Orders of magnitude

Well, not quite but.

Chris Froome did 17 km time trial in 30 minutes yesterday. Over hills.

I was out the other day and did 26 km, on the flat…maybe 300 metres climb all told over whole amount (bit of a headwind but it was there and back on the same road, cancels out) in hour and twenty. Not that ~I was pushing it I was going for a ride, not trying to race but that was as fast as I wanted to go.

OK, I’m 53, smoke, am overweight and not fit.

Heck of a difference there. Schoolboy sprinters can do 100 m in 14 secs maybe. 40% difference to Bolt. Rather than the what, 300% difference here?

And I see it around here too. Some teams will practice here in the Algarve and so I’m sometimes out and a training ride goes past me. I’m puffing up a hill putting the work in and they sail past at twice the speed as they have a natter and a joke.

Yes, yes, obviously, middle aged man stretching the legs and professionals in a sport, the speeds and results are going to be entirely different. But here’s my ponder. Which sports produce the largest difference in results between the OK amateur (so I’m not talking about John B and his marathons, I do mean just the “I’m just doing some exercise, me” amateur) and the professional?

Running sprints perhaps a 50% difference? Swimming I could (and if I trained for a few weeks, could again that’s about technique not fitness) swim a mile in 35 -40 minutes (17 minutes seems to be competition speed) so 100%. Cycling though out at 200 and 300%?

London marathon amateurs regularly come in at 4 hours….2 hours to win it, 100%.

I know we’ve some formerly competitive cyclists around here. Is Grand Tour riding where there’s the greatest difference between performances, the pros and the OK amateur? Or would you nominate some other sport?

51 thoughts on “Orders of magnitude”

  1. The schoolboy sprinters and the marathon runners are competing, an amble through the countryside doesn’t have that sort of incentive. I know I manage a faster pace when cycling to work than at other times because there’s an element of competition there (even if it’s of the sort of “I need to get past that woman with the wheelbarrow — http://www.dutchbike.co.uk/family1.htm — for her kids before the next junction”).

    Road surface also makes a big difference to the speed you can make for the same effort. I’ve cycled some roads where it took effort to keep up something like 8mph downhill, then you can get onto a smooth stretch even with a slight uphill and go twice as fast while doing less work.

  2. Tennis ?

    Would a decent county player win a point against Andy Murray. Assuming Murray didn’t double fault or try to hit a winner off every ball.

  3. It is rather a “how long is a piece of string” question. I commute and go for the odd Sunday ride, I’m not in a club but I have been cycling for most of my life, but I definitely fall in to the amateur category. I live in a village with a hill as you come in to it that is used for a charity ride each year, I happened to be coming back for a 100km ride a few weeks ago as the ride was taking place, the charity riders were going up it at 12-20km/h, I was feeling good and came up it at 40km/h and felt like I should be apologising to them.

    Cycling is different to most other sports, even endurance sports, talent and training aren’t enough to be a pro, one also needs a significant ability to suffer and keep going. When Wiggo did his hour record a year or so back he said it was as close as a man could get to know what it was like to giving birth. Some women complained about the analogy, notably, pro/former women cyclists didn’t.

    Also, what The Sage said, surface makes a huge difference and you don’t think about it until you directly compare like for like.

    Similarly, clothing makes a massive difference. Remember the only two forces you are trying to overcome are air resistance and rolling resistance. To the ‘average’ cyclist air resistance is so great it is like a brick wall around the 15-20mph mark, a different bike and different clothes would knock 25%+ off your time.

  4. Definitely felt that in the ride I mentioned. Wind coming straight at me on the way out was 10-12 mph or so. Add my speed into it and yes, definitely felt. Made coming back rather easy….

    Although I have got that wrong in the past. We’re 20 km in from the coast, so sometimes the wind is that coastal one, one way and then the other as the relative heat of the land/sea change. And I’ve definitely gone off thinking “Aha, into the wind, be piece of piss coming back!” and then found that just as I’m turning around to retrace the route the wind has changed too…..

  5. I think the longer in time the event takes the bigger the difference and that as you say cycling seems to have the biggest gap between pro and amateur

    I’ve always thought that an hours training at running is the same as four hours on a bike

    Cyclists seem to train more hours per day than any other athletes

    On the flat Froome would have been in at around 20 minutes

    I’ve ridden lead cycle for marathons and it’s only when you do that that you realise how fast the top competitors are

  6. And on the subject of air resistance, remember air resistance squares with speed.

    You had an average speed of 19.5kmh, Froome 34kmh, not accounting for the hills/bike/clothing, he was producing 304% more power.

  7. I’d say cycling is probably the best example. Top-level riders are inhumanly fit and of course have the best bikes, etc., whatever the discipline.

    BTW if you want to get fit, use a single-speed bike. Not a fixie, they’re a nightmare going downhill, but one with a freewheel. Gears are for wimps! Not only that, but they make you lazy. On a single-speed there are three categories of ascent: (1) yes, I can do this while seated; (2) nope, got to stand to pedal; and (3) rats, I have to get off and push. All of which are excellent for the legs & torso. You’ll find you complete your ride about 5-10% faster.

  8. Snooker?

    Your average once-a-week player will struggle to pot five balls in succession. Any pots the length of the table are usually random luck.

    Not quite a strict comparison, but the TV series “Pros vs Joes” set amateurs against ex-pros in tests related to their sport. Should be available on YouTube.

  9. There isn’t a definitive answer to this for as someone has already said “boxing”, I have no idea what the percentage would be if someone is knocked in the first ten seconds of a fifteen round fight .
    Back to cycling, the sport has probably more variables than any other, from track sprinting to three week tours, even the tracks (more so in the past) had many variables from grass racing, ashphalt concrete and wood surfaces, even the length of tracks, I rode on wood 250mt tracks abroad and 600mt tracks here, indoor and outdoor all variables as is the weather effect.

    On a lighter note we had a holiday in May in Provence, in the car, I made my personal pilgrimage to Mont Ventoux and visited Tom Simsons memorial near the top of the mountain, I met Tom a couple of times when I was riding, he was a very good track rider, this was when he was still an amateur and trying to break in to the European pro ranks which he did at second attempt and went on to be an inspiration for a whole generation of competitors, but I digress.
    On the way up amongst all the lycra clad wannabees none of whom would be seen dead without 10ks worth of carbon fibre under them was a young boy on his own in tee shirt jeans and trainers on a bike that was worth about 50 quid labouring up with that look of yes I can, when we went back down he was almost at the top.
    I gave me a lot of pleasure to see that, thats how it was for so many in my day when they started, today almost no one would be seen with less than the appropiate gear, I hope he makes it.

  10. I think the bicycle makes a big difference… My Pashley is heavy but can carry quite a load on the pannier. Even with the Load I average 10 -12 mph in London. With one of those carbon fibre cycles I could go at least twice as fast.

    For example a better tennis racquet will make less of a difference.

  11. Table football.

    Now, bear with me here, I’m sure most of you don’t realise that there’s a professional side to this game/sport/whatever you want to call it. But yes, there are grand slam events and a world championships. As a semi-professional (as in I’ve been paid to play and I’ve won money but never on a full-time basis), I’ve played both with and against some of the world’s very best – Rob Atha, a good friend here in Blighty, Fredéric Collignon, the greatest player of all time, Billy Pappas, who also finished about 5th in the World Series of Poker, amongst many others. What happens when I play an amateur is I generally destroy them 5-0 5-0 5-0. But then when I play one of the top guys, I’m lucky if I manage 5-1 5-1 5-1. In my younger days I did beat Rob in an open doubles tournament, in a short format with balls that were like eggs and didn’t roll in a straight line. But with proper equipment it’s no contest, even if he’s doing trick shots to show off. But the difference between professional and amateur in a major tournament setting is effectively infinite. It’s literally impossible for the amateur to win.

    You could probably throw chess into the mix as well. Boxing is also a good shout. Snooker, no – I’m an amateur and I’ve had a break of 74, enough to win a frame against anyone, particularly considering they weren’t all blacks so there weren’t many points left on the table.

    As far as sports where it’s pure fitness as the main deterministic factor, grand tour cycling surely has to be the pinnacle, though. They have a body fat percentage often below 1%. They’re way past fit and healthy into fit and unhealthy. If there’s a bug going around at home, grand tour cyclists sod off out of the house and get on the bike for a few hundred miles a day for a week until it’s gone, and then have the wife steam clean the entire house before they return (ask Mark Cavendish). They’re so much fitter than any other pure athlete it’s ridiculous. All they do is eat, sleep and cycle for their entire professional careers. No other sporting discipline requires such dedication or a necessity to make you incredibly unhealthy just to be able to keep up with the back of the race, never mind the front.

  12. Cricket. Average club cricketer wouldn’t see a ball from Steven Finn, for example. Good club cricketer would struggle to score a run against him.
    Golf is perhaps slightly different in that the athletic ability alone is not what distinguishes the good amateur (scratch) from a pro who is five or six shots per round better. It’s consistency and temperament.
    Difficult to calculate percentages in those sports, but the differences are not linear they are logarithmic (or exponential, if you look at it the other way.)

  13. Sort of related. My major task is snow clearing. It starts snowing in late December and stops in early March. During that period we get an average of about 11 metres. We live on a corner block. I have to clear the gutter (after the snow plough has cleared the road into it), the footpath, and our parking area. The system is the local authority pumps river water through the stormwater drains at set periods during the day. Everyone has a hatch, so you push your snow into the hole and its gone. I’m fairly strong and moderately fit, but there is no-way I can clear that area in the 2-hour morning session slot after a moderate (30cm) or heavier overnight snowfall.

    The solution was to buy a Honda snow pusher. It’s tracked with a blade (like a mini bulldozer) and you work it from behind with a pair of handles. I was mulling whether the output of 1.3kW was enough for the job so I checked and found it equated to about of 3 Wiggins’ sustained output. It’s enough.

  14. “When Wiggo did his hour record a year or so back he said it was as close as a man could get to know what it was like to giving birth. Some women complained about the analogy, notably, pro/former women cyclists didn’t.”

    I love women but fucking hell some of them are dicks.


    The amateur will be beaten all the time in most sports – a frame of snooker doesn’t win any kind of match. So any sport really but especially those which combine speed and strength and bulk I guess. Combat sports – even good martial artists can’t live with the best. I have been at Krav maga classes with twenty quite tough and handy blokes being taught by a master. He beat everyone. There are no “lucky hits”, you just lose. Rugby. I watched the Leicester Tigers vs Rotherham in the cup ten ish years ago. Not long before Rotherham were promoted so they were semi pro. They got destroyed. Most years the promoted side wins a game or two. London Welsh?

    I was a reasonable cricketer in my youth. But I once had the opportunity of being bowled at by a then England quick – himself a strictly third ranker, we’re not talking Willis or Harmison in his prime. I could not lay a bat on him.

    You can train a bit to get better at batting and given a week in the nets I think I could have played him. Maybe. However I think the difference is that you can make yourself better to very good at some sports – martial arts are a good example, rugby is another – if you’re dedicated enough.

    But the wall you hit in pure endurance sports is insurmountable as it is at some point a function of biology, not work and effort. I think?

  15. ———— Billy Pappas, who also finished about 5th in the World Series of Poker
    On the other end of the spectrum. I’d be happy to sit down at a table of world champions and I’d have a decent chance of winning their money. whether they could be bothered for my £20 is another matter.

  16. On boxing: I can understand that you can train to get stronger and work on technique so that your punches are more effective, but how do you train to get hit in the head? Is it just innate ability to tolerate pain?

  17. “Some women complained”

    Good heavens.

    I’ll go with cricket, as mentioned above, and marathon running.

    I have run a half in 1h 45, a stone and a half overweight. If I lost weight and trained properly I might, with a tailwind, manage 1h 25. The winners of club half marathons do it in around 1hr 10, and the elite would breeze past them.

    No amount of training, weight loss, drugs would ever see me get anywhere near them.

    Ditto cricket. I doubt I would even see the ball delivered by Test bowlers, let alone react and play a shot. To hook a ball travelling at 90mph in front of your nose takes superhuman reflexes and courage, as well as having practised it for years, of course.

  18. I’m not sure what sport has the greatest difference between weekend amateurs and daily pros. As someone who is fairly near the top end of amateur abilities for running and cycling, I can say that there is still a huge step up to the actual pro level in that they are somewhere around 30-50% better depending on how much training I’ve done.

    Cycling is one of the sports where equipment really does make a big difference. A $5000 carbon bike gives you maybe a 20% improvement over a $500 bike and the same again if you go all the way down to the crappy $50 bike from a supermarket.

    I have a ~$2000 bike and a ~$500 one and I can faster for longer on the more expensive bike than I could on the cheaper one. In fact I recently upgraded the wheels on the expensive bike and just that one change gave me a 5-10% improvement on rides that I did before and after.

  19. Weight is an enormous factor in cycling. It isn’t the difference between pros and amateurs, but it is a huge difference between good amateurs and bad amateurs.

    Losing even half a stone has a huge impact on how I ride. And if you are going uphill, on long climbs, it is the only thing which matters.

  20. I’m not sure this is an easy one to answer. Colleague of mine does the London marathon and finishes in the top 1000. Just completing a marathon would probably kill me. But on a racing bike on the flat (I’m too big for hills) I can not just compete with, but beat, the lycra crowd, over a maximum of about 2-3 miles. Any longer and they win, by a lot. It’s all dependent on your personal physiology.

  21. We have a problem with measurement.

    A table tennis pro might defeat a decent player 21-0, but that gives us almost no precise information about the depth of the gulf between them.

    Ditto most sports.

    So we are surely limited to examining sports that have precise data as the measurement of talent. Time, weight, speed, height, length etc.

    I’d suggest we look at sports where there are few practitioners.


  22. The Meissen Bison

    Is blog-reading a sport?

    If so there’s a huge disparity between, on the one hand Tim W and the analytical experts, and on the other a rank amateur like me.

    Where the former can decorticate and fisk any of Prof Murphy’s prodigious output from start to finish, I’m generally hopelessly confused before the first “candidly” and very rarely finish a piece.

    A bit like the boxing example already given above.

  23. @RobMoss
    yeah their skill would have very large edge but it would be good fun to do though. More fun than playing a round with Rory Mcillroy or a set with Andy Murray.

  24. I think that in any sport where competition is “face-to-face”, any good amateur will always be soundly thrashed by a professional.

    Many, many years ago I was a decent amateur squash player – county standard – and I had the “pleasure” of being able to have a game with the professional rated #2 in the world… I didn’t manage to take a single point off him in a three game match, and I reckon that we could have played all day with the same result.

    One of my friends was #1 in his university fencing team and somehow managed to get a chance to have a match with an ex world champion. He said he didn’t kow what hit him! Three hits took about 15 seconds, including the time taken to walk back to start position! Said ex champion was then in his 70s!

  25. As a club squash player, I do share something in common with Jonah Barrington. We’ve both gone as far as we can in squash….

  26. Two experiences.

    The first time I played rugby vs an international player, I (back row) couldn’t lay a legal finger on him (fly-half): the ball was always gone before I arrived. Moreover, he – a poor kicker by international standards – proved to have a howitzer of a kick by club standards. Lord knows what damage he’d have done had he tried running at us rather than nurturing his team-mates.

    On playing cricket in Australia: I couldn’t see the fastest balls bowled at me.

  27. A few years ago I rode a tour stage and ran a marathon not very far apart. Relative to world-class pros, I was a few percent less bad on the bike. (That comparison involves riding within ourselves, but running as best we could.)

    However, on a mountain stage I would be much worse. Air resistance is a great equaliser on the flat.

  28. I’d suggest motorcycling, horse racing and ski-jumping are where amateurs can get closest to the pros – if they live long enough.

  29. I played with Mike Catt in an amateur 7s tournament 25 years ago. Some of us were very good amateurs (not me), but this guy, although fairly unassuming and not a giant, could out accelerate anyone, and go through gaps that only him could see.

    And watching Peter Winterbottom tackling from up close was something to behold.

  30. “Blue Eyes

    Mo Farah runs his half-marathons exactly twice as fast as I do mine.”

    Which surely means you are twice as fit? Long after he has stopped, you’re still going.


  31. @monoi

    In similar vein, years ago I was once in a group training pre-season with Gareth Chilcott (his brother played for the club I played for) and despite the fact that at club & international level he was considered a bit of a lardy, at our level he was as fast as most and fitter than anyone.

    And scrummaging against him was just plain painful.

  32. Miguel Indurain reportedly had a resting heart rate of 29bpm.

    RHR is a pretty good measure of overall CV fitness if you don’t get the opportunity to have someone measure your VO2 Max etc. in a lab.

    This article http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/five-key-points-of-chris-froomes-physiological-data/ talks about Froome’s fitness including that at maximum his heart is beating at ~170 and normally wouldn’t make it into the 140’s for much of his cycling effort.

  33. Rugby has an interesting case study, the Bath – Wigan cross-code challenge in the mid 90s. In the second game, the Union one, the League lads, who had been pro forever, got beaten by the technical superiority of the Bath boys, who were just emerging from the shamateur era, at the scrum and breakdown, but started coming back into the game towards the end when their superior fitness began to tell. In the first game, Bath got blown away; while all the basics of League have a at least some place in Union, with only the play the ball being foreign to them, they couldn’t match the pace and intensity of the seasoned professionals.

  34. Are you wearing SPD / cleat shoes? The pros will be.

    It gives you something like a 30-50% increase in power as you can use the muscle on the top of your thigh.

  35. Surely cycling. Just because a cycle is so incredibly efficient as a machine that it exacerbates any difference between two athletes.

  36. Trained at a tae kwon do club many years ago that had some members that had been European and world championship medalists including one ex world champion. Basically it was impossible to lay a finger on them when they took part in sparring. Also if you were holdong a bag for them the sheer power they could deliver in a hit was incredible.

  37. @ Tim
    The pseudo-combat sports from boxing to chess will show the differences much more than running, jumping etc (big though that may be – in my first London marathon Charlie Spedding ran 26 miles, *each and every one faster than my life-time best time for a single mile* and I took more than 50% longer than he to finish). But boxing, tennis etc will show the differences more.
    When I was 19 our trainer asked his friend Percy to come along and help coach us; I didn’t know who he was, just a small (shorter than I, with shorter arms) middle-aged, apparently with middle-aged spread, friend of Alf’s; I got in the ring and after two minutes I hadn’t even touched him once, so in extremis I led with my right – a complete “No, No” for Alf’s students, which therefore caught him by surprise and I just managed to touch him once as he “rode the punch”. The remainder of the time he was watching out for that and I never touched him again. The performance ratio is too vast (or too low if you’re looking at me) to calculate reliably but it’s definitely orders of magnitude greater than you versus Chris Froome.

  38. @ GlenDorran
    I have a thick skull. The more significant half of the injuries in my brief career in Amateur Boxing were to my opponents’/sparring partners’ hands from hitting me on the head. The Marquess of Queensberry introduced gloves to protect hands not heads.
    The proper answer to your question is that the no 1 aim of training is to teach you how to *avoid* getting hit on the head, particularly the jaw. Tuck the jaw in between your left shoulder and right fist (vice versa for southpaws), use the right hand to block punches or, if you’re american, bob and weave.
    Training will also strengthen the neck muscles as well as the stomach muscles to increase the ability to resist/ignore punches

  39. The biggest difference, I reckon, would be gymnastics — and most especially womens.

    Most people couldn’t do a single move on beam without falling off, let alone get a point. Hell, most people couldn’t even walk the length of a beam without falling off. Even the simplest jump is decidedly tricky, let alone somersaults. More than any other sport there’s a build and age restriction that is a tiny slice of humanity.

    Ice Hockey is another. You have to more or less grow up on skates to even been good enough to move around like that, let alone hit a tiny puck which is not still. Then chuck in the fact other people are trying to smash you!

  40. Bloke in Costa Rica

    Does knife throwing count as a sport? I went through five assistants in the first week before I got my eye in.

  41. And there is, of course, chessboxing. That’s got a pretty limited set of elite competitors. I wouldn’t want to take on Nikolay Sazhin at either chess or boxing, but chessboxing… no thanks.

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