Cyclists Hunt for an Edge. This Time, It’s Data, Not Drugs

Spain’s Telefónica is trying analytics to steer its team to victory in upcoming races.

The Spanish city of Granada lies more than 1,000 miles from Paris and Milan, but for Nairo Quintana, the road to both could well pass through a small computer lab on the outskirts of town. The 12-year-old facility is where phone company Telefónica SA is analyzing hundreds of millions of data samples with an eye toward helping the Colombian rider win cycling’s two biggest races in a single season.

Coming out on top in the same year in the Giro d’Italia, which ends in Milan on May 28, and the Tour de France, which wraps up with a 65-mile ride to the Champs Elysée on July 23, is notoriously difficult, because cyclists must reach peak performance twice in three months. Only a half-dozen riders have done so, and none in the past two decades. Quintana, 27, has never finished the Tour in the yellow jersey of the leader, but he won the Giro in 2014 and, two years later, the No. 3 event on the calendar, Spain’s Vuelta a España.

Photographer: Tim De Waele/Corbis/Getty Images

Telefónica, a Madrid-based company that sponsors Quintana’s team under the name of its retail unit, Movistar, says the challenge can be met by better understanding the flood of information teams gather on riders during training and throughout the grueling three-week competitions known as the grand tours. The data can help coaches more accurately assess the impact of exercise, diet, and climate, much like the Oakland Athletics did in 2002 (as chronicled in the 2011 movie Moneyball), according to Pedro de Alarcón, one of two Telefónica employees working on the project. “The trainer can see after the race if the rider followed instructions,” de Alarcón says. “Whether he held back, sped up, how tired he was.” Ultimately the software might allow coaches to alter their strategy in real time during competitions, much as the Williams team does in Formula One auto racing, he says. “Currently, the coach simply asks the racer how he feels and how he did, and the rider gives his impressions.”

The data push is being led by Luca, a Telefónica unit that helps companies find ways to profit from data they collect in the normal course of business. Telefónica’s chief data officer, Chema Alonso, a big cycling fan, and members of Luca decided to try using data to give the team an edge—and give Movistar a publicity boost by highlighting its doping-free reputation in a sport tarnished by the cheating of Lance Armstrong and dozens of others.

It’s not easy to bring everyone around to the idea that data can make a difference. Eusebio Unzué, the team’s manager for 32 years, says he’s better off following his gut when it comes to advising his riders, a strategy that’s helped him build Movistar into the world’s top-ranked team for the last four years. “In this sport, whoever has the best legs wins the race,” he says. De Alarcón says Unzué’s resistance is similar to what he encounters at companies where veteran managers trust their instincts more than technology, but he predicts even old-timers such as Unzué will eventually conclude that it’s never bad to have more information even if you rely on years of experience. Unzué grudgingly agrees. “Technology is more and more important and improving in certain aspects of preparation,” he says.

Telefónica started studying Quintana and seven other top Movistar riders last season and this year expanded the system to include all 28 members of the team, using data collected by heart monitors, GPS location trackers, and a host of other devices. Mikel Zabala, a Movistar coach and professor of sports science at the University of Granada, began analyzing rider data in 2013 using a pair of off-the-shelf programs aimed at shaping the training regimens of endurance athletes such as cyclists and marathoners. He complemented them with Excel spreadsheets, in which he did complex calculations to track racers’ performance and the level of physical stress they face while riding. When the Luca researchers signed on, Zabala asked them for software to analyze a rider’s energy output and reactions to different terrain, which had been impossible in his spreadsheets given the number of variables and the difficulty of the math. The new data “helps you know you are going in the right direction,” Zabala says.

Even if Quintana, ranked No. 4 in the world, manages to win both races this summer, data collection will play only a tangential role. The team used the software last September in the Vuelta, but the coaches haven’t fully developed it for preseason training. They say the system might be ready for the Tour but not the Giro, which starts in less than two months. When it is, Zabala predicts, the software could help Quintana and his team top the podium in both races. “With the tools Telefónica is offering us, we can do deeper analysis,” Zabala says. “We are learning and confirming a lot of things.”

The bottom line: The Movistar team is testing data-crunching software that it says could help its riders win cycling’s most prestigious races.

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