The Science of Cycling – event review

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On Monday evening Sheffield Hallam University hosted an evening of cycling chat with headline names Nicole Cooke and David Walsh, as well as three sports Profs from the Uni. There was also a surprise visit from a three time Tour de France Champion!

David Walsh spoke openly and eloquently about why he pursued Lance Armstrong through expensive legal cases and many years.  He, and other journalists and sportspeople, had suspicions when Lance went from finishing well down the field for the four years prior to his cancer treatment to coming back to win by a large margin afterwards. A great quote attributed to Greg Lemond (American three time winner of the TdF) was ‘either its the greatest sporting comeback or the greatest fraud’. At this point a voice piped up from the back of the room – ‘I’m here!’ – Greg Lemond had turned up in the audience!

On the subject of this years events Walsh was less supportive of Team Sky than his previous standpoint.  Last year he unequivocally supported Chris Froome and Sky as being clean riders with nothing to hide.  This year however he feels they are dropping below this whiter than white approach.  Chris Froome and his TUE was mentioned (nicely leading on from my last post here) as well as decisions to hire a few riders and a team doctor with shadey pasts.  If Team Sky want to be seen as whiter than white then they have to be whiter than white, be more ethical as well as follow the letter of the law.  He suggested they join the Movement for Credible cycling (as mentioned in the TUE blog).

Nicole Cooke talked about life as a female pro cyclist.  As a cyclist she won everything there was to win – including the Olympic Gold medal and World Championship in the same year (2008), the first time that had been done by anyone, male or female!  It was interesting to hear how hard they work but also how she felt they were held back by rules as well as a lack of will to fund women’s cycling.  There are rules that women’s races can only be a certain length (140 km) which has meant some people think women’s racing must be easier than men’s.  Nicole pointed out that in her last women’s Tour de France they did a stage that went up three higher mountains within that 140 km than the men are doing in their hardest stage this year. Easy?  I don’t think so!  In her retirement statement, just over a year ago, Cooke laid out her feelings towards the sport and the administration of the sport particularly towards equality.  This was clearly still something that rankles with her.  When the Armstrong case was talked about, with allegations of cover ups and shady deals her direct quote was:

‘the corruption is all with the UCI (cycling’s governing body)’

You can read her retirement statement in full here – it is worth a look.

Steven Haake, Professor of Sports Engineering talked about the design of bikes and how carbon fibre has changed many rules.  He explained how position on that bike makes a massive difference (illustrated with a demonstration of audience volunteers).  The design of a bicycle for racing is set by the UCI so there is little scope for radical design, but lighter and more aerodynamic are two areas for development.

Next Ian Maynard, Professor of sport psychology, discussed how sports stars will approach a race or event.  He talked about how the teams will segment the day of competition, creating a routine to enable the athlete to reach their peak performance.  One of his key thoughts was that elite sport is often about mental toughness – being able to deal with adversity and bounce back stronger.  He also mentioned a survey where 80% of elites sports people would take an illegal drug if they thought they woudl get away with it and win a medal.  At this point Nicole Cooke pointed out she was not one of those 80%!

Finally Simon Shibli, Professor of sport management, gave an explanation of the economic impact calculations and how many people will be watching the Tour this weekend and how much money it will bring into Yorkshire.  I’ll be there to watch and will probably part with a few pounds for drinks, mementos etc…

Overall the event was interesting, fun and well put together.  The real star draws were obviously David Walsh and Nicole Cooke, but the others were interesting too. We did start to get a flavour of what goes into being an elite athlete.


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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.