What Makes a Tour de France Climbing Champion

| Thursday, February 11th, 2010 | No Comments »

Climbing and time trialing are the two most difficult aspects of road cycling. When the road turns seriously up, drafting plays a very minimal role, as each individual’s true ability is exposed. The first mountain stage of any Tour de France illustrates this, as riders are spread out all over the mountains while each rider climbs to the best of his ability. The best climbers make going uphill look effortless, even though their bodies are in terrible pain.

What makes a great climber, especially in the mountains, is an excellent power to weight ratio (watts/kg). A high power to weight ratio has two components: first, the ability to ride for long periods of time at a high power (maximal sustainable power). Typically a top climber can ride at 10% or more, above threshold power (or heart rate) for 30-60 minutes. Second, a low enough body weight so that the power translates into an advantage going uphill.

Having a high maximum sustainable power output will make an excellent time trialist on flat roads where the main obstacle is wind drag. To carry over this advantage to climbing, you need a low enough body weight in relation to the power produced. This is especially true on long and steep climbs. On short climbs of less than 5 minutes so called “none climbers” who carry more muscle can still make it over the top with the front riders by using their great power even though their watts/kg is inferior.

The 1996 Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis illustrated how much body weight can make a difference when going uphill. Riis beat the great Miguel Indurain in 1996. At the time of his win he weighed 150lbs (68kgs) and had a sustainable power output of 480 watts when going all-out on a climb or time trial. This gave him an incredible power to weight ratio of 7 watts per kilogram (480 / 68 = 7). 7 watts /kg is widely regarded as the magic number in order to be one of the world’s best.

Indurain had a sustained power output of 550 watts, a much higher number than Riis. However, he weighed in at 176lbs (80kgs), 26lbs heavier than Riis! This gave him a power to weight ratio of 6.8 watts/kg (550 / 80 = 6.8), 0.2 less than Riis. Indurain’s 70 watt higher power gave him the advantage in the time trials, where the main obstacle is wind drag. However, on the longest, steepest climbs of the Tour this was not the case as Riis’s 0.2 watts/kg advantage, made all the difference.

A few years before his Tour win, Riis’s story was quite different. He was a good professional, nothing more. At the time he weighed 165lbs (75kgs), 15lbs more than his tour winning weight. Riis was slightly overweight for a pro cyclist and could lose some body fat. With the help of a great coach he not only lost 15lbs (over a few years), but with a new, more scientific training program he was able to increase his power significantly, making him unbeatable in the 1996 Tour.

If you ever get a chance to see the Tour de France in person you will be surprised to see how skinny the top Tour de France contenders are. They are much smaller in real life compared to their TV image. This fact, substantiated by the math (watts/kg) proves that being skinny counts for peak performance uphill!

P.S. If you would like to join me on a Tour de France bike tour that promises to be the experience of a lifetime, contact me today. I am taking 2 groups on 2 tours this July.


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