Pro Training: What Does it Take to Race the Tour de France?

Ride

, by Chris Case

Photography by: A.S.O. / Charly Lopez

We take a closer look at the demands of the most famous grand tour, and how the pros train for three weeks of intense racing.

For three weeks each July, we watch as the best bike racers in the world tear themselves apart for five-plus hours per day at the Tour de France.

Over 21 stages, nearly 200 incredible athletes race an event that would shatter most of us in just one day. But then they also have to contend with answering reporter’s questions, pleasing sponsors, transferring between hotels, trying to eat enough food to cover the day’s expenditures, and, finally—and perhaps most importantly—trying to get quality sleep.

It’s a feat that’s hard to comprehend. In this brief review, we’ll explore what it takes to race the Tour—physiologically and psychologically. We will look at the Tour from a numbers perspective—and describe why the numbers really don’t tell the tale. Then we’ll dive into how the riders train for the Tour before discussing what amateur riders should and shouldn’t take away from how Tour riders train.

Vive le Tour!

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The tale of the Tour in numbers

Compared to what everyday cyclists do, the raw numbers of a Tour de France effort are staggering. Over the course of three weeks, riders will average around 100 hours of racing. And that doesn’t include anything extra that they might do: warming up, cooling down, or rest-day rides.

Over the course of three weeks, riders will average around 100 hours of racing. Photography by- A.S.O. / Pauline Ballet

On a course that averages around 3,500 kilometers, Tour riders will expend about 5,000 to 7,000 calories per day, or over 120,000 calories over the three weeks. The true number depends on things like rider size, their role on the team, and so on.

Interestingly, when you look at the average power over the 21 stages, it can be as low as 170 watts for some light climbers who are in protected roles and who spend a lot of the time off the front of the peloton. It’s just that they will also need to produce those sudden moments of very high power outputs.

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“It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lot if you’re holding that for 110 hours,” says Ciaran O’Grady, a sport scientist and lead coach at Israel-Premier Tech professional cycling team. “It’s going to certainly add up in terms of physiological load. It’s absolutely astonishing what these guys go through over those 21 stages.”

According to O’Grady, 70 percent of the time the riders spend, on average, during the race is in zone 1 (in a three zone model). So it’s a prolonged sub-threshold pace. Above threshold? For most of the riders, it’s around 10 to 15 percent of the total time.

On a course that averages around 3,500 kilometers, Tour riders will expend about 5,000 to 7,000 calories per day, or over 120,000 calories over the three weeks.

“Again, it doesn’t sound like much on paper, but when you add it up over the course of 21 stages, it’s a fair old physiological whack,” O’Grady proclaims.

Training a Tour engine

The first thing to appreciate about riding the Tour is the sheer volume—over 100 hours of pedaling. So, one of the first training considerations is, no surprise, pure volume on the bike.

During the base phase of a pro rider’s training program, they will have months where the training load is 100 or more hours, to mimic the conditions of the race. Once they’ve bult that ability to handle the volume, then they work on their ability to produce explosive, intense efforts.

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That said, most of the riders who race the Tour, or any grand tour, will have been a professional for several years. Their endurance engine is already very well developed. So the bulk of those 100 hours may have fairly low average power. When they do training blocks, they’ll strategically add intensity to that high volume.

“This is what I call dirty intervals: you go out and ride for three hours at tempo pace, burn maybe 2,500 to 3,000 kilojoules, and then start the intervals,” O’Grady says. “It’s all about making sure that the body is able to work when it is fatigued.”

After doing that day by day by day, with the proper recovery to allow for the adaptive process, you create the engine to perform in a grand tour environment, according to O’Grady. This assumes the athlete already has the genetic predisposition to do so.

Photography by: A.S.O. / Charly Lopez

A study that analyzed six years of training data from Pierre Rolland, a former Tour de France GC rider, confirms this approach.

In short, his five-second power, 30-second power, and one-minute power didn’t change much over the course of those six years, as he developed into a top-10 finisher at the Tour. However, his training volume over those six years increased 79 percent. The development was focused on the aerobic engine, and on the ability to resist fatigue.

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At the start of the six-year study, he managed to do only three big training blocks filled with extremely stressful, big volume, big intensity workouts. However, by the time he finished in the top 10 at the Tour de France, he was completing 11 of those training weeks in a year.

The focus was never about building huge power. It was much more about that ability to resist the grind.

For the mortals among us (that’s you!)

It goes without saying: these guys are professionals, so what they do is not usually what a recreational rider should do.

This [type of training] would probably set us mortals back more than it would drive us along. We’re just not able to assimilate those adaptations that are being made by the stresses.

“This [type of training] would probably set us mortals back more than it would drive us along,” O’Grady says. “We’re just not able to assimilate those adaptations that are being made by the stresses that we would be putting our body under.”

If you had a week off from work, you could do a huge amount of volume in that week. But then to make quality adaptations from that, it’s going to be extremely difficult without the proper recovery.

It’s always important to be mindful of your limitations. Don’t try to replicate the rides of the pros, particularly if you work full-time.

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However, one aspect of their training is highly relevant. The so-called polarization of their training—spending most of the time at a relatively low intensity, and then doing very specific hard efforts only sparingly—leads to the biggest gains with the smallest risks.

This is the type of training you see time and time again from the bulk of the professional peloton. It takes time, it takes discipline, but if their efforts at the Tour are any indication, it works very well.