The Science Behind Armstrong's Alpine Success

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The Tour de France resumes Tuesday and heads into the French Alps, where cyclist Lance Armstrong attempt his seventh consecutive win. A researcher in Texas reveals some of the science behind Armstrong's success.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Susan Stamberg. The Tour de France heads into the French Alps today, the first alpine stage in a three-week bicycle race. Cycling insiders like to say that those grueling climbs separate the race pretenders from the contenders. During his reign as top contender, six-time defending champion Lance Armstrong has amazed people by seeming to fly to the top of tough mountain stages. Well, now a researcher in Texas has revealed some of the science behind Armstrong's success. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

The winner of the Tour de France wears the traditional yellow jersey, but with each successive victory Lance Armstrong has seemed more deserving of a cape and large `S' on his chest, which makes Ed Coyle chuckle. Because when Armstrong first showed up in 1992 at Professor Coyle's Human Performance Lab on the University of Texas campus, the young cyclist seemed more like a Superman who couldn't quite find his phone booth.

Professor ED COYLE (Human Performance Lab, University of Texas): Clearly, his weakest links then were--his muscles were only average efficiency, just like an average person on the street.

GOLDMAN: While not exactly a physiological Superman, Armstrong, says Coyle, definitely had the potential to be much more than average. Young Armstrong had the genetic ability to take in lots of oxygen and then pump it quickly throughout his body thanks to a larger-than-normal heart and blood vessels.

Prof. COYLE: If you used the analogy of a racing engine, he had a real big engine as far as his ability to consume oxygen, to produce energy aerobically. And we realized when he learns to direct all this energy to the bicycle pedals, becomes more efficient at this transmission, that he would be just awesome.

GOLDMAN: And so began a seven-year process, from 1992 to 1999, when Ed Coyle studied how Lance Armstrong's body works. Coyle wrote about it last month in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

(Soundbite of bike being pedaled)

Mr. JOEL TRINITY (Coyle's Assistant): Good. There you go. It's going up. Four hundred watts. Hold about 115. Good. Keep pushing. Keep pushing.

GOLDMAN: The lab where it all took place is about 2,000 square feet and contains, among other devices, this $15,000 stationary bike that Coyle hopped onto last week. Much like Coyle did with Lance Armstrong for those seven years, Coyle's assistant, Joel Trinity, monitored the test and provided moral support.

(Soundbite of bike being pedaled)

Mr. TRINITY: The RPMs up just a little bit. Come on. Dig. Good. Done.

(Soundbite of heavy breathing)

GOLDMAN: On his visits every few months, Armstrong wold go through a similar process wearing a heart monitor and using a mouthpiece to measure the oxygen going in. Armstrong would take the test results and use the information in his training. The big goal was to improve that average muscle efficiency so he could push down harder on the pedals and increase his pedaling revolutions, what's called dancing on the pedals. By 1999, following Armstrong's first Tour de France victory, Professor Coyle says they had met their muscle efficiency goal.

Prof. COYLE: He'd approved at a remarkable 8 percent over the seven-year period, and that was the most exciting scientific finding for us.

GOLDMAN: Coyle says it was a progressive, straight-line improvement in muscle efficiency which, of course, is remarkable considering, for Armstrong, 1992 to '99 hardly was a straight line.

(Soundbite from 1996 news conference)

Mr. LANCE ARMSTRONG (Champion Cyclist): On Wednesday, October 2nd, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. For now I must focus on my treatment. However, I want all of you to know that I intend to beat this disease, and further, I intend to ride again as a professional cyclist.

GOLDMAN: Armstrong's 1996 diagnosis ended his work with Professor Coyle, but not for too long. Eight months after Armstrong finished his chemotherapy, he was back. Coyle says, despite being a little out of shape, Armstrong showed no ill effects due to the cancer. But questions ultimately popped up, mainly from French cycling reporters, suspicions that the science of Lance Armstrong had changed, and not because of hard training. Dr. Craig Nichols treated Armstrong's cancer.

Dr. CRAIG NICHOLS (Armstrong's Doctor): I remember once I kind of derisively answered, `We put in a third lung.' And then I didn't hear laughter on the other end of the line, and I could imagine some Frenchman writing that down. But my own...

GOLDMAN: Dr. Nichols says the drugs Armstrong took for cancer had no lingering effects that would have helped Armstrong's racing. Doping suspicions linger and, for some, never will be answered sufficiently. But Professor Coyle says he's studied the winning formula up close, and it has nothing to do with illegal drugs. It's muscles, it's the weight loss from the cancer that did have an effect, helping Armstrong become a pared-down, mountain-stage fiend. Of course, there are the other factors: the iron will, the maturity, the outstanding teammates who will help Armstrong conserve energy for those crucial days coming up in the mountains where he hopes to dance on his pedals one last time up and over the killer hills. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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