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USA Pro Cycling Challenge: Altitude Test Lab – 1

August 6, 2011

“Don’t tell anybody, but I take Viagra to combat the effects of high altitude.”
QUESTIONABLE. In 2006, Science Daily published a study citing that cyclists taking Viagra improved their performance at altitude by as much as 45 percent. In theory, Viagra causes blood vessels in certain tissues, such as the lungs, to relax, which helps increase oxygen transport to working muscles. (from Trail Runner Magazine)

There’s been so much talk about how the high altitude makes the USA Pro Cycling Challenge (UPCC) in Colorado different from any other stage race. This image depicts elevation over Independence Pass in Stage 2 which tops out a little over 12,000 feet (click on the photo for easier viewing).

Independence Pass Profile (

Here’s what some of the pros say in YouTube videos:

  • Taylor Phinney: “Because you can’t get oxygen, you feel like you’re creeping along. Everyone’s at their maximum. Oxygen is the most vital part of circulating blood, making your legs feel good.”
  • Brent Bookwalter: “The biggest thing to remember is pacing yourself. You can’t go too deep into that red — there’s a point of no return and once you go into it there’s no coming back out. It’s not a bad atmosphere for a time trialist like myself; it’s a lot about gauging effort and feathering that line.”
  • Levi Leipheimer: “I did Leadville, so I know what altitude is like. When you get up to 12,000 feet it’s definitely an extreme element. It’s going to separate the race quite a bit. It’s hard to describe; you can’t go super hard and you can’t go easy, it’s kind of like this one speed.”

Tom Danielson, in the interview on, mentioned that altitude affects everyone by decreasing their efficiency by 10%, so that would in effect level the playing field. What would give those who live and train at altitude an edge is their ability to adjust to this decreased power because they are more familiar with how it feels.

Timmy Duggan responded to the altitude question in our interview; he stressed how racing at altitude makes it more difficult to recover.

To better understand the affects of altitude on endurance athletes and what it could mean for the UPCC, I checked the internet for more information. You’ll see this in Part 2 of the altitude series.

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