What's Cool In Road Cycling

Grand Tour Triple Crown: Chapeau Carlos!

Spare a thought for the true ironman of tour riders – Carlos Sastre of Team CSC has just completed his FIFTH consecutive Grand Tour dating back to Le Tour 2005! Not only that, he has ridden each one as a serious contender or second-in-command and has the (mis)fortune of nearly reached the podium each time. Truly an amazing athletic feat, and worthy of some physiological examination…

Grand Tour Addiction
It’s doubtful that even that other famous bike-nut Erik Zabel would care to match Carlos Sastre in Grand Tour rides. In modern cycling and its focus on specialization and targeting specific goals, it is very rare for any pro to ride all three Grand Tours in a season. We’ve seen riders use the Giro as training for the Tour, and the Vuelta being used as redemption by those who under-performed at the Tour, so it’s rare indeed for any rider to be as competitive in all three Grand Tours as Sastre.

What would certainly be fascinating for sport scientists is to examine the longitudinal data of a rider like Sastre and how his fitness and physiology tracks over the course of a season. It’s possible that somebody is doing such a study right now. In the meantime, however, some presented work at the American College of Sports Medicine a few years back by Dr. Alejandro Lucia from Spain may give us some clues into the unique physiological requirements of riding multiple tours. Caveat This data has not been published as a peer-reviewed full scientific article, possibly because it’s a case study report on only one individual and with minimal generalizability to the larger population. Regardless, it’s still a fascinating peek for cycling science!

The Accidental “Tour”-ist

Dr. Lucia profiled the only rider who completed (not just started) all three Grand Tours in 2001. This lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) fellow was 30 years old, in his sixth season as a professional, and drew the short straw of domestique within the team for each of the three tours. He had previously completed the Tour three times and the Vuelta four times. Take home message is that this was not a babe in the woods of the peloton, but a seasoned veteran with lots of endurance and experience. His VO2max was 75 mL/kg/min. Better than I can ever dream of but not off the planet, which reminds me of the article I wrote in 2002 discussing the irrelevance of this measure!

It was interesting to look at a few simple measures on this cyclist over the three tours. Prior to the Giro, he had 25 days of competition and still a bit of winter chub on him at 72.5 kg and 9.0% body fat. The prolonged daily grind of stage racing obviously had the desired benefits in weight loss, as he dropped down to 68.2 kg and 8.5% body fat by the end of the three weeks. This lower level was maintained throughout the remainder of the season. Resting heart rate also decreased at the Vuelta to a ridiculous 37 bpm. This definitely demonstrated incredible recovery capacity, the key to stage racing.

The rider took vitamins orally throughout the season, and extra vitamins intravenously following hard stages. No doping substances were found, and key hormones remained within normal levels prior to the start of the Vuelta.

More Things to Do with a Heart Rate Monitor…
2001 was back in the days before power monitors were common for the majority or even a large proportion of pros, so heart rate was continuously recorded for every single day of each of the three tours, then broken down into Lucia’s three heart rate zones . When all the data was integrated together, the same general conclusions hold true that the Vuelta had much shorter distances and therefore volume of effort, but that the overall workload was similar due to a higher proportion of time spent at the higher heart rate zones. The Giro and Tour were similar in volume and effort levels. This backs up the study I profiled comparing the Vuelta and Tour.

Dissecting the Data
So it seems that you can safely and successfully complete all three tours in the same season. However, there are some provisos that will affect the results and conclusions. First and foremost, we’re talking about a single rider here, so it’s very difficult and dangerous to make broad conclusions. However, I would hazard to say that an inexperienced rider without lots of endurance and experience would not finish all three tours. We certainly saw this in the performance of young Slovenian phenom Janez Brajkovic of Discovery Channel riding his first Grand Tour – brilliant in the first week, average in the second week, survival in the last.

Second, the rider was a domestique, and his role was pretty similar throughout both each tour and each day. Namely, he wasn’t expected to win stages or time trial hard, just to set the pace and do all the grunt work. This meant that his effort level was probably a lot more even and predominantly in the middle intensity zone. This is different than a team leader or GC rider hitting sustained high intensity levels at critical points in the race, and it may be that the recovery required from the two types of riding would be completely different and may make it much tougher for a team leader to survive three tours.

So again, chapeau to Carlos, and hopefully a well-deserved off-season of relaxation following the World’s this weekend!

About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University, with a research specialization in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He can be reached for comments at [email protected].

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