Friday, August 20, 2010

42 Modern Bicycles and Cycling Speeds : Any Measurable Relation?

Its not about the bike. Or is it?

Without a shadow of doubt, most of us will say that today's Grand Tours are faster than those of the past. True. For instance, since its inception in 1903 to the 1990's, the Tour de France had seen its winner's average speed increase some 50-55%  as this site will show.

But here's the big question - how much of that speed increase came from bicycle improvements alone? If you don't factor in the contributions from all other things- temperature, course, race tactics, improved training methods, nutrition and doping - what role does bicycle technology alone have to play in higher speeds? Is it significant to be appreciated?

This most entertaining problem is one that maybe analyzed with a technique called multiple regression. This method, a staple in any statistician's arsenal of tools, allows one to estimate the effects of many factors on a single dependent variable, in our case - cycling performance.

For starters, there are a number of independent variables that factor into a favorable cycling performance. I have shown these factors diagrammatically below.

In my opinion, these independent or explanatory variables can be broadly termed into 4 categories :

1. Human Performance Related - Physiology, training, nutrition, medicine and doping
2. Technology Related - Bicycles, fancy apparel etc. We'll disregard other things and consider just bicycles.
3. Race Specific - Course, weather, tactics employed, rules, etc.
4. Random Events (Noise) - Example - a freak crash 2 km from the finish line that injured many riders, a neutralized stage due to the death of an athlete, any day to day variation that cannot be predicted but is present. 

In 100 years of cycling history, innovations have come and gone. Some have stuck through to Grand Tour racing, the list of which is mandated by the final word of the UCI.

To consider the effect of just bicycle technology alone on cycling speeds, a multiple regression analysis has to be performed. You would require lots of data for many years and a handy computer to make some meaning out of it. Unless someone gives me serious money, I won't be diving into such an endeavor.

But recently, Ph.D's Jan Heine and Mark Vande Kamp who write for the magazine Bicycle Quarterly sought to answer this question in their article titled "Are Modern Bicycles Faster? An Analysis of Tour de France Speed". To me, the article appeared to be a logical investigation of why speeds increased in the Tour and whether they could be explained by the latest racing bikes. 

The article had ignited controversy in cycling circles about its apparently "flawed" analysis. I think it will be to everyone's benefit if the strategy of the article's investigations are clarified first and foremost. We'll then explore its conclusions.

Here's the strategy behind the article's investigation :

1. Fundamental assumption : The fundamental assumption that the authors imply, but which is not stated explicitly in the article, is that all modern bicycles and related technology are introduced into the market to strictly increase cycling speeds. With this assumption, they proceed to quantify how much that speed increase is.

2. Eliminate day to day performance variations : They selected the Tour de France as the main race of interest with this notion that multiple stages and over 150 riders will eliminate the influence of day-to-day variations in fitness, weather and other factors on individual performance.

3. Eliminate course specific variations : With the view that courses change "somewhat" in the Tour de France, they selected the Milan-San Remo as a supplement in the analysis as the race has been run on the same course for over a 100 years without change. The race's difficulty has also been consistent since smooth speed curves have been displayed for over a century.

4. Separate human performance improvements from bicycling technology improvements :  This one is tricky so pay attention. The authors wanted another race as a control to compare cycling with. They thought of a race from another branch of endurance sports that had little to do with technology or inconsistent conditions and where performance was mostly limited by the "human factor".

They selected medium distance running, specifically the 5 and 10 km running race from all events worldwide and studied trends in running speeds. The logic? If bicycles have truly become faster, the trend line for cycling speeds in the Tour would deviate from that of human speeds in running by showing step increases. If bicycles have not become faster, the trend lines should closely match each other due to the "human factor" common to both endurance sports.

5. Regression Analysis : Using the data of speeds, a regression analysis was performed on the Tour de France and running speeds for the last 100 years. The "athletic performance" regression lines would show the long term speed trends for both races. This was made into a "Chart 1". "Chart 2" was also made where the authors smoothed TdF and 10 Km running speeds for many years by taking a 5-year running average. These curves were compared to each other and to the long term "athletic performance" regression line in Chart 1.

Summary Of Results :

1.  Co-relation between actual TdF speeds and speeds predicted by the runner's trend line was 0.94. Strong.

2.  Co-relation between actual running speeds and the long term running speed trend line was 0.95. Also strong.

3.  88% of increases in TdF speeds over the last 100 years can be explained by improved athletic performance.

4.  For both running and cycling, there appears to be an unexplained 9-12% that are simply random occurrences seen when athletes compete.

5.  The regression curve (or line fit) for TdF speeds have a shallower slope than that of running indicating that cycling speeds increased at a slower rate. The authors propose that this is due to wind resistance factor in cycling as power demand increases by the cube of velocity. But the non-linearity of aerodynamic resistance is not much, it is instead minimized in the Tour de France and spread over a large group of riders.

6.  Over the last 20 years, TdF speed increase trends parallel that of runners' speeds. Technology has had minor roles to play in these achievements according to the logic in the analyses (no step increases were observed).

7.  There were steeper speed increases in the TdF in between 1926-1940 than running speeds during that time. The early 1920's saw periods of low performance and the authors propose that World War I had depleted the pool of cycling champions taking part.

The late 1920's, however, showed a marked speed increase was not observed in the Milan San Remo which got the authors to conclude that something particular to the TdF caused these increases. They propose the radical shortening of stage distances as a possible reason.

There were pronounced speed increases in the 1930's that corresponded well with the significant, revolutionary and long term changes introduced on racing bikes such as lightweight steel frames with thinwall tubing. The authors state that of all advances, lightweight steel frames had the most pronounced effect on Tour speeds. These speed increases were also observed in the Milan San Remo in the 30's as well, indicating that this was a sport-wide phenomena.

8.  Since 1947, speed increases in cycling, relative to runner's speeds, came during times when cycling technology did not even change. The late 1950's saw a jump in cycling speeds but nothing significant was invented or innovated in bicycles during that time, since the introduction of Compagnolo's rear derailleur in 1951. Since speed increase came at a time when technology was stagnant, the logical conclusion is that speed increase cannot be explained by technology. The authors state that other reasons, like the paving of roads, may have been primarily responsible.

9.  In the early 1980's, TdF speeds increased between 1981-1982 without a rational reason and then dipped down without an explainable reason as well. Between 1985-1990, time trial bikes, such as those used by Greg Lemond in his 1989 Time Trial did increase stage speeds but the time trial stages were too short to influence overall speed of the entire Tour. Moreover, the bikes used in mass-start races "evolved little" during this period, wrote the authors.

10.  From 1999-2009, lots of things in bicycles evolved - from index shifting, to rear cassettes, increased gearing, aerodynamic wheels and ceramic bearings. Sure, the speeds of the Tour de France saw an almost linear increase as well. But what the authors found was that the long term trend of running speeds tracked this increase in cycling speeds very closely indicating that almost all these improvements can be tracked to physiological factors common to both running and cycling.

Since 2005, speeds started to drop below the predicted trends, possibly indicating that strict doping controls are responsible for the lower speeds. Speeds decreased 3.5% from their peak, while running speeds decreased only 1.8%. This shows that something not common to both sports have influenced the speeds in cycling.

By now, you must be tired with all this information overload. So let's take the justifications provided by the authors for speed fluctuations and plot it on a chart for the last 100 years. I did it below for you :

Conclusions :

The authors wrote that there is no evidence that advances in cycling technology since WWII led to faster racing speeds. There is no systematic co-relation between the two.  Some speed increases came during times when athletic performance as a whole were increasing. Others came at times when bicycle technology and innovation were stagnant.  The only period where bicycling technology led to a pronounced speed increase was during the 1930's with the introduction of lightweight steel frames. Bottom-line of this whole affair is as follows, quoted from the article :
"It is tempting to look over the Tour de France speed curve and pick [technology] factors that appear to have caused increases or decreases in speeds. [...] However, when taken in the context of all the data, these specific examples don't add up to a compelling case that bicycle technology increased Tour de France speeds. Neither of them stand up to close scrutiny.  [...] Across the whole timeframe of the last 100 years, even radical changes like the introduction of the derailleurs did not alter the trend of Tour de France speeds. Clearly, the larger pattern suggests that bicycle technology has had little, if any, effect on racing speeds, especially in recent decades."

Critique & Suggestions :

1. Choice of control : Why was medium distance running chosen as a control and not ...say, the marathon? I don't know. The authors don't provide an explanation for this deliberation, although they suggest that the medium distance races do not see much "influence of technology". So does the marathon see influence of technology then? I don't know. You would think not. Long distance running, to me, is the purest form of endurance sports. It would be interesting to see if marathon running speeds closely followed all the trends of cycling speeds for the past 100 years.

2. Choice of race : One will agree that are simply too many variables in the Tour de France to make a valid relation between one aspect, such as cycling technology, and another aspect, cycling speeds. Why not extend the research to a solo performance such as the hour record where variability is reduced even further? Or a time trial? Or a sprint? In a past post, I revealed details of a study that found that between 1980 and 1990 before UCI regulations came about, 60% of cycling hour records in the discipline were solely due to engineering. The authors may want to catch up with that.

3. What to investigate : The authors start off the article by asking the question - how much faster are the lastest racing bikes compared to classic machines? But it seems that throughout the article, they tend to look at small innovations across years such as the rear derailleur, or increased gearing, or thin walled tubing to see if they made an effect on the "overall" speeds of each year's Tour. How could does a tiny component translate to anything appreciable in the overall speeds across successive years? Rear derailleurs or improved front brakes alone don't make any appreciable change to Tour de France speeds across successive years.

4. Details of each stage : The exact details of each stage were not investigated by the authors. It would be interesting to see how many flat stages and how many mountain stages each Tour so far consisted of and how gravity would play a role in changing outcomes. Data may be tricky to find. Now keep in mind that we do have data for the speeds, distances, number of entrants and number of finishers in each of the Tours. Perhaps blending all this information into one graph for different eras of cycling may lend some insight.

For illustration, lets take the Hinault Era (1978-1985). I plotted speed (kph), % of entrants who finished the race, and number of stages with respect to the years and the distances involved. Check this out :

You may be able to come to some kind of understanding about what was going on in those 7 years. For instance, during 1980-1982, speeds increased drastically. It is also interesting to see that between 1980-1981, the number of participants who finished the race had also risen and the distance in Km of the race had fallen, although the number of stages were increased from 22 to 24. It would be interesting to superimpose the percentage of km in uphill roads and downhill roads on this graph for those years. It would also be interesting to see how the "Badger's" temperamental tactics and pace control influenced the speeds in those years.

5. Successive yearly investigations vs leaping : Based on the initial question posed, it would be more meaningful to take a vintage racing bike and a modern racing bike and compare the two.  Hypothetically, a 1903 racer traveling across a period of 100 years into the future to ride the Tour de France on a 2010 race bike with a lighter frame and aerodynamic wheels should be faster. Similarly, a group of 1903 racers climbing a 2 hour long Alpine climb on 40 pound steel bikes would be slower than the same group of racers riding on flyweight machines of similar sizes in similar terrain. It is basic physics.

Investigating this issue year by year, where all riders would have access to the same bikes and the same technology won't show you clearly how cycling technology is improving overall Tour speeds, if they do at all. Besides, some modern equipment and technical wear don't always serve to increase speed solely. Some of them have intangible benefits as comfort and so on. That is an advantage when you stay seated in the saddle for 90 hours of racing.

Overall, I don't think this is as bad of a study as many people think. Besides, it was published in a popular magazine to open up a forum for discussion. It is not a rigorous scientific white paper.

I do agree with one thing that studies like this discover time and time again - that majority of racing performance is related to the human body.

Racing is never a level playing field, no matter what race it is or how much you want to complain - be it the Berlin Marathon, or the Tour de France, the 24 Hours of Le Mans or the Baja 1000. There's always those few individuals genetically gifted or blessed with the finances and talent needed to win.

Then there are those who cheat to win. They may have the talent, but they want to boost it with some extra energy from extraneous sources, illegal by all rules.

Kamp's and Heine's study corresponds with several people's observations that cycling speeds have been coming down since 2005 due to doping regulations. In July during Tour time, I had done my own analysis of this Stage 17 power to weight ratios and my approximate figure of 6 W/kg agreed with other people's observations, among them the Science of Sport bloggers (see their article).

In the end, we may never know exactly what portion of those early TdF speed increases were "fabricated" through cheating. How much came from Amphetamine use, or alcohol, or narcotics, steroids, growth hormones, EPO and blood transfusions or using mechanical devices? Food for thought?

What do you think? Come discuss this article and its implications!

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  1. Anonymous2:05 AM

    Shocking to see that cycling speeds hit peak during Armstrong's final years. Pretty insane when seen with the rest of the years.

  2. Great post! Where did the authors get data for running speeds? Was a paper referenced in the article? A website? I do 5K races so I was curious about that information.

  3. And this is why I love this blog. I wonder if you could compare bicycles of different eras in more direct ways. Maybe do multiple time-trials (with a big climb) with multiple bikes? It would be neat if you could fit a power meter on those old bikes too (maybe when power meters are built into shoes)...

    Also, I've always been interested to see how much of a difference there is between the average $1500 bike and the average $10K bike.

  4. As you note, a better approach would be to simply have the same people ride different bikes. However, the paper approach would be reasonable for purposes such as looking into the effects of headgear on injury severity. It simply would not do to drop cyclists on their heads with various hairnets & helmets on to see how badly they bleed.

  5. Spartacus12:44 PM

    Was it procycling or pezcycling, I can't remember which one that did a comparison of a vintage bike and a modern carbon bike and concluded that the latter was much more effective in power transfer at the same heart rate because of its stiffness. If it weren't for the UCI's regulations, I believe the the full benefit of technology might be seen in thees kind of longitudinal studies. But then the debate becomes one of human effort vs using technology to make life easier for you. I have mixed feelings about the UCI.

  6. Anonymous1:16 PM

    Hi, I'm a long-time subscriber to BQ and have followed their efforts to determine the impact of modern technology on bike performance for a long while.

    One reason they are skeptical of back-to-back testing of modern bikes vs. old bikes is because it wouldn't be a "blind test." If you're on a new/sleek looking bike, you're going to "feel faster" and perhaps ride a bit harder to compensate. Or vice versa, if you want the old bike to win.

    They have invested in "blind tests" of other theories -- for example, they tested thin wall/flexy tubing bikes against very stiff bikes by having framebuilders make identical bikes and then wrapping the tubes so the riders couldn't tell the difference. They have done lots of other tests where they have tried, to the extend possible, to isolate different variables and test the outcome on bike performance.

    In this same issue, they also analyze one of the magazine articles that compared modern bikes to old bikes, and basically blow it apart (bikes were different sizes, lots of other variables, etc.).

    If you read BQ over time, they're exploring all the modern myths about bike performance (carbon frames, skinny tires, stiff frames, etc.) and trying to really get behind what really drives performance in the "real world" for enthusiast riders. A subscription is money well spent, even if you don't believe all their conclusions.

  7. Kevin1:37 PM

    I think there's there's too much focus on the technical or engineering details and VERY LITTLE focus on the management side of running a team. Good teams WIN! Good bikes don't always win. Neither do good riders win all the time. This is a very important aspect that's missed by magazines.

  8. Agree with Kevin, team tactics are playing a BIG role in the OUTCOMES !
    Lance is not responsible for the 2006 TDF result, we all know what took place there ! worm's efforts compared to a team player, not even worth discussing , was the replacement the main man or just happened to have a good day or two ?
    Currently in St Johann in Tyrol with "World Masters (Annual event with "players" from all over the world)" , BIKES of all descriptions here as is UCI doping control(wonder if they are looking for "Cancellara's supposed assistance paskage?).Will all bikes be tested to the 6.8kg and all athletes tested because they are occasionally in conflict with the "True" letter of the law ?
    An Aussie won one of the race events today so he will be acknowledged on the podium with other class winners ! Read a while back about a "Masters Cheat" who will not answer to the "UCI" but then it is only a hobby for him, pity they can't lock him up and throw awayb the key !

    Riding the Tour, Giro & Vuelta routes as i do each year, i use an Alloy frame. For me it is a case of practicality since there is luggage sitting on my handlebars and if the bike is 9kg or 7kg it makes little diff. but for the racers sitting in the draft until the final 1/2km it is the make or break of the sprint! Determining how Teanm Tactics affected 1990s through 2010 could be a step too far but even "Fifnon acknowledges how his team played a role and the "ILLEGAL Setup?" of his competitors Time Trial bike played a part in his loss to Lemond !

    Please yourself how you view the "Statistics" and intepret the Outcomes !

  9. Anonymous4:36 PM

    For some reason I am reminded of Bjarne Riis flinging his new technologically improved TT bike into a ditch during the 1997, stage 20 TT in the Tour de France.
    He used all of the advantages you speak of - admitting to doping as well.
    Perhaps the study shows that earlier athletes were better, in the sense they were more tolerant and could persevere with heavier bikes, rougher roads, unsupported by technology and comfort?
    I like your explanations and choice for discussion. Thanks

  10. Well written summary! To me, a time trial between two bikes would have made more sense. The most sensible thing to do is to eliminate the human out of it, and do a sophisticated computer analysis. That should give us some insights into what bikes really do to speed. In the end, I'm not compelled by the marketing jingles to spend my entire savings on a bike.

  11. Corporate sponsorship generated a class of genteel athletes whose day job is to train and race using the then best understanding of physiology and nutrition, making it viable for the common but extremely gifted man to
    briefly set aside more traditional lifestyles and fully develop his athletic potential. It also pays for the support infrastructure of coaches, doctors, trainers, mechanics, and road crews who do nothing else but devote their full attention to preparing and pampering these athletes. Teammates and team cars loaded with spares and whole replacement bicycles follow them closely on the race course. Compare this to the early days when the lone racer would
    stop at the local blacksmith for road repairs.

    And all they managed was 55% faster?

  12. And in the early days of the race, there was no support. Recall the story of one competitor breaking his fork and building a new one almost by himself in a blacksmith shop? ("Almost" because someone pumped the bellows as he hammered, and for that he was penalized!)

    I'm sure aero technologies have increased time trial speeds. I'm sure that removing even a full pound from a 175 pound bike+rider increases uphill speed by something less than 1/175, which is not much. I'd bet that devices like STI, while perhaps helpful in a few finishing sprints, have not affected overall speeds in any detectable manner.

    But I'm sure that many equipment geeks still believe that finding a way to remove just one more spoke will make them a champion.

  13. Carl Fogel10:15 PM

    Dear Frank,

    For the Tour de France, the modern speed advantages include:

    --shortened distances, well under 3,000 miles instead of over 3,000
    --rest days
    --bikes that weigh ~17 pounds instead of ~25 pounds
    --better shoes and clothes
    --multiple-speed gearing instead of flip-flop hubs (no walking up some
    --fewer flats (darned few horseshoe nails, common even after WW2)
    --much better tires with lower rolling resistance
    --no daily water-bottle restriction
    --no stopping to fill water bottles from local fountains
    --no need to carry pumps, inflators, and two spare tires
    --no stopping to fix your own flats
    --no stopping to scribble at check-in stations
    --air-conditioned rooms for the French summer
    --far better nutrition and training
    --far more prize money as an incentive
    --much more corporate investment in sponsoring teams
    --far more TV and radio coverage as an incentive not to take it easy
    --much better travel between stages
    --much better travel to reach the Tour itself
    --much more emphasis and discipline on team drafting
    --all sorts of vastly improved support during and between stages
    --radio communication to reduce confusion and make tactics easier
    --EPO and blood doping instead of cocaine and amphetamines

    The only modern speed disadvantage that I can think of is the helmet requirement, which adds a little weight and a little wind drag.

  14. Peter Morel10:19 PM

    The old adage goes : To finish first in a race, you must first finish. A lot of true value of those overpriced, flimsy bikes is skewed by the fact that there is huge a support team behind every rider. If their carbon forks break with just 10 miles of use, they get replaced - ON the spot! If by chance, the modern Tour de France didn't allow for the provision of such support - perhaps just like the earliest of Tours, I'd bet you very few champions will actually finish the Tour in 90 hours! I don't see much durability in today's equipment and that's a sad fact of race technology.

  15. Anonymous10:30 PM

    Paying professional riders to use this stuff is how it reaches the equipment geeks. Besides, most professional racers aren't technically
    astute enough to judge whether these "advancements" are valid or not, and whether they had any positive influence on their race results.

    - Jobst Brandt

  16. Anonymous10:34 PM

    If WWI led to "decreased pool of talent" which caused a speed decrease, why didn't the same happen after WWII? Didn't the latter have more deaths, casualties and bigger impact globally, if not just in Europe?

  17. Anonymous10:37 PM

    It's important to remember that in the early days of the Tour, racers weren't just racers. They were farmers, miners, and other laborers. Now, they're paid to ride, it's their occupation, they can focus entirely on performance for riding. That's one of the main differences between the past and present speeds, I'd think.

  18. TdF average speeds increased and decreased fairly dramatically in the 25 years of basically no advancements in technology between ~1950 and ~1980. Since the tightening of doping control a few years back, average speeds at the Tour have dropped. (I think that was one of the things that lulled Armstrong into believing he could make a comeback, but he had to race on very different doping than he was used to- sorry, a bit cynical there, I don't believe there are any pro bike racers who don't dope).

    There are too many other factors that can affect the average speed: changes in training, competitive factors, differences in route,drugs
    and doping, weather, etc.

    The BQ article did two interesting things. FIrst, it compared TdF average speeds with runners (middle distance, I think) over the same years and found that the rate of increase in average speed was very similar despite there being few technological improvements in running. The conclusion was that changes in human factors (e.g., training,doping, etc.) weighed much more heavily than changes in bike technology. I haven't decided if I agree or not.

    The other interesting thing was using Milan-San Remo as a comparison, since there have been very few course changes in the entire history of the race. This reduces the effects of differences in terrain, resulting in very similar results as comparing the TdF to running.

    It's an interesting article. I am not sure how valid comparing increases in the speed of runners versus cyclists is. It would be interesting to compare a third endurance sport- Nordic skiing, although that has had a watershed technological change from traditional diagonal stride to skating so perhaps not a good comparison.

  19. "They were farmers, miners, and other laborers. Now, they're paid to ride, it's their occupation, they can focus entirely on performance for riding. That's one of the main differences between the past and present speeds, I'd think."

    @ Anonymous at 10:37 : Very good point sir!

  20. Perhaps its not the bike weights themselves but something associated with their geometries that make them suited for racing? If we go along that argument, custom tailor made race bikes these days could be both comfortable and faster for riders than their heavier counterparts of the 30's and 40's...

  21. Trackasaurus12:58 AM

    BQ may have opened up a forum for discussion but for the amount of time and hours they put into writing this, we're back to sqauare 1 really. Are bikes really faster? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I don't know.

    What stands out in this discussion is the fact that it was race circumstances and myriad invariables & difficulties during the old Tours that most affected the speeds period. The Tour could care less if riders could shave 1 second shifting their gears with improved shifting or if the bike got lighter by a few grams because of a few holes poked into the crankarm. Just because the bikes didn't factor much into the average speeds of the Tour doesn't mean they are not faster.

  22. Excellent discussion!

    One important point - modern race bike can be faster in decisive moments , such as an attack on a mountain or a sprint for green jersey points. If your 25 lb steel tank is not able to help you respond in those situations, it could be "game over".

    Its interesting that BQ found little co-relation between bicycle technology and average speeds every year. The effect is too small a number and overwhelmed by other factors in the Tour. Shorter tours or stages force riders to push the pace harder, like a criterium where from the gun shot, the pace is very high. Shorter stages with fast downhills will also push the pace high. If a race is neutralized for some reason, the pace goes down substantially. This is why I think its important to take each year's race and closely study what happened and how it unfolded.

    Perhaps we can say that the initial question that BQ sought to study had some flaws to it. Its like trying to find a small pin in a big ocean. I really wouldn't spend much of my time in trying to find out if ceramic bearings had an effect on the overall average speeds in the Tour. Its silly and easily understandable that the effect would be miniscule.

  23. Anonymous1:05 PM

    Ron - GREAT article and very good points. I have some book suggestions for further research. Get your hands on "Blazing Saddles: The Cruel & Unusual History of the Tour de France" if you can. It runs down the history of every Tour upto 2007 and is a good reference. "Dancing Chain" and "Breaking the Chain" are also excellent titles on the derailleur bicycle and the extent of doping.

  24. Comparing year-to-year is difficult due to varying conditions, not just road & weather, but also the competitive forces in play at the time. And 2003... if you're comparing that to stage 17 this year (the one where you say they left "everyone else for dead"), that was climbing the mountain from the other side. Also, 2003 saw the Tourmalet as the penultimate climb, not the final. They still had Luz Ardiden to go.

    This year, stage 17 was nothing short of bizarre. The weather was awful for much of the race, the Tourmalet itself shrouded in fog when it was being belted by lightning & rain. And the race itself? With 3 or 4 kilometers to go, Andy & Alberto called a truce and stopped attacking each other. Further, there was no sustained effort to keep the pace high. Instead, just a series of short attacks, repeated a number of times, essentially intervals while climbing. That is never the fastest way to get to the top. Even world-class cyclists are going to be more efficient by staying out of the red zone on a long effort. That's why some cyclists are so boring to watch... when an attack hits, they remain patient and slowly claw their way back when the attackers inevitably slow down to recover (Levi is a good example of this).

  25. Anonymous2:14 PM

    Does anyone have a copy or link to the Procycling article of vintage vs carbon bike comparison??

  26. Anonymous at 2:14 : I was curious to get my hands on that article as well. I don't think it was published online, it was a strictly paper content in their magazine. If you hear anything about it, let me know.

  27. Anonymous7:47 PM

    You asked why the 5k and 10k were used as test comparisons, instead of the marathon. It's for the same reason there is no world record for the marathon, only a "world-best time", because marathon courses can vary so much in layout, terrain and profile. The track races are run on more or less uniform 400 metre tracks, with the only variation being the weather, which means one less variable to consider in the comparative times.
    Otherwise, a very thought-provoking piece.

  28. I only skimmed it so I might be missing something, but I would think it might be better to compare 10k WR times/speeds to time trial of similar time. You'd think the effort would be about the same and there would be less strategy BS like you'd see in a pack which would complicate analysis. So you would have a more clear picture of the effects of the bikes. But this analysis might be complicated by the introduction of the African dominance of running and also the increased use of aerodynamics in the cycling world.

  29. Every year the "masters " are on in St Johann, Tyrol and the TT course i think has remained the same !

    Perhaps someone with a little knowledge will be able to make the argument about what has changed during that stabilised period ?

    Currently here but not racing and i am seeing bikes from all periods as well as Personalities who have been coming since the 1940's !

    Thought i had posted an earlier comment but has ir disappeared?

  30. The BQ article really did not answer the question of whether modern bikes are faster. It addressed the specific question of whether modern bikes make grand tours like the TdF faster. Speculating from the armchair, it seems to me that the effects of the peleton swallow up small efficiencies from bicycle improvements; i.e., to get the peleton to go from 28 to 30 mph requires much more power than what a better bike can provide.

    Jan Heine and Mark Vande Kamp are correct that human elements will taint any side-by-side experiment. Although I suspect that it will still provide valuable information on the question.

    Perhaps a more interesting experiment would be to see how modern bicycles have affected climbing times at the Col de Tourmalet or similar. The speeds come down and the peleton typically breaks up. I would think that one would get a better idea of the bicycle's effect.

  31. Anonymous12:22 PM

    Remember that wind resistance goes up with speed. More speed requires even more power!

  32. A couple of other missing points:

    Rider position on the bike and how it changed over the years- there may be an advantage in aerodynamics that would be very difficult to accurately gauge, but would certainly have an effect.

    Size of the race- more riders, more riders to share the load on the front. This would likely increase speeds. Is there a correlation between pace and field size? DNFs would matter for this statistic, as well, as early stages may be faster and slow as more riders exit the race. Field size would also matter in the mountains as more riders would likely mean more possible attacks.

    Excellent topic!

  33. Anonymous11:01 PM

    Just take your old 70s bike out to a local race or club ride and tell me there's little improvement. I use mine during the winter and it sucks.

  34. Tom Boyles1:00 AM

    why engage is this longitudinal study when the obvious study design would be to take one of today's athletes and measure them riding on one of todays bike and then again on a series of older bikes (should be able to find or create these). This has been done with tennis rackets for instance, and the answer is that todays tennis players can serve almost as fast with an old wooden dunlop as with the latest model. I would not be surprised to find a similar answer with bikes. The study design is simple and the results would be more convincing than the study presented

  35. Great article and that Procycling issue is August 2009. Here is a quick summary.

    Test Bike 1: 1983 Pinarello 54cm 9.6kg super record equipped with SRM cranks/power meter.
    Test Bike 2: 2009 LaPierre X-Lite II. Full carbon, EC90 fork Dura Ace and SRM equipped.
    Riders: Riders from top french DN1 team which includes several riders for french national team.
    Computers set so riders see no data (subjects can't view SRM)

    Riders ride on their own, no pacing.
    Half of riders ride Pinarello and other half Lapierre.

    Comments on Pinarello- Flexes everywhere, especially descents, brakes slow to respond, have to fight the bike on climbs... Cinelli Wedge saddle excellent.

    Comments on Lapierre- Excellent, very stiff, responsive...
    Test Results- virtually no difference in riders heart rate and cadence on each bike. Key finding is due to stiffness of Lapierre, riders were capable of providing 10 watts more in intense time trial type effort. Pinarello, being less rigid, absorbed 3.1 percent of riders energy. Resulting in difference of 18 seconds. On an ascent of Galibier, difference calculated to be 2min 06sec. between bikes.

    Expert estimates in the TDF, difference would be not less than 3-5kph. 1983 Fignon won at average of 36.23kpg, 2008, Sastre won at average speed of 40.492kph. A difference of 4kph over 25 years.

    Timed Runs (avg. of 7 riders data/bike)

    Lapierre Pinarello
    Time 8-56 9-15
    Output 317.6 308.1
    Speed 18.3 17.7
    Cadence 77.7 77.1
    Heart bpm 168 167

  36. @Tom-

    There is no reliable way to blind the study in a reasonable way. People may subconsciously try harder on the current bike to make it look better. Someone mentioned it above. You'd have to have the bikes fitted 100% the same and then blindfold the riders to get anything close to properly blinded. It'd be a boatload of issues

  37. I just got the magazine (I bought an entire year's worth, and subscribed for two more) and read the article.

    A fundamental problem with the analysis was the regression omitted race length as a parameter. The Milan-San Remo results, which lack this source of variability, clearly show distance is a strong predictor of speed. It would be interesting to see a 2-parameter AnOVa and then see the remaining correlation between Tour speed and running speed.

    They could have done an analysis correlating the Tour speed with the winning speed in the Indy 500 and they probably would have also gotten a strong correlation. Simply correlating time-series data, each of which are under the general trend of improvement over time from a wide variety of factors, isn't enough to demonstrate causality.

  38. Thanks Don. Hopefully the authors can improve on this take and continue to expand on this study. It was a good first attempt. Obviously, it would need good data and careful analysis, keeping in mind always the questions "what are we trying to answer?" and "what are the best ways to get the answers?"

  39. Hi Ron,

    A good analysis, really. I wish you had passed the critique and suggestions by us first... because then we could explain.

    1. Marathons use street courses with variable terrain, wind, etc. 5 and 10 km races are on the track, which varies little.

    2. We specifically excluded time trials, because there is no doubt that aerobars have increased speeds there. However, most recreational riders and randonneurs use racing bikes, not time trial bikes. We wanted to know whether racing bikes have improved. (There is no doubt that time trial bikes are faster now than they were 50 years ago. Look at the Hour Record!)

    3. Obviously, there are many things that can be investigated... but we chose to investigate bicycle technology.

    4. When you look at the year-to-year variability of the Tour, you see that it's remarkably little. So the Tours appear to be roughly of the same difficulty from year to year. The length of the average TdF stages hasn't changed as much as most people think, at least since the late 1920s. We did an analysis that factored average stage length, but it didn't correlate with speed, so clearly that isn't a factor.

    5. We have compared older and new bikes. In fact, we did compare the hillclimbing speeds of a 1973 Alex Singer Randonneur bike and a Trek Madone in the same issue. However, people don't believe it when you point out that even 5 lbs. of bike weight can be masked by differences in daily form. They point to the Tour de France to show that modern bicycles are faster. So we looked at the Tour...

    Feel free to post.


    Jan Heine (editor, Bicycle Quarterly)

  40. thanks for this useful information

  41. Anonymous11:44 PM

    The advances are not really for huge, blockbuster type increases on speed I would think. They just add a few milliseconds or seconds here and there that at the end of the day is what can make a difference between 1st and 10th. Otherwise, I would agree with the study.

    The average recreational rider will probably find a 20+ pound "old school" bike to provide performance comparable to that of a new light carbon fiber frame. The again, it does feel different. I am sure I could run the same speeds on my running shoes and my work shoes, but I'd rather run on my running shoes.

  42. Anonymous8:07 PM

    Take two Pro's of equal power output, put one on a 15,000 dollar bike, put the other on a 1950 bike and let them race for 3 stages.


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