From body fat to power output: anatomy of a Tour de France rider
Over the course of this year’s Tour de France, each pro cyclist will ride 3,328km – roughly the distance from London, England, to Tbilisi, in Georgia – complete half a million pedal revolutions, and ooze 150 litres of sweat – enough to fill a bath tub.
In order to complete this extraordinary challenge, Tour riders need extraordinary bodies. And thanks to the growth in sports science data and fitness trackers, we are now able to see exactly how superhuman Tour de France riders really are…
BODY WEIGHT: 60-66KG
Pro cyclists often have very different physiques, from muscular sprinters to spoke-thin climbers. But scientific research suggests that the all-round riders who need to climb for the general classification title typically weigh 60-66kg – a huge 20kg lighter than the average man in the UK (83.6kg). They also boast a Body Mass Index (BMI) – a measure of a person’s ideal weight in relation to their height – of 19-20, which straddles the border between ‘healthy’ and ‘underweight’. The most recent winner of the Tour de France, Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia, weighs just 66kg.
HEART RATE: 42BPM
Data from wearable fitness experts Whoop has revealed that Tour de France riders have an average resting heart rate of just 42 beats per minute (bpm). According to the American Heart Association, 60-100bpm is considered normal, so Tour riders have a significantly lower resting heart rate than the rest of us. Thanks to years of fitness training, their hearts are so fantastically efficient that they can beat 20-60 times per minute less often than the hearts of other people, in order to pump enough oxygen around their bodies.
BODY FAT: 5%
Pro riders usually start the Tour with just 5% body fat. That’s much lower than the norm of 18-24% for an average man, or 25-31% for an average woman. But staying slim helps them to blast up mountains at a faster pace.
POWER OUTPUT: 300 WATTS
During a normal stage of the Tour de France, pro riders can pump out around 230-250 watts on average, which equates to burning about 900 calories per hour. But on some of the harder stages they can average over 300 watts, or 1,100 calories per hour. Tadej Pogačar has a Functional Threshold Power – an estimate of the power he can sustain for around one hour – of around 415 watts. But for explosive one-hour attacks on big climbs, some Tour riders have been known to exceed an average of 500 watts. And in the final stages of a sprint finish, sprinters can hit maximal efforts of over 1,500 watts.
POWER TO WEIGHT: 6 WATTS PER KILOGRAM
As the Tour de France is a mountainous event, a rider’s maximum power output in relation to their bodyweight is a crucial factor. This is known as their power-to-weight ratio. Most top pro riders have a power to weight ratio of 6 watts per kilogram for a one-hour effort, whereas an amateur rider may have a ratio of 3 watts per kilogram, and a recreational rider may have a rate of 1.8 watts per kilogram. With a physique constructed of more lean muscle and less body fat than the rest of us, pro riders can be over three times more effective than recreational riders.
MAXIMUM HEART RATE: 1 HOUR 25 MINUTES
Data from Whoop has revealed that on stage eight of the 2020 Tour de France pro riders spent around 51% of the time at 80-90% of their maximum heart rate, and 38% of the stage in the 90-100% max heart rate zone. That means they endured 1 hour and 25 minutes of all-out suffering. Not all stages are that hard, but it’s a sign of how tough things are when riders are locked in an epic battle on the roads of France.
TIME TRIAL: 403 WATTS
Analysis of a Tour de France time trial by SRM suggests elite riders can sustain over 403 watts for a 40-minute time trial effort. This is made possible by sustaining a cadence of 94rpm and maintaining an average heart rate of 149bpm. It means top riders can keep up a speed of over 45kph without any drafting support whatsoever.
VO2 MAX: 70-80 mL/kg/min
Scientific research has confirmed that Tour pros have a VO2 max (a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilise during exercise, which is often used as a marker for physical fitness) of 70-80 mL/kg/min. To put that into perspective, an average male aged 30-39 would have a VO2 max of 35-40, and an average woman would register 27-31. So pro cyclists are literally 2-3 times fitter than the rest of us.