Armstrong in Context

Martin J. Savage

Department of Physics, University of Washington, Box 351560,
Seattle, WA 98195, USA
savage [AT]
(Dated: September 9, 2012 - 22:38) , Modified: December 28, 2012 - Alpe D'Huez section)


This article attempts to put Lance Armstrong’s performances and successes in the Tour de France (TdF) in context. Results for various components of the TdF, along with those from other professional cycling events, are presented. Armstrong’s performances are compared to those of others occurring before, during and after his years of participation in these events.

"Finally, the last thing I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics: I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. This is the greatest sporting event and you should stand around and believe it. You should believe in these athletes, and you should believe in these people. I’ll be a fan of the Tour de France for as long as I live. And there are no secrets - this is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it. So Vive le Tour forever!"

Lance Armstrong (24 July 2005) - Farewell speech at the Champs-Elysees podium, after winning his 7th Tour de France, quoted in ”Paris salutes its American hero” by Caroline Wyatt in BBC News  [1].

I. Introduction

During the last few years we have seen a number of accomplished cyclists, such as Bjarne Riis and Jonathon Vaughters, claim that they used EPO, and/or other Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) and/or blood transfusions (that I collectively denote as Illegal Performance Enhancing Technologies (IPETs)) in order to be more competitive in professional cycling races. Further, we have seen an array of cyclists banned from competing for a number of years through testing positive for banned substances found in their blood. Soon after these admissions or positive tests, the cycling governing bodies have typically moved to strip such cyclists of the titles that were acquired during that period, and have awarded these titles to the second-placed finishers. I find this to be a “double-edged sword” as these actions do punish those who have admitted using, or found to have used, IPETs, but these actions do assume that the second place finisher was not using IPETs. For those that have confessed to using IPETs, but who did not test positive, this is clearly an unreasonable assumption, as this scenario provides a clear demonstration of the limitations of the testing at that time. This somewhat logically flawed punishment (which, for any given event, could repeat itself until the title is awarded to the last placed finisher until he/she admits to using IPETs) provides strong motivation for other such cyclists to remain silent.

The most recent significant event, however, is that Lance Armstrong is no longer fighting charges that he used IPETs during his multiple appearances in the Tour De France. The discussions that I am reading and seeing in the press and in the editorial pages, such as those of the Seattle Times, suggest somewhat of a lack of understanding of the environment in which Armstrong was competing. However, it is important to realize that certain aspects of this environment can be deduced from the results of each stage of the TdF and from the records for various other events. I have assembled data from the TdF and other events and attempted to present them in a way that illustrates interesting trends that I attribute to the Natural Ability, Preparation, Recovery (NAPR) of the cyclists. While the ability of the cyclist is dictated entirely by biology and environment, both their preparation and recovery can be modified by IPETs.

I wish to stress that this is obviously not the first study of the performance of professional cyclists, or professional athletes in general. One recent study focusing on the use of EPO in professional cycling with a well-defined statistical analysis can be found in Ref. [2]. Further, I am not claiming to use new techniques, and in fact, I have employed relatively unsophisticated statistical analyses throughout. Being a physicist and not a statistician, I am guided by the belief that if you can’t see it, it isn’t real, and as such have attempted to produce plots that exhibit, or do not exhibit, signatures of “interesting” behavior.

II. Individual Performances

In this section, events that isolate individual performances are analyzed, i.e. that do not have potential contamination from contributions from other cyclists to the measured performances.

A. All-Time Fastest Individual Ascent Speeds

A quantity that has been discussed previously [3] is the all-time individual fastest ascents. The data given in Ref. [3] is shown in Fig. 1 along with further results from the Verbier climb in the 2009 tour.   [In 2007, there were a number that set the fastest ascent speed, but only Soler’s time is shown. The peloton (Pereiro, Arroyo, Valverde, Schleck, Evans, Horner, Menchov, Boogard, Rasmussen, Zubeldia, Halgand, Leipheimer, Contador, Popovych, Cobo) went up the Marie-Blanque (not the climb on which Soler’s record was set) at the same ascent rate.] .

FIG. 1: The all-time fastest ascents in units of vertical distance per unit time (m/hr). (dynamical figure with data)

My observations are that

  1. Contador holds the record for the all-time fastest ascent.
  2. Excluding Contador’s performance, the data suggests a peak in climbing rates between 1992 and 1998.
  3. Armstrong’s best climbs were ~ 5% slower than Riis.
  4. Excluding Contador, the fastest ascents were accomplished by Riis, Pantani and Leblanc.
  5. In 2007, a significant number of cyclists climbed with Soler’s rate (comparable to Armstrong’s fastest ascent rate).
  6. In 2009, Armstrong climbed up to Verbier with an ascent rate that was approx 2% less than his previous best.
  7. More data would be helpful for this quantity, particularly the ascent rates for each cyclist in each TdF.

Information relevant to this data is:

  1. It is reported that Riis, Pantani and Leblanc have tested positive for, or admitted to using, IPETs.
  2. Contador was suspended for “eating tainted Spanish meat”, and Ullrich was linked to Operation Puerto.
  3. Removing the performances of cyclists linked to doping (i.e. eliminating all ascent rates greater than 1800 m/hr, along with Ullrich) leaves Armstrong the record holder, followed by Soler (and a number in the peloton in 2007) and then by Indurain.

B. All-Time Fastest Ascents up Alpe D’Huez in the Tour de France

A quantity that is related to the Fastest Ascent rates discussed in Section A, is the fastest average speed for the climb up the Alpe D’Huez during the TdF. The all-time fastest climbs [4] up Alpe D’Huez are shown in Fig. 2. While obvious, it is important to keep in mind that all other ascent rates are slower than these, but it becomes increasingly difficult to determine the slower speeds in each year from the available data.

FIG. 2: The fastest ascents of Alpe D’Huez. The data has been standardized to the 13.8 km distance. The horizontal red line corresponds to the “magical” 40 minute climb time. Note that the 2004 ascent was an individual time-trial and not part of a road race. (dynamical figure with data)

FIG. 3: The upper-envelope of the fastest ascents of Alpe D’Huez in the TdF. The data has been standardized to the 13.8 km distance. The horizontal red line corresponds to the “magical” 40 minute climb time. Note that the 2004 Armstrong speed was achieved in an individual time-trial and not in a road race.

There are a number of ways to consider this data in efforts to identify underlying trends. One way is to simply consider the average ascent rates as a function of year in which they were accomplished, from which one observes that

  1. The fastest average ascent rates, that exceeded the “magic” 40 minute speed, were accomplished between 1991 (Bugno and Indurain) and 2008 (Sastre)
  2. The 5 fastest ascents were accomplished by Pantani (1997, 1994, 1995) and Armstrong (2004, 2001)
  3. The cyclists that have ascended faster than the “magic” 40 minute speed are (in order of best performance of each) Pantani, Armstrong, Ullrich, Landis, Kloden, Virenque, Mayo, Azevedo, Indurain, Zulle, Riis, Sastre, Bugno, Guirini, Gonzales, Karpets, Moncoutie and Basso.

Information that is relevant to these observations:

  1. The 2004 ascent was an individual time-trial and not a road race.
  2. Cyclists in the sub-40-minute category who are reported to have either tested positive or who have admitted to IPETs are Pantani (haemocrit level of 60.1 in 1995), Ullrich (identified in Operation Puerto in 2006), Landis (admitted to IPETs), Virenque (admitted to IPETs), Mayo (2007, tested positive for EPO, retired), Riis (admitted to EPO), Zulle (admitted to EPO, haemocrit once found to be 52.3%.).

Viewing the same data in decadel slices, while examining the performance as a function of the age of the cyclists, gives rise to the plots shown in Fig. 4.

FIG. 4: The fastest ascents of Alpe D’Huez broken down by decade. (dynamical figures with data)

While limited by statistics, there are some interesting trends, a summary of which is shown in Fig. 5):

  1. The 1980’s saw significant age dependence in the ascent speeds (that may or may not be statistically significant). The oldest (age > 32 years) cyclist in this category is Hinault.
  2. The 1990’s saw some remarkable climbing speeds, with significant gaps to the next set of cyclists, and age seemed not to be an important factor.
  3. The 2000’s too saw remarkable climbing speed, with more cyclist climbing well, but with approximately the same number going under 40 minutes as in the previous decade. The oldest (age > 32 years) cyclists with climbs in this category are Armstrong and Sastre. This decade included the 2004 time-trial.
  4. In the 2010’s, the climbing rates, so far, are all slower than the 40-minute speed, but already 5 cyclists (Contador, Danielson, Hesjedal, Rolland and Sanchez) have accomplished some of the faster times in one TdF alone. The oldest (age > 32 years) cyclists with climbs in this category are Danielson and Sanchez.

FIG. 5: A summary of the fastest ascents of Alpe D’Huez broken down by decade. The size of the 68% confidence interval for the mean is not “cleanly” defined due to the small number of measurements performed in each decade (the 5 fastest per decade).

To highlight the performances: If Armstrong, Pantani and Lemond had ridden Alpe D’Huez in the same race, but at their respective fastest speeds, Armstrong and Pantani would have finished approximately 11 minutes ahead of LeMond - or a distance of 3.3 km on the 13.8 km climb.

An aside: I had not realized this until now, but the Alpe D’Huez stage that I saw on the mountain in 1991, where Indurain, Bugno and one other cruised by me effortlessly it appeared, with Indurain in yellow, was the first sub 40 minute climb in history !! Lemond and Fignon appeared to be at their outer limits when the came by me. I was attending a Les Houches Summer School that year, and took a day off with one other attendee to see this stage, after watching a number of them on the TV there.

C. All-Time Fastest Winning Individual Time-Trial Speeds in the Tour de France

Performance in an individual time-trial (ITT) is good measure of particular capabilities of a cyclist that are distinct from their climbing abilities. The all-time 10 fastest winning ITTs in the TdF over distances greater than 20 km can be found in Ref. [5], and are shown in Fig. 6 as a function of year and distance.

FIG. 6: The all-time 10 fastest winning individual time-trials as a function of year (left panel) and distance (right panel). (dynamical figure with data)

Winning ITT means that it is the fastest performance in that given event, but these 10 fastest are not the all-time fastest ITT performances. It is also interesting to consider the performances as a function of age, as shown in Fig. 7.

FIG. 7: The all-time fastest winning individual time-trials as a function of age. (dynamical figure with data)

One can observe from the data that:

  1. The fastest 10 winning ITTs have all occurred since 1988, starting with LeMond’s all-time fastest record of 54.545 km∕hr over a short course of d ~ 24.5 km.
  2. After Lemond’s record, the next 9 times have occurred over distances d > 45 km.
  3. The second fastest winning ITT was accomplished by David Millar.
  4. The third fastest winning ITT was accomplished by Armstrong, significantly faster than the fourth fastest by Leipheimer and the fifth fastest by Indurain.

Information that is relevant to these observations are:

  1. LeMond’s introduction of aero-bars in 1989, along with subsequent studies of aero-dynamics, spurred significant improvements in technology.
  2. Of the cyclists appearing in the top-10 (LeMond, Millar, Armstrong, Leipheimer, Indurain, Honchar, Rominger and Ullrich), Millar (confessed to using EPO), Honchar (tested positive for IPETs in 2007), Ullrich (identified in Operation Puerto in 2006).
    1. Ignoring Millar’s performance, Armstrong is the record holder for d > 45 km, followed by Leipheimer.
    2. Ignoring Ullrich’s performance, Indurain holds the record for the longest ITT.
    3. Ignoring Honchar’s performance, Leipheimer is the record holder for the oldest cyclist in the top-10 winning ITT performances, as seen in Fig. 7, followed by Rominger with a speed ~ 5% slower over a distance ~ 10% shorter.

D. All-Time Fastest Prologue Speeds in the Tour de France

Most TdF’s begin with a Prologue before starting the race proper. The Prologue is usually between 5 km and 10 km, although there have been a few number of longer and shorter ones which have been omitted from this analysis.

FIG. 8: The winning speed in the Prologue. The vertical dashed line corresponds to the 1989 TdF in which Lemond introduced aero-bars into the time-trial. (dynamical figure with data)

Figure 8 shows the winning speed in the Prologue as a function of year. The year that Lemond introduced aero-bars into the sport is shown by the vertical dashed line. While the winning speed is quite informative, a further interesting cut on the data is the number of riders exceeding a certain speed. To illustrate this point, Fig. 9 shows the number of riders producing an average Prologue speed exceeding vmin = 51.5 km∕hr.

FIG. 9: Riders with speed exceeding vmin = 51.5 km∕hr. The vertical dashed line corresponds to the 1989 TdF in which LeMond introduced aero-bars into the time-trial.

What I observe in the data is:

  1. The winning Prologue speed as a function year does not exhibit any clear structure or trend beyond a slow increase.
  2. The performances of Boardman in 1994 and 1998 were exceptional, and are the fastest two Prologue speeds of all time.
  3. In general, the winning speeds exhibit scatter from year to year at the 10% level. However, Cancellara’s speeds 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2012 show very little scatter during this 8 year period. In these years he is significantly faster than all the others in the field.
  4. The speed of the last placed rider in the 2012 Prologue (Roy Curvers, rider 198) would have placed him second in the 1985 Prologue. His speed was only 0.28 km∕hr slower than Hinault’s winning speed.
  5. There is clear structure in the distribution of the number of cyclists exceeding vmin = 51.5 km∕hr, with the maximum in 1998, but showing an enhancement between 1994 and 2005.

E. The One-Hour World Record

An event that is not part of the TdF is the one-hour record (OHR), which has a long history. The data for the OHR can be found in Ref. [6], and is shown in Fig. 10.

FIG. 10: The world one-hour record (average speed in km/hr). The left panel shows all data while the right panel shows the record starting from 1950. (dynamical figure with data)

This is quite a remarkable data set, going all the way back to 1893. After the initial turn-on during the early 1900’s, the record underwent essentially linear improvement until the mid-1990’s, at which point the record increased by ~ 10% within the space of two years, with the current record held by Boardman, with two remarkable performances. In the recent past, Moser set the record in 1984 (twice), breaking Merckx’s record which had stood since 1972. Then Obree took the record in 1993 with his distinct aero position, soon followed by Boardman and retaken by Obree in 1994. These performances were not inconsistent with the (approx) linear increase in average speed from previous decades. Then in 1994 things changed. The record was then shattered by Indurain, Rominger and Rominger in 1994, and finally retaken by Boardman in 1996 - setting a record that remains today. These last four records were truly outstanding and off the curve. Much was happening in cycling around this time period. Aerodynamics was being studied more scientifically, and aero-bars, disk-wheels, aero-helmets, skin-suits and so on were being introduced and used in the sport. The one-hour record is where these were being used very effectively.

Because of the aerodynamic improvements, the record was reset in 2000 to the 1972 Merckx record, and all future attempts at the OHR must be performed on equipment that is essentially that used by Merckx. This resetting removed all of the records set in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

It is important to attempt to quantify the technological advances. A study has attempted to do just this [7], in which they simulate the impact of wind-resistance as a function of rider position, the impact of altitude on the ride, and so on, and summarize with [ 7] (quote):

"In summary, by using field crank dynamometer measurements, the present study extended the mathematical modeling approach used in previous studies that compare hour record performances. After adjusting for differences in altitude and aerodynamic factors between cyclists, several conclusions can be drawn. The earlier record holders who used traditional round tube track bicycles (Bracke, Ritter and Merckx) averaged sea level powers of about 402 W. However, Merckx’s 1972 performance (429 W) stands out above the others. The next series of record holders, who all used various aerodynamic improvements (Moser, Boardman, Obree) averaged sea level powers of about 403 W, or about the same. The aerodynamic improvements during this era resulted in a record distance increase of about 10%. The last three challengers (Indurain, Rominger, and Boardman) averaged 446 W, a large increase in power compared with the previous record holders. During this period, the available bicycle aerodynamic improvements did not change as markedly. The increased power of these cyclists, resulted in a distance increase of about 7%. In other words, since Bracke’s era, about 60% of the improvement in the hour record distance has come from aerodynamic advances and about 40% from higher power outputs. The combination has produced the recent meteoric rise in the hour record. Finally, future hour records at altitude should be possible, especially if the current champions use indoor velodromes at higher elevations, where the conditions of the track are constant."

The red highlighted sentences in this summary are interesting. I conclude that:

  1. It is likely that developments in technology led to an increase in the OHR speed in the mid 1990’s. However, the performances by Indurain, Rominger and Boardman appear anomalous.

Further information relevant to this record:

  1. It is reported that Sosenka failed a haemocrit test in 2001, and ended his career in 2008 after being suspended for the use of IPETs.

III. Collective Performances

In this section, events that depend at some level upon the collective performance of more than one cyclist are analyzed. Performances in this category cannot be uniquely assigned to a given cyclist, and are more suggestive of the average NAPR of a team, or of the peloton as a whole.

A. Average Winning Speeds in the Tour de France

The most obvious quantity to examine is the overall average winning speed of the TdF as a function of year and age. A complete set of data for the TdF overall classifications and details of the stages can be found in Ref. [8], from which the winning speeds can be extracted, as shown in Fig. 11.

PIC     PIC     
FIG. 11: The average speed of the winner of the Tour de France versus year. (dynamical figure with data)

In addition to exploring the changes in average speed with time, it is also interesting to explore the age dependence of the data as a function of decade, the distributions for which are shown in Fig. 12.

FIG. 12: The average speed versus age of the winner of the Tour de France for each decade.

Taking the averages of the results shown in Fig. 12, an estimate of the evolution of the average speed as a function of age can be determined, and is shown in Fig. 13.

FIG. 13: The average speed of the winner of the Tour de France versus age in each decade. The ellipses denote approximate 68% confidence regions for the mean.

There are number of interesting trends in the average winning speed data:

  1. The average winning speed of the TdF increased year-by-year, on average, until Armstrong retired, and, on average, has continued to decline since.
  2. There appears to be a local maxima in the winning speed between 1960-1965.
  3. Hinault had outstanding average speeds in 1981 and 1982, comparable to the speeds of Indurain’s victories.
  4. Delgado had an outstanding average speed in 1988, and like Hinault’s 1981 and 1982 victories, is comparable to those in the Indurain era.
  5. The year-to-year variation in winning speeds seems to have been reduced starting sometime in the Indurain era.
  6. The speed of Landis’s victory in 2006 was consistent with Armstrong’s winning speeds, and slower than Armstrong’s final victory.
  7. The winning speed of Contador in the TdF immediately after the Landis victory was noticeably slower than all TdF’s since Indurain, but bounced back the following year with the Sastre victory.
  8. The average speed distribution with age didn’t vary significantly between 1950 and 1980. In the 1980’s the average speed increased somewhat and the year-to-year variation reduced throughout the decade, but the significance of the differences with previous decades is consistent with differences among previous decades. The 1990’s saw an increase in both the average winning speed and the average age of the winner (see Fig. 13), along with a reduction in year-to-year variations. This trend continued, but slowed, during the 2000’s.
  9. While contributing, Armstrong is not solely responsible for the older-faster trend, as is clear from the data in Fig. 12.
  10. When they won the TdF, both Evans and Wiggins were older and, on average, faster than Indurain in any of his 5 victories.
1. Average Winning Speeds in the Tour de France: Multi-Tour Champions

Let us focus on the greatest cyclists of the modern era - those who have won 5 or more TdF’s. Given the hunting accident which deprived LeMond the chance to win 5, and given his other accomplishments, LeMond has been added to this elite group of cyclists for further consideration. The average winning speed data for these multi-tour champions are shown in Fig. 14.

FIG. 14: The average speed versus age of the 5 times winners of the Tour de France and Greg LeMond (a 3 times winner).

My observations are:

  1. Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and LeMond all had comparable NAPRs. Within the uncertainties of the measurements, their performances are essentially indistinguishable. Lemond was at the high end of the group.
  2. Both Indurain and Armstrong are different from the other four. Their victory speeds exhibit the older-faster trend seen in the decadel data (which is, of course, significantly correlated with this data).
  3. Indurain’s winning speeds of his 5 consecutive victories are 38.7, 39.5, 38.7, 38.4, and 39.2 km/hr, which have a spread of just 1.1 km/hr.
  4. Armstrong was older on average during is victories, but one must keep in mind that he won 7 and not 5, which will skew his average age high. He was also noticeably faster than the other multi-tour champions, ~ 7% faster than LeMond and 4 years older.
  5. As evidenced by the shape of the 68% confidence intervals in Fig. 14, Anquetil, Lemond and Armstrong all exhibited the older-faster trend in their victories, while Hinault, Merckx and Indurain had no clear trend with age (but Hinault and Merckx had fluctuations).

B. Fastest Team-Time-Trial Speeds in the Tour de France

The team time-trial (TTT) is a clean measure of the performance of the capability of each team in the TdF (ignoring crashes). It is well known that a strong team is currently a requirement for winning the TdF, and has been for decades. The fastest winning TTTs in the TdF can be found in Ref. [5] (he does seem to have overlooked the US Postal performance in 2004 as the fourth fastest TTT), and are shown in Fig. 15 as a function of year and distance. Winning speed means that it is the fastest time to win the TTT, and this data does not represent the all time fastest TTT’s.

FIG. 15: The fastest winning team time-trials as a function of year (left panel) and as a function of distance (right panel). (dynamical figure with data)

FIG. 16: The fastest team time-trials as a function of year, including several teams slower in each event. The number of teams shown for each year varies from 5 to 20 due to incomplete data.

In Fig. 16 we show the first several teams in each of the fastest years.

One observes that

  1. The fastest winning TTT of all time have occurred since 1985, with most of them being accomplished before Armstrong’s return in 1999.
  2. Discovery Channel (Armstrong’s team) holds the record for all-time fastest TTT, which was accomplished over the longest distance of the fastest TTTs. This is an outstanding performance.
  3. The second fastest winning TTT was accomplished by Gewiss-Ballan, again over a long course.
  4. In each of these years, the winner is only marginally faster than second and lower places, and importantly, not ~ 10% faster.

A survey of the internet shows some relevant information regarding doping at the team level, which would certainly be somewhat isolated by the performance in the TTT. The following information is available:

  1. It is reported that the Gewiss-Ballan team was heavily involved in doping [9], with team doctor Michele Ferrari. From Ref. [9]: Haemocrit levels of cyclists on Gewiss-Ballan taken in Dec 1994 and May 1995 were: Riis : 41.1 and 56.3, Gotti : 40.7 and 57, Berzin : 41.7 and 53. Argentin was a member of this team.
  2. Team Carrera has been implicated in doping. To quote Ref. [10] : In March 2000 the Italian Judge Franca Oliva published a report detailing the conclusions of an investigation into a number of sports doctors including Professor Conconi. This official judicial investigation concluded that the riders of the Carrera team were administered EPO in 1993. The riders included Stephen Roche, Claudio Chiappucci, Guido Bontempi, Rolf Sorensen, Mario Chiesa, Massimo Ghirotto and Fabio Roscioli. 1993 is 7 years after the 1987 victory.
  3. Argentin, Riis and Sorenson rode for Team Ariostea.

IV. Summary

The results of a number of individual and collective performances in the Tour de France, and other events, have been examined in an effort to put Lance Armstrong’s performances and accomplishments into context. Fig. 17 is a combination of plots that summarizes aspects of individual performances as a function of year for a selection of events,

FIG. 17: A summary of individual performances as a function of year for (starting top left and moving clockwise) the one-hour record, the all time fastest ascent rates, the number of cyclists exceeding 51.5 km∕hr in the TdF prologue, and the all time fastest average ascent speeds up Alpe D’Huez. The vertical red dashed line denotes the year of Armstrong’s return to cycling, 1999, and the start of the Armstrong era. [Recall that the rapid reduction in the one-hour record was due to a reset to the 1972 Merckx record in 2000. Further, the ascent up Alpe D’Huez in 2004 was an individual time-trial and not a road stage.] (dynamical figures with data)

while Fig. 18 summarizes collective performances as a function of year.

FIG. 18: A summary of collective performances as a function of year for the winning average speed of the TdF (left panel) and the fastest winning team time-trials (right panel). (dynamical figures with data)

Looking at the data shown in Fig. 17, there is the clear trend that cyclists NAPR exhibited a peaking between the years of 1990 and 2005, with peaks occurring in the vicinity of 1996. Given that humans do not change biologically on such short time-scales, and one expects that superior training and dietary techniques are not deliberately discarded, one is led to deduce that IPETs were being extensively used during this period. Such manipulations to cyclists NAPR were peaking when Armstrong returned to professional cycling in 1999. Armstrong’s individual performances did not exceed those of the record-setting cyclists in the previous 9 years, such as Pantani, Riis, and Boardman. In fact, it is in the collective events, such as the average winning speed of the TdF and the team time-trial, that Armstrong’s performances were exceptional compared to the previous years. His final TdF was the fastest of all time, and the Discovery Channel team time-trial performance was truly outstanding. In each year that Armstrong won the TdF, he was clearly dominant, but it is clear from the data, that this might not have been the case if he had competed with the same NAPR just 5 years earlier (due to NAPR-modifications of competitors).

It appears that a new generation of IPETs were being explored in the late 1980’s, and fully exploited in the 1990’s. Of course, EPO is the prime candidate for this IPET, but this cannot be extracted from the data we have analyzed. The substantial reduction in performance variability that was already complete by ~ 1991, and has been in place since, suggest that variables dictating performance are being manipulated to an approximately standard set of values, significantly reducing the impact of natural-ability on performance (see Ref. [11]).

So what can one conclude from all of this information?

  1. The fact that the performance of cyclists exhibits a broad peaking in the mid 1990’s is consistent with IPETs being used extensively in cycling during that period. The use of IPETs was not isolated to individuals, but appears to have been pervasive throughout professional cycling. The fact that speeds and climbing rates are reducing as a function of time points toward the success of stricter doping controls in the sport.
  2. The reduced variability in performance indicates that natural ability, while obviously required, has been reduced in its impact upon determining success, and this appears to have been the case since the beginning of the 1990’s. (Comments about how EPO can reduce the impact of natural differences on performance among different riders, along with other discussions, can be found in Ref. [11].)
  3. The data are consistent with Armstrong, upon his return, not doing anything obviously different from other elite cyclists in the TdF, though obviously, he just did it a little better. This is the “level playing field” scenario.
  4. The data are consistent with the assertions made by LeMond regarding doping in cycling.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the data analyzed in this work is but a small fraction of what could potentially be analyzed. One of the interesting features that was touched upon only in the analysis of the TdF prologue data, is the complete distribution of riders speeds in each event. If, in fact, IPETs that minimize the impact of natural ability in performance are being used, this trend should be clearly evident in the distribution of speeds in any given single event.

To close, the data that has been analyzed in this work points to the combined natural ability, race preparation and recovery of post-1999 Armstrong being consistent with, but slightly better than, other elite cyclists competing at that time. The strength of Armstrong’s performances in the collective events suggests that his preparation and recovery methods were shared with his team-mates.

My Thoughts (given these observations and conclusions)

  1. If one is convinced that IPETs were used extensively during the period from the late 1980’s forward to today, it makes little sense to remove titles from those who confess to using IPETs, as there is a high probability that the runner up, who would be awarded the title, was also using IPETs in essentially the same way. I suggest that it was a mistake to strip Riis of his 1996 TdF title because each of the 9 riders below him in the general classification (GC) were also likely using IPETs. Further, it is likely desirable to create an environment in which offenders from the past can confess to using IPETs in past events as this may help in the development of future anti-doping protocols.
  2. Stripping Armstrong of his titles, and awarding them to the runner ups, has the same problem discussed in the previous bullet-point. Given the data as presented here, and the fact that multiple members of his teams have admitted to using IPETs, it seems that there is high likelihood that the runner’s ups (through many placings in the GC) were also using IPETs.
  3. If titles are stripped from Armstrong, then, in fairness, similar investigations should be launched against Indurain, as his performances have similarities to those of Armstrong. This could be generalized to all TdF winners since 1990.


This was written as a result of many interesting discussions, arguments and email-exchanges about doping in sport among John Costello, Jon Gates, Chance Reschke, Mike Taxay, Charlie Varela and I, along with others, throughout the last several years. I would like to thank them for their help in shaping this article.



[2] Some_empirical_notes_on_the_epo_epidemic_in_professional_cycling


[4]’Huez, which is claimed to have been adjusted to the 13.8 km distance, ,

[5]    The Official Tour de France Records book, by Chris Sidwells, ISBN: 978-1-78097-009-7.






[11]    The Doping Dilemma. , and for a reproduction (without images) see

Another helpful source was

Article © Martin J. Savage 2012

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