What's Cool In Road Cycling

Vuelta vs Tour: Which is Tougher?

You’re chilling out around the post-ride coffee chat when the conversation spins around to La Vuelta. It’s way shorter than Le Tour and Il Giro, so it can’t be nearly as tough, right? Well, trust us science geeks to come to the rescue with the answer! Unfortunately, the answer also brings up some potentially disturbing questions about the ongoing fight against drugs in cycling…

Muy Caliente
La Vuelta is often looked upon by cycling-snobs (especially those in France and Italy!) as third in importance and prestige of the Grand Tours. It’s the youngest of the big three and also comes at the end of the season, so it’s often the last refuge for those looking to redeem a poor Tour or season. Sometimes it works (e.g., Jan Ullrich took an awesome victory in 1999 after sitting out most of the season and carried it through to a TT worlds victory) and sometimes it doesn’t (e.g., Levi Leipheimer and Cadel Evans only reinforced their bad luck season this year).

The shorter daily stages and early arrival of the mountains, combined with the cut-throat, constantly aggressive racing style of the Spaniards (it’s as if somebody slathered Tiger Balm all over every rider’s chamois) guarantees three weeks of racing that’s muy caliente. But from a physiological perspective, just how difficult is La Vuelta compared to Le Tour?

Dissecting the Races
Remember our friend Dr. Alejandro Lucia, the University of Madrid scientist who is the consultant to the ibanesto.com team (If not, go read the interview)? He published a paper in the prestigious Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. journal this year looking at this exact question of comparing La Vuelta and Le Tour (1). One of the difficulties of the experimental design was simply finding sufficient subjects for the experiment, because it’s a sad fact that so few riders ride both events now in the same year. As it stands, he took heart rate data throughout every single stage on seven riders who raced the double in either 1997, 1999, 2000, or 2001. The subjects performed a baseline test in the lab, and the heart rate zones were broken down into the three intensity zones suggested by Lucia .

With the HR data and zones in hand, Lucia calculated a total workload score based on the time spent in each zone. The end result? Despite the Tour lasting much longer (5552 min) than the Vuelta (5086 min), the total workload score were similar for both races. This meant that the pundits were right. The peloton made up for the shorter distances by spending at least the same if not more time dunking their bodies in major lactic acid baths. This also meant that the UCI’s hope that shorter stages would make stages races physiologically “easier” and therefore less tempting for riders to assist recovery using illegal means may not really be successful!

What to Tell the UCI?
A simple study, but with potentially explosive implications. Maybe the peloton cannot be simply regulated by shorter stages or other “comforts” like more rest days during stages races, and that they will simply adjust the intensity of racing to match the imposed limits? If so, then the fight against drug use may not be helped as much by scheduling changes as assumed. Then what?

1. Lucia A, Hoyos J, Santalla A, Earnest C, and Chicharro JL. Tour de France versus Vuelta a Espana: which is harder? Med Sci Sports Exerc 35: 872-878, 2003.

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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