This Saturday is the day that many cyclists look forward to all year. What comes before is just a warm-up for the main event. Though it is not my favorite race on the calendar, I can’t deny that the Tour de France is the main event of cycling. It has more prestige than any other race and the absolute cream of the crop design their entire year around it. Nowhere is the competition more fierce. No one is saving anything, hedging their bets, or just trying to get miles in their legs. No one is using the Tour as a training race. So it’s understandable that everyone puts this race on a pedestal.
But do we really appreciate what these guys are doing over there in France? Is it even really possible to comprehend exactly what goes into riding a grand tour? Many of us avid cyclists like to think that we dedicate ourselves to this sport. Putting all of our spare time towards getting in more miles, more climbs, more everything. The more I learn about professional cycling, however, the more I realize just how impossibly far off we are from what pros do on a daily basis. Sure, it is easy to say, “Of course pros are faster than us, they ride more, and they climb more. It’s their job!” But I don’t think that really illuminates just how difficult it is to complete a grand tour—let alone be competitive. So today I’m gonna break it down for you. I want to put this massive feat in perspective—as much for me as for you—so that we can really appreciate what we are seeing these athletes do over the coming month.
Let’s start with the low hanging fruit. Putting the mileage into perspective is fairly easy: it’s a lot. The total distance covered is 3,497 Km or 2,173 miles. Sounds reasonable right? I mean I know that I have ridden at least a couple thousand miles this year…Oh wait. This happens over the course of just 23 days, with only two days off. That changes the equation doesn’t it? I just busted out my trusty calculator, and in case you haven’t already done the same that is roughly 103.5 miles a day.
Some of you are probably saying, “Well I’ve ridden 100 miles in a day before.” Maybe you have even done 100 miles a few days in a row—which you should be proud of, by the way. But it simply doesn’t compare. 100+ miles every day for 21 days. The two rest days are almost insulting, just thrown in there for media purposes.
Just stop and think about that. Think about how destroyed you were when you did your last century. Now think about climbing on a bus as soon as you’ve finished that century, sleeping in a place you have never been before, then getting up the following morning to do it again…and again…and again. 21 times over!
Most avid cyclists ride about 100 miles a week—200 if you’re really good about getting in those miles. At that pace you’re looking at between (just under) three to (just over) five months to complete that kind of mileage. Let’s say you get really ambitious and decide you want to step up your game and ride 50 miles a day. That still puts you at 44 days to cover that ground. Incredible.
This doesn’t even start to scratch the surface though. We haven’t even talked about the terrain, or the speed.
I’ve heard many pros and racing insiders say, “It’s not the course that makes a race hard, it is the speed at which it is raced.” It’s true. It is possible for an average Joe to cover the same ground as the Tour does, but what is not possible is for us to do it at the same speed. Last year, Cadel Evans’ winning time was 86h 12’22”. That breaks down to an average speed of just under 40km per hour or roughly 24 miles an hour. Philadelphia’s gold standard for training rides, The Drives, averages around the same speed. “So what?” you say, “I can hang on the drives ride.” Except these guys are doing this over mountains. Over mountains the likes of which don’t even exist within 1,000 miles of Philadelphia, for 21 days, at an average of 24 mph. It’s kind of sickening.
Most average cyclists can average 16-18 mph on any given ride. At that speed (this is assuming you would make it over the mountains we are about to discuss) your finishing time would be 127h 50’—a mere couple days (41h 38’) off the pace.
So what about these mountains that keep coming up? In this case I have saved the best for last my friends. The amount of vertical feet this race ascends is absolutely staggering. This year’s edition—one that is said to “not be too bad in the mountains” and favors strong time trialists—has a total of 41,882 meters climbed. That breaks down to 137,373 ft of climbing! I just checked my Strava account, and my running total for the entire year since January is only 84,000 ft. I’m no climbing freak, but I do ride a fair bit. At this pace I’m due to reach the Tour’s total in only another 4 months. So 10 months for me, 21 days for the pros—seems reasonable.
|Stage 18 is where the tour could be won or lost.|
The worst, or maybe the best, part about the climbing is that it is concentrated. Only four stages (11, 12, 17, and 18) account for over half of the climbing. Stages 17 and 18 are the worst one-two punch in the race, covering 22,573 ft over 197 km, followed the very next day by 18,060 ft over 144 km. The worst single stage of the 2012 Tour is stage 12, where the riders will climb a staggering 24,282 ft in a single stage!
So how exactly do these guys accomplish this? I mean how is it even possible for the human body to accomplish this? Well it’s not, kind of. Riders burn so many calories during the race that it is almost impossible not to operate at a bit of an unhealthy caloric deficit. By the end of the three weeks of racing, the riders bodies are emaciated and on the verge of breaking.
Riders burn on average between 3,500 and 4,500 calories a day—not including the 1,500-2,000 that it takes for your body to function. Harder stages will burn more. Team chefs produce menus that will force the riders to take in between 5,000 and 6,000 calories a day, sometimes more. This pushes the limit of what the human body can even absorb. While a racer may burn 700-1,000 calories an hour while racing, their bodies can only metabolize about 250-300. This leaves them with a lot of calories to replenish between stages. Just as staggering as the ground they cover is the amount they have to eat to do it. Even after all of those calories, the riders will struggle to take in enough, likely losing a decent amount of weight during the race.
|You want to finish the tour? You better eat!|
So what do we take from all of this? Well for one, I take from it that I will never be a professional cyclist. But more importantly, it gives me a sense of awe and respect for anyone who has ridden a bike at this level. We don’t even have to talk about watts, LT heart rates, or Vo2 capacities. Just look at the raw numbers of what these guys are doing. It’s incredible. There may be sports out there that require more skill and technique, but no one can say that any other sport is harder than cycling on the human body. No where are the limits of human fitness tested over such an extended period of time. Not marathons, not Triathlons, not Ironmans. I’m not trying to knock these sports. These are great athletes in their own right, doing things that I could never dream of doing—and I’m sure most professional cyclists couldn’t do quite as well either. I’m not aware, however, of any event that asks you to run a marathon every day for three weeks straight. It’s almost laughable that someone would conceive of such a thing and expect that someone would be able to actually complete it. Not only complete it, but race it. Race it at speeds that even accomplished amateurs can only touch on their very best days.
It’s no wonder then that the cycling world stops and stares when the grand tours are happening. They are truly worth beholding.