Monday, July 30, 2007
The Tour de France and the human body
After three weeks, 2,206 miles and boundless doping controversies, the 2007 Tour de France ended yesterday. More than 140 men raced to the finish line, as 24-year-old Spaniard Alberto Contador won cycling's biggest event.
I wonder if it was bittersweet for him and for everyone else who finished in Paris? This year's Tour was mired in controversy with teams and top riders dropping out and plagued by positive drug tests and swirling controversy about missing pre-race testing. Even last year's winner, American Floyd Landis, is in racing limbo because he tested positive on his way to the 2006 title.
You can't mention the Tour de France without a nod to seven-time winner Lance Armstrong. He, too, was plagued by doping allegations and rumor, but never tested positive. How did Lance not only battle cancer but also win what is arguably the toughest sporting event of all time?
"In the untrained state he would be about as fit as an average person that trained as hard as he could ever in his lifetime," says Dr. Edward Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas Austin. Coyle measured and studied Armstrong's physiology for more than seven years -- before and after his famous bout with cancer.
Armstrong's heart can pump nine gallons of blood per minute working at its hardest compared with only five gallons per minute for the average person. The champion's lungs can get almost double the amount of oxygen out of every breath that a healthy 20-year-old would. This cyclist has more red blood cells to deliver oxygen to his body, which is key, when racing through the high altitudes of the Pyrenees Mountains. Finally, Armstrong's body can recover at an incredible pace. "An average person when going to exhaustion would have to stay stopped or wouldn't be able to move for 10-15 minutes and Armstrong is able to go right back to maximum in 1 to 2 minutes," says Coyle. All of this begs the question - is Lance superhuman? Obviously not, but the way his body works is extraordinary.
To be sure, the Tour de France is an amazing athletic feat even for Armstrong. "Each day, they put out more energy than it takes to run a marathon. So the 20-stage tour is like 20 marathons in a row," says Dr. Conrad Earnest of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
Do you follow the Tour de France? Why do you think cycling is so marred by doping - truth or rumor?
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