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Hearts that pump iron

It's their commitment to training that sets Tour de France riders apart

travel Updated: Jul 25, 2010 10:41 IST

A 100 years ago, the Tour de
France was not deemed challenging
enough. Henri
Desgrange, the first organiser
of the Tour, and his team
decided to press the riders higher, taking
them through some of the toughest
peaks through the Pyrenees. Desgrange,
analysing his decision, later said, "The
Tour de France only became the Tour
de France when we sent the riders into
the mountains."

The riders, though, took some time warming up to the task. On 21 July 1910, Octave Lapize struggled up the Col du Tourmalet, first of the mountain stages added to the course, walking alongside his bike. As he crossed the next pass, the Col d'Aubisque, he shouted out at the organisers, "You are all assassins.

No human being should be put through an ordeal like this. That's enough for me."

But he carried on, establishing the strong bond between cycling and suffering.

By all accounts, cycling as a tool of fitness is on the upward curve in India. But there is neither the scientific knowhow nor any idea of ingredients that go into making a top-level cyclist.

And the Tour de France is the pinnacle for endurance athletes.

Tough as it gets
"There is no other sport in the world that continues for 21 days, day in and day out, over mountains, in the rain and heat, over rough terrain," said Hunter Allen, an elite cycling coach. "The guys that win? They are genetic mutants. Truly mutants. There aren't many of them on the planet." It is the commitment to training that sets the Tour riders apart.

Jamie Wilkins, of Procycling magazine, writes, "Over the full duration of the Tour de France, 2,263 miles this year, the winner will average around 26 mph. That's faster than many club time triallists can manage for 10 miles.

"The truth is that most of us have the physiology to be a decent racer if we trained as much as they do. Call it 30 hours a week for around five years. That's about how long it takes to condition the body thoroughly.

"After three years of retirement, during which he ran marathons, Lance Armstrong trained hard for a whole 12 months ahead of last year's Tour de France and yet peers and press alike spoke about his lack of conditioning as if he'd only been training for a fortnight."

Armstrong is best known for his superhuman turnaround on the racing track, from a cancer survivor to a seventime Tour de France winner. But the Texan is also not physically built like an average human being.

Not your average guy
Back in 1998, Armstrong's coach Chris Carmichael said, "He possesses a large, strong heart that can beat more than 200 times a minute operating at maximum capacity and pump an exceptionally large volume of blood and oxygen to his legs -- only around 100 other men on earth, who have been tested, have comparable abilities."

Five-time Tour winner in the 90s, Miguel Indurain, had a resting heart rate of just 28 beats per minute, less than half of that of an average person. But though the two famous cyclists were blessed with a physiology tailor-made for their chosen sport, it's the love of pain that kept them at the top.

"It's a hard race; you suffer a lot. It's a long race, so it's long suffering, which is worse than suffering," Armstrong had once remarked.

It's also a long, hard sacrifice. The riders have to give up on drinking with their friends, literally measure what they eat, and spend up to six hours in a day on the bike.

And they also need a large heart, not just literally. "The real motivation, the force that impels when cold rain falls and a further mountain pass beckons, comes from inside. It's the final element that bonds the training, the dedication and the physical potential," concludes Wilkins. With agency inputs.

Armstrong's vital stats
Resting heart rate of 32-34 bpm (for the average person this is 60-100 bpm). VO2 max (standard measure of aerobic fitness based on body's ability to take up oxygen): 83.8 ml/kg/min. Among male endurance athletes you might expect to see average VO2max values of 70ml/kg/min. Lactate threshold heart-rate: 178bpm.

First Published: Jul 25, 2010 10:41 IST