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VN Archives: Jonathan Vaughters — What can we believe?

In a column from 2012, Jonathan Vaughters dived into some data to show how cycling was entering a very different phase in its evolution.

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Editor’s note: This article appeared in the November 2012 edition of VeloNews.

Ex-pro and team manager Jonathan Vaughters shared his perspective on on the fallout from the USADA case, and why he insisted that fans and media still had reason to believe in cycling.

Despite the revelations of illicit practices and blatant cheating that was revealed in the sprawling USADA Reasoned Decision, Vaughters insisted that the then-future of cycling had very little to do with its controversial past.

Why anyone should believe anything that they can’t see or touch is a question that goes far beyond doping issues in cycling.

The questions of belief and faith have existed as long as civilization has; wars have ensued over such personal convictions. So, rather than waste your time asking you to believe that cycling has finally turned the corner on doping, I’m going to simply set down the raw facts and figures, and let you decide what your belief is — or isn’t.

I’ll spare you statistics that are immediately suspect in the face of recent revelations. I am well aware that, even though less than one percent of anti-doping controls come back positive, that isn’t a convincing argument that doping has ceased.

Instead, what I’m going to present are the simple facts of speed, time, and Newton meters, and how these demonstrate certain trends in modern day racing, and what those trends mean. To look at physiological trends in professional cycling, the first thing we must find is an environment that allows an “apples-to-apples” comparison over time. Average speeds for complete races do not allow this, as too many variables exist, such as road surface and weather conditions.

Also, I would argue that most cycling events performed on flat roads don’t allow very viable statistical analysis — because wind resistance is the single largest barrier, small changes in aerodynamics, or changes in equipment, can profoundly change average times and speeds from year to year.

Instead, we must find an environment that allows for basic mathematics to determine what is going on physiologically with the athletes. Steep and extended climbing is the perfect environment for this, as friction, aerodynamics, and rolling resistance can be standardized, within a margin of error, so that we can relate changes in time to actual changes in physiology. It’s also helpful that pro cycling has a great database of historically significant climbs to compare performances over the years.

And while I won’t say that each individual calculation is without error, I will say that if you look at the overall picture, the weight of the statistics and trends of the racing as a whole overshadow any small error in an individual’s performance.

What do these statistics show? There are three major parameters I’m going to look at — average climbing rate, total time, and power output — on both L’Alpe d’Huez and Plateau de Beille. Then we’ll have a look at the overall climbing rates in the grand tours. Identifiable differences calculated before the February 2008 introduction of the biological passport and after its introduction are astounding.

The drop in average fastest times of these climbs is around 10 percent. When looking at the drop in the average overall winning climbing rates of the grand tours, we see around a six percent drop. While there are exceptions to this drop, the overall data is very compelling. Times up big climbs are significantly slower than before the bio passport. There is no other explanation for this than that, somehow, the top riders are delivering a smaller amount of oxygen to their muscles.

They cannot sustain the climbing speeds of 10 years ago. When these data are correlated with the mean 10 percent drop in hemoglobin (the oxygen carrying component of red cells) levels from 1997 until 2010 — reported by UCI medical director Mario Zorzoli — a clear pattern begins to form. Considering that oxygen vector doping is generally considered to bring about a six to 10 percent gain in power output, I find it more than coincidental that the drop in climbing rates/times almost exactly matches the drop in red cell counts in top riders.

I think the conclusion is fairly obvious. Instead of ranting about how “new age” cycling is holistic, and how the culture of the peloton has changed, I’ll just let the numbers speak for themselves.

Maybe cycling culture has changed, but it is still a cutthroat professional sport for very ambitious and hardened individuals. Instead of trying to prove human nature has truly evolved, I’ll just leave it to the math. The math says one thing and one thing only: Cycling has cleaned up its act. Now let’s work on keeping it that way.