In the month of July, you can find hundreds of thousands of fans across the world glued to their TVs watching the Tour de France. Since its inception in 1903, the Tour de France is the most widely recognized grand tour throughout the cycling community. There are precisely three recognized Grand Tours for professional men that include: the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy), the Tour de France (Tour of France), and the Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain.) Racing a Grand Tour is one of the toughest and most extreme sporting events that humans compete in each year. Perhaps it is for this reason that we are mesmerized and in awe of the feats that we see day in and day out (albeit 2 rest days) that captivate us to watch until the end. To be able to even complete 3 weeks straight of riding around 2,000 miles is a feat in and of itself. To be able to complete this task, but at the highest levels of sporting performance is an art form that only a few in the world have mastered. While our minds go to believing these athletes are just superhuman (which most can certainly be categorized as that) they are in fact human and dedicate their life’s work to competing in these prestigious events.
So what then does it take to actually race in a Grand Tour? We’ll try our best to quantify the efforts put forth by tour riders to help you get a better understanding of just how difficult it is to accomplish, and even more so, just how impressive it is that each year riders do this day in and day out.
The three grand tours for the men’s professional field are 21 stages long held over a three-week span of time. (In fact, it is 23 days when you include the 2 rest days!) The total distance for these tours is around 3500km (2000 miles) in the modern era and includes a mix of flat and rolling road stages, mountain stages, and time trials. *Some of these time trials are team time trials. Neal Henderson, head of Wahoo Sports Science (and coach to current and former grand tour riders) says the following, “In order to prepare for a Grand Tour takes months and months of specific preparation, and in fact can be years of building up general endurance to be capable of successfully going the distance.” He further states the following when he breaks down the statistics of what must be implemented in a training program in order to meet the demands of a Grand Tour:
“The average speed of between 36 and 40km/hour for the entire race means that it takes over 30-hours of riding each week for the 3-weeks to complete the race, with some longer stages lasting 6 to 8 hours. For nearly every single rider in the peloton, even those just trying to finish within the time cut each day, a grand tour is a massive overload on the body and mind. In preparation, most riders will be performing training for 25 to 35 hours/week in the months leading up to the race. All riders will also use shorter 7 to 10-day stage races as part of their preparation. Some athletes might finish a 7-day stage race and then perform an additional week of 30+ hours of hard training the week after a lead-up race rather than recover right after the race to build their fitness, endurance, and resilience. Some of the preparation races will also include stages that are similar to the stages that will be included in the grand tour race. For example, the Criterium du Dauphine often features portions of stages that are contained in the Tour de France, and the Tirreno-Adriatico race in Italy often features stages that are part of the Giro d’Italia.”
Neal Henderson, Head of Wahoo Sports Science
There may be no insatiable hunger like that of completing a big day in the saddle and coming home to try to replenish our energy stores with anything and everything in our sight. It is fun to do this every now and then on our weekend-long rides, but take this and multiply it for 21 days straight. While it may sound like a good idea for our waistlines, being able to maintain a caloric neutral level for that length of time (3 weeks) while covering approximately 2,000 miles is a sport in itself. The goal of every tour rider is to maintain their energy levels by being able to replace what they lost during each stage.
The demand of any given stage of a grand tour is variable depending on the course (long flat stage vs. mountain stage vs. time trial) and the role of the rider (breakaway, domestique, general classification rider, etc.) This being said, it is hard to say that there is an “average day,” that would reflect the energy expenditure for all the riders on the same stage. For example, though, we could look at a standard 200km rolling stage for a rider in the peloton. This effort might result in an average power of 250 watts for 5 hours. This effort would yield around 4500 calories burned during the stage.
For the same stage, a breakaway rider might average 300 watts due to the fact that they’re spending less time in the draft which would result in expending nearly 5,400 calories. A smaller GC (general classification) rider who is super efficient at saving energy in the peloton might only expend 200 watts on the same stage to save energy for future mountainous stages or time trials, and therefore only burn 3,600 calories. Don’t forget, these caloric deficits are being added in addition to each rider’s BMR, or basal metabolic rate. This is a measure of how many calories your body burns while remaining at rest and completing tasks such as breathing. There are also small amounts to be taken into account like the thermic effect of food, which is the amount of energy needed for your body to break food down during digestion.
Most days during a Grand Tour riders will begin with a large breakfast (most races don’t start until late morning or early afternoon.) From here, it is usually dependent on the rider’s goals for the stage as to whether they will require an additional snack or fueling to top off until the start of the race. During the race itself, riders will take in around 200-500 calories per hour, this is dependent upon: race profile, rider size, energy expenditure (leading the peloton/sitting in), etc.
What are the riders eating during the race? This can be anything from a mix of sports drinks, gels, gummies to even flat coke in the final hour or so of a stage. Aside from quick glucose foods, riders will also consume solid foods like sports bars, rice cakes, small sandwiches, or fruit of choice (usually bananas.) Each rider has specific foods that they will prefer to consume and the musette bags they pick up in the feed zones will contain an assortment that they can restock their stores or share with fellow teammates. Sometimes even with competitors if they are working in a breakaway and the competition misses the feed zone.
Immediately post-race racers will consume a high caloric recovery shake and snack on the team bus that will take them to the hotel for the night. Once at the hotel, the dinner meal will have a plethora of options and it is not uncommon for athletes to take in upwards of 2,500 calories for this meal alone.
Neal says that the total daily energy expenditure during a grand tour has been estimated to be between 6-8,000 calories a day. He has often said, “A professional cyclists’ full-time job is riding the bike, and their part-time job is eating.”
While the thought of being able to eat as much as you’d like each day may sound appealing, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay on top of the energy needs for a Grand Tour. In a perfect environment your stomach is settled and able to withstand the intake of food, but throw in high-intensity efforts (which will already limit blood flow to the gut making it hard to digest food), but also nerves, excitement, anxiety, the additional emotion/mental stress can affect an athlete’s ability to consume the food your body needs.
Neal states that “There are different ways of looking at the amount of work that any rider is doing including looking at time accumulated in different zones based on power or heart rate, to Kj burned, or even calculated metrics like TSS. Ultimately the most important thing for riders to manage is their energy expenditure and intake relative to their goals.”
Warm-Up / Cool Down Procedures
If riding your bike for the full stage isn’t enough, grand tour riders will also need to properly warm-up and cool down their bodies each day, and yes this means more riding. The warm-up procedure is variable for each stage. For most riders on long road stages, they rarely perform a true warm-up, that is unless the rider is planning to stage an early breakaway or they want to be primed if the stage begins with a tough climb. In this case, most riders will warm up on stationary trainers at the team bus before the start.
If the day’s stage is a time trial, then the warm-up is more intensive. Riders will ride at least a portion of the entire TT course, if not the whole route in the morning. This course preview allows riders to get an idea of the road conditions, wind, turns, etc, that can help them make decisions for the mechanics to change any of their equipment setup/choices. These types of changes include wheel choice, tire pressure, and gearing options. After the morning preview, almost all riders will perform a specific warm-up routine on the stationary trainer with a specified time to start their warm-up. Most warm-ups can range from 20-40 minutes with a specified amount of time to get off the trainer and finalize their preparation which includes putting on aero equipment (shoe covers, helmets, radio, etc.) After the time trial, the riders will again get back on the stationary trainer for a recovery spin for another 10-20 minutes.
Aside from time trials, almost every stage will see riders on the stationary trainer performing a cooldown. At the finish of stages where the buses are located close to the finish, most riders will spend 5-15 minutes again on the stationary trainer to get in a proper cool-down and start drinking their recovery shakes or drinks. The only stage where riders don’t perform a cooldown? The final stage of the race!
While watching professional cyclists perform at Grand Tours they can make it look almost as if it were easy. It is easy to overlook the massive effort these individuals are putting forth since they seem to be able to effortlessly dance on top of the pedals at steep gradients, or “easily” put in a big effort to make a surging breakaway stick. Easy is the furthest word from this type of effort. That is the beauty of watching Grand Tours, you are watching athletes at the prime of their fitness completing a huge undertaking. It is not just the efforts on these single days alone that make the effort incredibly difficult, but the thousands of miles before the tour even began that hardened their legs to make these types of efforts even possible.