Grand Tour Triple Crown – Is It In You?
A look down the start list of La Vuelta shows that not a single rider will complete all three Grand Tours this season, a trend over the past two decades that’s sure to make all the old timers slurp their pasta extra loud in disgust. So just what does it take out of the body to ride all three in a year? Pez friend Dr. Alejandro Lucia gives us a peek into the tortures of it all…
The Accidental “Tour”-ist
First off, before you write me to tap gently on my head and ask if I’m so blind that I somehow managed to miss that blazing speed demon Alessandro Petacchi winning just about every stage that wasn’t nailed down in Italy, France, and Spain, note that I said FINISH all three tours! And by the way, I can see Mars with my naked eye at night, so I’m not that blind!
In an upcoming article, Dr. Lucia profiled the only rider who completed 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 last winter 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…
Of course, if you’ve been at all following along with Dr. Lucia’s work, you can guess what happened next. Give yourself a prize if you guessed that heart rate was continuously recorded for every single day of each of the three tours, then broken down into his 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 last time comparing the Vuelta and Tour.
Dissecting the Data
So it seems the old timers were right and 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.
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.
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]