This week, University of Lynchburg physics professor and sports physicist Dr. John Eric Goff appeared on Playing with Science, a podcast on world-famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk radio network. Dr. Goff is a regular guest on the podcast.
While the episode was a repeat, it included a new conversation with Dr. Goff about his 2018 Tour de France predictions. Using physics to make predictions about the 2,500-mile bike race is an annual tradition for Dr. Goff. For more than a decade, he and his students have used the laws of physics to model the Tour de France.
Using data about cyclist power and the race’s elevation profile, they try to predict the winning time for each of the race’s 21 stages. Often, their predictions come incredibly close, such as the year they predicted seven stages within 1 percent of the actual finish time.
This year, physics major Carl Pilat ’20 is helping Dr. Goff. “Carl was a student in my calculus-based introductory physics course last year,” Dr. Goff said on July 19, when the cyclists were about halfway through the race. “He lives locally, so I invited him to join me in modeling this year’s Tour de France.
“He did a great job obtaining all the terrain data necessary for my model. I’ve introduced him to the more sophisticated parts of modeling. He’s getting a start on that effort. As of today, 12 of 21 stages have been completed. We’ve hit 10 of those 12 to 5 percent or better, including a couple to just 0.4 percent.”
Along the way, Pilat said he’s learned “how physics is done in the real world, not just the classroom.” He added that he also got a “crash course in computer programming, as I attempt to write my own code for this project.”
When the Tour de France is over, Dr. Goff said he and Pilat will analyze the race. “We’ll look at where the model did well and where it didn’t do as well,” he said. “One major goal of the research is to tease out the key physics of an event as complicated as the Tour de France. Cyclists and equipment get better every year. Our model must evolve with improvements in training, equipment design, and teams’ strategies.”
Appearing with Dr. Goff on this episode of Playing with Science were hosts Chuck Nice and Gary O’Reilly and legendary — albeit, controversial — cyclist Lance Armstrong. Tyson also stopped by the podcast for a visit.