Critical Section

revisiting stage 17

Sunday,  12/21/08  04:42 PM

Today I received an email from Adam Winer, a friend and fellow member of the Conejo Valley Cyclists riding club; he reported that "I spoke with one of my friends from San Diego...  Floyd Landis has been showing up to his clubs weekly rides to help train.  I guess these guys must really be fast!"  This started a little discussion about the type of power a pro cyclist can generate, and as a result I'd like to revisit Floyd's incredible ride on stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France. 

In cycling this is now just called "stage 17".  You might remember, the previous day on stage 16 of the 2006 tour - another tortuous mountain stage - Floyd had bonked, giving up eight minutes and the yellow jersey and seemingly putting himself out of contention.  Then on stage 17, the most difficult of that tour, he broke away on the first climb and in an incredible performance stayed out in front all day, finishing over five minutes ahead of the desperately chasing peloton.

Floyd ended up winning the 2006 tour, largely due to that performance, but shortly afterward was disqualified because he tested positive for testosterone - on stage 17!  More about that below.

Here are some numbers from Floyd's amazing performance:

  • 5 hours 23 minutes and 36 seconds.
  • Covering 125 miles (81 miles alone in the wind).
  • At a speed of 19.3 mph/hr.
  • Hitting a max speed of 52 mph/hr.
  • Averaging 281 watts when moving for the whole ride and 318 watts over the last two hours.
  • Averaging 324 watts while pedaling for the whole ride and 364 watts over the last 2 hours.
  • At an average cadence of 89 rpm.
  • Transferring 5,456 Kjoules of energy to his Cycleops PowerTap.
  • Taking, no joke, a total of 70 water bottles (480 ml each) from the car to keep himself cool and hydrated.
  • Attacking about a quarter of the way up the Col des Saisies for 30 seconds at 544 watts, which settled into a 5-minute peak of 451 watts, which continued for 10 minutes at an average of power of 431 watts, and left everyone in his dust after 30 minutes at an average power of 401 watts.
  • Spending 13.2% of his time or 43 minutes coasting like a rocket on the descents and another 60% between 4 to 7 watts per kilogram of body weight (aka, the pain cave).
  • Holding onto 373 watts over the Col de Joux-Plane.

Rewatching that stage gives me goose bumps.  I remember vividly watching it "live" (well, via Tivo) when it happened, not knowing what was going to happen, and yelling at my TV; it was the most incredible athletic accomplishment I have ever witnessed.  Even on rewatching it doesn't seem possible that he could stay so far in front of a hard-charging peloton for so long, and I find myself tensing with anticipation even though I know how it ends.

A note about the drug test: I still believe Floyd was innocent of doping.  Nobody would take testosterone for one stage – it wouldn't help anyway - and he was clean on stage 16 (he was tested, because he had the yellow jersey going into the day) and on stage 19 (the time trial where he was tested again because he retook the yellow jersey).  Not to mention testosterone wouldn't help a GC rider anyway; it builds muscle, not endurance.  And not to mention his testosterone level was normal, it was only the ratio to something else which was abnormal.  I don't know if he was framed or just a victim of bad test process, but either way it is too bad that this unbelievable athletic accomplishment has been tarnished.

What strikes me in retrospect reading articles about stage 17 from that time is that nobody thought Floyd couldn't have done it.  Everyone knew a world-class cyclist like Floyd could put together a performance like that, if all the conditions were right and they really applied themselves.  Cycling is so mental, despite being so physical!  It was definitely a white swan...

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