As you might be aware if you know me, I love a bit of data and a good spreadsheet. Using data to (help) make decisions is a practice I use almost daily. Data driven decision making is used in industries and sports all over the world and with impressive results.
F1 is the most obvious example of this in the sporting world. What they don’t measure, collect data from and/or analyze simply isn’t worth it. Everything from the environment to the driver's fluid intake, and the reason they do this is in order to get every single available performance gain from every single possibility. It feeds in to the marginal gains methodology where it’s implementation in the cycling world is probably documented more than in any other sport. The idea that making small improvements to every single aspect will result in a huge increase in overall performance and leaving no stone unturned.
This is why calling downhill the “F1 of mountain biking” is not only a bold statement, but not a very accurate one. It has, in recent years, taken big steps towards being more like F1 with the introduction of telemetry systems, athletes training more specifically and teams conducting themselves more like professional outfits, but compared to F1 I believe we’ve still got a way to go. You might argue that downhill (I’ll use downhill as the example, but it could be any aspect of professional mountain biking) doesn’t need to be like F1 or that becoming more like F1 will mean downhill will lose its identity, but that doesn’t have to be the case, and that’s also a point for another time maybe.
In this instance I’m purely referring to how downhill racers/teams can use F1 technologies and ideologies to make quantifiable performance gains, and one of the best ways to prove you are taking steps in the right direction is to collect, analyze and implement data.
Put yourself in this very relatable scenario...You’ve just ridden down your favorite trail or put down a practice run on the weekends race track and you felt like it was an absolute stormer, fastest run you’ve ever managed on that track. It’s an amazing feeling as you probably know, but what you don’t KNOW is why it felt faster, where you KNOW you made up time, where you KNOW you can still make up time and how much faster it REALLY was...if at all. At the moment, it’s all just feelings, instinct and perception.
Now it’s really important to understand that you still need those feelings, instincts and perceptions when you’re riding because that’s how you gauge your performance in ‘the moment’, but I believe it’s also just as important to understand how they relate to ACTUAL results, and that’s where the data comes in. We’ve all smashed a run thinking it was soooo fast, only to find out when you look at the timing screen (or timed that Go Pro footage – which is a form of data collection) that it was in fact slower.
So imagine if you could have data which tells you where you are losing time compared to previous runs, where you might be braking too much, or you chose a different line, or that your suspension wasn’t set up to its best...if you had all that information, you could make decisions based on facts as to how you move forward. You would have the data to show you exactly why that line choice was slower, or that taking some rebound off the shock might help you carry speed through that rock garden. Without that insight, it’s just a feeling or an instinct. Data not only shows you how, where and what do try to make improvements, but it will also show you how, where and why you might have gone wrong, taken a bad line, got the bike set up a bit out etc. Having accurate data is an invaluable asset in my eyes.
It’s the same principle as why you would make a note of the weights you lift or the time for that 1000m sprints on the rower. If you didn’t record that data you wouldn’t really have any idea if you're getting stronger or not. You might feel stronger or you might have an idea that 1000m sprint was quick, but you’d have nothing to refer and compare it to. Seems like madness, right? You have to be able to benchmark where you are currently and what direction (right or wrong) you’re going in to make effective adjustments and changes.
It doesn’t fit in with the way people perceive downhill either and I can understand that. I grew up watching the best in world race with hang-overs and barely train but that was 20+ years ago now and back then I don’t remember the entire industry refer to downhill as the F1 of our sport, so things have and will continue to change. Today's downhill racing and its athletes are a very different entity to those early years, we’ve all seen how much more professional it’s got, how hard the riders train and how much more seriously they take it...and I’ve been involved in some of the after parties on the Sunday night too, so they can do that and still throw back (or throw up sometimes) to the old skool days.
I think we’ll all agree that the World Cup racing over the last few years has never been so good. The bikes are incredible pieces of kit that are so advanced and so capable now that the bikes of yesteryear are as out of date as the rider's hairstyles looked. The bikes have developed (it’s worth mentioning that the bikes have developed to cater to the newer style of tracks but again, another post for that conversation), the riders are training harder and more specifically, their understanding of nutrition and recovery has improved and they’ve become pretty good at using computers and cameras too 😉 With the exception of the vlog lifestyle maybe, all these improvements have happened because there has been some sort of data collection, analysis and continuous improvement implemented, and most importantly, the changes have been implemented because the data has proven that they are driving things in the right direction.
Using telemetry and data collection is becoming more ‘normal’ and it’s only going to help the sport become better and more exciting to not only watch but be involved in. These technologies aren’t just available to the top teams and riders, there are systems that can accurately track your riding and time your runs, monitor your braking and tell you how your suspension is working and they’re available to the weekend warrior and the World Cup professional. OK, so they’re not cheap and they might not seem like a good way to spend that amount of money, but that’s where you’re probably missing a trick because nothing will help you improve faster than knowing where you currently are and how you can get the next improvement or gain. Instincts and gut will only tell you so much and they will help you gauge your riding, but the collection of data and the ability to understand it will only make things clearer and a lot easier. It’s an investment and it does depend how seriously you take your racing or riding, it’s not for everyone, but if you go to the races and you don’t want to just “make up the numbers” then surely you want to go after every possible gain to try and get on that podium...or at the very least make sure you’re getting quicker each time.
All this points towards a more ‘F1 level’ of our sport – a lot of sports are a lot closer to this level of development too, and it’s highly likely that there might be some sports which are better than F1 at being more F1 but when we talk about downhill or any form of mountain bike racing, then we can say we’re getting there and I for one believe it’s the right direction to be going in if we want to see downhill in particular continue to be the crown in the racing jewels.