Friday, September 13, 2013

Is Chris Horner Doping? More Pseudo Evidence

Another climb, another great performance, more questions.

The insinuation this time comes not only from armchair VAM crunchers, but also from competitors. Said Nibali of the subject in question, "Horner ha tenuto un ritmo impressionante e ci ha staccato tutti. Andare così forte a quasi 42 anni è davvero incredibile." [Horner held an impressive pace and left us all. He is almost 42 so it's really incredible].

As in, it's not especially credible.

Before wading in, we note several differences between Horner and the other accused (Wiggins, Froome, Contador):
  • Horner has not excelled in time trials;
  • Horner is old;
  • Horner raced during the doping era;
  • Horner has not spoken out strongly against doping and--in particular--Lance;
  • Horner has not only released training power files, he's released a power file of a stage of the Vuelta he won:
Chris Horner's Power File From Stage 10 of the 2013 Vuelta a Espana
Let's take a look at this data and see what we can deduce.

Analysis of Stage 14 Climb: Alto de Hazallanas
Horner's biggest effort comes where you'd expect it--on the last climb of the day, the Alto de Hazallanas, and HC climb with this profile:
At 5.4%, it's not a super steep climb, rising 890 meters over 16.3km.  As you can see from the profile, it's a two-part climb, with the best opportunity for attack in the steep section between 11-13k into the climb.  That's exactly where Horner attacked.  He averaged 390w for the last 4.5k, climbing 342 meters in 14:25.  (Watch here)

Our trusty VAM formula: Meters ascended * 60 / minutes

342 * 60 / 14.44 = 1421

This VAM, although good enough to separate Horner almost a minute from his closest competitor, in no way compares to the best climbing rates seen at the Tour this year (i.e., Froome's 1808 on Ax-3).  

And the duration was short--only a 14-minute effort.  I know several local riders capable of 390 watts over 15 minutes (see Rugg's 1413 VAM).  It came at the end of a 160k stage and at the end of two stacked climbs, but if we are using watts and VAM as the measuring stick by which to label dopers from afar, then Horner's winning climb up Hazallanas (unlike Froome's up Ax-3 or Ventoux in this year's Tour), comes up squeaky clean.

Analysis of Stage 18 Climb to Peña Cabarga
Unfortunately, Horner outdid himself on yesterday's stage where he distanced all rivals and, according to Gazzetta dello Sport, achieved an absurdly suspicious VAM of 2034Gazzetta reporter Claudio Ghisalberti said that Horner covered the 4.9km climb in a time of 16:40 at an average speed of 21.240km/h, producing an average of 437 watts.  

These numbers from the climb to Peña  Cabarga are, of course, estimations--they are not based directly on Horner's SRM data, as the numbers from Hazallanas (390 watts) are.

What explains the (supposed) 40-watt leap in performance between Hazallanas and Peña Cabarga?

First, Ghisalberti's cited 437w is an estimate.  Therefore, there may not have been a leap in performance.

Second, the context of the climbs differs:  Horner's 390w, 1421 VAM, 14-minute effort on Hazallanas comes at the end of a massive day and at the end of two long climbs; his 437w, 2034 VAM, 16-minute effort on Peña Cabarga comes after a 40k descent and a much easier day on the bike.  

Third, the climb profiles differ.  As stated previously, steeper climbs yield higher VAMs, even at constant Watts.  Peña Cabarga averages 9.4%, climbing 566 meters in 6k:
Pena Cabarga
Lastly, Ghisalberti's decision to include the early part of the climb, in which a half-dozen riders take pulls skews the estimation of power required.  Horner is in the draft of several teammates and others right up until 4k to go.

Isolating the last 4k of the climb, in which Horner is mostly on his own, (using the time from this video) Horner climbs 341m in 11:24.

Using our VAM formula again:

 341 * 60 / 11.4 minutes = 1794 VAM.

This includes a series of massive attacking from Katusha, in which Horner simply catches up, then follows wheels, as well as receiving a mysterious pull from GreenEdge's Simon Clarke.

The VAM is higher than Horner's previous effort at Hazallanas, but the duration is also shorter.

I am truncating the early part of the climb, but it's time spent in the draft on less steep ramps, and therefore VAM will overstate Watts required--hence, the error Ghisalberti makes.

Let's calculate the bottom part of the climb to see the VAM achieved by the entire group of cyclists:

180m*60/5.22 minutes = 2070 VAM

This suggests, as a close viewing of the video also shows, the riders hit the bottom of the climb at a furious pace.  Five pacemakers contributed to the effort.  It explains the high VAM--as the result of this pacemaking, not, as Ghisalberti implies, the result of Horner putting out VAM or Watts at a level of certain performance enhancing.

This also explains why Horner, whose winning VAM on stage 14 was 1421, was in stage 18 able to sustain an average of 2025 VAM (see my calculation in footnote 1 below).

This analysis says more about VAM as a couch-side method of detecting doping than about Horner.  In short, it says, VAM is imprecise.  If we're getting a spread of 20% because of exogenous factors like drafting, gradient, and duration, we can't accept that level of estimation error.  

Other Horner accusers point to his age.  "How is he racing his best ever at this age?"  It's quite possible he isn't.  Suppose Horner is the most gifted climber of his age, but he's surrounded by dopers so he ends up being merely exceptional, not the best.  But as the dopers are purged, he stays the same, or possibly even declines a bit, yet he suddenly starts winning races because everyone else is now not boosted.  

None of this should lead us to conclude that Horner is or is not clean.  It is simply to suggest that he's done more than Froome to show his innocence (e.g., releasing his SRM files), and there are scenarios that explain his extraordinarily late bloom.   

On the positive side, even Steve Tilford seems to be in Horner's corner.  Tilford, you may recall, has been fairly hard on a lot of pro riders he called out as dopers.  Whether doped or not, Horner's Vuelta has been, to quote Nibali, incredible.

1. The entire climb of Peña Cabarga, by my count, takes 16:37 (not 16 minutes, as Ghisalberti has it) (see the group hitting the climb here).

561*60/16.62 = 2025 VAM


Anonymous said...

Tilford's view of Horner is more skeptical than you state, in my opinion. You may have missed this post:

Josh Buehner said...

These Maths. they hurt my head. Is he doping? Yes. Because, obviously.

Laszlo said...

Didn't Horner claim that when he was riding under Bruyneel he never saw anyone doping? Even though this may be technically true, we also know that Lance wouldn't allow anyone to be clean. Why would a team pick a 42 year old to be the captain of the team? As mentioned above there are too many questionable factors, he showed no decline over 3 weeks, in fact he improved and that is physiological impossible for a 42 year old without some strong stimulants. I believe he is a test case for the latest (so far undetectable) drug. Cycling is going through a really hard time and just when it seems to redeem itself, this happens. Everybody should question Chris Horner and he should be tested inside out. Even then, the UCI has shown unreliable too to act as a protector of the sport.

Lance said...

I think Chris Horner's personality may also explain why he is having the best performances of his career as an old man. He is as close to a "soul surfer" as any professional cu list gets. He was happy being a domestique to Lance and then Levi for so long. Remember this is the guy who towed a crashed rider up the last 2k of a climb in the tour ( just because he is a nice guy who has been happy helping others win races. Now with Andy Schleck struggling with injury Radio Shack fins themselves with no leader and Horner is finally showing us what he can do.

Anonymous said...

A 42 year old, who came out of nowhere, who beats much younger and more accomplished climbers, and a former teammate of Armstrong.
Only blind idiots will say that he's clean.

Anonymous said...

Bring back memories of watching the Mennonite drop everyone easily one fine day...
YouTube: Riding Dirty
Horner needs a vid of his own with his psychotic ill-timed laughs...

@ReinerGrundmann said...

It is sad to see none of the comments engaging with the content of the blog. Of course, people have strong beliefs. But what the post tells us is that the performance was not 'from another planet'. Still, this is not a 'proof' either way.

David Lighthall said...

Brilliant analysis, much appreciated. I am struck by the extent to which the CH doubters completed failed to engage your empirical evidence. However, I do believe that CH and RS should release the full data set from his Vuelta Powermeter, along with the results of his 2013 biological passport data, team physio tests, etc. At minimum we need to see the data from the Angrilu. Its painful to see what would otherwise be a glorious moment for US cycling become one of the most divisive issues driving a wedge between all of us who otherwise share a passion for cycling.

David from TX said...

One thing that is not being discussed is the lack of weariness in the legs of CH from a lighter race calendar due to the injury. Valverde had 57 race days and Nibali 62 race days going into the Vuelta. CH had 15 race days.... CH could always climb, remember the Pais Vasco.

He is clean and a joy to watch.


Anonymous said...

The time away has obviously helped his legs this year. Without the demands of having to ride a bunch of early races and serve as domestique sacrificing himself for the sake of others, he's been able to peak at a time when other riders might not have the freshest of legs. And as an older rider who regularly beats much younger guys I can tell you from experience it is more than possible to maintain most if not all of your speed into your 40's as long as you're smart about how much you ride. Chris Horner has been squeaky clean his entire career, never tested positive, never implicated, never even accused even though he rode with the likes of turncoat snitches and rats like Leipheimer and Armstrong. He must be clean. Congratulations Chris on a great victory in the Vuelta.

Anonymous said...

@David Lighthall, I wont expect you will see the full data you have suggested. Teams are business, they have trade secrets.
@David from TX, Good point, the grand tours are won by planning your season to win that particular grand tour.
@Anonymous, Yes I agree, I'm regularly dropped by my riding partner that is 10 years my senior.

For all those who think CH just came out of the blue, you have not followed bicycle racing for the last 15 years. CH has a long record of good clean riding.

Sandrat said...

Chris Horner didn't "come out of nowhere" and anyone who seriously follows cycling knows that ride smile is a grimace. Did he dope back in the day? Probably. Is he some sort of genetically engineered genius who can foil today's doping controls? No, and he released his complete data. Does the physiology of a fat-free 42 year old lifelong professional athlete have anything in common with that of the average 42 year old American, or even with the average 42 year old weekend warrior cyclist who outweighs Chris by 40 pounds? No. Skepticism is healthy and in cycling it will be necessary for at least another generation, but those who spend hours on the www preaching their wholly unsubstantiated holy writ of "I just KNOW he's cheating because..." are one of these three types: The under 35 who can't accept that an "old man" can easily kick his ass due to obsessive training and attention to diet, and experience. Or the "old man" (or woman) who uses age to excuse preventable physical conditions and feels outraged that CH is blowing their cover. Or my personal favorite, the f***ing Hall Monitor; the tattletale who is driven to a tearful frenzy by the very idea that someone somewhere might be *getting away with something*. People who win bike races aren't any of these types. If he's doping he'll be caught, but not by internet couch potatoes.

Parlee said...

Chris didn't come out of no where. This guy was a phenom from the time he began riding back when he was 15. Chris's results are believable, because he could have been the best cyclist of all-time had he gotten his diet and life style straightened early on. He was kicking Lance's ass back in the mid-ninties. Why Chris was overlooked by the USA cycling in favor of overrated cyclist like Hincapie who couldn't win a race if he had too, I'll never know. Sorry, a pet peeve of mine.

Mark Jackson said...

Why are riders like horner totaly panned by septic sceptics.I am 45yrs and in the best form in my life so far.I am not a DOPER!!! AND NEVER WILL BE. so why not go find a nobal cause to chase,until you find out shallow sceptics you. mj