The Science of the Tour de France

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Guest blog by James Witts

Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Llandis, Lance Armstrong… The peloton’s worth of professional cyclists who have risen and fallen at the tip of a needle has left cycling’s reputation tarnished. Okay, that’s an understatement. Until Russia and their nefarious goings-on drew the world’s attention, cycling was the go-to sport whenever the words ‘doping’ and ‘professional sport’ were uttered from the lips of sporting commentators.

Many felt cycling deserved its dirty reputation; many deserted the sport, disillusioned that suspicion eclipsed enjoyment when it came to watching the world’s best. Chris Froome, for one, can’t escape the shadows of the past, the French press, in particular, questioning the legality of his every pedal stroke, every stage win, every Tour victory.

But Froome has passed every test (be it blood or urine) and he’s had many of them – the leader of the Tour is tested after every stage and cycling has led the way when it comes to implementing the biological passport, which measures a rider’s levels of new and old blood cells for signs of either EPO abuse or blood boosting. Compared to higher-profile sports like football, which many feel is apathetic and complacent when it comes to anti-doping measures, cycling is positively militant in seeking out the dopers.

Though they seek, they rarely find – there hasn’t been a high-profile positive case in cycling since Lance opened his heart – and medical cabinet – to Oprah Winfrey; instead, Team Sky’s fabled marginal gains have become shorthand for ‘racing fast, racing legal’. Cycling is hamstrung by its past; until Team Sky came along, it was all about racking up the miles, eating pasta and, all too frequently, seeing the team’s doctor for an artificial boost.

Sir Dave Brailsford and his team recognised these manacles and set about unlocking them by doing things differently. Where once teams would have spent a million pounds on a rider and their illegal performance enhancers, Sky would spend £900,000, paying the remaining £100,000 to a sports scientist and coach. Experts in exercise physiology and aerodynamics trawled the world’s sport-science conferences, universities and journals, looking for cutting-edge technology to give them the edge. That’s where my book, The Science of the Tour de France, comes in.

I spent 12 months at the Tour de France teams’ training camps and races – and hours on Skype! – to uncover what goes into creating the Chris Froomes and Alberto Contadors of this world. I interviewed the likes of sprinters Marcel Kittel and Peter Sagan, but also the coaches, sports scientists, nutritionists, aerodynamicists and chefs who help to create these champions. I discovered that science plays an increasingly important role in peak performance, and not just at Team Sky but across all teams.

Take the bikes. Manufacturers spend millions designing new frames via CFD (computational fluid dynamics) and wind-tunnel research. A teardrop-shaped frame, for instance, produces 20 times less drag than a round tube. In training, teams will also load the frames with sensors that gauge how a rider’s bike position changes at different speeds. They can then tweak how the rider positions himself on the bike to cut through the air faster.

Skinsuits are one of the greatest time savings. Watch the Tour and these will be omnipresent in the time-trials where it’s man against the clock. Alberto Contador’s apparel sponsor spent upwards of 400,000 Euros designing his suit, mapping his body and pedalling style to determine optimum seam placement and the perfect drag-reducing material.

When it comes to race nutrition, caffeine remains one of the most proven ergogenics, though many teams will begin the day with a beetroot smoothie. They genuinely taste as bad as they sound but research shows that the nitrates within beetroot makes exercise feel easier.

On the most debilitating mountain stages, riders can burn 8,000 calories. Even the most meticulous nutrition plan leaves a 1,200-calorie shortfall, often worse as the riders’ stomachs and digestive systems are pretty wrecked after 2,000 miles of cycling. So riders consuming gels, rice cakes and bars is a common sight around the Alps.

As Team Dimension Data’s Mancunian sports scientist Dr Jonathan Baker told me over lunch in their European base of Lucca – there are perks to this job! – ‘There are 10,000 sports-science journals published each year. It’s my job to sift out ones that might produce gains and actually work in the “real world”.’

And it was my job to relay that information to recreational riders of all standards so that a) they weren’t blinded by academia and b) they could integrate some of the ideas into their own training. That’s what I aimed for in The Science of the Tour de France. Whether I achieved it is over to you…

9781472921703Click here to buy The Science of the Tour de France: Training Secrets of the World’s Best Cyclists at discount.

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