Monday, May 6, 2013

The Science of Cycling

It has become apparent over the last few years (if it wasn’t already) that most of the professional road cycling victories in recent (and distant) memory have been won in the laboratory, rather than on the road. It seems that it was more important to have a good (and by good I mean extremely questionable) doctor than a top coach, fitness level or work ethic.

There’s actually a Facebook page that details an incomplete list of doping cases in cycling which makes an interesting, although very long (at around 26 pages) read. Due to the extensive nature of this list I’ve reduced the point size in order to condense it down to something a bit more suitable for this blog:
This is an incomplete list of doping cases in professional cycling since the 1800s.

And while doping scandals have certainly dominated the media in recent years, it’s not just performance enhancing drugs and blood transfusions that help give pro-cyclists the edge. There is a lot of other (legitimate) science that goes on in the exercise lab to help riders maximise their potential on the bike.
I was fortunate enough to be invited in to the exercise physiology laboratory at Charles Sturt University in Albury to find out about the science of exercise testing. Physiology lecturer, Dr Kelly Linden runs the exercise testing program at the university and was kind enough to provide me with a first-hand look at what goes on inside.

Dr Kelly Linden from Charles Sturt University in Albury
You can tell that Dr Linden is a serious scientist by the fact that she wears a lab coat even when relaxing on the balcony of local Mount Beauty café, Skafferi.
However, this credibility can quickly evaporate:

Would you trust this scientist?

The lesson to be learned here is that a lab coat alone is not enough to maintain your credibility in the scientific fraternity: 
It is unclear whether the net credibility of this scene is enhanced or diminished by the inclusion of lab coats and cats.

Even the staff at Skafferi were keen to test this theory:
Would you like sugar in your Cattucino?

Ok, enough with the cats already, back to the science. Inside the Exercise Laboratory there is a vast array of very expensive looking equipment.
The stationary bicycle used for testing, despite being valued at over $10,000, does not look all that impressive at first glance however it is completely computer-controlled and capable of accurately measuring or maintaining specific power levels or simulating different types of riding conditions.
Now that’s what I call a LARGE chainring!

This bike is used in conjunction with a metabolic cart that measures the air volume being inhaled and exhaled by the test subject, along with the concentration of oxygen and carbon dioxide in that air. This basically enables the scientist to accurately calculate the volume of oxygen that the subject is consuming at different workloads and at some point (close to their maximum power output) the oxygen consumption will also reach its maximum and this is known as VO2 max. Although this provides a good measure of the cyclist’s cardiovascular fitness, in recent years, power metrics have become more useful tools for measuring a cyclist’s overall strength and fitness on the bike and these can also be deduced on this stationary bike.
So what’s involved in a proper, scientific VO2 max test?
Firstly, it is important for this test that the subject reaches their maximum output (complete exhaustion) on the bike, which can be quite uncomfortable, especially when their mouth is full of expensive scientific equipment.
In order to accurately simulate local conditions, the Fitzroy VO2 max test is undertaken in casual clothes with no helmet.

Motivating the subject to reach their maximum output is also important which is why the laboratory is equipped with a sound system and video monitors.
Video monitors can be pre-programmed with motivational images to help the test subject reach their maximum output.

The VO2 max is a stepped power test with power increasing at pre-determined regular intervals until exhaustion. Just prior to the point where the subject ‘blows up’ and is unable to maintain the current power level is usually where the maximal consumption of oxygen (or VO2 max) is achieved.
This is what occurs shortly after reaching your VO2 max.

The results of the VO2 max test are most commonly expressed in millilitres of oxygen consumed per minute per kilogram of body weight (ml/m/kg) and can range from about 27 for a healthy untrained female to as high as the staggering value of 97.5 that was achieved by 18 year old Norwegian cyclist Oskar Svendsen in 2012.

While unpleasant to undertake, the results from the test can be quite interesting, particularly if taken periodically during a structured training program. So can Dr Kelly Linden help you to achieve your potential in the competitive world of professional cycling? Probably, but you will need to deal with her unorthodox teaching methods.

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