To watch Lance Armstrong grit his teeth and accept the challenge of a rival on a mountain stage in the Tour de France counts for me as one of the highlights of modern sport. Armstrong is the epitome of sporting greatness: a brilliant career achieved against the odds, unfailing determination and an approach never short of 100% professionalism. A six-time Tour de France champion and already considered the greatest in a long list of cycling heroes, Armstrong is not yet ready to hang up his toe clips.
Armstrong was born in 1971 and grew up in Plano, Texas, with a single mum who nurtured his talent for aerobic-based sport. He turned professional as a triathlete at the age of 16. But as Armstrong later declared: ‘I was born to race bikes’, and cycling soon became his top priority. By his final school year he qualified to do road-race training with the Olympic development team and three years later became the US national amateur road racing champion.
In 1992 Armstrong turned professional and soon became a dominant force on the European tour. In 1993 he won 10 titles, including his first stage victory in the Tour de France and the title of youngest world road-racing champion ever. During the next two years Armstrong continued to impress with more victories and a world ranking of No 1, but the gruelling nature of the month-long Tour de France proved too much and overall victory in that event eluded him.
In October 1996 the cycling world was shocked by the news that Lance Armstrong, aged 25 and supremely fit, had testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. He underwent two operations and a lengthy course of chemotherapy. This traumatic chapter amplifies the extraordinary nature of Armstrong’s cycling career. In May 1998, less than two years after revealing his illness, he embarked on his professional cycling comeback and in 1999 crossed the Tour de France finishing line wearing the yellow jersey.
So what changed? How did Armstrong leap beyond being part of an elite band hovering around the top of his profession, to become the greatest cyclist ever? Explanations that have been proffered include the notion that his cancer experience equipped him to tolerate new levels of pain; or the theory that the drugs in chemotherapy somehow advantageously altered his physiology. And, given the dreadful doping history of cycling as a sport, it was inevitable that speculation would include suggestions of Armstrong using performance-enhancing drugs.
Armstrong has consistently and strongly refuted the drugs rumours, including taking legal action recently against the French authors of a book making doping allegations. In rigorous doping tests he has always come out clean. In fact he is probably cycling’s most outspoken opponent of the use of banned substances. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and look instead at what he is and what he has done to achieve his super-athleticism.
Armstrong is an incredible endurance athlete. His vital statistics include a resting heart rate of 32 to 34 bpm, a VO2max (the standard measure of aerobic fitness based on the body’s ability to take up oxygen) of 83.8ml/kg/min, and a lactate threshold heart-rate of 178 bpm (beyond the lactate threshold, lactic acid begins to flood the muscles and induce rapid fatigue). A handful of athletes in history have comparable fitness levels, including the marathon runner Matt Carpenter and cyclists Greg LeMond and Miguel Indurain. Among male endurance athletes you might expect to see average VO2max values of 70ml/kg/min.
Armstrong does not, of course, rely on good genes alone. Revolutionary training techniques and the application of sports science seem to have to played a key role in his comeback and domination. The goal of any endurance training programme is more work, less fatigue and shorter recovery times. The Armstrong team, led by his coach Chris Carmichael, moved well away from the conventional race-training approach, which is crudely based on ‘no pain, no gain’. Post-cancer, Armstrong began training at much higher cadence levels (faster pedal revolutions per minute). Higher cadence at low resistance causes much less muscle fatigue, allowing him to maximise his riding time and minimise his need for rest and recovery, giving him greater base training aerobic adaptations.
Training at higher cadences also improves pedalling efficiency. When you pedal faster, any inefficiencies in your pedal technique are exaggerated, so the correction of these and maintenance of good form at higher cadences ensures consistent efficiency. Armstrong demonstrated an 8% increase in mechanical efficiency over 7 years during testing at the University of Texas – a profound degree of improvement at such an elite level.
On the bike Armstrong is very symmetrical. His knee never deviates from the direct line over his pedals, his pelvis is well aligned and he has a smooth, consistent pedal stroke. During a month-long race, it is obviously important to keep fatigue to a minimum. Armstrong’s neurophysiological adaptations from training allow him to maintain those higher, energy-conserving cadences.
Also noteworthy is his technique during climbing, when he switches between standing and sitting to vary the demand on key muscle groups throughout the climb.
As you might expect, Armstrong’s mental toughness is phenomenal. His ability to suffer on the bike and drive himself up a mountain, stroke after stroke, are inspirational. Endurance team cycling is a highly tactical sport. He is a tactical genius – a master at conserving energy and always in the right position to cover attacking moves from rivals – and is backed by a powerful team.
There is another element to Armstrong’s competitive approach that is probably crucial. Professional cycling asks an athlete to be many things: endurance performer, sprinter and time-trial specialist, each of which demands different physiological qualities. Armstrong’s sports-science team believes that you can’t win all the races all the time. So their athlete’s training programme focuses exclusively on peaking for the annual Tour de France.
His coach, Carmichael, is very precise about Armstrong’s training progressions, based on his detailed knowledge of his client’s physiology, ensuring safe, injury-free training overload.
Carmichael has turned this meticulous attention to detail into a 24/7 tool, by devising an interactive internet-based computer analysis, called ‘Virtual Coach’, to support Armstrong wherever he is in the world. Armstrong logs on and inputs his training results for that day, which allows Carmichael to adjust and prescribe the exact programme for the next day’s session. Armstrong downloads this and off he goes.
Preparation for the July tour begins in the preceding November. Armstrong spends months riding high weekly mileage at low intensity, ‘focusing on reinforcing the efficiency of his pedal stroke and integrity of his aerobic system,’ in the words of his coach, Carmichael. For these long rides his cadence is mostly in excess of 110 rpm.
He complements this base training with strength work. The energy demands of endurance cycling inevitably result in lost muscle mass, which the strength training restores. But you have to get it just right: excessive weight gain through strength training can put a cyclist at a disadvantage. Armstrong, for instance, is said to enjoy a 10kg weight advantage over his fierce rival Jan Ullrich for the same power output, which helps him dominate in the mountain stages. (No wonder, then, that Armstrong is so meticulous with his diet – even weighing the exact amount of food that he needs to refuel his body after training.) Strength improvements result less from hypertrophy than from neuromuscular conditioning.
Armstrong’s training regime is highly geared to injury-avoidance. Cycling is a hugely repetitive activity, while riders have to sit in the same position for hours on end. Muscle imbalances and joint restrictions are bound to develop. So, in keeping with Carmichael’s dictum that: ‘You should be an athlete first and a cyclist second’, Armstrong dedicates the months of September and October to keeping balance within his body. He plays golf and basketball to facilitate core stability muscles and non-cycling muscle groups. His gym work prioritises stability through the trunk and pelvis.
While 2003 was not a great year for Armstrong, he came back with a vengeance in his 2004 Tour de France performance, and by now will have started his long build-up to an attempt at an unprecedented seventh tour victory in 2005.
Sport science evolves through champions and champions evolve through sport science. We can all learn from the Lance Armstrong story.