Lance vs Cadel: a study of two 22-year-olds

At the beginning of the 2010 season, RIDE Cycling Review published a story by Dr David T. Martin that compared data of two racing cyclists when they were aged 22 – one was Lance Armstrong, the other Cadel Evans. Both have been world champions and both have won the Tour de France… but only one, it seems, will be officially recognised for his successes in the French Grand Tour. Given the headlines of the past few days, we have decided to revisit the piece and publish it online. Here is the flashback from RIDE #47 (volume 01, 2010).

 

In rainbow approaching 22… When Lance Armstrong raced the Tour in 1994 he was the reigning world champion. It was his second appearance. This was pre-cancer, around the time when Ed Coyle was compiling data about his physiology.

 

 

Considering some statistics

Concept: A comparison of physiological data from two elite riders aged 22.
Featuring: Lance Armstrong & Cadel Evans.
Studies by: Professor ed Coyle, University of Texas & Australian insitute of Sport, Canberra.

* * * * *

Dr David T. Martin, a senior physiologist at the AIS, has conducted fitness tests on Australia’s most talented cyclists for over 15 years. Among his files are a series of tests documenting the physiology of a phenomenal rider at the beginning of his career. He compared the physiological profile of Cadel Evans when he was 22 years old to data describing Lance Armstrong’s physiology at the same age.

By Dr David T. Martin

Who has superior physiology for cycling: Lance Armstrong or Cadel Evans? There is no denying the Texan’s record of dominance in the Tour de France. But when it comes to consistently racing well throughout an entire year the Australian also has an impressive history – two MTB World Cup titles and the ProTour victory in 2007, the last time the showcase series included all the truly significant races on the calendar.

If you are a keen cycling fan, you can probably conjure up images of Lance and Cadel when they have had good days racing in the mountains. That look, that rhythm, that tenacity as they ride uphill and the rest of the world’s best climbers struggle to hold their wheel. Obviously both are exceptional cyclists born with great physiology. In addition, their relentless training has likely encouraged physiological adaptations to the highest level. Although winning a road race requires far more than great physiology, for the purposes of this article I want to focus on physiological fitness parameters possessed by these two successful professionals.

Experts in the automotive industry love to compare fast machines. The world’s best cars are often compared based on price, acceleration, top speed and aesthetics. For instance, the SSC Ultimate Aero (Twin-Turbo V8 Engine with 1,183 horsepower) has been identified as the “fastest car in the world” according to thesupercars.org. Guinness World Records documented that this car takes only 2.7 seconds to accelerate to 60km/h and can obtain 410km/h as a peak speed. This leaves the 1.7 million dollar Bugatti Veyron as the second fastest car, merely capable of a 402km/h maximum.

Similarly, a comparison of the world’s most accomplished road cyclists can be based on multiple criteria. They can be compared based on annual salary. When nominating an estimate for the likes of Alberto Contador you could comfortably start at two million euros… and add more to that after each major victory. (But Lance is so far ahead in this regard that it’s unfair to others.) Another category could be UCI points (in this instance, Contador comes up number one) – and then there is fitness. Alas, it’s not so simple to provide a definitive set of numbers for the last of these hypothetical classifications. Fitness is a term often used but rarely defined with precision.

From a sports science perspective, a number of “fitness indicators” have been established. The majority of these are established during an exercise test that requires the cyclist to ride at progressively higher intensities. These have a variety of methods and titles: “graded exercise tests” or “step tests” or “incremental intensity tests” or “maximum oxygen uptake tests” – all different terms but essentially it’s the same concept. They allow the continuum of exercise intensity, from near resting to maximum effort, to be documented.

Winning World Cups at 21… Before he took up road cycling Cadel Evans was already a winner. His first World Cup victory was in 1998 when he was 21. His jersey (above) combines red — as leader of the under-23 classification — and blue for the elite category.

Historically, heart rate, blood lactate accumulation, oxygen uptake, substrate utilisation and perception of effort are monitored during these tests. Of particular interest are the maximum values achieved during the test (maximum power output, maximum oxygen uptake) and the power output associated with the “lactate threshold”, also known as the onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA).

Historically, physiologists use threshold to refer to an exercise intensity that represents a distinct transition from aerobic to anaerobic energy production (ie. anaerobic energy production is more appropriately defined as oxygen independent energy production). It is the threshold cycling intensity or power output that can be sustained for prolonged periods of time (eg. a 40km time trial).

Entire chapters in exercise physiology textbooks have been devoted to lab-based fitness testing. For the purposes of this article, it is helpful to clarify that VO2max power output can be sustained for five to 10 minutes whereas threshold or OBLA power output can be sustained for anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes. Also worth a comment is the fact that cycling speed over flat terrain tends to be dictated by the relationship between power output and coefficient of drag area (aerodynamics), thus high power and low drag translate into a fast cycling speed.

For uphill cycling speed, the key variable tends to be the power to mass ratio (power output divided by the total weight of the cyclist, bike and equipment). Also of interest is the gross efficiency associated with cycling. This is calculated by estimating the mechanical work produced on the bike divided by the total amount of energy expended by the athlete. Depending upon the athlete, gross efficiency tends to be around 20-22 per cent. In summary, cycling physiology is typically defined by parameters that describe maximum aerobic capacity (VO2max), threshold intensity (OBLA) and efficiency. In addition, maximum aerobic capacity and threshold intensity can be expressed as power to aerodynamic drag or power to mass ratios.

Although many of the world’s most accomplished cyclists have participated in laboratory fitness testing, a comprehensive comparison of exceptional cyclists such as Lance and Cadel tends to be rare for a variety of reasons. First of all, complete data sets from testing are not often made public. Secondly, test protocols and the equipment used are not always comparable. Furthermore, many scientists are more interested in comparing groups of athletes, not exploring differences between individuals. As a result, detailed comparisons of physiological fitness traits between world-class cyclists are not common.

In 2005 professor Ed Coyle published a paper titled, ‘Improved muscular efficiency displayed as Tour de France champion matures’. This paper became very popular among some academically savvy cycling fans as the data presented gave a glimpse into Lance Armstrong’s physiology. Professor Coyle’s work appeared in the prestigious Journal of Applied Physiology and both VO2max and threshold fitness indicators were described for this seven-time Tour champion. It should be noted that some aspects of this report have come under heavy criticism (in particular, methodology issues associated with calculating cycling efficiency). It is also important to recognise that fitness tests were conducted prior to Lance winning his first Tour, thus they may not reflect career-best values. Still, many aspects of the data set are interesting as they describe the physiological make-up of an exceptional cyclist.

As Cadel Evans matured from a talented junior mountain biker to a professional road cyclist, his fitness was frequently monitored both in the field and in the lab at the Australian Institute of Sport. After examining Armstrong’s data set, it was obvious that many of the fitness parameters collected from Lance had also been retrieved from Cadel over the years.

I was responsible for Cadel’s fitness testing at the AIS and although our testing protocols and equipment were slightly different to the methodology adopted by Coyle with Armstrong, I feel there are enough similarities to allow for an interesting comparison to be made. After getting Cadel’s endorsement I, along with my colleagues from the AIS, presented a paper titled, ‘Cycling Efficiency in a UCI ProTour Champion: A Case Study’ at the 2009 American College of Sports Medicine Meeting held in Seattle, Washington. In this paper, we made a direct comparison between the cycling physiology of Cadel Evans and Lance Armstrong based on Coyle’s published data.

The methodology employed

Armstrong was tested five times in Coyle’s lab at the University of Texas between the ages of 21 and 28. Those familiar with the Armstrong story will remember that, during this period of time, Lance was diagnosed and treated for cancer (aged 25). Evans was tested more than 15 times at the Australian Institute of Sport between the ages of 18 and 24. However, we focused on seven tests that were completed at a time of year when Cadel was considered fit (between January and June).

Lance was tested on a Monark friction-braked ergometer using the following protocol: five-minute constant power output stages using 85rpm at increasing percentages – 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 – of VO2max power. Following this 25-minute test, he participated in active recovery for 10-20 minutes and then completed a rapid incremental power test involving power output increase every two minutes. This rapid incremental test produced exhaustion in eight to 12 minutes. During the submax and maximum tests oxygen uptake, heart rate and blood lactate were monitored.

Cadel used a Lode Excalibur Sport electromagnetically braked ergometer and the Australian national cycling team protocol: five minutes constant power output stages with a self-selected cadence, initial power output was 100W and increased by 50W every stage. The peak power output achieved during this protocol is calculated by adding 10W to the test score for every minute achieved in the final stage. For instance, one minute in the 500W stage adds 10W to the previously completed 450W stage giving the athlete 460W. Oxygen uptake, heart rate and blood lactate were monitored throughout the test.

 

Elite testing: the results

The best test results achieved by Evans at the AIS between the ages of 18 and 24 was a maximum aerobic power output of 455W (7.3 W.kg-1 body mass). This power output was associated with a VO2max of 5.65 L.min-1 or 87 ml.kg-1.min-1 – this score remains one of the highest ever recorded for any athlete tested at the AIS in Canberra. Threshold for Cadel was estimated at 370W or ~6.0 W.kg-1.

The best test results achieved by Armstrong at the University of Texas between the ages of 21 and 28 was an estimated maximum aerobic power output of ~510W (6.8 W.kg-1 body mass). This was associated with a VO2max of 6.10 L.min-1 or 81 ml.kg-1.min-1. For Lance’s data we adopted a similar technique for establishing threshold power output and estimated this ‘time trial’ fitness trait to be 425W or 5.7 W.kg-1.

Cadel and Lance both produced their highest VO2max values when they were 22. Immediately apparent is the superior power to mass ratios produced by Cadel at VO2max intensity. More specifically, Cadel’s 7.3 W.kg-1 at VO2max is almost eight per cent higher than the 6.8 W.kg-1 produced by Lance. Similarly, Cadel’s highest VO2max of 87 ml.kg-1.min-1 is 7.4 per cent higher than Lance’s highest recorded value.

But wait, how can this be? Is Cadel a superior physiological specimen when compared to Lance? Remember, comparing fitness traits is not always straightforward. It is important to recognise that Cadel’s weight during his best test was close to, if not slightly lower, than his Tour de France race weight whereas Lance weighed 75kg for his best laboratory test.

Although VO2max expressed as litres of oxygen consumed per minute does not change substantially as well-trained endurance athletes become highly trained, body mass can change dramatically and this will influence the VO2max score presented as ml.kg-1.min-1. Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France race weight has been discussed publicly but a definitive number has not been confirmed.

 

Influence of aerodynamics

If body mass is not considered and we focus on pure cycling power output capabilities then Lance Armstrong does look most impressive. A cyclist with a threshold power output greater than 400W and a maximum aerobic power output at close to 500W is very rare for a 75kg man. The absolute power outputs Lance Armstrong produces at VO2max and at threshold are higher than the values we have observed from Cadel. However, cycling speed on the flat is largely determined by the relationship between aerodynamic drag and power output.

At the time, both Lance and Cadel were searching for that elusive time trialling stance that allows for an optimal balance between power production and wind drag.

Although Lance looks to have the clear advantage for power, it is unknown whether the power to drag ratio produced by these two cyclists is really that different. Based on laboratory testing data when Cadel and Lance were both 22, for a one-hour time trial, Cadel might have sustained 370W whereas Lance might have been able to maintain 425W. The initial interpretation of this data suggests that Cadel would have no chance when time trialling against Lance on a flat road.

It’s worth noting that, at this age, Cadel was still a mountain biker and although he had aspirations for road cycling, his TT position – and Lance’s, for that matter – is incomparable with how it’s developed since.

However, if Cadel was able to noticeably improve his aerodynamic position then it is possible that despite the 55W difference in sustained power output, cycling speed on the flat would be the same for both cyclists. For the record, field data (power meters) from Cadel and Lance indicate that sustained power outputs for both climbing and time trialling have improved from the values recorded when they were 22.

This observation in consistent with the fact that training has a bigger impact on threshold intensity and fatigue resistance than VO2max intensity.

Factors that influence time until exhaustion at VO2max and threshold intensity are far less understood than factors that influence the power output at threshold intensity. For truly elite cyclists, predicting hill climbing performance may be better explained by knowing ride time until exhaustion at threshold intensity compared to just knowing threshold intensity expressed in W.kg-1. In other words, current laboratory testing is probably not bad for categorising performance abilities of cyclists with a wide range of fitness standards. But current laboratory fitness parameters appear to be inadequate for predicting superior performers within a small population of cyclists with similar physiology.

 

In Coyle’s case study, he suggests that Lance’s body mass ranged from 72-74kg when he was competing in the Tour (during his pre-cancer years).

Armed with this information – which is actually little more than an assumption– it is possible to adjust Lance Armstrong’s best laboratory test results based on an estimation of the lighter scale, say a body mass of 72kg. But if we consider comments made after his cancer treatment, something seems out of kilter. “The doubt about me as a Tour rider was my climbing ability,” explains Armstrong in his book, It’s Not About The Bike. “I could always sprint, but the mountains were my downfall. Eddy Merckx had been telling me to slim down for years, and now I understood why. A five-pound drop was a large weight loss for the mountains – and I had lost 15 pounds (6.8kg)…”

A decrease in body mass by three kilos would improve Lance’s physiological indicators of aerobic fitness; values would become very similar to Cadel’s (assuming VO2max in L.min-1 remains the same). Lance’s power to mass ratio would improve from 6.8 W.kg-1 to 7.1 W.kg-1 – still lower than Cadel’s incredible 7.3 W.kg-1 but much closer. Based on our estimates of threshold power, if Lance was racing at 72kg vs 75kg, and his fitness was the same as when he tested as a 22-year-old, then threshold power to mass would be ~5.9 W.kg-1 which is almost the same as Cadel’s 6.0 W.kg-1.

The power to mass ratio at VO2max and threshold intensity are certainly important when attempting to understand cycling hill climbing prowess. A cyclist with a threshold power output of 6.0 W.kg-1 will have a distinct advantage over a cyclist with a threshold power output of only 4.0 W.kg-1. However, two cyclists with the same threshold power to mass ratios (eg. Cadel and Lance, both at ~6 W.kg-1) does not guarantee that both will have the same cycling climbing performance. This is because of another important aspect of exercise physiology that is rarely discussed or studied: how long can a cyclist ride at VO2max or threshold intensity? Initially, lab testing might indicate that Cadel and Lance could be evenly matched. But if Cadel can sustain his threshold power output for 40 minutes whereas Lance can only last for 30 minutes, then the clear advantage would go Cadel’s way.

Are Lance Armstrong’s VO2max & maximum aerobic power the highest ever recorded for a cyclist? The short answer is no. Spanish sports scientists have published laboratory fitness values from Miguel Indurain and when it comes to power output at VO2max, he may have set the standard. Just prior to Indurain’s successful world hour record in 1995, lab fitness measurements indicate that he had a maximum aerobic power of ~570W and a threshold power output of ~500W. Relatively speaking, however, his stance in a time trial was upright. But take note: the power to mass ratio for Indurain at threshold and VO2max when his significant body mass (81kg) is taken into consideration produces values very similar to Cadel and Lance (~6 W.kg-1 at threshold and ~7 W.kg-1 at VO2max).

I have not discussed cycling efficiency for a good reason: calculations are very sensitive to equipment and are prone to inaccuracies. It might be calculated to be around 20 per cent in one lab but elsewhere it could be 25. We estimated that Cadel’s cycling efficiency is around 21-24 per cent. Interestingly, Coyle published similar values (21-23 per cent) for Armstrong. Thus it doesn’t appear either athlete possessed exceptional efficiency aged 22 but we recognise that obtaining accurate measurements for this fitness parameter is not an easy thing to do.

Overall, Cadel’s cycling physiology as assessed as a developing young rider is most impressive. He boasts one of the highest VO2max values ever recorded at the AIS and displays a phenomenal power to mass ratio at both VO2max and threshold intensity. Although Lance is the man when it comes to winning the Tour, Cadel’s physiology reigns supreme based on traditional measurements of aerobic capacity.

Now, you may ask: why is this comparison of interest and what is the point of discussing physiological attributes and capacities when we know Lance has repeatedly won the Tour? Stuff the numbers, let’s just applaud and recognise Lance’s amazing achievements. Aside from a bunch of sports scientists, who really cares about VO2max values anyway?

Well, from my perspective, this physiological comparison is of interest because it reiterates that Lance is not merely a physiological freak. Oh yes, he possesses many physiological prerequisites for being successful as a road cyclist but he is not a physiological outlier when compared to other pro cyclists. If anything, Lance’s aerobic capacity is lower than Cadel’s, not extremely superior and we haven’t even addressed the capacity of other top riders like Alberto Contador.

So don’t think it has been easy for Lance. The data doesn’t support the argument that Lance wins because he was born with some god-given gift, some unique physiological capacity that makes his success as a professional road cyclist easy. There’s a lot involved in winning. Don’t assume that Lance just jumped on a bike and found out that he possessed a superior aerobic capacity and was capable of dropping everyone off his wheel while riding up a nasty climb in the Alps or Pyrenees.

No, quite the opposite. Lance has great physiology but so do many other professional cyclists including Cadel Evans. The great physiology is a requirement but not a differentiator. I believe the data reviewed in this article supports the concept that Lance is a winner because he has committed himself, trained hard, and designed his environment to allow him to produce exceptional performances. Based on physiological traits, it is just a bit too simplistic – and a bit naive – to think that all of Lance’s achievements can be explained by superior build.

– By Dr David T. Martin
Postscript: Published in RIDE Cycling Review #47 before the USADA reasoned decision on Lance Armstrong, the postscript to this piece will appear in RIDE Cycling Review #58 (onsale November 2012)

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