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Putting data in the saddle: How analytics drive innovation in pro cycling

SAS teams with sport performance power measurement provider 4iiii Innovations and high end bike manufacturer Argon 18 to raise the game for a UCI women’s cycling team.

By: Sylvie Tache, Marketing Manager SAS Canada

There are few spectacles in sport as riveting as a sprint finish in a road cycling race. Dozens or hundreds of kilometers come down to a 200-metre dash reaching speeds of up to 70 km/h, as many as eight or 10 riders pushing the boundaries of physical exertion. It’s not a matter of inches, but fractions of seconds—a perfectly timed half-crank of a pedal, a literal “throw” of the chassis—that make the difference between a stage win and a “same time.”

But road cycling is also a team sport, a sport of specialists playing their roles with split-second timing in support of an overall strategy for a stage, a tour, even a season. Climbers force the issue on hilly stages, exhausting competitors who try to keep touch; domestiques, junior riders, create a draft to minimize the effort of the star finishers (or you can use leader), dropping back to fetch water bottles and even giving up their bikes to senior riders with a flat or mechanical issue; all-rounders (“rouleurs”, in French, the language of cycling) chase down opponents’ breakaways, set up sprinters for the final mad dash, and serve as on-course captains when quick tactical decisions have to be made. Each specialty rewards different riding styles, different performance metrics, even different physiques. Collecting and analyzing this data can help a team fit together the pieces of the strategic puzzle in a way that optimizes the use of team resources for a competitive edge.

SAS Cycling Team in the beach

That’s exactly the approach taken by SAS-MAGOCEP-ACQUISIO (SMA), the only professional Canadian women’s team with a license to race internationally, on the UCI Women’s World Tour.  SMA is using state-of-the-art sensors and analytics software to fuel its rise though international (UCI) cycling ranks, with eyes fixed firmly on the coming 2020 Olympic Games.

Three years ago, the team embarked on a path to performance optimization built around three pillars:

  • Ultra-lightweight Gallium-Pro and E-118 Next bicycles from Montreal-based Argon 18, incorporating design innovations that deliver maximum aerodynamic performance, stiffness and precise handling;
  • PRECISION power meters (4iiii Innovations Inc. a Cochrane, Alberta-based company) a Bluetooth and ANT+ wireless sensor that transmits power data to a handlebar-mounted computer by Polar, which incorporates physiological data from wearable technology like heart-rate monitors and GPS geographical to paint a picture of athlete performance while adding only nine grams of weight to the bicycle—a critical consideration given the goal of barely exceeding the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) minimum weight of 6.8 kg;
  • Sports analytics software from SAS, which collects extensive data on rider performance, physiological and psychological data, and more, allowing coaches, trainers and the athletes themselves to discover patterns and connections to develop training plans and support strategic decisions.
SAS UCI Women's Cycling team Canada
“Most of the decisions by the team management, coaches and athletes were based on feelings and sensations… with all of the sophisticated sensors, technology, and knowledge, today’s analytics is way more sophisticated than it used to be. For a cycling team, this is gold.” Pascal Hervé, Mentor of the team, retired French professional rider.

Getting athletes and coaches to share that sensitive data for analysis by an outside firm like SAS can be difficult, says Martin Lesauteur, who collects, cleans and preps data for analytics for the team.

“If you look at the Tour de France, nobody’s sharing anything,” Lesauteur says. Data can be used as a weapon—collect enough of it and you can reverse-engineer the athlete, probing weaknesses to be exploited. SAS’s relationship with SMA—it’s the team’s biggest sponsor in terms of technology and cash investment—provides a level of comfort for everyone involved.

A self-described “obsessive-compulsive cyclist” — “I’m so scared that when I die, my wife is going to sell my bikes for what I told her I paid for them,” he grimaces—Lesauteur has been collecting and analyzing data about his own cycling performance for years. He brings a wealth of self-taught expertise to the sophisticated tools on offer from SAS and 4iiii (as well as roadside mechanical expertise at some races).

Correlating performance data, physiological data, and profiles of upcoming races can optimize a rider’s training plan. It can also help ward of the insidious threat of overtraining—athletes can drive themselves beyond the point where their muscles and aerobic systems can recover for upcoming races. One SMA rider’s overtraining pattern cost her a month on wheels, and several months until full recovery. The data was pointing to overtraining, but the athlete didn’t feel it physically until it was too late.

“That’s an example of measuring an athlete on an individual basis, but the impact on the team was huge because she was one of our best athletes, and we lost her for three weeks to a month,” says Lesauteur.

And the program is about the team as much as it’s about individual racers. Data can help the team make roster decisions for a given race to give the team the best chance to win. Power output, revolutions per minute, heart rate, GPS data, fatigue, pedaling cadence, watt-to-weight ratio—all this data and more is poured into training profiles and race-day decisions, says rider Emma Bedard.

“If you have a specific type of race, for instance if you know it’s a hilly race versus a flat race, or whether it’s an endurance event versus a shorter punchy race, it helps select the type of athletes that are perhaps better-suited than others for certain courses,” says Bedard, a former triathlete who switched to full-time cycling because of a nagging hip injury.

Data can match the right racer to the right terrain with the right fatigue curve, helping determine the role of each athlete within an overall race strategy, says SMA coach David Duluth. For example, the data can pick out a racer capable of endurance riding, but not at peak speed, and pair her as a “leadout” rider for a sprinter, pulling her teammate to that crucial juncture where she can take over the race. On the other hand, data can identify that top-speed rider to put at the end of the leadout train.

Data can also help guide recruitment efforts, says Lesauteur. It can identify riders to fill specific roles—a sprinter, a climber, a junior rider to be groomed for a starring role while serving as a domestique. The team can then focus on promising additions to add depth or complement other riders and the team as a whole.

It’s a far cry from 20 years ago, says Pascal Hervé, a retired French professional rider who serves as a mentor to the team. Hervé has an impressive European road racing resume, with multiple appearances in the Tour de France, Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia, along with the 1992 Summer Olympics. In the 1990s and early 2000s, teams relied on hospital tests for maximum oxygen capacity (VO2 max) and lactate buildup. It could take days or weeks for test results to be returned, and they were analyzed by people who “did not have a clue” about cycling, Hervé says.

“Most of the decisions by the team management, coaches and athletes were based on feelings and sensations,” Hervé says. “With all of the sophisticated sensors, technology, and knowledge, today’s analytics is way more sophisticated than it used to be. For a cycling team, this is gold.”

Data touches virtually every element of a cycling team’s corporate strategy. On race day, though, it comes down to the riders. And while technology can provide feedback on a huge range of performance and physiological factors, one element still eludes measurement in real-time: the athlete’s psyche, how she reacts psychologically to fatigue, stress, race conditions, etc. Being able to quantify and monitor such information and overlay it on the data already collected could be a critical differentiator.

“One day, we’ll have a little device we can attach to the helmet,” says Lesauteur. “We’re not there yet.”

Full article found on www.sas.com

Photo: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media | www.brakethroughmedia.com

A Q&A with Karel Bergmann, Our Technical Adviser to Etixx-Quick-Step on his thoughts on the Vuelta

Photo: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media | www.brakethroughmedia.com

Photo: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media | www.brakethroughmedia.com

You just got back from the Vuelta. What are your immediate thoughts after the race?

The Vuelta was a great race.  I think it was probably the most difficult grand tour of the season from a sporting perspective.  The Giro had a couple of epic stages through Val Gardena and Colle dell’Agnello, but the Vuelta just kept on delivering with epic finales.  From a GC perspective it was definitely the most riveting – it really came down to a battle in the final days.

From our perspective it went very well.  PRECISION performed very well for the riders, and Etixx – Quick-Step was definitely on their A-game.

It was a very successful Grand Tour for Etixx-Quick-Step – four stage wins and seventh overall for David de la Cruz. How was the team spirit after the race?

Team spirit was very high throughout the race, things started off on the right foot with stage wins from Gianni.  A day in red with David de la Cruz and then a great win for Gian Luca in Formigal kept spirits high.  The nature of the race made itself apparent towards the end.  You could tell that riders on all teams were getting really tired towards the end, and the stage ending in Formigal really highlighted the point.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the groupetto come home nearly an hour after the lead group.

During the race David de la Cruz shared his data up the final climb of stage 10. You also shared your data up the same climb. There was a bit of a difference. Do you have a newfound respect from riders seeing this comparison?

I’ve been working with these guys for a while know, so I have tonnes of respect for what they’re capable of, but I wouldn’t exactly call it new-found.  I also had a sneaky suspicion that I might come in on the losing end of this race.

I think the truly impressive part of what we saw on the Aubisque was that I tailored my ride to give me a nice warm-up on the way to the base of the climb so that I could have a shot at an optimal performance.  For David it was the 4th climb of the day, 14 stages into a grand tour – now that’s impressive!

How do the riders use their power numbers during races? Do they have an idea before the stage what kind of numbers they want to put out?

For riders, the power meter is most important on long climbs and time trials where they need to be able to pace their efforts.  On the flats, the peloton dictates the pace.  As important as power meters have become in bike racing, you still need to hold the wheel in front yours, or it can be game over.

What would be your lasting memory from the Vuelta?

For me, it’s two things, the first was the great camaraderie within the Vuelta squad, and being able to experience it with guys that have become more than co-workers over the past season.  The personal attachments I’ve made over the season really took the experience to a new level.

The second was riding in Spain.  The terrain was amazing, but I think the Spanish drivers are the best I’ve experienced around cyclists.  They are courteous and friendly, and they share the road like nowhere else.

Karel with Devil at TdS

A Q&A with Karel Bergmann, Our Technical Adviser to Etixx-Quick-Step

Karel at 2016 Tour de France

Karel Bergmann, is 4iiii’s technical adviser to Ettix-Quick-Step and will be heading over to Spain this month to work with the team during the Vuelta Espana. We asked him a few questions before he left.

How long have you been working with EQS?

I started working with EQS last November.  That’s when the team was having their major training camps in southern Spain.  The training camps are the best time to get some face time with the riders and mechanics, which is really important when introducing a new product.

What is it like working with professional riders?

It’s a real privilege to be able to work with some of the best riders in the world.  While power data is really important to all of them, they all handle the training and racing a little differently so building relationships and getting to know all of them is important to being able to support them as well as possible.

What’s it like travelling in Europe for races?

Traveling in Europe is really interesting because you get so see so many different places, but it can be stressful too.  During my work with EQS there has been a fair amount of unrest in Europe and this can make things a bit more challenging than usual.

It’s been very interesting to experience each of the major cycling nations and their different flavours.  One of the biggest surprises was my visit to Andorra during the Tour de France – it went from a place that I barely knew about to one of my favorite spots in Europe.  In my food/coffee/riding/scenery/people matrix it scores very highly in all regards.

What is your favourite race to work with the riders on?

Each race is a little different from a support perspective.  My favorites are the Belgian Classics and Grand Tours.  At most of the big classics, the route crosses over itself many times, so it gives me the opportunity to see the race in person throughout the day, and to see how things are progressing.

This isn’t the case at Grand Tours, where I might see the race at the start, and sometimes at the finish, but rarely in between.  On the flip side, during a Grand Tour I get to experience the surroundings a little bit more, and since it’s the same 9 riders throughout the race, I get to know the guys a little better.

What are you looking forward to at the Vuelta?

As a cycling fan, I’ve always loved the Vuelta’s steep summit finishes and being there will give me a chance to see the pros race up these climbs, and hopefully experience some of them for myself.  I’ve always enjoyed the food in Spain, so I’m looking forward to that too, though I’m sure my W/Kg will suffer as a result.

Why would a cyclist ride with a power meter?

Power meters are really the only method we have at our disposal to objectively measure a rider’s output.  That’s not say that it’s the only tool, but it is the best tool there is for monitoring one’s progression as a rider.  They also work very well for pacing during time trials and long climbs.  I think that any performance-driven cyclist can benefit from having a power meter on their bike.

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Life on the Tour: Etixx – Quick-Step Classics Weekend, Ballet on Wheels

By Karel Bergmann

This past week in Belgium, I was able to experience the lead-up and the first two “Belgian Classics”.

As many of you are aware, Etixx – Quick-Step is a Belgian cycling team, and they’ve long eschewed chasing Tour de France victories for concentrating on stage wins and their fabled classics. The classics are one-day races that take place around Europe, but mostly in Belgium, Holland and Northern France. These races are characterized by long, gruelling parcours, often bad, unpredictable weather, and often cobblestones.

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