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Cycling is the greatest endurance experiment. Millions of people hop on bikes as kids. A few hundred thousand might start pushing themselves harder and harder. Tens of thousands of those athletes might notice that they have an elite talent to put sustained power into the pedals. Thousands become professional racers. Just under 200 start the Tour De France.
That funnel to the highest level of sport is not unique to cycling. But what sets cycling apart is what happens to distill thousands of world-class athletes into the final 200. Those thousands have already proven their talent and their work ethic. And then they are all thrown into the meat grinder of professional cycling training.
We’re talking 25-30+ hours a week, most of the year, with tons of racing. Unlike running, they are not limited by impact and rarely limited by overuse injuries. Unlike triathlon, they don’t have to balance multiple movement patterns with different demands. Unlike swimming and skiing, form doesn’t play a huge role. Hulk smash pedal, multiplied by something approaching infinity.
So at the men’s and women’s Tours de France, we’re seeing the best of the best at the very limits of human physiology’s capabilities. You can see why doping is a huge issue, since everyone trains wildly hard (within a few percent), and the talent differences are marginal at the top level (within a few percent). You don’t need to be a nihilist or an asshole to become a skeptic, you just need to have a cursory understanding of statistics and history.
If you take any random sample of the best in the world, pushing themselves to the maximum, and assume a few are doping, it’s likely that at least some of the champions will be doping unless drug testing catches everyone and/or doping is less powerful than marginal differences in talent/training.
All that said, I am still a massive cycling fan. Life is too short to be governed by skepticism or statistics (I prefer a cocktail of hope and belief that has hints of naive optimism). And whether PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs) are prevalent or not (most insiders say not, but they always say that out in the open air), there is still so much to learn from the pointy end of what happens when elite physiology gets stuffed into the meat grinder.
These 8 takeaways are lessons that my co-coach/wife Megan and I flagged while watching the 2022 Men’s Tour de France (we talk about it more on our podcast). Because we are not bike coaches and we have that nagging fear of doping, we tried to focus less on the stated justifications for riders pushing pants-crappingly high watts per kilogram, and more on patterns across the peloton and performance psychology. Let’s do this!
One: You don’t need to have a “win at all costs” mentality to be a champion.
Jonas Vingegaard won this year’s race with a story made for Disney. In 2018, he worked part-time in a fish-packing plant (a plant where they put adorable backpacks on consenting salmon). On a training trip in Spain with his continental team (the minor leagues of European cycling), he set a Strava record on a 13-minute climb. World Tour team Jumbo Visma got wind of the record, and they did some quick calculations to estimate that Jonas pushed 6.7 watts per kilogram for the segment. That would be like a runner averaging around 4:15 minutes per mile grade-adjusted pace on a similar climb. The team signed him within a few months.
For me, there were two enduring moments from this year’s Tour. The first was in stage 19, when race favorite and 2-time defending champion Tadej Pogačar crashed as he was trying to drop Vingegaard on a descent. Vingegaard sat up and waited for Pogačar to get back on his bike and catch up. When they reunited, they grabbed hands. We were just a steady rain and a little tongue away from The Notebook 2.
Then on the Stage 20 time trial, Vingegaard was close to the fastest time ahead of teammate Wout Van Aert. With the yellow jersey fully secured, in the final 500 meters, he visibly stepped off the gas, ensuring his teammate would win. Van Aert stepped toward the finish line and gave Jonas a slap on the back before bursting into joyous tears.
Some Tour champions of the past were worshipped as bosses who dripped toxic masculinity along with EPO. I think that many assumed that their take-no-prisoners, show-no-love approach was part of the reason for their successes. Vingegaard and Pogačar both showed throughout this Tour that you can be kind and be a champion. Maybe in the future, we shouldn’t excuse athletes for being assholes just because they end up on top of a podium.
Two: What appears to be an endurance limitation can sometimes be a fueling limitation.
The conventional wisdom starting this year’s Tour was that Pogačar was invincible. If NASA needs to get back to the moon, they could do away with the rockets and just have Tadej time his glute engagement just right. And the first 10 stages confirmed that wisdom–he not only won different styles of stages, he seemed to do it with ease.
The turning point of the Tour was Stage 11, when Vingegaard broke away from Pogačar on the final climb. It was shocking! At the bottom of that final climb, Pogačar flashed that movie star smile and looked ready to make one giant clench for mankind. Over the next few days, he confirmed the speculation on the cycling message boards. It was a “hunger flat,” or a bonk, caused by underfueling.
According to online estimates, he still pushed 5+ watts per kilogram after he was dropped, but Vingegaard was up in the mid-6s! You can’t put out massive power without massive power reserves, and in a moment that determined the outcome of the Tour, Pogačar’s fueling was not adequate. All the fitness in the world won’t mean much without mid-event fueling to match. Many riders are now taking in 90-120 grams of carbs per hour on intense stages, backed up by scientific studies on cyclists (2011 review in the Journal of Sport Science) and runners (2021 study in Frontiers of Physiology). And let’s not even get started with ketone supplementation.
Three: Avoiding spikes in output can conserve glycogen stores and prevent excess fatigue.
While that Stage 11 drop-heard-round-the-world decided the Tour, the most dramatic part of the race happened earlier on the same day. At the base of the majestic Col du Galibier climb, Vingegaard’s teammate Primož Roglič attacked. Pogačar responded. Then Vingegaard attacked. Pogačar responded. Every time Pogačar got back into the draft, he’d be attacked again. Whoever wasn’t attacking sat on Pogačar’s wheel, meaning that they were doing significantly less effort.
This offset may have determined the hunger flat on the final climb. Every time Pogačar shot up toward 1000 watts, his body rapidly depleted glycogen from leg muscles, replenishing that from overall stores and whatever calories he could throw into the full-gas incinerator. He was exceeding his critical power (think an effort an athlete can sustain for 30-40 minutes) so often that he needed to do absolutely everything right on the rest of the stage–and be stronger than Vingegaard. Everyone assumed that Vingegaard needed a miracle, when all he needed was 90% science and 10% luck.
Four: Just because you can play through pain doesn’t mean you should play through pain.
Roglič played a huge part in Vingegaard’s win with those faux attacks. Pogačar respected Roglič as a rival for the overall win, so he responded to each one when it would have been a wiser physiological move to let Roglič tire himself out off the front. It was a two-wheeled version of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope. And the whole time, Roglič must have been in excruciating pain.
He dropped out of the race after Stage 14. Commentators ripped him to shreds. “Get to the finish for your team!” some screamed. A few days later, it came out that Roglič had been riding with two fractured vertebrae in his back after a crash on Stage 5. How did he ride up and down those mountains so fast with a broken back? The simple answer is that cyclists are insane in the membrane. The complex answer is that athletes can tell themselves that toughness is a virtue of devotion. But when the mask of race-day toughness is removed, they may find out that what looked like devotion is actually self-destruction.
Yes, what Roglič did showed courage, and that courage should be celebrated. But we should be careful about elevating courage over health. We’ll see how his season unfolds from here. Hopefully a couple weeks of courage doesn’t contribute to a couple years of health struggles.
Five: Cooling strategies are key even before it gets hot.
What do the world’s best runners and world’s best cyclists have in common? Fashion! Namely, ice vest chic. Before and after almost every stage, you could spot these stars in ice vests to lower core temperature just like they were at the Foresthill Aid Station of the Western States 100. And during stages, they were never far from ice packs to put on the back of their necks, and water to douse themselves with. I cringed every time they sprayed themselves, worried that their chains would get rusty if they forgot to clean their bikes post-stage.
My favorite innovation was from Team Ineos, long known as the team that leverages every exercise science study to its advantage. Prior to the final time trial, Geraint Thomas had his hands in “cooling mits.” Some research (e.g., 2018 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine) shows that one of the most effective ways to lower core temperature is via the hands and lower wrists, so Thomas was keeping his paws nice and frosty.
Coming to an aid station near you: Ice gloves.
Six: Tech giveth, and tech taketh away.
In the final time trial, top contender Stefan Bissegger’s bike erroneously went into “crash mode,” preventing shifting. That’s also what I call it when I run down technical trails. He had to change bikes, and his new bike didn’t have a water bottle, leading him to limp to a tough finish.
I am sure crash mode has a number of benefits. But it demonstrates how tech advances also come with sometimes unforeseen, often low-probability risks that need to be considered. For example, in running, I am concerned about how the proliferation of carbon-plated shoes may impact foot, achilles, and ankle injuries given changing impact forces. Yeah, they may be fast. However, it’s hard to be fast in a walking boot.
Seven: Drafting is important even at slower cycling speeds (and faster running speeds).
Every year in the mountains, it’s a battle for the best slipstream. If Pogačar couldn’t ride Vingegaard off his wheel with an attack, he sat up and waited for another opportunity. And they both had American teammates that dictated the pace on some of the steepest climbs (Brandon McNulty for Pogačar, Sepp Kuss for Vingegaard). All cyclists know the value of the draft. But for some reason, we barely think about it in running.
True, running is much slower. But on some of these steep climbs, Pogačar and Vingegaard are going slower than fast runners (you’ll often see normal people run right beside them for a bit). So what gives?
I think runners might just be missing a major opportunity. A July 2022 study in the Journal Of Applied Physiology found that in a 2-hour marathon, drafting can save between 3:42 and 5:29! Those numbers will be much less at slower paces, but no matter what the exact benefit, it can be magnified around physiological thresholds. Even if the draft effect is a fraction of a percent, when an athlete is at the margins of their capabilities, that fraction could be the difference between bonking and finishing strong.
Eight: Output under 1 hour strongly correlates with output over 21 days.
I think that we sometimes complicate ultra training in particular, creating entirely different frameworks to excel in long trail events. But as the Tour shows, in terms of our aerobic output, speed is speed. Or to put it another way, critical power and/or lactate threshold (output on efforts between ~30 minutes and 1 hour) will correlate strongly with performance at longer distances.
In the final time trial, the winner was Van Aert, who may be the star of the entire Tour. Even though he wasn’t going for overall place, he won a few stages and was voted the most aggressive rider. 2-3-4 in the ~50-minute time trial were 1-2-3 in the whole race (Vingegaard, Pogačar, Thomas). That makes sense with what we know about physiology–combine a formula for maximal aerobic power with equations for fatigue resistance, and you can get pretty close to predicting who has the most potential in longer events.
Fatigue resistance studies have been pioneered in cycling, showing that what separates the best of the best from the thousands of elite athletes that don’t reach that level has to do with how their power curve deteriorates after a few thousand kilojoules of work.
But the prerequisite for fatigue resistance to be the differentiating factor is that the power curve is close-to-optimized on the top end. A runner or cyclist that isn’t working on their speed is making an unreasonably heavy bet on their fatigue resistance. And over time, they will lose that bet relative to their genetic potential.
The 2022 Tour de France was one of the best races ever, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Reading rider reflections, a persistent theme stood out: doing the Tour changes you. Three weeks of the hardest racing in the world can spur physiological supercompensation. But even more than that, three weeks of vulnerability can spur psychological growth that shifts the understanding of what is possible.
Think back to your own history. When did you make yourself the most vulnerable, in situations where you may win, but way more likely you will be spit out of the back of the peloton? For me, my breakthrough as a writer came from writing a book. Long before that, I supercharged my toughness in the misery of football two-a-days. Between those moments, a summer doing the Trial of Miles made me realize that my endurance limits were far beyond what I assumed.
That book I wrote was OK, but not great. I ended up quitting football as a freshman in college. As a runner, I’m finding new limitations every year. But I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything because they shaped me as a person and athlete. My character was forged in discomfort, and that’s why I’m resilient.
Every Tour rider goes through that and more. Three weeks of discomfort, of doubts, of vulnerabilities. The rider that finishes (or DNFs) the Tour is different than the rider who started, and always will be. What’s your personal Tour de France? What’s the big, scary thing that makes your self-doubt scream so loud that you can’t hear Bob Roll in the announcer’s booth?
Whatever that thing is, attack it like you’re Tadej Pogačar. The point isn’t whether you win or not. The point is to get vulnerable and find out that your suitcase of courage is actually a warehouse, with so many more aisles to explore.