Mark Twain* once quipped that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” We’ve already discussed some of the shortcomings of our statistical observations of what it takes to win at Kona, but our analysis of the bike leg certainly opened up a larger can of worms than the previous segments on overall performance and the swim.
This is mainly due to the broader landscape of available data on factors influencing the bike. Aerodynamics is a no-brainer. We know that wind conditions and advancement in bike designs are highly influential. We also know the comparative power outputs of the individual athletes. We take a break from the history of finishing times in this installment to spend a moment on power, athleticism, and race strategy to provide a little more context of what we’ve seen.
In summary what we’ve seen is that bike times have gotten faster overall since 1985, but the rate of improvement has slowed to a trickle in the last ten years. Also, the field of top ten male and female finishers is much less consistent on the bike than during the swim. So if the bikes and athletes are all improving and the winds egalitarian in their pitilessness, why the stagnation in the front of the field?
The first aspect of this trend involves the athletes themselves. To investigate, we present a highly unscientific and woefully incomplete dredge of available power data from top finishers in past editions of the Ironman World Championships. Here are the average power outputs of the notable male finishers we could find, with links where available.
You may notice that the numbers hover closely in the 280-ish range, and indeed the average of this sample is 282 Watts. Again, that’s hardly scientific. But there is something a little more provoking buried in the list. Notice that Faris Al Sultan churns the cranks over ten years with the consistency of an 18-wheeler on a stretch of Kansas highway. The man never peaked nor dipped. By the same token, Pete Jacobs uncannily stomped out the exact same average power in 2012 and 2013. Therein lies something as troubling as it is fascinating– neither individual athletes nor the pack as a whole are improving much from year to year. Why?
Nick White is a coach with Carmichael Training Systems and worked with Craig Alexander during his first two Ironman World Championships victories. Having viewed the power outputs of other professionals, he agrees that the majority of top-tier triathletes, to include Alexander himself, pedal in the 280W range. He believes that improvements in the bike leg have tapered off because the professional Ironman field has reached a sort of plateau over the last decade.
“If you look at most of these athletes, they are all about the same size and weight, approximately 74-kilograms. So they have the same build to optimize performance across the three disciplines. That leads to very similar power-to-weight ratios.”
The upper body muscle mass a triathlete needs to keep up with the pack on the swim does him or her no good during the run. Nor does that bulk, plus the added skeletal mass built up from running make them precision-crafted cyclists. For decades, marathoners and cyclists have joked that triathlon is a way for people who can’t do one sport well to do three sports in a mediocre fashion. However, White believes that’s no longer the case for the elite performers in Kona.
“Ten years ago our best triathletes still weren’t necessarily elite. Today they are. They’ve reached the same kind of physiological strata in triathlon that Tour de France and Boston Marathon winners reach in their sports.”
That only serves to heighten the mystery. If elite triathletes have reached a superior physiological strata, why haven’t the power numbers increased? It seems the problem is best explained in terms of boundaries. The first being time. There are only so many hours in a week. A triathlete must allocate them to three disciplines. There is also time spent in “the fourth discipline” of recovery. Trying to push beyond a physiological limit becomes a fool’s game should one sacrifice rest to do it. White believes that, for the time being, the elite athletes represent the absolute best that can be done with the available genetic material.
Perhaps the most influential boundary is the intersection of the body’s threshold and the spirit’s ambition. “The mental game at the championships matters. There are lots of games pros play. Watch how they come out of the swim. They always bike the first twenty minutes of the course faster than they can hold over the course of four and-a-half hours. If they could not look at their speedometer, that would be great. But these guys are all out there to win. They’re going to take risks.”
White says that Craig Alexander took meticulous stock of his competitors every year, even though he ultimately never worried about any particular individual or even how the day itself would go. By the time an athlete steps to the start line, there’s precious little they can do to change the course of events. White defines “precious little” as about 80-percent of aerobic threshold.
You can try to strategize the climb to Hawi or the change in wind conditions after the turnaround, but in the final analysis there’s no escaping the fact that going anaerobic too soon before the marathon will cost you valuable seconds or even ruin your day. Still, some contenders will ignore decades of research and the better advice of their coaches and do exactly that. It’s these “race day screw-ups” that put the 20th-place finisher an hour behind the winner.
“Eighty percent of threshold is easy,” says White. “But you have to do it for eight hours.”
The body may have the ability, but the mind must also endure. One can draw a problematic inference from that: whether because they lack the aerobic capacity or the maturity of patience, about half the field of professional athletes (both men and women) at the Ironman World Championships simply can’t hang. Commentators have long pondered whether the KPR is a valid indicator of competitive merit. Given that wattage is so consistent across the top performers, could it perhaps be a component of the Ironman athlete’s tale of the tape?
If so, White believes a new chapter in the story may be waiting in the wings. “Lionel Sanders is a hard-working athlete coming up through the ranks, and he’s posting 315 Watts. It’s possible he could push to new heights if he can run well off the bike.” White certainly thinks there remains room for improvement. Ironman’s current plateau is not a terminal velocity. In the meantime, he believes the incremental and somewhat erratic improvements on the bike offer hopeful news about the overall honesty and health of Ironman.
“I think it’s good that we don’t see major jumps in performance and that the group is more or less on a level playing field. It validates the belief that there isn’t an egregious amount of doping occurring in the sport.”
That the top athletes perform at nearly the same level each year and face the exact same course conditions seems like a tri-bike marketer’s dream come true if their particular brand rides to the fastest split. Then again, “fastest” is a matter of context that returns us to Mark Twain’s original proverb*. If the fastest bike in 2015 is ten minutes slower than 2011’s fastest model, it could be a little embarrassing. Marketing specialists can hardly be expected to publish that kind of data. It would take a little more digging to see if such incidents had in fact occurred.
To be examined in a future interlude…
(* Mark Twain was not actually the first person to issue the quote. He attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli, but further research indicates a man named Leonard H. Courtney first developed it in a newspaper article that Twain must have read and forgotten. To say that it belongs to Twain is just a damned lie.)
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