The Atavism

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Is the Tour de France getting more clean?

Last night (NZ time) Alberto Contador rolled down the Champs-Élysées just behind the mad sprint for the last stage victory of this year's Tour De France and become the 19th person to win the world's greatest bike race twice. For me the peleton's arrival in Paris represents another truimph against circadian rhythms and sleep debt and a chance to become slightly less nocturnal. Contador's achievement is prehaps greater. In the last three weeks he has crossed 3,445 km of roads in Monaco, Andora, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and yes, France and climbed the Pyrenees the Alps and even a volcano while maintaining an average speed of about 40.3 kph.

It's a journalistic cliché to call such achievements 'super human' but when we are talking about professional cyclists it's impossible not to wonder if what Contador, the brothers Shleck Armstrong and Wiggins have achieved really is possible within the realms of human physiology. Doping has been part of the Tour de France since it left Paris for the first time in 1903 (though the initial controversies were about riders poisioning their rivals) and more recent controversies have done much to tarnish the reputation of the event. But in the last few years there it seems there has been a concerted effort to clean the sport up, teams like Garmin Slipstream have incredible anti-doping measures (each rider is tested 600 times a season to generate a time series of hormones and red blood cell count, making and sudden change obvious) and the peleton who once threatened to stop riding the Tour because the French police was performing raids on team buses no longer has any time for riders that test postive (typified by a recent tweet from Brad Wiggins).

Am I deluding myself? Is there really any good evidence to support the idea that cycling has cleaned its act up? To put my intuition to a test I've plotted the average speed of the winner of the Tour for each lap of France since the WWII. Perhaps I'm displaying confirmation bias here but it does seem like since 2006, when many cheats where caught and exluded from the tour, the previous pattern of ever increasing average speed has stopped. Of course, reading too much into a short term pattern in a highly variable dataset (the course changes every year and conditions and riders also influence the speed of the race) is the kind of mistake climate change denialists make but it does at least provide some support to my hope that Contador really is worthy wearer of yellow.

Anyway, once I'd made the plot it look so much like the stage profiles that the Tour organisers provide I couldn't help but make it into an 'infographic' displaying some of the checkered history of the greatest race on earth (click on the graph to get one big enough to read on the screen):

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Posted by David Winter 11:35 PM


Bravo! I have tweeted this at
Thanks HBird. It's rare that of my all consuming obsessions (making data look pretty and cycling) can come together so I'm glad at least one other person found it interesting!
I would like to read more about this interesting topic.

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