The use of Watt and DB-meters in cycling and professional audio

I like watching Tour De France in the summer. Last year was dominated by the diesel-train of Team Sky leading the peleton, with guys like Edvald Boasson Hagen and Michael Rogers keeping a steady, high pace up the mountains. With Bradley Wiggins already in the yellow jersey, all they needed to do was to take charge of the peleton and make it difficult for the competing teams to attack. Day after day the same sight: our national hero calmly leading the cyclists up the beautiful alpine landscapes. A little boring perphaps, but for me the suspence was always there: I knew that the attack would come. And then suddenly in the middle of stage 11 in the climb of Glandon, Cadel Evans jumped up from his seat and said goodbye to the race leader, However, he would not be on the offensive for very long: the patient Sky-train used their high ”default” pace to slowly reel him in. In the end, Evans was so tired from his attack that he lost ground to the leaders.

After the stage, Michael Rogers was interviewed about the attack of Cadel Evans, and he said something interesting that changed the way I look at cycling, sport, and even sound-engineering. (Unfortunately I cant find the interview online, so this is from memory only) Basically, he said that Evans attack was doomed to fail.

Most professional cyclists have a watt-meter attached to their bicycle that tells them how much power they are putting into their pedals. In cycling this can be a very reliable tool, because almost all their power is transferred into moving forward, whereas in other sports like running or cross-country skiing, the relationship between the human
effort and the movement of the skiier/runner is much more difficult to calculate. To pedal the bike, especially uphill, is really easy, (even I can do it well) and even though Lance Armstrong often has spoken about the importance of cadence, its not the cycling-technique that separates the competitors cycling up the mountains, what matters is the watt-power they can produce. And with the progress of science in the sports, this (watt) number has become more and more predictable: When Michael Rogers saw that Cadel Evans was attacking, he was already pedaling with a high watt-output, and he knew that if he just maintained his high power, it would be physically impossible for Cadel Evans to win the stage. You just cant beat the numbers.

I have a friend who participates in amateur cycling-races, and he gave me some insights to the mind of the cyclist: When he goes uphill, its very difficult for him to use his intuition to find the right steady pace: if he feels good and goes a little too fast for a prolonged period, he will suddenly bonk. His senses deceive him, he is better off trusting his watt-meter.

The latest doping-revelations have revealed that professional cycling is more about numbers and less about “coming back from cancer” physiological factors. With EPO you can calculate your increase in watt-power and adjust your pace accordingly. Depending on the level of doping, and your natural hemoglobin-values, a normal boost is a predictable 10% in watt-output. Clean cyclists could not possibly compete with these numbers.

In the 2000s, EPO was replaced with a less tracable doping-method: Blood-transfusion. The physichal effects were similar: increased oxygen-level in the blood gives better endurance. But in the biography of Tyler Hamilton, he describes some differences between EPO and blood-doping that I find highly interesting: Users of EPO have reported that using the drug has a psychological effect: you dont feel that you exhaust yourself so much. In the ninetees you see people crossing the finish-line with no sign of fatiguee.. the winner can go straight to the podium, have a drink, and live a sociable life. (well, almost) Perphaps this is one of the reason why the drug was so popular: it took away some of the suffering from the sport and made it more human.
But blood-transfusion doesnt give you the same “psychological boost” as EPO. This is what Hamilton writes about his first race with blood-transfusion in(i-phone book “The Secret Race page 404:)
“It would take me a couple of years to figure this out, but I hadnt yet learned how my body reacted to a transfusion, When you have more red blood-cells, your body doesnt obey the same rules: you can go harder than you think you can. Your body might be screaming the same old way, but you can push through if you ignore all those signals and just ride. Later I would learn how to do that ”

Because Hamilton was a rider who had always been able to push his body beyond suffering, he could take fully advantage of blood doping, and he would beat riders who could not adapt to this new way of bodily punishment. It is not a coincidence that his career peaked in the zenith of the blood-doping era: in 2004 he won olympic gold in Athens, his biggest sporting achievment.

Why am I writing all this? Isnt this a blog specifically about sound-engineering? Yes, lets not digress too much. Perphaps you think that I just want to show that I have more interests besides my job.. But still, I feel that there is a connection between cycling and my work as a sound engineer.

Most importantly, watching cycling reminds me that my work is highly physical:  my ears are not a perfect tool, they are a vulnerable part of the body. If you compare the ears to a high-quality electronic instrument analyzing sound, its almost like comparing the cyclist to the motorbike: the instrument can pick up a lot more information than the human, and with much bigger precision. Nowadays, a lot of sound-engineers relies heavily on these instruments to assist the ears, most notably in live-sound, where people use the program Smaart to optimize the sound-system. Still, there is a lot of debate about using such instruments: the critics argue that the machines cannot know how to adjust sound for the human ear, the same way as robots cannot create music. They say that the only to judge what is pleasing sound for the human is to judge with your own ears.

You cannot disagree with the latter, sound-engineering is not a sport or science, to keep the human and artistic side is very important. (Although, sometimes you wonder if its just a loundess-competition) But still, I think it is very important to keep in mind that our hearing does not excel in all sound-analyzing tasks. Most importantly: How can we judge how loud we can play the sound before our hearing gets damaged? Is it enough make sure that the sound is pleasant for your own ears, and that you get positive reactions from the audience? After all, a professional sound-engineer should have a highly developed sense of hearing to judge these matters..

I fear that using your ears is not enough, and that our hearing can easily deceive us. And I came to this conclusion after watching too much cycling:

A professional cyclist cannot only trust his senses when he decides how fast he will bike up the mountain: His instruments can tell him that he needs to go slower than what he feels is right. And other times, like with Tyler Hamilton and blood-doping, you can ignore the warning-signs from the body and push yourself harder than you thought possible. The relationship between perceived suffering and actual bodily damage is not linear: Sometimes, the pain you feel is not so bad for your body. And other times you dont notice when your body actually gets damaged

Research has proved that loud sounds can damage the hearing, and its often impossible to repair this. If I am responsible for the sound for an audience, I need to make sure that the sound-level is not so high that it is damaging. Probably its not enough for me to just go with the flow and mix as loud as I feel appropriate. Its much safer to rely on an instrument like the db-meter and follow the rules for maximum loudness.

Butwhere are those rules? That topic deserves another blogtext..

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