For years Lance Armstrong and his lawyers pointed to a scientific study purporting to demonstrate Armstrong's incredible physiological advantage over competitors. Now it appears the author of the study erred in the calculations. Doping the study?
Armstrong's physiological parameters were followed longitudinally by University of Texas scientists. Using exercise physiology measures the scientists claimed Armstrong's training regimen produced an astonishing improvement in his exercise efficiency. There developed a hangup though -- they used the wrong formula in calculating one of the measures.
As Lance Armstrong prepared to announce his return to professional cycling this week, a scientific debate about his past was also rekindled.
In a letter to The Journal of Physiology posted online for subscribers on Monday, Edward F. Coyle, a respected human-performance expert with the University of Texas in Austin, acknowledged making an error in his long-term study of Armstrong’s muscle efficiency. The paper, which appeared in the same journal in 2005, has been repeatedly used by Armstrong and his lawyers to fend off allegations that his cycling success came in part through doping.
Three Australian scientists and one mathematician pointed out the error in a separate letter to the journal. The mistake involves one of the two ways Coyle calculated improvements in Armstrong’s muscle performance. The experts argue that the error effectively makes Coyle’s widely cited study invalid — a charge flatly rejected by Coyle, who called the error a minor miscalculation. But the somewhat arcane exchange has again raised questions about Armstrong and his record seven consecutive Tour de France victories.
It is a stretch to raise questions about Armstrong doping, simply because a scientist miscalculated the cyclists's exercise capacity. However, the paper attempted to explain Armstrong's dramatic improvement after his treatment for testicular cancer.
Until his just-suspended retirement, Armstrong had experienced two distinct phases of his career. Before developing advanced cancer at 25, he was one of many talented professional cyclists. Rather than being seen as a contender at the Tour de France, he was better known for quitting the race early. But after returning to racing in 1999, he was virtually without a peer in his sport.
Skeptics have argued that such a dramatic transformation was impossible without doping. Armstrong has repeatedly denied ever doping.
Coyle’s 2005 paper provided a clear response to doubters. From 1993 to his comeback year of 1999, Armstrong was tested on a special stationary bicycle in Coyle’s lab in Austin, Armstrong’s hometown. That data, Coyle said in his paper, showed that Armstrong’s dramatic improvement largely came from a long-term increase in his muscle efficiency combined with weight loss from his bout with cancer.
Australian scientists, concerned about the miscalculations in the paper, even raised the possibility of scientific fraud.
“They were really concerned, on a scientific level, that Coyle had been able to perpetuate this myth that cycling efficiency changes,” he said. “I was more concerned, to be frank, about why all these alibis were suddenly being put under scrutiny and shown to be false.”
After raising a variety of concerns directly with Coyle about his research methods and, according to Ashenden, being rebuffed, the group lodged a formal complaint of scientific misconduct against him with the University of Texas.
However the Univ of Texas group was cool to the idea, and the paper's author was less than cool...he was rude.
In his letter, several e-mails and an interview, Coyle acknowledged his mistake. But he said that it did not change his overall findings about Armstrong’s gross muscle efficiency improvements. He called the calculation error “a minor variation” that “doesn’t make a practical difference.”
Coyle charged that the Australians had “more than unbiased science in mind” in their work.
Characterizing their complaints as an “attempt to confuse issues and raise doubt about obscure issues,” Coyle said that the Australians were attempting “to spin clouds of doubt about me, my paper and thus Armstrong.”
He added: “This is a minor waste on my time. However, I don’t understand how they can afford to spend so much time on this. Don’t they have real jobs?”
Quite a sarcastic remark from a guy who was just scientifically embarrassed. Any time a miscalculation is discovered the paper should be recalled or rewritten, rather than insults hurled at those who question the mistake. As the Times points out, independent reviewers also cast skepticism on the results. Interesting to see where this all leads.