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View from the lab - Ric Stern's Tour de France sports science

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Ric Stern

British ABCC coach Ric Stern (www.cyclecoach.com) is a regular contributor to Cyclingnews' Form & Fitness section along with being a full time coach. Still an active rider when time allows, Ric will be providing a physiological insight into the challenges that face the riders in the Tour.

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July 9, 2006: The race of truth

Serguei Gonchar (T-Mobile)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Often called the race of truth, this was the second big rendezvous for the favourites to come out and test themselves (the first being the prologue). Held over 52 km, this was a long time trial for the Tour riders. It would take them just over 1 hour, and Gonchar would win the stage in 61 minutes and 43 seconds – an average speed of 50.5 km/h. The last person to finish would complete the course at an average speed of 43.5 km/h.

I don't have any data on Gonchar (e.g., height, mass, power output). However, we know that Tour winners can average ~ 6.5 W/kg – 6.5 watts for every kilogram of body mass over a ~1-hour TT.

Let's pretend that Gonchar weighs 70 kg, which would mean that at 6.5 W/kg he'd generate 455 W. What does 455 W mean, in terms of cycling performance for the majority of Cyclingnews readers? As you'd expect 455 W is a huge number to sustain, which is why only a few people ever have a chance to win the Tour. It's the sort of intensity that your average 2nd category rider might be able to generate for ~2-minutes at most (if they had a mass of 70 kg). Yes, that's right about 2 minutes versus Gonchar knocking it out for 61+ minutes. That difference is frightening. Or to give you some concrete data, back in 1996 Chris Boardman broke the World Hour Record at approximately the same power to mass ratio. As I happened to have the same mass as Chris, and as he was being coached by the senior lecturer where I did my undergraduate degree I decided that I would have a go at riding at Chris's power. I was a 2nd category rider at the time, and lasted ninety seconds! Even a top category 1 rider is unlikely to be able to make 5 minutes at that power to mass ratio!

Jens Voigt (CSC)
Photo ©: Jon Devich
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Okay, so we know that the top end is insurmountable, but what about last place – could we have nipped in, in front of Jens Voigt? If we take our ‘virtual' Gonchar rider who weighs 70 kg, and using the same data as before, we can calculate based on his 6.5 W/kg that the virtual Gonchar would have needed to generate just 300 W or 4.3 W/kg at 70 kg to finish last on the stage (note, that this is not the power that Voigt would have required, as again I have no data on him).

So, 300 W sounds like a much more reasonable figure, and in fact a good proportion of the readers of Cyclingnews would be able to get near to that, and/or beat it. The power to mass ratio of 4.3 W/kg is about what your average 2nd category rider can generate for a ~1-hour TT.

However, for any 2nd or 3rd category riders who are now rushing out to France and trying to get a ride in next year's Tour, there's a couple of extremely important things to consider.

1) It's highly likely that Voigt was just cruising around the TT, possibly still recovering from his breakaway attempt a few days earlier or just riding easy as he knew he couldn't win (don't waste your energy)

2) The riders had done 6 days of racing prior to the TT – I for one know that my TTpower would decrease dramatically after 6 days of racing

If the rules for elimination were tighter (I'm not suggesting they should be), I'm 100% confident that the riders at the lower end of the stage result could have significantly lifted their game, and recorded a better result. However, that's not their job. On the other hand the 2nd category rider would already be at or approaching their limit.

Now, what can you do to increase your TT ability?

1) Intervals of around 15 to 30-mins at just below to around TTpower. One to three repeats, and up to three times per week (depending on your goals)

2) Maximise your aerodynamics. You can chop big time off with good equipment and a good position

3) Train on your TT bike (you can put training wheels in). So many people don't train on their TT bike, and then can't ride the bike (uncomfortable compared to your road bike) or their power is significantly lower in the TT position. Training on it remedies both

I can't over emphasise the last point.

Have fun with the race of truth!

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