The story so far. On Saturday following Chris Froome’s win on stage 8 of the Tour de France the internet came alive with claims that Froome’s time up the Ax-3 Domaines climb was the third fastest time up that hill, just slower than Lance Armstrong in 2001 and quicker than Lance’s time in 2003.
If that’s true it’s an interesting statistic. Either you can say “wow Froome just slower than an admitted doper, how good must he be?” or you can say “wow Froome was faster than Lance Armstrong! Really? Lance was doping”.
However I wanted to know how these times were calculated, where did these “facts” come from? And are we comparing like with like? So I asked (see that here).
And in the 24 hours after asking that question I learned a lot, not about how the times are calculated but how merely asking for further information didn’t go down too well with others (see that here).
And now I have even more, including whether Chris Froome really did climb Ax-3 faster than Lance Armstrong.
To summarise where I’d got to: a Twitter user called @ammattipyoraily was seen by many as the go to person for timing information, indeed it seemed she/he was the source of many of the timings out there as “facts”.
Again to be really clear: this is not about me wanting to prove or disprove the cleanliness of a rider. This is nothing to do with power numbers and this is not about knocking anyone’s theories or scientific work. It’s purely about understanding how these times for climbs are calculated, especially the historical ones. For the sake of total simplicity the rest of this article will only focus on one climb, Ax-3 Domaines and the timings associated with that.
And now I’m starting to get some answers…
Do you want an easy one first? The climb times shown on some TV feeds of the Tour de France are derived from GPS signals from the lead motorbike filming the riders. The same GPS signals are used to determine the gaps between groups and that ‘distance to go sign’ up in the top left corner of the screen. Great as a guide but if the moto is with Quintana on the start of the climb and goes to the top with the attacking Froome who overtakes Quintana it doesn’t give Froome’s actual time.
Now a harder one that I’ve just got my head around…
Our friend @ammattipyoraily kindly got in touch to share the resources they use to calculate a ride’s length, altitude and a rider’s power output. But when asked to clarify the reference points used to compare rides across different years or the source of his historic data they did not reply. That was the second time they have ignored a direct and clear question about the subject. Now that is @ammattipyoraily’s prerogative but when someone so proud of sharing the numbers they have calculated won’t share their methods I get suspicious.
So I trawled the Internet to try and find where these numbers have come from for the Ax-3 climb and guess what I found? The earliest reference I can uncover for them comes from a forum post in June by a user with a name the same as claimed by @ammattipyoraily on Twitter namely Vetooo. Although the forum is in a foreign language the thread title contains a word very similar to ammattipyoraily. So she/he still appears to be the primary source of information.
The next part of my theory is speculation but go with it because it’s not a massive jump in belief. The original forum post with the times for Ax-3 came just days after the publication of the ‘Not Normal’ or ‘Doping or Not’ literature. I was intrigued. Given the substance of those publications was pretty much all about how fast riders went up certain Tour de France climbs was it possible that the timings being bandied about had come from ‘Not Normal’? Seemed like an idea to me.
Now I know this next part is not good investigative practice but I refuse to a) pay ten dollars to find out Lance Armstrong doped and b) give my credit card details to a website so badly designed. So I carried on investigating on the cheap.
To quote the (free!) preview extract ‘Not Normal’: “we present our radars for the 100th edition of the Tour. There are six… You’ll be able to judge interactively, as a simple spectator on your couch, with a stopwatch… You’ll easily be able to calculate possible levels of cheating”. Sure sounds like they have published a list of times for climbs if you can rate how suspect one is with a stopwatch. Oh and Ax-3 Domaines is one of the six “radars”. In fact the six radar climbs are the exact same six climbs that Vetooo/ammattipyoraily has posted times and data for on that forum.
So if I accept it’s highly possible that the source of climbing times is the ‘Not Normal’ team then how do they calculate the times? Luckily, they tell you “How do we get these numbers? Just like you, sitting in front of our television. We start our stopwatch at a pre-determined point… We stop it at the summit”.
In the interests of rigour (are you watching scientists?) the source of these quotes can be found here.
Almost there! If the primary source of these “accepted” climbing times is ‘Not Normal’ then it would seem the technique for getting the climbing times is
1. Find a common point at the bottom of the climb
2. Find a common point at the summit of the climb
3. Run a stopwatch on videos of riders doing the climb
Why couldn’t someone just have said this in the first place?
I fully realise this isn’t a great historic scientific breakthrough but I’d set out on a mission to find out how these “facts” had been calculated and now I was getting somewhere.
Thanks to some kind souls on Twitter I armed myself with Youtube videos of the climb of Ax-3 Domaines from 2001 (to time Armstrong), 2003 (Lance again) and 2013 (Froome). A quick look through these got me some start and summit reference points, I got a stopwatch, I was ready to go.
First up 2001. Oh. The official coverage of that year’s ascent doesn’t show Armstrong on the climb until he’s well on it. I checked and checked again but he’s not shown anywhere starting the climb. In fact the time from Lance’s first appearance on screen to him hitting the finish is shorter than the time bandied about (apparent source Not Normal who sit in front of a TV with a stopwatch). In fact if there’s any correct and factual time for that climb it must have been made on the day and on the ground because its impossible to accurately get his time for the climb from the TV coverage.
So if Not Normal or Vetooo/ammattipyoraily quote a time for Lance Armstrong’s climb up Ax-3 in 2001it’s pretty likely to be an estimate and nothing more. And that was that. If nothing else I’d succeeded in showing these numbers described as facts are the total opposite. Guesswork, hunches and imagination.
I decided to keep going and compare 2003 and 2013. First up 2003. My reference point for the start of the climb (my reference and mine alone) was the 90 degree left turn at the end of the bridge.
Here’s Lance at that point. It’s easier to see in motion but he’s in yellow.
As he turns left the time on the video is 1:23
I chose the finish line as my end point, it’s not the end of the climb but it’s very easy to identify and appears on the videos to have the same block of appartments to the right so it seems to be a constant.
Here’s Lance crossing the line
As he crosses the line the video time is 25:23, so from the bridge to the finish took Lance 24 minutes exactly.
Now 2013. Chris Froome on the left after the bridge.
The time on the video is 24:15
And here he is as he crosses the line
Time on the video 48:00. Meaning Froome took 23 minutes and 45 seconds. He did do it faster than Armstrong!
I’m extremely confident in my timings. I have no doubts of the time between the two points. I have no idea if the route between them has changed, what the wind was like or any of a thousand variables but I am confident that Froome did climb Ax-3 Domaines 1% faster than Lance Armstrong in 2003.
As an aside: in my research I’ve seen times quoted for riders up the climb in 2013 who didn’t appear on TV. Again these figures must be guesswork.
There are now wider discussions to be had about the context of these climbs and how relevant the comparison is. They’re not for me, I’ve done enough. We are told the sign of a less doped peloton will be slower times in a race. My view is that can’t be applied to one climb and long term trends need to be taken in consideration.
1. Many of the times of climbs are total guesswork, there is no footage available that comprehensively shows every rider passing two fixed points every time a climb has been tackled in recent years.
2. The rankings, such as Chris Froome has the third quickest time on Ax-3, are based on these times so are therefore total bull
3. Very few people who quote these times know how they are sourced and have done little if anything to verify them. Therefore any other “facts” they quote should be treated with suspicion.
4. Chris Froome did climb Ax-3 Domaines faster than Lance Armstrong
UPDATE: @ammattipyoraily has confirmed via Twitter that they are the person who has posted timings on the forum mentioned. They also contest that the timings are their own from their personal video collection.
I have asked for a screenshot of Lance Armstrong starting the climb in 2001. This has yet to be provided. Further, @ammattipyoraily tweeted in June that they had ordered the Not Normal book
UPDATE 2: @ammattipyoraily has admitted time he’s been quoting for Armstrong on the climb in 2001 is an estimate
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