Angels and Diesels

With the return of the Tour de France to the high mountains, my thoughts have wandered back to a topic I occasionally ponder: why does the trail running scene take relatively little explicit account of body type? I mean, in cycling, no one expects even the the strongest strong man in the peloton to do anything but lose time, gobs of it, when the road points up in a sustained fashion. Why? Because he’s a Diesel not an Angel.

Let’s get a bit more concrete.

Intuitively, it seems like the dispositive factors in mountain running are essentially the same as cycling uphill, namely, power and weight. Cyclists at the top of the sport have a very good handle on their maximum explosive and sustained power, and what that means for going uphill at a given weight. With a relatively simple formula, they are able to predict with considerable accuracy how long it will take, say, a 70 kilo rider to complete a 500 meter climb at 250 watts. Shoot, it isn’t limited to top pros: in 2010 probably 90% of all self-respecting Cat 3s — the level of the “local hero” — are friendly with their holy grail metric, watts/kg. With these few figures, comparisons between different days and between different athletes, are pretty easy, with obvious implications for specialization of training, event selection, pacing, etc.

So sprinters like Cavendish or Farrar are the Usain Bolts of the peloton, able to generate incredible power in short bursts. Diesels like Cancellara can generate massive sustained power, but are penalized by their weight in the mountains (~80 kilos is a pretty common weight for a Diesel, whereas true climbers, or Angels, rarely exceed about 65kg; yep, easily a difference of 30+ lbs). I’m sure you can think of the trail running analog to the different types of cyclist. Killian Jornet = Alberto Contador, for instance.

So why isn’t similar methodology and specialization utilized in running? Is it simply that power is more easily and accurately measured in real time on a bike than on foot? Too unromantic? Just a matter of time? Something else?

While I’m at it, trail running also needs better nicknames for the heroes of the sport. For example, Il Falco (The Falcon) for Paolo Savoldelli, the best descender in the peloton a few years back, is simply awesome. The Alaskan Assassin is a start, I suppose.

Footnote: while not widely utilized, the tools for taking the ‘power meter’ approach to running are in fact becoming available. If you are curious what this looks like, you might peruse this and/or this. Mountain runners have long known weekly mileage is a pathetic metric. GOVSS anyone?