In a first for the Tour de France, a professional cycling team is using a blood-testing technology that almost instantly tells riders how their bodies are reacting to training and racing, and it could change how the world’s best bike racers prepare for target events.
The device, called Ember, is made by California-based Cercacor Laboratories and tracks hemoglobin and other biomarkers. It was launched last year at the Consumer Electronics Show, but this is the fist time a full pro cycling team, LottoNL–Jumbo, is using the device at the sport’s highest level.
Unlike a traditional test that draws a drop of blood with a finger prick, Ember uses only light waves, so it’s noninvasive. Riders insert a finger into a clip sensor, and the device measures the flow of blood through arteries using LED technology and algorithms.
This use of LED technology has already been shown to work effectively in other kinds of blood tests, such as those that screen for conditions like anemia.
Ember, which the company refers to as “essentially a pocket laboratory,” is smaller than an iPhone and connects via Bluetooth to a phone or tablet.
Whereas it used to take days or weeks to get test results, Ember gives riders data about their bodies on their phone screens within 90 seconds. It comes in two versions, Ember Sport Premium ($700) and Ember Sport ($400).
Optimizing high-altitude training
Ember measures hemoglobin, oxygen content, oxygen saturation, perfusion index, pleth-variability index, pulse rate, and respiration rate. A key biomarker for endurance athletes is hemoglobin, the protein contained in red blood cells responsible for delivery of oxygen to tissues.
The concentration of red blood cells, known as hematocrit, can be an important indicator of cycling performance. Generally, the higher a rider’s hematocrit, the better the rider will perform. It’s why many of the world’s top cyclists train at high altitude to boost their hematocrit before big races like the Tour.
While training in the high mountains does help boost hematocrit, it hasn’t always been easy or convenient for teams to measure the effectiveness of altitude training. Getting regular blood tests the traditional way is also expensive.
Cercacor says that by tracking riders’ levels of hemoglobin and other biomarkers when they wake up, after workouts, and before they go to sleep, Ember lets the athletes measure their bodies’ response to the duration and intensity of training, recovery time, and elevation and adjust their programs as needed.
The data can help riders decide with greater accuracy whether they should rest more, maintain their training program, or train harder. It also helps teams decide how much altitude training is sufficient and how long the effects of altitude training will last once back down at sea level, which can be game-changing when fine-tuning the body for target events.
Cercacor says Vassilis Mougios, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Thessaloniki, has worked with the company and run several studies with athletes who use Ember. It also said it held a roundtable in January in Boulder, Colorado, at TrainingPeaks‘ headquarters with well-known cycling coaches, including Ben Day and Neal Henderson, to get feedback about Ember and the app. Cercacor says it is planning to incorporate changes based on their input.
The Netherlands-registered Team LottoNL–Jumbo said several of its athletes had been using Ember while training for the Tour and other races this season. The team can tweak riders’ training programs, build a historical record, and segment and track the team’s collective data.
Mathieu Heijboer, the head of performance for LottoNL–Jumbo, says he began using Ember with some of his riders to help assess daily recovery during a three-week training bloc at altitude before racing in the recent Giro d’Italia, where one of its riders, Jos van Emden, won the final-stage time trial.
While the team was at altitude, Heijboer said, he saw that riders’ subjective feedback about how they felt each morning — regarding pain, readiness, and so forth — actually matched their hemoglobin numbers consistently, though that is obviously anecdotal and not scientific.
“When a rider felt tired or less strong, his hemoglobin values were below baseline,” the team said. “The opposite was also true.”
Fine-tuning for the Tour
George Bennett said he used Ember while training for May’s Tour of California, which he won.
“My season has been built around specific targets, using altitude camps as a major part of my build up for each goal,” Bennett said. “I have been able to track my progress and the effectiveness of each altitude block as well as help my recovery and adaption using the Ember device.”
A spokesman for Cercacor told Business Insider that the company had a one-year partnership with LottoNL–Jumbo. While Cercacor provides the team with Ember devices, he added, it does not pay the team to use the product.
The Tour de France starts July 1 in Düsseldorf, Germany, and ends July 23 in Paris. Bennett is expected to join Robert Gesink as LottoNL–Jumbo’s two leaders.
Cercacor told Business Insider that both riders used Ember at a pre-Tour training camp and that the team would use Ember during the three-week race to test its riders’ hemoglobin levels and the other biomarkers.
Watch the Ember video below: