The banning of radios in two Tour de France stages next month got me thinking about what pro cycling may look like in a few years time. While I very much look forward to those two stages, I am convinced that this ban will not find much following. In sports, in life, in business technological progress cannot be stopped.
The last ten, twenty years have already pushed the sport forward. Among other things:
– (almost) faultless indexed gearing
– from 10-speed bikes to 22-speed bikes
– the aerodynamic advances evident during time trials in bike design, helmets, wheels, clothing
– the emergence of GPS
– and those radios of course, enabling direct and continuous communication between riders and between rider and team director
Riders like Lance Armstrong have also modernized training regimes and team tactics. Teams like Saxo Bank, Silence-Lotto and Rabobank now prepare differently for multi-stage races like the Tour and the Giro than before the Armstrong era. Trek, at Armstrong prodding, provides the team with different bikes for the flat stages vs the mountain stages, let alone the time trails of course.
Both technology influences and human influences are further professionalizing the sport. Let us freely speculate where it may go from here.
Perhaps begin with a more controversial topic: doping, an aspect of professional sport that has seen its own professional advances.
From the 1950-1980 era of steroids and testosterone to EPO and other forms of blood doping. The test regimes are getting better with also more structural defenses like the recent introduction of the so-called blood passport. But it will continue to be a cat and mouse game, a catch up effort. As anti-doping labs develop tests to find usages of one type of doping, other labs find the next form of doping. AFLD, the French anti-doping organization, applied new test methods at last year’s Tour de France and the IOC applied these methods also to samples taken during the Peking Olympics. Several cyclists (and other athletes) were caught cheating. One, Bernhard Kohl, has been quite vocal since his finding out. He makes at least one quite interesting point: he tested positive only once even while he was extensively doping. Through the use of the blood passport the UCI recently announced the names of 5 cyclists suspected of drug usage due to unusual values in their blood passports. This may show that a blood passport is an effective means to evaluate whether an athlete uses substances or methods that s/he shouldn’t but the announcement also implies that doping usage continues. This raises a question for me, what about the period before the athlete is required to maintain this passport? Will we see in the future athletes nurtured from a much younger age and so coming into the profession with established blood levels nullifying the impact of those passports?
In swimming and in speed skating performances are improved by faster suits. In support of my opinion stated earlier that technological advances cannot be stopped, the international swim foundation after some discussion and controversy recognized the records achieved with the new suits. In time trials we already see racers in long sleeved skinsuits, covered shoes and aerodynamic helmets. I wonder how long it’ll be before we start to see more of that in the flat, fast stages. And maybe even in mountain stages where there could be an aerodynamic benefit in the long descents.
It seems that with Campagnolo’s new 11-sprocket cassette a cyclist has all the needed gears and not much more can be gained there. Shimano, and I trust Campagnolo and SRAM too, is working on electronic shifting. This itself will not give a speed increase but fewer moving parts is still better than more. Did I see first Sylvester Szmyd and then Alejandro Valverde mis-shift in the final meters of the Dauphiné Libéré’s Mont Ventoux stage?
For me the most interesting developments are in what has been started by the introduction of the radios and the emergence of GPS-enabled bicycle computers like Garmin’s Edge line. For my own cycling I love having a GPS on my handlebars. Knowing where I am, where I want to go, having all that data to play with afterwards: delicious.
For years racers have been putting bike computers to good use. Knowing the time difference between the peloton and the break-away group it is easy to calculate what average speed to ride to catch them. And the current GPS-enabled devices already provide additional benefits: see the geographical profile of the route ahead, know exactly where you are with regards to the remainder of the course. But certainly from a team director point of view much more is possible. GPS radios can inform the team director exactly where all the team riders are and where they are in relation to each other. Biometric information can be sent along so that the director can also have an idea of the remaining fitness levels of each team member. And so Eric Breukink of Rabobank could decide to send Pieter Weening after an escapee instead of Joost Posthuma judging the realtime reporting of wattage, heart rates and lactate levels of both riders.
Team leaders like Lance Armstrong who have a direct interest in team strategy as well could have much of the same information projected on heads-up displays integrated in their sunglasses.
Team directors of the future need not be in the team cars anymore. Not be distracted by the driving and the discomfort of being in a car for the many hours of a race. Instead, they’ll be in a central (nicely airconditioned) team command post with plenty of displays and communication devices around them conducting the cycling battle like a modern general. Ignoring a team director’s instructions will become harder and harder for the riders, continuing the increasing control of the team director over the team tactics during the race.
It still frequently occurs that a rider looses a race due to poor eating or drinking. Alberto Contador lost this year’s Paris-Nice because of this. Robert Gesink had a bad day in last year’s Vuelta due to not taking in enough food and also Lance Armstrong has fallen victim in the past. I expect these decisions to go away from the athlete. In the future a rider may have biometric devices embedded that monitor the rider’s blood levels and, carrying a future-version Camelbak, have the appropriate nutrients inserted directly into the bloodstream.
Over time where races are held may also change. Already for some years races like the Amstel Gold race, certain stages in the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España have become more dangerous for the riders due to the so-called traffic furniture that is installed to make the urban areas safer. Instruments like round-abouts, speed bumps, road dividers are put in to slowdown daily traffic and minimize accidents. For a fast moving peloton of 150+ riders these actually create greater risk for bodily harm. Just as car racing – for the exception of the famous Monaco Formula 1 race – by and large has moved to dedicated circuits, also bike racing may increasingly move to rural courses and avoid the cities making the traditional circuiting of the Champs d’Elysées a memory of the past.