Mechanical Doping... for the Fans

There was a lot of commotion this week on the supposed help Démare got before his first monument win in Milan-Sanremo. One of the most interesting events that happened was the removal, and subsequent reposting, of the Strava data that was automatically published online during the ride. It makes you wonder, could we use data in other ways?

A little race recap for those of you who missed the race. Maarten Tjallingii was in the main breakaway for the third year in a row and in those three years he managed to stay in front of the peloton for about 800 kilometers. That is a lot. That was quite possibly also the most interesting fact of the first 285 kilometers of the race itself. The giant boulders that came crashing down and blocked the road were exciting too, but can’t be attributed to any riders.

The last 8k were good I guess, we saw some attacks up, and down, the Poggio – the final climb of the race – and the scramble to get ready for the sprint with a few attacks here and there. Gaviria made it a bit better with a little crash and Bouhanni was nice enough to not hit someone for a change, probably because he was slowed down too much by mechanical failure. In the sprint of the few riders that were able to get to the line Arnoud Démare won his first Milan-Sanremo.

Démare is not just any old rider. He is a good sprinter, and has proved his merit in dozens of sprints before; so no surprise there right? Well, except for the fact that he was held up not too long before the Cipressa. Not too long after the race reports came from within the peloton that Démare had gotten a little bit too much help from the support car. The reported support was similar to the help that Vincenzo Nibali got last year, which got him disqualified from the Vuelta.

To be clear, in my riding years I have certainly used cars to my advantage. Pushing yourself off of the mirrors or pulling yourself forward on an open window, these things happen, and honestly, I see nothing wrong with this. A domestique that is getting water bottles for the rest of the team has a hard enough job as it is, so just allow him to get a little speed from the car when he gets his last one. Even using the drag of a car after a puncture is fine in my book, as we all want to see the best sprinters battle it out for the win. Skipping a climb like the Cipressa is not just overcoming some bad luck. By doing so you are getting a real advantage over your opponents.

Interesting of course is that the allegations we got from within the peloton were mere eyewitness stories. As we all know, eyewitness reports are shockingly terrible, and in this case they came from frustrated opponents (lookin’ at you Bouhanni) making them even more useless than usual. In the past, these kinds of stories mostly gave us some material for some discussion over a beer or two, but we never really were able to get answers. If no jury members saw the offence, the crime went unpunished.

In the very recent years though, we have been given a chance to get to the bottom of things using data riders and teams publish online themselves. Data from Strava, and even Power data measured by the SRM systems, become more and more available to us. The times published for Démare up the Cipressa in Milan-Sanremo was the fastest of all, even faster than the best climbers. It’s always interesting when a sprinter gets the fastest time up a climb, especially when it is a climb after 290 kilometers in the saddle. It makes you think of a certain young female rider in the U23 cyclocross this last winter who all of a sudden was riding up some climbs in about the same time as the elite men.

Démare pulled the data offline after all the talk about it. After some careful deliberation he did put them back online again a little bit later sans power data. I wonder if we could use data like this more interactively. I’m sure there is a case that can be made to make this data available to the UCI jury during the race. New technology has been added to the toolkit before so why not this type of data? When live TV coverage was added, all the cars were fitted with TVs in order to track the live coverage. Of course we have radios and not to forget the cars themselves. The first ever Tour the France winner (in 1903) was caught cheating the next year when he was found traveling large parts of the stages by train.

Besides the jury’s use for the data, let’s think of us, the fans, for a second. I would love to see more live data then the occasional, terrible GPS timing. Power data sounds cool, but I can image teams and riders not wanting to give that data. Seeing current speeds or times per climb would be awesome though. Will they catch up with the lead group? was Cancellara really the fastest guy over the cobbles? Did the strongest man win the race? I can only dream of that kind of discussion after a race.

During last year’s Tour de France, we did see some extra data online. Technologies like these are in the very early stages for use during the live broadcast, but I’m sure the fans want it as soon as possible. Velon could get a massive thumbs-up from me if they got this data out live. The focus on footage from within the peloton is nice, but if they can’t get the stabilization right, it’s not for me. Live data could really be a game changer for Velon.

I’m excited about the future of cycling for sure. Better use of data could catch cheaters early on, even red handed. It could also add to the spectator experience with live data. I’m calling this the real performance enhancer, the real mechanical doping for the fans. What exactly it will bring remains to be seen in the years to come, but I’m sure it will provide us with a lot to talk about in the future.