What's Cool In Road Cycling

At The Frontiers of Performance

Following my article on the effort required in riding three Grand Tours in one year, I’ve received some letters suggesting that I think cyclists today are a bit soft. To set the record straight, and to help you impress your non-cycling buddies about just how tough the sport is, I’ll present a few facts to demonstrate just how amazing cyclists are as physiological specimens on and off the bike…

Physiological Freaks of Nature
1. The amount of energy expenditure is simply astounding. The typical Tour rider consumes approximately 6,000 – 9,000 Kcal every single day. In contrast, the average daily caloric intake for a young adult male is about 2,000 – 2,500 Kcal. For the American crowd getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, gorging on a big massive turkey dinner that leaves you absolutely bursting at the seams and wanting to do nothing but nap is probably 3,500 Kcal. Just the physical ability to consume and process 3 – 4.5 times more calories than a normal individual for weeks upon weeks is an amazing feat.

2. Pro cyclists have pretty impressive immune systems. Typically, intense exercise stress depresses the body’s immune system and leads to greater risks of infections. However, the average pro cyclist races 100 times or more each season in all sorts of weather conditions from February through October yet do not get sick much more frequently that the typical person. This is especially amazing at events like Grand Tours, where a rider would be suddenly living in close proximity to lots of other riders and team personnel they may not see regularly, not to mention all the sponsors, media, and organizers.

3. The power output of elite cyclists boggles the imagination. Canadian Curt Harnett continues to hold the world record in the 200 m sprint in track cycling, with an average speed of over 70 km/h. That equates to a power output of over 2,000 W! Continuing on the power trip, Arnaud Tournant’s breaking the 1 min barrier for the 1 km race on the track means that he averaged >60 km/h from a standing start! That means sustaining a power output well over 1,000 W for a minute!

4. The thing that most distinguishes elite cyclists from many other sports is the ability to recover from hard efforts like Tour stages and repeat that effort day after endless day. Put everything together, and cyclists are able to recover from 8 h efforts of burning 9,000 Kcal at a very high rate while experiencing significant levels of dehydration due to not being able to replace as much fluid as is lost in sweat. They are able to restore their energy balance, not to mention repair any damage done to the muscles and the rest of the body, in order to do it all over again.

It’s All About The Bike
How are cyclists able to do it? Partly it’s due to bicycling being a non-weight bearing sport (as opposed to running), meaning that there is not as much physical impact damage done to the body. That’s the main reason that runners cannot repeatedly run marathons on a daily basis. As one reader noted, the bike allows cyclists to take themselves into a whole new world of pain!

Blatant Self Promotion
I also have to give a big plug not just to the cyclists themselves, but sport scientists like myself. There is no question in my mind that today’s cyclists are better trained and better prepared, thanks to a lot of basic research into exercise physiology and the acceptance of scientific methods into coaching and training. Heart rate monitors and interval training only came into use over the past two decades following Francesco Moser using them in training to break the Hour record in 1984. And believe it or not, up until the early 1970’s, the prevailing coaching and scientific wisdom was that marathoners should not drink at all during races, even in the hottest days! We have come a long way, but there are still a lot of frontiers to stretch when it comes to sport science!


About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He has been an avid roadie since beginning university in the mid-eighties, and still has non-indexed downtube shifters on his winter bike and wool jerseys hanging in his closet. He can be reached for advice or comments at [email protected]

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