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7/19/2013
04:36 PM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Can Big Data Help Save Cycling From Dopers?

Current Tour de France leader Chris Froome released data about his physical performance to fight doping rumors. Cycling should think bigger about its data.

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There's no reason to believe Chris Froome is using performance enhancing drugs -- except that Froome is the very best person in his sport at this moment, and that sport happens to be professional cycling.

Sadly, that's the culture of doubt surrounding the glorious sport of cycling, which has been plagued by a doping history that goes far beyond the Oprah-worthy Lance Armstrong.

Froome heads into the final weekend of this 100th version of the Tour de France after a dominating performance during 19 days of racing across nearly 2,000 miles. And most every day, he or his team manager must answer questions from reporters about whether Froome's dominance comes from cheating.

Out of frustration, Froome's Team Sky did something unusual: It released two years of data about Froome's physical power output to the French newspaper L'Equipe and French physiologist Frederic Grappe, who examined it to analyze whether Froome's body should be capable of zooming up hills that most of us would struggle to walk up. You can read CyclingNews.com's summary of those findings here. The quick take: Froome is indeed a freak of nature, but he's not doping.

[ Read how U.S. women's cyclists used Hadoop and visualization to grab an Olympic silver medal. ]

Froome and Team Sky's decision to share the data raises two huge opportunities that cycling could exploit to use data better.

The first is to use data against doping. Teams track power data -- measured basically by the watts a person generates to pedal a bike versus a person's weight -- so the data's available. Used in combination with the extensive blood testing that cycling does, it might help spot cheats.

Some argue that those numbers are too open to misinterpretation, an argument three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond dismisses, with typical subtlety, as "bullshit.": "It’s for the riders. It would be ideal for everybody. You get rid of the speculation," LeMond told VeloNews.

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Even LeMond, though, is talking about releasing the power data only to experts. Froome's Team Sky wouldn't release data to the public for fear of analysis by "pseudo scientists." That's hopelessly timid.

Companies including GE, Merck, Pfizer and Netflix are paying "pseudo scientists" via online contests to hack away at their big data stores, hoping outside data scientists will find insight the inside pros haven't. People including Grappe and others already are doing their own power estimations. Cycling should embrace this crowdsourcing approach and open up riders' data streams for analysis.

Extensive public data would then open up the second opportunity: To use data to make pro cycling more popular. Cycling certainly has a doping problem, but it also has the problem of getting more people to give a rip about the sport.

Thanks to mobile apps such as Strava and MapMyRide, plus heart rate and power monitors, the recreational cyclist is awash in more data than ever. Pro cycling should embrace this growing data culture by offering ever more data about its riders and finding clever ways to market their sport with it.

What do you think? Could extensive, public rider performance data like Froome released help cycling? I don't know what form that help might take, but as long as performance data is locked up, we'll never know. I say set the data free and let's see what happens.

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