A day in the life of a Tour de France cyclist and what does it take to be a top rider

  • N Ananthanarayanan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 07, 2016 16:22 IST
The 2016 Tour will be run over 21 stages (daily segments), over three weeks (this year has just two rest days) covering a staggering 3,535 kms. (AFP)

Driving is stressful in many big Indian cities, but that hasn’t deterred the fitness-conscious from taking to cyling in a big way. Even at night, with the helmet and reflector jacket on, one can see people pedalling away.

Cycling, like running, is a passion, and is great for healthy living or to complement training in other sports. But professional cycling is an altogether different beast.

The Tour de France, the world’s toughest professional race, is currently on, and we take you through what it is all about for those warriors on bikes.

The cycle

The 2016 Tour will be run over 21 stages (daily segments), over three weeks (this year has just two rest days) covering a staggering 3,535 kms.

They feature the fastest, lightest and best-handling professional bikes. A bike’s total built weight is a meagre 10 pounds (approx 4.5 kg). In fact, riders, who weigh only around 65 kg, add ballast to achieve the race’s minimum weight of 15 pounds (approx 6.8 kg) for the bike. A button is pushed to activate an electronic shifter for gear change. No wonder they cost a whopping 10,000 pounds (approx. R8.7 lakh), far more than a decent car!

Aerodynamics is king with drag estimated to consume about 50 per cent of a rider’s energy while in the pack and nearly 90 per cent if he is on his own. Riders average a stunning 55 kph, and ultra-light bike frames and sweat reducing jerseys help them achieve that.

The training days

The specialists are the sprinters and climbers. The overall winners are often versatile, riders who are excellent climbers who also have the power not to cede much time to sprinters.

In training, the toughest for riders can be the test days when they are asked to ride as fast as they can for specific, short bursts to determine their maximum power. That apart, riders usually train in groups, either attacking climbs or racing on flat stretches.

The calorie count

Spending almost six hours on the bike will make demands nutritionally and physically and a rider will need more than 5,000 calories to handle each stage.

That means eating in the morning, on the way to the start, during the race and afterwards besides staying hydrated by drinking fluids to maintain the right amount of body fluids. 

“Suppression of appetite and meal fatigue due to eating the same food every day for weeks must also be managed,” cyclingweekly.co.uk quotes sports nutritionist, Corinne Mader, as saying.

A 9 am breakfast, three hours before the race, contains carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, cereal, fruit, coffee, smoothies, orange juice and even noodles to top up glycogen levels, according to the website.

Around 10.30 am, the riders have more snacks on way to the starting point to add calories. The diet will change with the difficulty of the stage, distance, weather and whether the rider is coasting mid-race or frantically racing close to the finish.

During the race, riders are handed food at ‘feeding stations’ along the route. That includes rice cakes, energy bars and gels to provide calories. The fluid intake goes up if it is hot.

The race usually ends around 5 pm, when riders take recovery drinks and food to replenish the body’s protein and carb levels.

Some snacks on the team bus will follow dinner. Dinner is likely to include meat or fish, and custom-made food by the team chef to ensure the rider is not bored by the same fare every evening. Staying hydrated is vital, and it’s important to replenish the sodium and potassium levels in the body, which is not possible if one drinks only water. “The sodium content in an electrolyte drink is crucial in helping the riders keep fluid balance in their body,” a nutrition expert told the website. 

The diet chart is drawn a few months before the race. The focus is to stay light but not suffer reduced muscle mass. Sweat losses are measured in training to assess the amount of fluid required. A rider can lose up to three litres a day, which means drinking more than 10 litres of fluids is needed. With the body relying on glucose during the race, the carb-level consumed is around 70 %.

Recovery involves three parts: carbohydrate, protein and fluid. A cyclist’s body needs carbohydrates to replenish depleted glycogen stores, high-quality protein for repairing the damaged muscle tissue and fluid plus electrolytes for rehydration.

The racing ways

Tour de France is a lot about sacrifice of teammates to help the rider chosen to chase the overall title to win. (the overall leader during the race wears yellow jersey, maillot jaune in French). The majority of the team members, called domestique (servant in French), work for this.

Their tasks include protecting their leader in the peleton --- mass of riders together and usually including the race leader in yellow jersey. If the main rider suffers a puncture, crash or falls behind, it is the duty of the domestique to pace him back. He also ferries fluid bottles from team cars and collects food at the feeding station and hands it to the main rider.

The best sprinter --- points can be earned through intermediate sprints and by sticking to the top finishers --- dons the green jersey. The points leader in the mountains wears the polka dot jersey and the best young rider gets the white jersey. The reigning world champion can wear the rainbow jersey.

The Tour de France also has traditions. One is the closest rival waiting in case the rider in yellow jersey crashes. Sprinters are allowed to go ahead and fight to finish. And no one mounts a challenge on the leader during the final stage, which finishes at the Arc de Triomphe.

Breakaway winners are rare as wind resistance is too much for the solo rider or a small bunch to surmount. 

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