There is no good reason for riding a bike three-blocks straight up. But on Saturday, Sep. 16, more than 180 riders did just that in a sprint race on De Haro Street up Potrero Hill in San Francisco.
Starting at 18th Street, the Red Bull Bay Climb course ran due south three blocks until De Haro crested the hill at Southern Heights Avenue. Each intersection was more or less flat, but the slopes between them were not. The first climb was a 400-foot stretch at an 11% gradient, the second spanned the same distance but at a 21% gradient, and the third was a 550-foot run out at about 13%.
“That second hill is like hitting a wall,” said Red Bull fixed gear cyclist Nico Deportago-Cabrera. A bike messenger in Chicago, one of the flattest cities in one of the flattest states, the closest Deportago-Cabrera, 33, usually comes to hills is riding into the Windy City’s gales. In comparison, Potrero Hill is steep enough that as riders lined up at the start, the final section of the route was completely obscured from view by the second rise. That final third was the nasty surprise everyone knew they had coming. When Deportago-Cabrera was eliminated in the semifinals, he could at least console himself with not having the race the course again.
NFL officials—much like players—need to practice in order to be at the top of their game, and watching football on a screen is no substitute for standing on the field in the middle of the action. To get that practice, many attend team practices and camps, making unneeded calls while players run through drills and throwing flags that result in no penalties. Away from the field they review game film, study the rules book and take quizzes, but nothing beats reality.
That might be about to change, though, thanks to the virtual equivalent. STRIVR is a Silicon Valley-based virtual reality firm that records practice plays using a 360-degree camera positioned where a player would stand on the field, allowing players to watch that play later using a VR headset, getting extra, virtual, reps. The NFL has been keeping a close eye on what STRIVR has been doing with sports teams since 2015, and a year and a half ago, the league reached out with a question: Can virtual reality help our officials perform better?
Starting in the 2016 preseason, STRIVR began building a library of clips that officials can watch, repositioning its cameras to capture the view from each of the seven officiating locations. “The perspective that a fan might want in virtual reality is different from an official, as is the perspective of a particular position, a quarterback or linebacker,” says Damani Leech, VP of football strategy and business development at the NFL. The database is now up to 500 clips, and features footage of half a dozen teams, including the 49ers, Cardinals, Rams and Broncos.
With the NFL opener done and dusted, the season grind starts. From now until the end of December, all 32 franchises will try to balance performance with recovery. And the few teams lucky enough to reach the postseason may have to keep playing that game all the way through to Feb. 4, 2018.
Winning championship rings is partly about who can best perfect that tradeoff. Losing too many players to injury or illness can wreck a season, but being too healthy might mean you didn’t spend enough time in the pain cave. Last year’s top four teams on Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost statistic didn’t make the postseason. Super Bowl LI’s two contenders, New England and Atlanta, were No. 8 and No. 6, respectively, in terms of keeping their players on the field.
A handful of teams have turned to a Denver-based company called MuscleSound to understand how close they might be to the line. MuscleSound uses ultrasound scans to determine energy stores in athletes’ muscles, in the form of glycogen level, providing an overall “fuel rating” from zero [empty] to 100 [full]. The idea is that knowing how much each game drains an athlete’s batteries, and checking to see if they’ve been recharged sufficiently by the next game, will help teams fashion personalized training and nutrition schedules for each player.
If the camera never lies, how come we can’t always believe it? Take, for example, SaganGate.
According to the official Tour de France narrative, on July 4, a couple of hundred meters from the finish line of Stage 4, green jersey favorite Peter Sagan, of Slovakia, elbowed sprinter Mark Cavendish, of Great Britain, slamming Cavendish into a roadside barrier. Cavendish broke his shoulder and cut his hand, forcing him to pull out of the race. Sagan was subsequently disqualified by the UCI, cycling’s governing body, after a closed-door meeting that reportedly included a video review.
But cycling fans conducted their own frame-by-frame analysis, and what they saw seemed to tell a different story. Wind the tape back a few frames, and Cavendish appears to make the first contact, leaning into Sagan. Zoom in on the apparent elbow strike itself, and Sagan seems to be lifting his arm out of the way of the gear shifter on Cavendish’s handlebar. By that point Cavendish’s bike already appears to be falling sideways. The video casts doubt on whether Sagan did anything wrong and whether the UCI should have ruled against him.
A professional road cyclist’s resume might be full of stage wins, King or Queen of the Mountain honors, and time trial records. But barring any victories in the Grand Tours—la Vuelta a España, il Giro d’Italia, and especially le Tour de France—few outside of the pro tour pay much attention.
Ex-pro Phil Gaimon found that out late last October, the same weekend he also found out his pro career was over. After the team he’d been hoping to sign a contract with named its 2017 roster, and he wasn’t on it, Gaimon went out on a group ride in Los Angeles. Without intending to, he set a new fastest time on the Strava segment that runs up Nichols Canyon Road to Mullholland Drive—one of more than 10 million user-generated timed routes on the social cycling app.
In his eight-year career, Gaimon won the Redlands Bicycle Classic twice, in 2012 and ’15, and finished second to Colombian Nairo Quintana in the 2014 Tour of San Luis—that same year, Quintana won both il Giro and la Vuelta. As proud as Gaimon was about his achievements as a pro, somehow people were more impressed by this 9:57 Strava record on the Nichols Canyon route. And, Gaimon says, “I could name 50 guys who could smash me.”
When Giants linebacker Devon Kennard wakes up each morning, he checks his phone to see what the day might hold. He’ll have text messages and emails, of course, but what Kennard really cares about are his sleep stats: Did he hit his eight-hour target? How good is his recovery score? And, most importantly, how hard can he push his body today?
If knowledge is power, NFL players may have just shifted the balance between them and the league over control of their own bodies. On April 24, the NFL Players Association announced a five-year partnership with WHOOP, a wearable device company that can track the health and performance data of the league’s athletes.
Players will be given a WHOOP Strap 2.0 device that can be worn on their wrist, forearm or bicep. It’s designed to monitor the strain they put on their bodies and how well they recover between games or workouts. For now, the league is unlikely to permit players to use it during games (more on that later). According to the NFLPA and WHOOP, the players—not the league—will control the data and have the opportunity to sell it to third parties. The theory behind using WHOOP is that the information should help players avoid overtraining, reduce injury, perform at their best, and even enjoy healthier lives after retirement.
Halfway along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Rebecca Rusch finally learned to slow down. The now 48-year-old endurance mountain biker had come to Southeast Asia in February 2015 to find her father, who had disappeared near the end of the Vietnam War. But what she found in Laos was a deeper connection to any place she’d ever been.
Red Bull had sent her there to ride the 1,144-mile length of a Vietnam War–era supply route. Her journey is chronicled in the documentary Blood Road which will be screened onboard the Intrepid in New York City this Tuesday, and released online and on DVD and BlueRay the same day. (The documentary won the Audience Award at the Sun Valley Film Festival in March, and Best of the Fest at the Bentonville Film Festival last month.) Rusch rode with a picture of her dad, Air Force Captain Stephen Rusch, in her backpack, and took a detour to his crash site in Southern Laos.
The wreckage of her father’s F4-E Phantom II fighter-bomber was long gone, precious metal repurposed by local villagers, but around her lay the unexploded ordnance of the war; her father and his fellow airmen had dropped 2.5 million tons of explosives on this small country half a century ago. For Rusch, that discovery has given her a reason to keep riding her bicycle beyond just winning races: It’s given her the chance to face the past and try to improve the future.
The gravel roads of eastern Kansas broke my spirit somewhere around mile 70. Two hours before I had been cruising along the trails of the Dirty Kanza 200 bike race. When I reached the first checkpoint, 48 miles in, I had been sure I could race against the light and complete the 206-mile course before sunset. But by 11 a.m., my carbon bike was heavy and slow, the remaining 136 miles stretching out before me. You won’t finish, I feared.
Dirty Kanza is a double century bike race on fire roads around Emporia, Ks. On a good year—Saturday, Jun. 4, 2017, for example—the winds are low and the roads are dry, the sun doesn’t scorch and the humidity isn’t oppressive. The lead racers take about 11 hours, and around 80% of riders finish. On other years, rain can turn the trails to thick clay, winds can blow riders off their bikes and temperatures can soar. Few finish in daylight, many fail to make the 20-hour cutoff and others abandon the attempt.
But even on a good year, the race presents a significant challenge to bike, body and brain. Finishing DK, regardless of the conditions or the time, has become a badge of honor in the endurance-racing world.
On May 23, 2016, less than a thousand feet from the summit of Everest, Adrian Ballinger’s energy reserves ran out. Ballinger was attempting his first ascent without breathing supplemental oxygen—he’d already been to the top of the world’s highest mountain six times in a climbing career that spans two decades—but on the knife-edge ridge near the top of the 29,035-foot peak, fatigue overwhelmed him.
Cold seeped into Ballinger’s body and he lost all feeling in his hands. Unable to operate the mechanical device on the rope that would support his weight if he slipped, Ballinger was essentially solo climbing Everest. On his right, the ground dropped away thousands of feet towards Nepal; on his left it dropped towards Tibet. Watching his climbing partner, Cory Richards, forge on ahead, Ballinger turned back, defeated.
Last fall, home in California, Ballinger went searching for answers, trying to work out why he had struggled so badly on that final summit push. He hired two coaches, Scott Johnston and Steve House, as advisers. Both Johnston and House are experienced mountain climbers themselves, and co-wrote a manual on strength and conditioning for climbers called Training for the New Alpinism before founding their coaching company, Uphill Athlete.
Every winter legions of NFL prospects dedicate their winter months to training for the combine. Every year NFL coaches, execs and pundits grumble about the applicability of the combine’s drills to the players’ future pursuits. (This is Bill Belichick, in July 2015, dismissing the utility of “those February drills”: “In the end, [players are] going to make their career playing football.”) Then every year some obscure player rips off a lightning-fast 40-yard dash in Indianapolis. At which point, we all seem to forget about those reservations.
There are, however, at least a few technology-fueled changes afoot. When a runner competes in the 40 today, the NFL Network also shares his split from the first 10 yards, a distance far more relevant to most football positions. At the 2011 combine Under Armour introduced workout shirts featuring built-in sensors that measured heart rate, breathing and acceleration—data that can be used to quantify fitness rather than just raw performance. Last year National Football Scouting Inc., which runs the combine, even established a committee to review the entire event, raising the possibility of further innovations. Just don’t expect any soon. According to its president, Jeff Foster, NFS’s focus over the last 12 months has been on introducing new fan activities. He declined to comment on any future changes for athletes.
So here we are, in 2017, staging the Underwear Olympics in its current form for a 33rd straight year while technology zooms by, creating a “kind of discrepancy,” according to Timothy Roberts, an exercise scientist at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. And it’s not just the tech community leaving the combine in its dust; teams have embraced cutting-edge developments behind the scenes. The 49ers, for example, are investors in PUSH, a tech company that uses accelerometers and gyroscopes to measure performance in the weight room—not just the number of reps of an exercise, but the power and speed an athlete brings to bear. “Teams are ahead of it; they’re doing their own thing,” says Roberts. “Now the NFL has to catch up.”