David Bailey, sports physiologist at the Claremont Sports Medicine and Performance Centre, partners of the Rapha Condor Sharp cycling team.

Bailey has come to top level cycling himself through a traditional competitive cycling background, having taken up racing 10 years ago.

“I started cycling with a club during my degree in Sports Science and Exercise Physiology at Loughborough University, then on completion of those studies I worked at the English Institute of Sport, which included going to the Olympic games with Great Britain’s cycling team at the Beijing Olympics.

“Working in cycling as a physiologist and scientist is extremely unique, with the sport only really comparable with Formula 1 in terms of data and analysis potential. The cyclists are riding in stages, so you can manage, measure and monitor their training and performance, and consequently apply a lot more detailed science to their performance than a skill based sport such as cricket, football, or rugby.

“Being a cyclist though, I have always been aware of the paradox between understanding the purist notion of the sport- that fans want to be delivered excitement, and yet with my academic background, I can see that the use of quantative data can be hugely advantageous in a competitive sport. My view is that it is a good thing, that technology and sports science used in the right way push the sport forward, and that road racing will always be exciting because there are always be those few elements that are out of your control.”

Only a few years ago the insular world of cycling actually did its best to refute the ideas that someone inside a laboratory could monitor the intricate complexities of the physiology of a 200km road race to such a degree that they could have any bearing on the outcome.

However with some quite uncomplicated technology and after several years refining how the data is interpreted, sport scientists can now go a long way to doing exactly this.

“I think it was about 15 years ago that a company in Germany (SRM) developed a powermeter. The Powermeter is simply a number of electrical strain gauges set up in opposition to the bike.

“This therefore gives a resistance, which can be developed through collaboration represented in a force, and then simply by having a magnet you can work out the power output. It sounds relatively basic and straightforward, in terms of technology it is, although it has to be a fairly robust piece of kit given the conditions of cycling.

“The powermeter forms a fundamental part of monitoring the training and quantifying the demands of racing, and that is pretty unique in terms of working in human sciences and sport. Obviously in Formula 1 they have developed the technology, but there is already a heavy engineering process at the centre of the sport.”

But how is the data analysed?

While Bailey is quick to praise the technology, just as in cycling where man and machine are both fundamental to the process, the same is true of sports science; here without intelligent interpretation of the data and this information being relayed in human terms to the riders themselves, the technology has no benefit.

A good example of how the data was relayed between scientist and the riders was at the 2011 Tour of Britain stage race, where Bailey posted a daily analysis on-line from Rapha Condor Sharp rider Andy Tennant.

“There are two athletes who are part of the Team GB set up and the Rapha Condor Sharp team (Ed Clancy and Andy Tennant) who already use them inherently as part of their training. During the Tour of Britain I could collect Andy’s data almost immediately after each stage (Clancy did not take part in the race – Ed).

“I had daily access to that data through some software called Training Peaks; the athletes upload that data themselves from their head unit (the computer that sits on the bikes handlebars) at the end of each stage. That is obviously accessible by their coach, and by me, for the duration of the race. I then took that data and using my skills I have developed over the last 5 or 6 years, I could analyze the data in the context of the race. I could then see exactly what the rider has gone through physically during the race.”

The data that Dave Bailey (Tour of Britain analysis can be seen here www.i-performance.net) receives uploaded online is the raw kind of data that you would expect a real scientist to love, and a typical athlete to hate.

“There are lots of streams of data. The main one is power-outputs; how often the feet go round, speed, and altitude, so you get the profile of the stage. Sometimes you also get temperature, but that isn’t so useful unless you are racing abroad in extremes.

“The most obvious thing I can analyse is the mean or averages for each stage, for example speed, but a high speed doesn’t necessarily mean a high power-output. You must also take into account wind, hills, the resistance of the road surface, and how all of this influences the power output.

“The challenge is having looked at all data, including heart rate, to see firstly how hard that athlete is working. I can do that because I have tested these athletes in the lab, so I already know their capacity, and their performance comes back to me in some context as I have a generic value for each athlete’s optimum performance.

“This is called the functional threshold. By looking at how much time the athlete has spent, below, in or above this threshold, I can tell how much effort they have made that day. This can be useful as sometimes a day may have had much more of an impact on a rider than they would realize. This information allows you to maximize your efforts day in and day out, and in a sport that has conservation of energy as a fundamental, this is crucial.”

Cycling’s acceptance of technology?

Power meters themselves come in various shapes and sizes, and getting them to fit in seamlessly with the ergonomic and lightweight aesthethics of bike design seem to have been overcome in recent years.

“I have used a variety of power meters. One of which is used at the front of the bike, and there is another manufacturer that has produced a wheel based one, which is normally put in the rear wheel. And also most recently, in the last month, Garmin have brought out a system that fits in the pedal, which is a product that was pioneered by metrigear just over a year ago.

“They can measure power output through force at the point of application, where the foot meets the pedal. Garmin bought them out and they have now developed their own pedal. It is very user friendly as well as you can swap your pedals from bike to bike, particularly if you have more than one bike. It is a relatively new product, but it is a sign of how innovations in cycling are developing.”

While the use of powermeters is widespread amongst the top professionals, their usage (thanks to some prescient decisions by the manufacturers of power meter technology) means that they will inevitably filter through the ranks of competitive cyclists until their inclusion on the handlebars of racing machines becomes a given.

“The other really positive thing is that there all these various manufacturers that have conformed to a radio frequency system that is compatible with various devices, which is pretty unique in terms of sports equipment and sports technology. So you can buy an SRM powermeter and it will work with your Garmin device, so it makes for a more user friendly and accessible system across the board. So manufacturers are not just producing the products, but they are integrating them with existing navigation, and training devices.”

While the technology may well be rapidly developing, so too is the importance of men like Dave Bailey, who can form that vital link between man and machine, and who keep pushing the sport forward by doing so.


Read more from Tom Southam: –

Man vs Machine: How technology is transforming cycling

Crash and learn: Training cyclists with data

To watch Rapha Condor Sharp’ Jon Tiernan-Locke winning the King of the Mountains jersey at The Tour of Britain 2011, click here.





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