Technology is changing our pursuit. It is evolving before our eyes, creating endless possibilities. In the latest edition of The Pursuit — our look at the parallels between professional sport and the clinical world, and how both are shaped by data, science and technology — we look at how the Tour de France went from an analogue mountain climb to a digital race to the top.
Words by Richard Moore.
Two decades ago, the sport of cycling was analogue. Races were won using tactics and strategies that relied on the instincts of a rider and their sports director, aided by a stopwatch, map and the knowledge of opponents and courses that they carried in their brains.
This has changed completely.
With a few exceptions, the top cyclists don’t go on feel or instinct now. More often, they are responding to data.
The trend was illustrated most starkly at the 2012 Tour de France when the defending champion, Cadel Evans, attacked on a key Alpine stage.
With 56km remaining Evans shot out of the lead group, quickly building an advantage. He appeared to be riding away from his rivals. Yet, behind him, there was no panic.
Four members of Team Sky kept riding at a steady pace, with their leader, Bradley Wiggins, sitting comfortably behind. Michael Rogers, the team’s Australian road captain, reassured Wiggins. “When we were riding on the front at 450 watts or whatever and someone attacked,” said Wiggins, “Mick Rogers would say ‘Just leave him, he can’t sustain it’.”
So it proved with Evans, and with other plucky attackers in the 2012 race and for six of the next seven Tours, which Team Sky, who became Team Ineos in 2019, won with three different riders.
“They perfected the art of “riding to power” — having their riders and their coaches know their capabilities so exactly that they could measure their performance to perfection over the three weeks of the Tour.”
Yet athlete performance is only one area of cycling in which data and technology play a part. There are at least two more, and each has seen changes over the last twenty years, though arguably least of all where you might most expect it — in the bicycles themselves.
Bikes are certainly more aerodynamic and technologically advanced, but cycling’s governing body, the UCI, keeps a firm handbrake on development and innovation, even imposing a weight limit. Primarily this is to try and safeguard the integrity of a sport that is supposed to be between people rather than machines.
Which might partially explain why, in other areas, there has been a revolution.
In athlete performance, there have been huge changes in nutrition and in sleep and health monitoring, but the real revolution has been in the use of power data — gathered in the bike’s cranks and transmitted to a small handlebar-mounted device — in training and racing.
Power meters were available from 1988 but their use didn’t become standard among professionals until a decade or so later. One theory as to why is that throughout the 1990s the sport was dominated by a drug, EPO, that was undetectable, and so effective that it rendered sports science redundant.
Science could only be fully embraced by professional teams when the sport’s doping culture began to change.
The use of power meters means that riders are fitter and better prepared, but also that races tend to me more controlled and less unpredictable. There are fewer riders willing to race with the kind of panache so beloved of fans, where riders, like Cadel Evans in 2012, would attack with 56km and two major mountain passes remaining — and have a chance of succeeding.
Another area where the sport has changed enormously is in mapping and course analysis. These days, instead of piles of Michelin maps, the sports directors in the team cars have iPads.
“I hate when a rider asks me about something and I don’t have the answer in the car,” says Gabriel Rasch, lead sports director at Team Ineos.
Curiously, Rasch was responsible for another innovation, in clothing. In 2009, when he was a professional, he improvised to produce what he reckoned was the first aerodynamic rain jacket, by stitching the sleeves from his standard racing jersey to the body of a rain jacket. His team’s clothing supplier, Castelli, were so impressed that they designed a jacket based on his design, calling it the “Gabba”, after Rasch. The Gabba heralded a revolution in rain wear.
These days, Rasch is more concerned with directing the Team Ineos riders from the team car. While the coaches are looking after the riders’ training and the doctors and physios are looking after their health, Rasch is helping them make decisions on the road, which means he needs to know the course.
Or as he puts it, “Every corner, every climb and how steep it is, every roundabout, speed bumps, small towns, narrow roads, open roads, bridges, tunnels, cobblestones — everything.”
Like other top teams, Rasch and Team Ineos use VeloViewer, developed by Ben Lowe, a software developer and keen cyclist based in Sheffield, to bring maps to life for cyclists, with 3D profiles of climbs and other features helpful for bike riders.
“I found out that various teams were using VeloViewer and started working with Team Sky,” says Lowe. “I produced a package that was tailored for them with reliable biometric elevation data for the climbs and time trials so they’d know exactly what gradients the climbs are and can work out gear ratios and pacing strategies.”
The app that Lowe has tailored for teams includes all the information Rasch needs — every roundabout, turn, piece of road furniture — and the riders can also see it on their handlebar-mounted devices (should they choose to be on the maps screen, rather than the power data screen).
“I can also put in waypoints on VeloViewer,” says Rasch, “which are basically notes I’ve made after studying the course. Now I have my iPad in the car with all this data; three, four years ago I had ten bits of paper with maps and notes.
“After each stage, once we have seen all the riders and the coaches have analysed the power data and the doctors and physios have checked the riders’ health, we have a meeting and go over all the information from the day.
“That data influences what happens the next day and what we can expect from the riders. To have that constant flow of information between coaches, doctors, physios and sports directors is pretty vital.”
Each night, after the meeting, Rasch also goes over the next day’s course, refreshing his notes. “I have the whole Tour mapped out more or less,” he said a month before the 2020 race, “but I like to have it fresh in my mind, otherwise it’s all bubbling together.”
With the information to hand he feels confident in his job. And if a rider comes back to the team car looking for a rain jacket? “I give them a Gabba,” he says, “though I still find it strange to have a jacket named after me.”