MURRAY The roads are still icy and nobody in their right mind is about to spend three or four hours peddling a bicycle up and down the canyons of the Wasatch Front.
That hardly means it isn't cycling season.
Many of the top cyclists in the nation gathered last week at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital (TOSH) to kick off the 2007 season with a series of state-of-the-art testing and conditioning tests and exercises.
"This program is designed to progress the top athletes we have in the country to become the top athletes in the world," said Stephen Johnson, CEO of USA Cycling. "We used to have to go out and test people all over, but bringing them here, to one central place, helps us get things done much more efficiently."
USA Cycling brought 18 members of the national road cycling team to the TOSH human performance laboratory. The program, which started in 1999 and touts Salt Lake's Dave Zabriskie as its first graduate, is designed to take the nation's top young cyclists, put them on bikes and hook them up to a variety of tubes, wires and monitors.
Doctors at TOSH, such as five-time Olympic gold medal winner Eric Heiden and Massimo "Max" Testa, have helped the facility take yet another step toward becoming the top sports science lab in the country.
Skiers, snowboarders and speedskaters have long used the lab to find ways to make the seemingly minor steps that help transform them from world-class athletes into world champions. Now, cyclists are flocking to TOSH to be tested.
"The hope is for these guys to become an Olympic champion or a world champion," Heiden said. "The question is how to make this test and make a higher quality athlete."
By analyzing power generation, oxygen utilization and other physiological data, USA Cycling is using this week's tests as a sort of a spring training for the cycling season. The athletes in town this week are members of the U-25 national team. Among them may be the next Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer or Lance Armstrong.
"Over time, data from tests like these will give us the ability to identify the best athletes in the country and advance our national program," said Johnson, who holds a Ph.D. in exercise science from the University of Utah. "We already have some of the best cyclists in the world coming from the United States and this is designed to make sure we always do."
The 18 cyclists in town over the week are seen as the future of American cycling. Many have already been signed by the top international and domestic racing teams. At next month's Tour of California a warm-up stage race that attracts most of the world's top teams USA Cycling will send eight of the U-25 racers to compete against the likes of Discovery Channel, T-Mobile and Team CSC.
With doctors like Heiden and Testa now at TOSH, and Johnson's Utah ties, bringing the national team to town was a natural move.
"The federation feels that to get the most out of their athletes, they'd like to tap into this knowledge," Heiden said. "The timing to bring them here was just right. And with our facility, they like to go to places that are much more specialized to specific events and sports. We're a natural fit for cycling."
And while cycling in the United States will likely never pass football, baseball or basketball in popularity, there is certainly a growth trend in the sport thanks to Armstrong.
"He helped make it real," Johnson said. "Him, and big races like the Tour of California and Tour of Utah put the sport in the picture for millions of Americans."
Though there were only road cyclists involved in this round of testing, TOSH has partnered with USA Cycling to provide testing and training to track, mountain, BMX and cyclo-cross racers.
"This is kind of like spring training for cyclists," Testa said. "Nowhere else in the country can an entire national team come together under one roof like they can here at TOSH and undergo the most comprehensive testing and training in preparation for the 2007 race season."
Athletes were evaluated in areas including VO2 max, lactate response, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal tests.
"We're looking to find out the highest and most efficient level of exercise they can sustain for a long period of time," Jim Walker, director of TOSH's sports science lab, said. "Sports is as much science now as it is practice. You need both to be the very best."
And scientific advantages, rather than the pharmaceutical ones, which have dogged the sport in recent years, are what USA Cycling is hoping will turn the tide for American cyclists.With that in mind, many of the athletes in Utah for the scientific testing followed their lab experience with a couple of hours worth of icy air on Utah's roads.