Humans have evolved, or something

July 21, 2012 § 8 Comments

This dude I’m not friends with on FB posted the results of the USCF national individual time trial championships from 1982. I was eighteen, had not yet started college, and had not yet bought my first road bike.

Scanning down the list was awesome. Names from the present were right up near the top–Thurlow Rogers, Steve Hegg–and other, less famous names of people I  knew well and/or raced against stared were there as well. Texans Stan Blanton, Terry Wittenberg, and Lone Star transplants Bob Lowe and Andy Coggan were all on the list. Each one of those guys was tough, and fast, and tough. Did I mention they were all really fucking tough?

It didn’t take long for my eye to wander over to the winning time, 55:10.52. In 2012 the USA Cycling national ITT winning ride was by Dave Zabriskie, 40:41.44 over a shorter 35k distance in a race that was contested by US professionals racing for UCI trade teams. Those 1982 guys included the top US amateurs, but no UCI professionals.

In thirty years the races couldn’t have become more different. That event in 1982 looked nothing like the one in 2012 in virtually any respect.

Compare that to the 10k distance in track. In 1982 Alberto Salazar held the American record in the 10k at 27:42. Today, the American record is held by Galen Rupp, at 26:48, a thirty-year improvement of less than four percent. Those apples can easily be compared to the apples of 1982.

My first contre-le-montre

In 1984 I did the Texas state ITT west of Houston, and turned a 1:04. I flew out into the tailwind, blew up after the first ten miles, then slogged back into the headwind, a textbook case of how not to ride a time trial. Even so, there were plenty of people who went a lot slower than that. I still remember the guys who could break an hour were demi-gods. A time trial bike meant one without water bottles in the cages, or 32 spokes instead of 36.

In 2005 I did another 40k ITT, this one also outside Houston, in Katy. I still had the same bike configuration from 1985, but everyone else rode full TT everything. I turned a 1:05 or maybe it was a 1:04. Compared to the people I was racing against this was so slow as to merit incredulity. It didn’t make any difference that in twenty years I’d not lost much, perhaps because there hadn’t been a lot to begin with.

I’m afraid it’s mostly about the bike

A winning state TT time over 40k these days can be expected to break 56 minutes. Although drugs unquestionably play a role, what remains to explain the newfound speed is aero technology. The cumulative effects of disc wheels, slippery clothing, helmets, shoe covers, tire technology, aerodynamic frames, and radically improved body position mean that people go faster today because they have, quite literally, purchased the speed to do so.

Of course the people who win still have to suffer like dogs.

Looking at those results from 1982 made me think that there is something more impressive about a 40k ITT with minimally aerodynamic equipment than going ten minutes faster with all the trick stuff. Andy Paulin smashing into the wind, all six feet five inches of him, without a helmet or disc to help with the effort…something about that makes you admire the man and covet his ability rather than making you want to purchase his rig and his wheelset.

Which, frankly, is how it ought to be.

The early years: the secret training life of Andy Coggan, Ph.D.

January 20, 2011 § 3 Comments

This all happened, if it happened at all,  more than twenty-five years ago. My memory is not terribly reliable over that stretch of time, and my imagination sometimes has a way of making stories differ from the way that other people remember them. Still, I’d vouch for everything that follows except for the parts that are wrong. Hopefully someone in the great wide blogosphere will identify the errata and let me know. Not that I’d change anything, because it’s such a good story.

When I was racing bikes as a student at the University of Texas in the mid-1980’s, I went to a “Health Fair” being held at the UGL. There were various stops and you’d go around from station to station, testing various aspects of your health and fitness. The final station was an ergometer with a VO2 facemask. I think it was a Tunturi, with green lettering on the side and a giant flywheel in the front.

The guy standing at the ergometer was a fit-looking student with a clipboard. I think he had dark brown hair, medium build, and cyclist legs. He took down my name and phone number, I signed the waiver and did the test to failure. I weighed about 145 pounds and was 6’1″. He told me my VO2 max and sent me on my way.

The next day I got a call. “Hi. I’m the guy who did the VO2 max test yesterday. Your results weren’t bad. Are you a cyclist?”

“Yes,” I said. “Why?”

“I’m a grad student doing research on human physiology and wondered if you’d be interested in doing some testing at the lab.”

I laughed, and politely declined. This was the mysterious Andy Coggins, the cyclist from the Midwest who had come to Texas to experiment on cyclists in his mad cycling lab. The tales had already grown into awful legends about how Coggins would approach cyclists, get them to agree to testing, and then put them through the most horrific workouts imaginable, followed by the occasional muscle biopsy to determine lactate levels. We heard that he was testing some carbohydrate replacement drink or other and that the tests measured the efficacy of the various products.

One of our buddies, Bob L., was a test subject and never failed to regale us with stories of twice weekly two-hour  ride-to-failure sessions that were more painful and draining and crushing than any ride, ever. I knew enough to steer clear of the mad scientist’s laboratory, even though one of my buddies from the Midwest, Jeff F., had this to say about Coggins: “He knows how to race a bike.”

For someone who was so focused on cycling performance, we wondered why Andy never showed up on the group rides, and laughed at his conspicuous absence from the races. “Typical professor,” we said. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

Occasionally we would see him out on Loop 360. Rumor had it that he did a single 60-mile workout a couple of times a week, and that was pretty much it. To say he was on the periphery of our consciousness is to overstate it. We only noticed that the more workouts Bob L. did with the mysterious scientist, the worse he raced.

In those days the biggest race of the year was the state road race. It was a 110-mile event usually held outside of San Antonio in the blistering heat. The contenders for the crown were a small cadre whom everyone knew: Mike Murray, Jerry Markee, Stan Blanton, Dean Buzbee, John Morstead, Mike Adams, Mark Switzer, Jeff Fields…these were the heads of state. I may have the year wrong, but I’m pretty sure that it was in 1985 that Coggins showed up to race. I was living in Colorado at the time, and got the race report second hand, the day after the race.

He was unknown as a racer, and only vaguely known at all–he was certainly no one that any of the big guns took any notice of whatsoever. Their familiarity with his racing ability never got much more intimate, however, because Coggins parted company with the field halfway through the race and no one ever saw him again. He motored to victory in the longest solo breakaway in the history of the race. He chewed up the field and spit it back out on the hot Texas tarmac, and to rub salt into the gaping wound, that was his first and last race in Texas that I ever heard of. Rumor had it that the only reason he even showed up was to test some theory about training that he’d concocted in the lab.

Two decades later I came across the name of Andrew Coggan, Ph.D., and made the connection–I’d had his name wrong all those years. Was that tour de force at the Texas state championships an early test of his theories about power and training? Or did he just want to kick everyone in the teeth before moving on to greener pastures?

Will we ever know?

UPDATED 3:29 PM

Andy posted the following on the Google Wattage Forum, clarifying the finer points of the race itself:

“Thank you for that little trip down memory lane!

“I did not actually solo to victory, though – rather, I had to outsprint Stan Blanton after we first got away from Bob Lowe and two others with one lap to go, then dropped Scott Dickson at the start of the final, gradual climb to the finish line.

“My training prior to that race consisted mostly of a few months of commuting either to or from campus via Loop 360, which took ~1 h. On Sundays, I would do the Bee Caves/Mansfied Dam/Bull Creek/Loop 360 route, which took ~2 h. The only structure or intensity was imposed by my “must-catch-and-drop-any-cyclist-I-see” rule…I can still recall some really painful chases, when I’d see somebody up ahead of me in the afternoon heat, groan to myself, then suck it up and get on with
the required task.

“A week after the road race, I did the state TT, but those were the only two races I did while I lived in Austin.

“Anyway, thanks again for the Andy Warhol moment…if you or anybody else have pictures from those events, I’d love to see them.”

Andy Coggan

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