Q&A: How to survive cycling's greatest race

The three-week journey to Paris is equal parts muscle and mettle but staying in the race takes much more.

Today, the Tour de France begins Stage 17 as the race travels 124.5 km between Saint-Gaudens and the summit at Pla d'Adet in the south of France. The cyclists briefly dip into Spain before staring up at four mountain climbs, with a mountain top finish in the Pyrenees. It will be a brutal slog that tests the climbing capabilities of the leanest General Classification (GC) contenders and the fortitude of sprinters, who much prefer the flat stuff.

Finishing a three-week grand tour is about competition as much as it is survival, as evident by the carnage from the last couple of weeks. We wanted to find out how a professional cyclisttrains for his first Tour de France, stays healthy, and as many unwilling cyclists have learned, knows when to bow out. We spoke with Josu Larrazabal, team trainer for Trek Factory Racing, and team doctor Dr. Andreas Gösele, who oversees athletes like Jens Voigt, Fabian Cancellara, American Matthew Busche and Tour de France winner Andy Schleck.

Q: How does training change when a cyclist transitions from a one-day event like a Classic to a three-week Grand Tour?

Josu Larrazabal:“In the Classics, riders face a series of less than 5-minute (cobbles) and less than 10-minute (ardennes) efforts. In these races, anaerobic efforts (less than 1 minute) play an important role, so this needs to be taken into account for training. In the Grand Tours, there are also sprint, ‘Classics’-style stages, but the aerobic demand is much bigger because all of the riders, not only the GC guys, need to manage the long efforts (20 minutes or more) as best as possible, so it’s all about endurance.”

Q: Psychologically, how do racing strategies change for the racers?

JL: “I think it depends on every individual. The Classics are about ‘all-in’ in one day. In the Grand Tours, the riders looking for the stage wins need to wait until the stages that fit them best. Their goals are in the long term for the GC guys who need to consider the whole 3 weeks as one race. Here fatigue plays a big role. The riders with a good endurance and recovery capacity will manage better in the Grand Tours. This is when the work of the directeur sportif (sport director) is so important: They manage the efforts of the guys in every stage in order to see them arrive in the best psychological and physical condition on the right stage.”

Q: What steps do athletes take each night to recover?

Dr. Andreas Gösele: “Immediately after the race (within the first 5 minutes), we try to give a protein shake to our riders. Amino acids, as well as glucose and rehydration, are the main goals within the first minutes and hour after the race. Later, the riders will eat a meal and refill their energy storages. It is very important to rehydrate until the next day or stage. Before the riders go to bed, they will have another protein drink.

The energy consumption for each rider depends on several factors: intensity, duration, weight of the athlete and temperature. In general, we can say that in mountain stages, it’s approximately 700-1000 kilojoules per hour [167-239 calories per hour]. In flat stages, the consumption is 500-800 kilojoules per hour [120-191 calories per hour]. They take anti-inflammatories only in the case of injuries.”

Q: What are the first signs a rider is overcooked and needs rest? In a stage race, is it possible to bounce back?

AG: “The signs are loss of performance, tired, bad sleep, low watts and high heart rate, nervousness and temper changes. Coming back from it depends on the next stages and goals. On flat stages, it is possible. If there is wind or climbs, then it is not possible or at least very hard."

Q: How does a rider compensate for sickness or colds?

AG: "Infections like colds or stomach problems are always very hard to compensate in long endurance sports. In flat stages, it is easier to handle than in mountain stages."

Q: When is it safe to compete and when is it not?

AG: "If a rider is suffering a lot (symptoms of pain, coughing, etc.) or in case of fever, we do not let him start."

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