The modified constant time model for the team time trial

2015tdf-stage9-ttt-bmcInclusion of the team time trial (TTT) in stage races like the Tour de France has been the subject of debate for many years. Some think the TTT is fine the way it is and nothing needs to be changed. Some think the TTT has no place in stage races and should be eliminated. And some take the middle ground and argue that the TTT should be included in stage races but the way it is scored needs to be changed. At various times the Tour de France has taken all three of these approaches. In this article I’ll present a model for keeping the TTT and modifying how it is scored.

TTT rotating backThe TTT is one of the most difficult – maybe the most difficult – discipline in professional cycling. The riders must work together like a well-oiled machine to sustain a level of brutal, intense effort over the entire length of the race. The team rides in a tight formation at extremely high speeds. Corners are negotiated with precision and grace. The line of riders constantly circulates as each rider takes a short pull at the head of the team and then drops back and attaches to the end of the line for a “rest” period until his turn at the front comes around again. The TTT is an utterly unforgiving discipline where a weak rider or a single mistake can dash the hopes of the entire team..

A well-practiced time-trial team is a beautiful sight to behold which is why it would be a shame to see it eliminated from the Grand Tours (the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a España) . However, it comes with a unique set of problems which detractors justifiably point out in arguments for why it should not play a role in stage races of any kind.

team-garmin-sharp-POC-crash-team-time-trial-giro-d-italia-2014Developing a skilled TTT team takes practice, a lot of practice. And therein lies one of the problems with the TTT; most professional teams have very little motivation to devote the time to train for it. The World Tour events are the premier events in professional cycling. In 2015 there are 149 days of racing in World Tour events, 14 one-day races, 134 individual stages spread out over 13 stage races, and the TTT at the World Championships. Of the 149 days of racing there are only 6 TTTs, one in each of the three Grand Tours, 1 in the Tour de Romandie, 1 in the Critérium du Dauphiné, and the World Championship TTT. Competition in the World Championships is based on nationality, not professional team. Thus the pro teams race in 148 days of World Tour racing of which 5 are TTTs. In other words, TTTs make up only about 3% of the World Tour race days a pro team competes in over the course of the year. It’s not enough to make practicing the discipline worthwhile for most teams.

3-grand-tours-logoAs the World Tour is currently structured, the only teams that really need to practice the TTT are the handful that have a serious contender for winning the GC (General Classification, i.e., the overall winner of the race) in one of the Grand Tours. The time in a TTT is taken on the fifth rider to cross the finish line. Every rider who finishes with the team (usually not all of them do) is given this time. This means that the rider who is a contender for the GC gets the time of the fifth best rider on the team. There are often large time gaps between teams in TTTs and over the years many serious contenders for the overall win have fallen too far behind to compete because their teammates were not strong enough or not practiced enough to turn in fast TTT times. Opponents of including the TTT in stage races argue that it shouldn’t be the case that riders are knocked out of contention for the overall win because of time lost by weaker teammates.

As it stands now, inclusion of a TTT in a stage race runs the risk that this single stage can have large and negative consequences for the overall GC competition. If race organizers and fans hope to see a hard fought contest for the GC among all of the top contenders, the best they can hope for is that the TTT doesn’t have any effect on the overall race. It’s no wonder that so few stage races include TTTs.

cannondale_afpIn 2015 the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España addressed these problems by scheduling short TTTs as the first stage of the race. The TTT in the Giro was a short 17.6 kilometers and the Vuelta’s TTT is a very short 7.4 kilometers. The idea is that these short distances will result in smaller time gaps between teams. In addition, holding the TTT on a tour’s first day gives a team additional motivation to practice it because the winner of a tour’s first stage wear’s the overall winner’s jersey (e.g., the yellow jersey in the Tour de France) on the next day and can often keep it for several days of racing.

The problem with scheduling a short TTT on a tour’s first stage is that the TTT is too short to be much of a challenge and it ends up being more of an exhibition than a contest. The Tour de France opted to hold a longer and more challenging TTT as the 9th stage in the 2015 race.  At 28 kilometers the stage was still short but it was more of a contest than the TTTs in the Giro and the Vuelta. However there was a 4:58 gap between first and last place which is more than enough to eliminate every rider on the last place team from contention for winning the yellow jersey.

Specialized-lululemon-wins-uci-road-world-elite-women-team-time-trial-2What can be done to make the TTT more attractive to race organizers who want to include TTTs but don’t want to risk having the results dominate the GC competition? I will suggest an approach called the constant time model that allows for longer and more challenging TTTs and at the same time reduces the large time gaps that typically accompany longer TTTs. After examining the strengths and weaknesses of the model I will suggest a modified version that maintains the model’s strengths and mitigates it’s weaknesses.

In the constant time model every team is given the same base time for the TTT. This can be the time of the fastest team, the slowest team, the average time for all teams, or the median time.  Which time is chosen as the base time makes no real difference for the overall outcome in this version of the model.

The base time for each team is adjusted by a constant amount of time based on the order in which the teams finish. The formula is,

TT = BT + (F-1) LT

where T= time for the TTT, B= the base time, F = the position in which a team finishes, and L=  the time-loss constant. For example, if L= 3 seconds, then the team that finishes first gets the base time, the team that finishes second gets the base time + 3 seconds, the team that finishes third gets the base time + 6 seconds, and so on. There are 22 teams in this years Tour de France which means that application of the constant time model would result in a 63 second time gap between first and last place in the TTT ((22-1) x 3 seconds = 63 seconds). This is a significant amount of lost time for a rider who wants to win the Tour but unlike the 4:58 that was lost by members of the last place team in this year’s TTT it is not enough to eliminate a rider from contention for the yellow jersey.

The organizers of the Tour de France adopted a similar scoring method for the TTT in the 2004 and 2005 tours. The maximum loss was set to 3 minutes and the loss each team suffered was based on convoluted scheme that combined the team’s finishing place with a range of possible times between one team the team that finished just ahead of them. The constant time model is much simpler.

quick-step-ttt-tirreno-stage-1The  constant time model has both strengths and weaknesses.  The main strength of the model is that it reduces the maximum amount of time that can be lost in a TTT in such a way that GC contenders on poor time trial teams face a time deficit that is significant without being insurmountable. This strength can be shown by applying the constant time model to the TTT results from the 2009 Tour de France in the table below. Astana’s winning time is shown in the first row. Subsequent rows show the amount of time lost by each team.

Application of the constant time model with Lt = 3 to the 2009 Tour de France TTT

Team Real time L= 3
Astana 46:29 46.29
Garmin – Slipstream 0:18 0.03
Saxo Bank 0.40 0.06
Liquigas 0.58 0.09
Columbia – HTC 0.59 0.12
Katusha 1.23 0.15
Caisse d’Epargne 1.29 0.18
Cervelo Test Team 1.38 0.21
AG2R La Mondiale 1.49 0.24
Euskaltel – Euskadi 2.10 0.27
Rabobank 2.21 0.30
Quick Step 2.26 0.33
Silence – Lotto 2.36 0.36
Française des Jeux 2.46 0.39
Milram 2.49 0.42
Cofidis, Le Credit en Ligne 2.59 0.45
Lampre – NGC 3.25 0.48
Agritubel 4.18 0.51
BBOX Bouygues Telecom 4.42 0.54
Skil-Shimano 5.23 0.57

As can be seen in the table, application of the constant time model insures that no rider loses all hope of winning the GC because his team did poorly in the time trial.

A weakness of the constant model can also be seen in the preceding table. Astana is unlikely to be very happy about having its 18+ second advantages over all of its important competitors reduced by such large amounts. A further weakness of the model can be seen when it is applied to the shorter TTT results from the 2015 Tour de France

Application of the constant time model the 2015 Tour de France TTT

Team Real Time LT = 1 L= 2 L= 3
BMC Racing 32:15 32.15 32.15 32.15
Team Sky 0:01 0:01 0:02 0:03
Movistar Team 0:04 0:02 0:04 0:06
Tinkoff-Saxo 0:28 0:03 0:06 0:09
Astana Pro Team 0:35 0:04 0:08 0:12
IAM Cycling 0:38 0:05 0:10 0:15
Etixx-QuickStep 0:45 0:06 0:12 0:18
Lampre-Merida 0:48 0:07 0:14 0:21
Team LottoNL-Jumbo 1:14 0:08 0:16 0:24
AG2R LA Mondiale 1:24 0:09 0:18 0:27
Trek Factory Racing 1:25 0:10 0:20 0:30
Team Cannondale-Gramin 1:29 0:11 0:22 0:33
Bora-Argon 18 1:31 0:12 0:24 0:36
FDJ 1:33 0:13 0:26 0:39
Lotto Soudal 1:36 0:14 0:28 0:42
Team Giant-Alpecin 1:37 0:15 0:30 0:45
Team Europcar 1:42 0:16 0:32 0:48
Bretagne-Seche Environnement 1:46 0:17 0:34 0:51
Team Katusha 1:53 0:18 0:36 0:54
MTN-Qhubeka 1:56 0:19 0:38 0:57
Cofidis, Solutions Credits 2:32 0:20 0:40 0:60
Orica-GreenEdge 4:58 0:21 0:42 0:63

When L= 3, application of the model increases the time lost by Sky and Movistar who finished 1 and 4 seconds respectively behind the winner BMC. Reducing Lto 1 or 2 solves this problem but increases the problem of overlarge reductions in the losses suffered by competitors that did not do well in the TTT.

09_16_12_Worlds_TTTw_170_B-767x511These problems can be solved by a modified version of the constant time model. In the modified model the base time (BT) is not set at the stage winner’s time. Instead it is set at a time slower than the winner’s time and time adjustments are only applied to teams that lost more than the base time. For example, set the base time at 1 minute. Every team that finishes less than 1 minute behind the winner gets their real time. The first team that finishes 1 minute or more behind the winner also gets their real time and their time is set as the base time. All of the teams that finished behind the team with the base time have their time adjusted by the constant time model. The results for both the 2009 and 2015 TTTs are shown in the following table with L= 3.

Modified constant time model applied to 2009 and 2015 Tour de France TTTs

2009 Tour de France TTT 2015 Tour de France TTT
Finishing position Team Real time Modified time Team Real time Modified time
1 Astana 46.29 46.29 BMC Racing 32:15 32:15
2 Garmin – Slipstream 0.18 0.18 Team Sky 0:01 0:01
3 Saxo Bank 0.40 0.40 Movistar Team 0:04 0:04
4 Liquigas 0.58 0.58 Tinkoff-Saxo 0:28 0:28
5 Columbia – HTC 0.59 0.59 Astana Pro Team 0:35 0:35
6 Katusha 1.23 1.23 IAM Cycling 0:38 0:38
7 Caisse d’Epargne 1.29 1:26 Etixx-QuickStep 0:45 0:45
8 Cervelo Test Team 1.38 1:29 Lampre-Merida 0:48 0:48
9 AG2R La Mondiale 1.49 1:32 Team LottoNL-Jumbo 1:14 1:14
10 Euskaltel – Euskadi 2.10 1:35 AG2R LA Mondiale 1:24 1:17
11 Rabobank 2.21 1:38 Trek Factory Racing 1:25 1:20
12 Quick Step 2.26 1:41 Team Cannondale-Gramin 1:29 1:23
13 Silence – Lotto 2.36 1:44 Bora-Argon 18 1:31 1:26
14 Française des Jeux 2.46 1:47 FDJ 1:33 1:29
15 Milram 2.49 1:50 Lotto Soudal 1:36 1:32
16 Cofidis, Le Credit en Ligne 2.59 1:53 Team Giant-Alpecin 1:37 1:35
17 Lampre – NGC 3.25 1:56 Team Europcar 1:42 1:38
18 Agritubel 4.18 1:59 Bretagne-Seche Environnement 1:46 1:41
19 BBOX Bouygues Telecom 4.42 2:02 Team Katusha 1:53 1:44
20 Skil-Shimano 5.23 2:05 MTN-Qhubeka 1:56 1:47
21 Cofidis, Solutions Credits 2:32 1:50
22 Orica-GreenEdge 4:58 1:53

Application of the modified model preserves the advantages Astana won over its nearest competitors in the 2009 TTT while at the same time eliminating the penalties suffered using the unmodified model by Sky and Movistar in the 2015 TTT. In addition, all of the teams in both TTTs that benefit from reduced losses suffer a loss of a least 1 minute which is significant, while none of the teams suffer losses greater than 2:05 which leaves every rider with at least a chance of winning the GC.

Sky 2The modified constant time model insures that no team will lose so much time in the TTT that their GC contender is eliminated from contention. The modified model also insures that teams with serious GC contenders have a reason to excel at the TTT because time gaps that are less than or equal to the base time are retained. The model effectively divides the teams in a TTT into two groups. The top TTT teams in the first group are racing for real time differences. Riders on the lower quality teams in the second group face a significant time loss but are not eliminated from having a chance at winning the GC because of poor TTT performance. Race organizers can set the dividing line between these two groups by adjusting the base time value (BT), and can fine tune the maximum amount of time lost by adjusting the time-loss constant (LT).

Stage9TT-BMC-PodiumAdoption of the modified constant time model for scoring TTTs has the potential to invigorate the TTT as a regular component in stage races. Organizers of stage races that are shorter than the three-week grand tours can include a TTT stage without fear that the results will dominate the entire race. Stage races can include longer and more challenging TTTs without fear that the unmodified time gaps will have a serious negative impact on the GC competition. If more race organizers include TTTs in their races, a larger proportion of racing days will be devoted to the TTT, teams will have more motivation to train for it, and they will have more success when they ride it. Instead of being a race where the best thing that can happen is that nothing of consequence happens, the TTT can join the field sprint, the mountaintop finish and the individual time trial as respected and eagerly anticipated stages in a stage race.

 

A Lesson Learned: The Alpe d’Huez and the Col de Sarenne

Kevin-at-Alpe-d'Huez-1_crop_20pct

Me at Alpe d’Huez

One of the stages in this year’s (2013) Tour de France did several things that had never been done before.  First,  riders climbed the classic Alpe d’Huez twice in one day.  They accomplished this by doing something else that had not been tried in the Tour de France.  After the first climb of Alpe d’Huez they descended the Col de Sarenne, looped back around on the D1091 and rode to the finish at the top of Alpe d’Huez the second time.  The Col de Sarenne had never been ridden in the Tour before because it was thought the road was too narrow and too dangerous.

Descent-from-Col-de-Sarenne-1_800px

The descent on the Col de Sarenne

Several years ago my wife and I had the chance to ride for five days in the French Alps.  Our plan was to ride as many of the climbs that are often used in the Tour de France as possible.  With that in mind we climbed and descended Les Deux Alpes, the Col du Lautaret, the Col du Galibier and, of course, the Alpe d’Huez on our first two days.

Like many cyclists, we had been dreaming of these climbs for a long time and were thrilled to have the opportunity to actually do them ourselves.  But after two days we discovered something unexpected.  We were a little bit bored and a little bit disappointed.  The climbs were difficult, but they were not all that difficult.  The roads, for the most part, were wide, well maintained, and filled with cyclists along with cars and trucks that respected cyclists.  The scenery on the climbs was a bit on the bland side.  Often the road getting to the climb (the D1091 in most of these cases) was gorgeous but the climbs themselves presented more or less generic alpine scenery.

View on Col de Sarenne

View on Col de Sarenne

We passed many other roads winding off into the mountains and began talking about alternative routes with people who lived in the area and with cyclists who were familiar with the local road network .  Almost every one of them recommended the Col de Sarenne.

We took their advice, abandoned our original plan, and rode the Col de Sarenne the first thing the next day.  It turned out to be exactly the right thing to do.  The Col de Sarenne is a spectacular climb and descent.  We found it to be markedly more difficult and immensely more interesting than Alpe d’Huez.  The climb was tough, the scenery was breathtaking, the descent was heart stopping.  We loved it.

For the rest of the trip we rode routes that were recommended to us by people who knew the area.  Every single route we took provided us with special cycling experiences ranging from wild and extraordinary scenery, to difficult and enjoyable climbs and descents, to a small, beautiful village at the end of a road deep into a gorge.

Laura at the beginning of the climb up the Col de Sarenne

Laura at the beginning of the climb up the Col de Sarenne

We learned an important lesson on this trip.  If you’re going to be doing some riding in an area with great cycling opportunities, talk to the people who live there and ask for their recommendations about where to ride.  They will certainly tell you about the famous or well-known rides but if you’re lucky they will also tell you about rides you’ve never heard of that may well end up providing your most cherished memories from the trip.

Wiggins, Froome, Team Sky and the 2012 Tour de France

One of the saddest days of the summer: The Tour de France is over for another year.  Some in the media and in online commentaries have complained that this year’s tour was boring.  They tried to sell the idea that Team Sky was torn by internal competition between Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.  They claimed that Froome humiliated Wiggins by waiting for him on the final climb on the Peyragudes.  That’s not how it looked from here.

(Analyze, plan, test, evaluate, revise) iterate, train, execute.  Win.  That’s what Team Sky’s Tour de France looked like to me.  I thought it was brilliant. But more than that, I thought the entire Sky team carried out their Tour de France with integrity, dignity and class.

Bradley Wiggins showed himself to be everything you would want in a team and race leader.  He didn’t just ride for himself, he rode for his team.  When was the last time you saw the man in the yellow jersey at the front of the entire peloton going under the 1K flag on the final lap around the Champs-Elysees leading out his team’s sprinter?  Rather than ride safely in the peloton Wiggins performed the same service for Cavendish on Stage 18’s sprint finish the day before the final time trial that Wiggins needed to cement his overall victory.

When Cadel Evans (who was still in contention as one of Wiggins’ main rivals) flatted because some moron threw nails on the road on the Mur de Péguère, Wiggins tried to slow the peloton down so that Evans could catch up.

In his press comments Wiggins always praised his team.  While this is the standard response riders give to the press, Wiggins appeared to mean it, unlike some others who sound like they are reciting a memorized script.  Moreover, Wiggins appeared to be genuinely pleased on the road when his teammates did well.  While he showed triumphant emotion at the finish of the penultimate day’s time trial when he locked up the Tour victory, he never engaged in self-conscious displays of ego or self-aggrandizement. Compare Wiggins demeanor with Thomas Voeckler’s seemingly self-absorbed “Adore Me. Worship Me” freewheel to the line in his terrific Stage 16 victory, or Peter Sagan’s self-conscious what-victory-display-should-I-do-today-to-draw-attention-to-myself behavior during the first week of the Tour.

Wiggins’ behavior reflected that of his team.  After a foolish tweet by Chris Froome’s girlfriend, the media reacted like a bunch of hysterical little girls with their panties in a twist about internal division within Team Sky or about Sky sacrificing Froome for Wiggins.  Team Sky responded in a way that I wish more people and organizations would when the media creates ridiculous tempests in teapots.  They basically told the media they were being silly and then disengaged and ignored them.  The TV commentators’ indignant and self-righteous “We’re not making this up!” response was hilarious and seemed an apt demonstration of just how lame the media can be.

As for Froome, when asked about his role on the team, he appeared to answer honestly when he said he thought he had a chance to win the Tour, not taking that chance and possibly becoming the first British rider to win the Tour was a personal sacrifice, and it was a sacrifice he was going to make because he was there to ride for the team and the team was there to win the tour with Wiggins.  Of much more importance, he rode the truth of what he said.  Some interpreted his waiting for Wiggins on the Peyragudes as Froome humiliating Wiggins by showing the world that he was the stronger rider.  What I saw was a loyal rider supporting his team leader and doing exactly what he said he was there to do.  After watching him in this Tour de France, if I was putting together a professional cycling team I would take one Chris Froome over ten Frank Schlecks on the basis of personal demeanor and integrity alone.

I thought that throughout the 2012 Tour de France Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Team Sky behaved with irreproachable dignity, integrity and class. They gave professional cycling exactly what it needed after years of doping allegations and controversy. Brilliant.

Thoughts on the use of EPO and blood doping in professional cycling

On Thursday July 17th yet another high-profile cyclist was thrown out of the Tour de France when Riccardo Ricco was taken into custody by the French gendarmes after he tested positive for a synthetic variant of EPO.  This post is in no way intended to express sympathy for Ricco or to argue that what he apparently did was justified.  As the rules currently stand EPO is a banned substance.  Riders who use it are cheating and they should be kicked out of the race.  Unless the drug test was a false positive, Ricco got what he deserved.  Throw the bums out.

The issue I want to consider here is not whether Ricco should have been punished, but whether blood doping and the use of EPO should be prohibited as forms of performance enhancement.  They are currently banned and there are good arguments for continuing to do so.  However, I think there is an alternative way to look at doping and EPO that should be considered.

The use of performance enhancing drugs in competitive sports is an enormous problem.  Many professional sports are addressing the problem by identifying banned substances, instituting testing procedures for those substances and legislating penalties to be applied to athletes who are found to have used the banned drugs.  From professional leagues that are more interested in maintaining the image of being anti-drug than in actually dealing with the problem, to drug tests that are often not conclusive, to athletes that lie about their drug use or insist they didn’t know they were taking a banned substance the problem of performance enhancing drugs in sport seems almost impossible to solve. 

And this is only the tip of a much larger iceberg.  I think consideration of this issue opens up a world of deeper questions about what constitues performance enhancement, whether some practices that are currently considered as illegal forms of enhancement might be acceptable or even desirable at some levels of sporting competition, and what functions we want different levels of sporting competition to fulfill in our culture.  Consider the following.

One of the desired ideals for sporting competition is that the competitors should begin from a level playing field, that none of the athletes be given an unfair advantage over the others.  The competition begins on a level playing field and the athlete who has trained harder, who understands the game better, who is more skilled, who is better able to maintain focus during the heat of the battle wins in the end.  At least that’s the way it should be.  A fundamental objection to the use of performance enhancing drugs is that they upset this level playing field by giving the drug user an advantage that is not due to his training, knowledge or skill.  Is this always true?  It depends on how you look at it.

The amount of oxygen carried by the blood is an essential determinant of performance in sports.  Oxygen is used to both carry energy to the muscles so that they can perform the work the sport requires and to carry waste products away from the muscles.  Oxygen carrying capacity is especially important in long term endurance events such as road racing in cycling where athletes must sustain very high levels of performance for hours without a break.  Many world-class athletes in high endurance sports have used artifical means to increase their oxygen carrying capacity in order to gain what can be a substantial competitive advantage.

Red blood cells

Oxygen is carried in the blood by red blood cells (RBCs) and an increase in the density of RBCs in the blood can greatly improve performance in endurance sports.  The two methods most commonly used to do this are blood doping and the the injection of EPO (erythropoietin).  Blood doping involves extracting blood from a donor, concentrating the blood so that it has a high proportion of RBCs, freezing the concentrate and then thawing it and injecting it into the athlete before the competion or during the competition in the case of multi-day events such as the Tour de France.  The donor can be either the athlete himself (autologous blood doping) or someone else with a compatible blood type (homologous blood doping).  EPO is a hormone that is naturally produced by the kidneys and that stimulates the production of RBCs in the bone marrow.  EPO can also be made in the laboratory and this type of pharmaceutical EPO can be injected under the skin to increase the body’s RBC production.  Ricco was charged with taking a variant of pharmaceutical EPO called CERA.

The use of EPO or blood doping can be difficult to detect.  Subcutaneously injected EPO typically cannot be detected 3 to 4 days after injection yet it has its maximum effect stimulating high levels of RBC production approximately 3 weeks later.  For that reason, banning an athlete for EPO use usually depends on catching him with EPO paraphanalia in his possession.  In Ricco’s case, the manufacturer, F. Hoffman-La Roche, worked with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) to develop a test for the drug.  Homologous blood doping (using someone else’s blood) can be detected by DNA differences between the donor and the athlete’s RBCs.  Autologous blood doping (using your own blood) is extremely difficult to detect and no tests are currently available that are considered reliable enough to use in competitive sports.

In addition to relying on blood tests that are specific for EPO use or doping many professional sports use hematocrit as an indicator of illegal performance enhancement.  Hematocrit measures the proportion of the blood volume that is composed of RBCs.  Hematocrits above a certain level are taken to be abnormal and are officially used as indicators of doping or EPO use.  The UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), the organizing body of professional cycling, has set 50% as the upper allowable hematocrit level.  If a rider tests with a hematocrit above 50, he is banned from competition. 

It is often cited that the “normal” hematocrit range in adult males is between 41 and 50.  This is the two standard deviation range which encompasses approximately two thirds of the general population.  The upper level of the three standard deviation range for hematocrit is 54.  Approximately one third of the general population falls outside the two standard deviation range that is cited as “normal”.  More to the point, approximately one sixth of the general population (about 16.6%)  will have naturally occurring hematocrit levels above 50.  We can also expect that those individuals with higher than normal hematocrit levels will be disproportionately represented in the population of endurance athletes because the increased oxygen carrying capacity of their blood gives them a natural advantage in endurance sports.  The UCI recognizes this problem by allowing exceptions to the 50 hematocrit rule for cyclists who have a long and consistent history of hematocrit measures above 50 as indicative of a naturally occuring high hematocrit level.

All professional endurance sports ban both EPO and blood doping as illegal forms of performance enhancement.  Should they do this?  If we consider them as a means of gaining an unfair advantage over the opponent, which is the way they are currently used, the answer is clearly “yes”.  However, I think another perspective is possible. 

Everyone has a naturally occuring hematocrit level that is genetically determined.  This natural hematocrit is not subject to training, it is what it is.  Natural factors such as training at high altitude or anemia, and artificial factors such as the use of EPO and blood doping can temporarily increase or decrease hematocrit but they do not affect the base hematocrit that each of us is born with.  This means that independently of any steps the competitor may take to increase hematocrit, some endurance athletes have a competitive advantage because of their genetics.  In other words, with all other things such as training regimen, skill level, knowledge of the sport, strength of will and competitive focus held equal, the endurance athlete with a naturally high hematocrit will have an advantage over the athlete who was born with a low hematocrit. 

With regard to hematocrit, a critically important factor in endurance sports, the playing field is not level.  The low hematocrit athlete starts at a disadvantage that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything that is relevant to the sport.  It’s not about training regimen or intensity, it’s not about knowledge of the sport, the competition or the opponent, it’s not about trained skills and it’s not about heart, will or desire.  It’s about which sperm happened to fertilize which egg when the athlete was conceived.

Suppose we shift the common perspective on the use of EPO and blood doping.  Rather than think of them as a means to unbalance the competition by giving an athlete an unfair advantage, suppose we think of them as medical technologies we can use to level the playing field so that some athletes don’t begin the competition at a marked disadvantage because of their genetic inheritance?  Viewed from this different perspective, EPO and blood doping could be used to bring all of the athletes up to the same hematocrit level so that the competition could be decided on the basis of factors the athlete can control such as training, knowledge and desire. 

Under the current system EPO and blood doping are used surreptitiously by some athletes to give them an unfair advantage over their opponents.  These techniques unbalance the playing field.  However, if we make EPO and blood doping available to any athlete who wants to use them, these technologies can eliminate a naturally occurring advantage that benefits some athletes but not others.  The technologies level the playing field.

How might EPO or blood doping be used in this way?  Set a hematocrit level as a cut off point such as the level of 50 currently used by the UCI.  Competitors may use any means they wish such as training at altitude or using EPO to bring their hematocrit up to this level.  The athelete is tested before every competition, or in multi-day events such as the Tour de France before every stage, and they must have a hematocrit level below the cut off.  Under this system hematocrit level would function like weight levels in wrestling or boxing.  If you don’t make level, you can’t compete in the event.  You’re not labled as a cheater, fined and banned from the sport.  You simply cannot compete in the current event because your hematocrit level gives you an unfair advantage. 

This approach to the problem has several advantages.  First, by reorienting our thinking away from the view that these medical technologies are a means of introducing unfair advantage to the view that they are a means of eliminating unfair advantage we reorient the relationship between the athlete and his sport.  The athlete is no longer a cheater who is afraid of discovery and the organizing body of the sport is no longer treating its athletes like criminals to be caught.  Second, medical technologies that currently are used in secret and not in the best and safest of ways would be used in the open and in much safer conditions.  Third, as athletes strain to get as close to the cut off point as possible without going over and being eliminated from competition, our knowledge of how to use technologies like EPO and blood doping would increase and the conditions under which these technologies can be safely used would become better understood. Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, a playing field unbalanced by genetic factors is leveled so that competitions are less likely to be determined by the DNA of the athlete’s parents and more likely to depend on what the athlete has done to prepare for the event.

The underlying issue here is how professional sports in general and cycling in particular should respond to advances in our scientific understanding of the anatomical and physiological factors that affect athletic performance and the medical technologies that are developed from this understanding.  New technologies in the fields of drug treatments, prosthetics, and genetic engineering have the potential to substantially alter human capabilities and performance levels. How should sport respond to this advancing knowledge?  One possibility is that medical technologies could be evaluated individually to determine whether they can be used to enhance fair competition if made available to all of the competitors as opposed to unbalancing competition when they are only used by those who are willing to cheat.

Is this the right way to think about EPO and blood doping?  I don’t know but it’s worth considering.