What's Cool In Road Cycling

Power Analysis: T-Mobile Exposed

Part of the enjoyment of being a cycling fan is that we can ride and wear pretty much the same gear as the big boys and girls, not to mention ride the same mountains. With the advent of power meters, we can now also see the power requirements that top-level cycling requires.

The Ultimate Walter Mitty Sport
If only fans of other sports can be as lucky as cyclists. We’re not going to pitch in Fenway or take a face-off at the Montreal Forum (the fact that it’s no longer home to the Canadiens makes it even more of a pipe dream!), but we can ride the same roads as pro cyclists, often on the same day.

Most of us have spent large chunks of our riding time daydreaming about matching the pros pedal to pedal in the peloton. What actual effort is required to be a modern pro? Despite the advent and use of SRM and other power monitors since the early 1990s, that information is just not available for the most part. That’s because most athletes and teams treat such information as such top secret that even the most scandal-mongering journalists from certain European countries can get nowhere near it.

Opening the Secret Vaults
I’ve written last July on Dr. Ed Coyle’s excellent scientific article on the aerobic capacity of Lance Armstrong through the 1990s pre- and post-cancer and initial Tour victory. I’ve also written about Dr. Alejandro Lucia’s series of studies tracking top professional cyclists heart rates during races and also their aerobic capacity and pedaling efficiency. Such articles are important because they allow us to establish benchmarks that we know athletes need to be able to achieve, giving us goals and baseline numbers to work towards.

The latest in this theme of real-life tracking of pro cyclists comes from the latest issue (Jan 2006) of the prestigious scientific journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. What distinguishes this paper, by University of Freiburg scientist Dr. Stefan Vogt et al. (1), is that, for pretty much the first time, it lays out the power output profiles of professional cyclists over the course of a 5-d (6 stages) stage race, combining flat stages, road stages, and an uphill time trial.

First off, this is unbelievable open-ness and cooperation from a top-level professional team, akin to Ben & Jerry sending all its competitors its detailed ingredient and supplier list (though maybe not the exact recipe). Second, it shows the improvement in power monitors in terms of weight that pros no longer feel the need to take them off for races.

The Setup
How was the experiment conducted?
• Six T-Mobile pros were tracked throughout the 5-d, 6-stage (758 km) Regio Tour-International (UCI 2.3). Winning average speed of 41.1 km/h.
• While subject names were obviously kept confidential, all subjects had competed in at least one Grand Tour. Coupled with a mean age of 27 y, we can assume that they’re likely not neo-pros and relatively established riders.
• 24 h before the race, all riders performed a lactate threshold test in the lab to establish baseline values, including power output at lactate threshold (LT, point at which lactate values begin to rise), and power output at lactate threshold + 1 mMol (this is often used to predict the maximal sustainable power output).
• SRMs were used throughout all 5 road stages and a 13 km uphill TT, then downloaded for analysis and compared to the lab values.

The Raw Numbers
So what do the pros get up to in the lab?
• LT: 248 W (3.5 W/kg), HR = 137 bpm. This power output may at first appear to be quite low, but this corresponds to the effort when you’re just cruising a tiny bit above endurance pace, and this is an effort that can be sustained for hour after hour, day after day (as we’ll see below)
• LT+1: 326 W (4.6 W/kg), HR = 163 bpm.

Effort was defined at 3 different intensities for both power and heart rate:
Zone 1: below LT (includes coasting time)
Zone 2: between LT and LT+1
Zone 3: above LT+1

What Happens on the Road?
So what do the pros get up to in the peloton?
• Road stages averaged 220 W (3.1 W/kg), HR 142 bpm. With 4 of the 5 stages lasting 160-170 km, that’s nearly 4 h daily at that effort, with an average energy expenditure of 2850 Kcal in addition to normal resting requirements of ~2500 kCal for a total of 5350 Kcal daily.

When looking at the relative time spent in the various power zones, we find that the road stages were predominantly (58%) done in Zone 1 (below LT), but also that a significant period of time (28%) was spent above LT+1. So while over 2 h may be spent daily in “cruising” mode, about an hour a day was done at a pretty leg-searing effort!

The Race of Truth
They definitely don’t call time trials the race of truth for nothing!
• Altitude gain for the 13 km uphill TT was 450 m, and mean completion time was 23 min.
• Power averaged 392 W (5.5 W/kg), HR 169 bpm. Both values are well above the LT+1 value in the lab, so there was definitely no slacking here and a good deal of pain being dealt!
• No hiding or coasting occurred for the time trial, with over 90% of the time spent above LT+1 power!

The results of this study fit pretty well with what would have been predicted based on other studies in the literature on cyclists in other disciplines and durations (e.g., cyclocross, mountain bike), levels (e.g., amateurs), and terrain (e.g., mountain stages). It was also excellent in having both current lab test values matched to field data through a variety of terrain, and specifically in having power values rather than relying on indirect measures of workload like heart rate.

What really stuck out for me was the split in time spent at different power zones. None of the riders were having an easy ride throughout the tour, with at least an hour daily spent at a very hard effort. It also reminds us that road racing is not just about cruising ability, but also about the ability to handle repeated hard efforts, recover, then go hard again, and that this better be incorporated into training!

So there you have it, now you have benchmarks to aim for. Good luck living the dream!

1. Vogt S, Heinrich L, Schumacher YO, Blum A, Roecker K, Dickhuth HH, and Schmid A. Power output during stage racing in professional road cycling. Med Sci Sports Exerc 38: 147-151, 2006.

About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at [email protected].

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