The more you look at it the more it’s your problem. If you are surprised by a rider’s improvement or even their age then you’re then left make up your own mind because there’s nothing else to do. In fact it’s like a mirror, as any suspicion and doubt reflects your view of the world rather than the truth. You could be right, you could be wrong.

hornerInner Ring poses an interesting question in his recent article: should we be making judgements on riders based on performances that we perceive to be out of the ordinary? As you can see from the quote, above, Inner Ring’s conclusion is that if you have a problem with what you are seeing, then, ultimately, it is your problem and not a problem that the rider himself can do anything about.

The issue of believable performances has raised its head once again because Radioshack’s Chris Horner is currently sitting in 2nd place in the general classification at this year’s Vuelta a España. This is problematic for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the American is almost twice the age of those he rides alongside – and is beating – in the race. And, of course, the problem for Chris Horner is that he cannot prove he is clean i.e. the assumed logical fallacy of trying to prove a negative. Together with advancing years, we can also point to a lack of previous results at the level he is currently operating, guilt by association and good old fashioned prejudice i.e. ‘I just don’t like him’. As a fan, you’re allowed to have your heroes and your villains, but it’s a one-stop-shop in an argument, and if ‘I just don’t like him‘ is all you’ve got, we should just leave it at that.

Speaking to Velonews on the 3rd of September, Horner, himself, had come to almost the same conclusion as Inner Ring:

“There’s nothing I can say or do to satisfy everyone. I’m not even going to try. At 41, I know people will have their doubts. There’s no way to convince everyone. I’m 41 years old, I’m leading the Vuelta, people can believe it or not.”

Personally, I have a fundamental problem with the word ‘belief’ in the context of assessing rider performances. It’s a failed currency having been hyper-inflated, chiefly, by Horner’s former teammate, Lance Armstrong. The disgraced Texan, stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles, was very fond of the concept. It allowed him an easy escape from questions that we now know were touching a performance-enhanced nerve. “I’m sorry you can’t believe”, Armstrong lamented from a hubristic podium in 2005 as he endeavoured to hoodwink the Cycling world for the 7th time in a row. That world, now enlightened by Reasoned Decision™, can at least take some pride from that the downfall of Armstrong has allowed it grow up a little and not accept belief as de-facto truth.

Armstrong, as he was also fond of telling us, never failed a drug test. There are, of course, many reasons for this, but without dealing with each individually (indeed some, like the allegation that he received preferential treatment from the authorities, may be unique to Armstrong alone), we can safely say that, ‘I am clean because I have not failed a drugs test‘ is fallacious. Horner, to be fair, hasn’t claimed this and, as far as I know, has yet to even assert that he is clean at all – which of course isn’t evidence that he’s using PEDs either. As per the aphorism, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence“.

But what to the proposition that the problem is ours? I’m afraid I can’t go along with this idea as it bars the entry of our critical faculties to any discourse on the sport. Sport does not, and should not, solely exist in the realm of pure entertainment. Naturally, there will always be an element to sport which entertains us (someone should point that out to the Tour of Beijing, though). But whereas entertainment will often ask us to willingly suspend our disbelief, sport should never ask us to do the same. Should you happen to spend an evening’s entertainment at, perhaps, a West End Show, bringing our critical faculties to bear here would have us standing up near the start of Act I shouting, “STOP THAT! People don’t start randomly singing at each other in real life! And where did that orchestra come from? This is ludicrous!”

By precluding the ability to think rationally about what is being presented to you as proper sporting achievement not only insults our intelligence, but allows for the ‘people can believe it or not’ answer Chris Horner gave several days ago as acceptable. There isn’t much more than the width of a Froome between this and ‘catch me if you can’. And would any of us accept that as a valid response to an interview question?

Maybe you think this is unfair, and that every rider should be considered innocent until proven guilty? The events of the last few years have contrived to make that a very difficult sentiment to hold on to. While I would vociferously defend this as an inalienable right in everyone’s day-to-day lives (this is Article 11 of the Declaration of Human Rights, after all), how much would you, personally, stake on any given rider, in any given race being clean and not cheating? We can start with a monetary value: £10? Let’s make it interesting: £100. OK, how about £1,000, or £10,000? Hey, let’s bet the farm as they say: £500,000! Would you honestly be prepared to wager those kind of sums on a professional cyclist not cheating? If money is perhaps too cold and intangible to introduce into proceedings, how about making it personal? Would you stake your career, or even your life on it!? Now repeat the experiment once more replacing “any given rider” with “Chris Horner”. And to the person saying, ‘yes, I would stake my life on it’, I can only suggest you seek immediate psychiatric evaluation.

Freed from the clunky two-step of a binary universe: ‘clean’ or ‘doped’, we’re forced to confront a sliding scale of probability – how likely is it that Chris Horner is credible? This is where the factors that are unique to Horner need to be brought forward.

Age
There are certain immutable truths concerning the performance of the human body as it ages, particularly as the athlete reaches age 40. Chris Horner is almost 2 years beyond this. The physical peak for most humans, in most sports, is between 25 and 35 years of age. The heart, as with every other human muscle, gradually loses efficiency and power over time. Athletes cannot train at a maximum heart rate for extended periods; the usual target training rate for a fit, healthy athlete will be approximately 80% of the maximum rate. It is for this reason that, as an athlete ages, the heart’s ability to work is reduced.

Injury & Recovery 
In late May of this year, Horner underwent surgery for a persistent knee injury, eventually diagnosed as IT band friction syndrome. Speaking to Shane Stokes from Velonation.com, Horner said it was “one of the most complicated injuries of my career”.

Ageing impacts how the body recovers from an injury. As the body ages, muscle mass decreases, and as the muscle protein rebuilding and repair processes become slower and less effective, physical strength is decreased. The power of the heart, and the corresponding ability of the body to transport oxygen by way of the red blood cell system, also begins a slow but perceptible decline in performance at age 40. Age is of particular importance in the consideration of how athlete injuries are managed and treated. In general terms, a younger person will heal from injury more quickly than an older subject with a similar injury; the recovery rate is directly related to the speed with which the body can grow new cells to repair itself.

Palmares 
I will simply refer you to Horner’s entries on Wikipedia & Procyclingstats.com. Direct comparison to any other rider is probably futile as the career path of each rider is essentially unique. Horner has, however, had a very long career and while it’s fair to say he’s had injuries, bad luck and was riding at the service of others, there is little to suggest there was a Grand Tour winner desperate to blossom.

Guilt By Association
This is a tricky and thorny issue because it is an inductive informal fallacy. The syllogism at work here is: Lance Armstrong was a doper. Horner was a teammate of Lance Armstrong. Therefore Chris Horner must also be a doper.

It’s wrong and insulting to suggest we should take this kind of rationale seriously. But coming back to the idea of a sliding scale of probability, the fact that a number of Armstrong’s other teammates actually were doping too, coupled with doping scandals at teams Horner has been a rider for (Astana, Saunier-Duval) require us to not to discount it utterly.

The Parcourse
When it was announced the Vuelta a España route was described as “extremely difficult” and “extremely mountainous” with 11 summit finishes – one more than what had been seen as jaw-dropping amount in 2012. It could be argued that of the 3 Grand Tours of the 2013 season, the Vuelta a España would prove the most challenging.

Horner finished second in his comeback race, the Tour of Utah, after having been away from competition for 4 months. No disrespect to either the organisers or the field who gathered for the event, but the six-stage Tour of Utah is a world away from the challenges faced in terms of the competition, the route and the demands placed on an athlete in a 3-week Grand Tour. At the time of writing, Horner sits three seconds off the race lead and, according to many observers, is the favourite to be wearing the Red Jersey when the peloton reaches Madrid on Sunday.

Each of these factors can, in isolation be argued against or rationally explained away. But taken together – as they surely must be -, where does this leave Chris Horner on our sliding scale of probability? It is the preponderance of contributing factors that cast doubt over the credibility of Horner’s performances.

We’ve seen how the sad history of this sport has brought us to a point where innocence and stellar performances are uneasy bed fellows. In 1992 during a presentation at Caltech, skeptic and former magician (no, really!) James Randi discussed the idea that “you can’t prove a negative”. His claim was that he cannot prove that telepathy, for example, does not exist. He went on to argue, however, that an individual who claims telepathy does exists must then prove so. Randi asserts that induction is often used as a mode of proving a thesis, but if an individual asserts that something is or is not, then the person must prove so. So perhaps this is not our problem at all. Perhaps Chris Horner really does have a problem.