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Analysis: After Horner’s Vuelta victory, pro cycling remains a faith game

After Chris Horner's Vuelta a España victory, pro cycling remains a faith game

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MADRID (VN) — RadioShack-Leopard team manager Luca Guercilena stood outside the team bus Saturday, before the start of the decisive summit finale up the Anglirú that would decide the entire the Vuelta a España, patiently fielding questions that he knew were all but impossible to answer.

Yes, Chris Horner is clean, he said. Yes, we can believe his performance. No, I cannot prove it.

Fairly or unfairly, Horner’s tremendous performance over three weeks, to become the oldest rider to win a grand tour, brought the same level of skepticism and misgiving as similar rides throughout the 2013 season.

“It’s the same we saw with [Chris] Froome. We know the long past of cycling will be there for many years … but the starting point must be a presumption of innocence,” Guercilena told VeloNews. “Otherwise, if we are suspicious of every big performance, where does that leave us? We are all working to make it better.”

Just like Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in the Giro d’Italia and Froome at the Tour de France, whoever wins a grand tour in a spectacular manner is going to be scrutinized. It comes with the territory of “new cycling” in the first season since USADA’s reasoned decision was released. The protocol looks something like this: Win a race, get kisses from the podium girls, shake hands with the Badger, and then wait for journalists to question the legitimacy of your performance.

The “new cycling” theory is based on the assumption that the pro peloton is a cleaner, more credible place, thanks to stricter, more accurate controls coupled with a paradigm shift from within, as teams, riders, sponsors, and managers have done an about face on doping and embraced more ethical competition.

There’s a loud chorus of those within the sport who claim that cycling is more credible, and perhaps the cleanest it has ever been in its history. But we’ve heard it all before.

Today’s peloton finds itself pitted against 20 years of the EPO generation, layered over with the no-holds-barred reasoned decision in the USADA case that erased any doubt about how riders used to win grand tours.

What remains is the doubt in believing what we are seeing.

Cycling is a sport in transition, and the 2013 season is proving critical. All season long, we’ve witnessed amazing performances, and yet — or because of this — the doubts linger on.

The peloton is facing a credibility gap. There is a massive disconnect between the reality portrayed in the USADA dossier and the reality of what fans witnessed over the past three weeks in Spain.

How much has the peloton truly changed over the past five years or so? It’s hard to know.

With teams, riders, and the UCI still reluctant to fully release all relevant information about doping controls, biological passport data, power numbers, and even things as simple as riders’ weights, believing in cycling still requires a leap of faith. A lack of transparency evokes doubt.

There are plenty of hints that the racing has changed. Attacks are shorter, bursts of speed don’t last as long, and riders simply collapse once crossing the line.

Yet it remains murky business trying to interpret the performances, such as Horner’s during this Vuelta.

Guercilena agrees that Horner’s Vuelta was extraordinary, but only for the fact that he is nearly 42 years old, not for the manner in which he won.

“It is exceptional, yes, for his age, but his performance is not something so unbelievable,” Guercilena continued. “He is not suspicious or surprising to me. Other than the fact that it is special that someone of 41 to win, [his victory] is something that is possible.”

Guercilena insisted that fans and media should believe Horner won the Vuelta in a credible and honest way.

“People must believe in what they are seeing, yes,” Guercilena said. “We have a zero-tolerance policy on this team. For our team, with how we work, I know that this performance is a good performance.”

There is a sense of exasperation in Guercilena that was similar to what Sky’s Dave Brailsford expressed during the Tour. After facing a nonstop barrage of doping questions for two weeks, Brailsford finally turned the tables on journalists and asked, “What can we do to convince you we are not doping? You ask the same question every day. We are racing clean, but no one wants to believe it.”

Something as telling as releasing power numbers does little to quell those doubts.

Horner’s climb up Peña Cabarga on Thursday was a lightning rod for critics, who claimed that the American’s power numbers pushed the limit of what can be considered a clean performance.

On Saturday, Horner released his numbers from the Cabarga climb, on Typically, RadioShack releases power numbers for races it wins, but made an exception for the Cabarga climb, and decided to make Horner’s numbers available to the public.

According to SRM, Horner averaged 425 watts “in the final six kilometers uphill, with a 744-watt maximum output.”

Those numbers seem reasonable enough, but they must be taken at face value. One assumes that SRM or no one else could manipulate the data. The one vital indicator is the question of Horner’s weight. The team insists that he’s racing the Vuelta between 141 and 143 pounds (64-65kg), but he appears to be thinner than that.

In today’s peloton, the equation for victory is measured in the ratio between power and weight. Riders are slimmer now than they’ve ever been in the sport’s history. Compare photos to riders in the 1990s to Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde, who tips the scales at 135 pounds. The difference is striking.

In the elite of the sport, weight is the key difference between being competitive in grand tours and simply being close. Irishman Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) produces competitive power, but he’s carrying too much weight. The team roughly calculated if he shed nine pounds, he could be fighting for a Tour de France podium.

Antoine Vayer, the French pundit who has taken a cynical view of Horner’s Vuelta, calculated that the American’s power numbers are borderline credible.

Use the 65kg weight, and his numbers are “safe,” Vayer said. Drop that down to 61kg-62kg (around 135 pounds), and his numbers are “pas normal.” Some estimates have put Horner’s power output equal with Froome and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) from this summer’s Tour de France.

Guercilena, who has a training background from the Mapei Training Center in Italy, cautioned that such rough estimates often lead to incorrect conclusions.

“The [Cabarga] performance itself is not so special. I have seen some numbers that have been published, but you have to take those with careful attention. The performance itself is not making me nervous,” Guercilena said. “The numbers are absolutely normal for a climb of 15 minutes for a guy weighing 65 kilos.”

RadioShack officials have circled the wagons, now facing the same scrutiny that many other top riders and teams have faced all season long.

Guercilena countered by saying that circumstances of the race tilted Horner’s way. Several of his rivals came to the Vuelta burned out, off-form, and less motivated. Others crashed out, fell ill, and succumbed to cold in the Pyrénées. The stars aligned for Horner to give him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win this Vuelta.

A strong team time trial, just 10 seconds behind Astana, put Horner in the pole position right from the gun. Coming into this Vuelta with less than two weeks of racing in his legs put him at an advantage against riders such as Nibali or Valverde, who peaked for the Giro and Tour, respectively. For the first time in his 20-year racing career, everything went right for Horner in a grand tour. And he delivered an immaculate victory.

“A big performance for someone with Chris’ age, we also are surprised ourselves, but this Vuelta is perfect for him,” Guercilena continued. “It’s perfect for a climber like Chris. If we had a time trial with 50km, we would have a gap of five minutes. There are a series of things that Chris is at the right moment, the best condition, and the right mind. He is fresh, and the others who are fatigued.”

Guercilena, who came on board as team manager to take over for the scandal-marred Johan Bruyneel last October, stated bluntly that Horner’s win will stand the test of time.

“We have nothing to hide,” Guercilena said. “Chris is respecting the rules. We respect the rules.”

It’s a shame for Horner, and for cycling, that his victory cannot be wholly embraced, but that’s the reality of today’s peloton. Riders have to realize that after winning the race, they must then be ready to convince everyone that they can believe it. Fans simply do not want to be taken for fools again.

Despite so much progress, even “new cycling” remains a faith game. Believe it, or not, at your peril.