GT rider vs Ironman World Champion. Who's the strongest?

Cycling historians may recall the atypical anatomy of Mr Lance Edward Armstrong when competing for his first professional cycling team, Motorola, back in 1992. The then 21-year-old dwarfed his Eddy Merckx race bike, his broad shoulders and wing-shaped back a standout in a peloton of matchstick men. The Texan’s muscular upper body had been forged from his junior years spent as a triathlete. And a damn good one at that: he was ranked top under-19 national triathlete.

Armstrong’s not the only cyclist to have played around with both sports. Former pro cyclists Adam Hansen and Andrew Talansky have racked up the Ironman miles, while Ineos Grenadiers’ Cameron Wurf forged a successful long-course triathlon career after a first part of his career in pro cycling – and he's now racing in both.

In short, cycling and triathlon has history. It also has similarities and differences with many suggesting the 3.8km swim, 180km bike and marathon run of Ironmans the hardest one-day challenge in sport; three-week Grand Tours like the Tour de France are deemed the hardest multi-day events. 

It was these similarities and differences that came under the scientific spotlight at the annual Science & Cycling Conference in Leuven, Belgium, in the build-up to last September’s road World Championships. In cycling circles, Dan Lorang is known as head of performance and head coach at Bora-Hansgrohe. It’s his job to ensure the likes of Emanuel Buchmann and Sam Bennett are at their physical peak come race time.Emmanuel Buchman at the 2019 Tour de France. Photo: Zac Williams/SWpix.com

It’s also his job in triathlon – a world in which Lorang’s equally as successful. Among his multisport disciples are three-time Ironman world champion Jan Frodeno and 2019 Ironman world champion Anne Haug. 

Over a riveting 45-minute seminar, Lorang delivered an exclusive insight into the physiological comparisons between road-cyclist and GrandTour contender Buchmann and Ironman legend Frodeno. Read on and prepare for power profiles that are off the scale.

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A year in numbers

“My analysis of the data was from 2019,” Lorang revealed. “This was an interesting year for the athletes I coach; in fact, it was a dream year. Frodeno and Haug both won Ironman Hawaii plus Anne won the European title.

“It was also a successful year for Bora-Hansgrohe with their best-ever GC Tour result of fourth thanks to Buchmann. They won many times that year, too [47, to be precise, including 13 for Sam Bennett]].

“Here’s how Emnanuel and Jan compared physiologically.”

 

CYCLIST (Buchmann)

IRONMAN (Frodeno)

Height

1.83m

1.94m

Weight

59kg

74kg

Body fat (%)

7-8

4-5

VO2max (ml/min/kg) on bike

84-86

73-75

VLamax (mmol/l/s)

0.27-0.29

0.25-0.30

 

Many cyclists will be aware of VO2max and have probably undertaken some form of test, be it in the lab or out in the field. VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilise during exercise to create energy. In essence, it’s a measure of aerobic power and as oxygen is nectar when it comes to long aerobic, endurance efforts like the Tour or Ironman, a high VO2max is clearly advantageous. 

But it’s not everything.

VLamax is the maximum production rate of lactate in your working muscles and is broadly a measure of your anaerobic system’s performance. It tells you how well your glycolytic energy system is performing and, perhaps confusingly, a high VLamax can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on your sporting endeavour.

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A high VLamax increases the available energy for all-out shorter efforts, so is beneficial for a sprinter like Bennett. However, the glycolytic energy system that VLamax measures also produces lactate and burns that oh so precious fuel ‘carbohydrates’. In this instance, a high VLamax decreases anaerobic threshold and fat combustion, and, in turn, lengthens recovery time from intense efforts. So for sub-maximal junkies like Frodeno and Buchmann, a slightly lower VLamax is arguably more beneficial.

“You can see that the Ironman and cyclist are very different athletes, the triathlete having lower body fat and greater muscle mass than the cyclist,” Lorang added. “Mind you, Jan’s always been on the thin side."Jan Frodeno at the 2019 Ironman World Championship in Kona. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for IRONMAN

“Much of this difference is down to muscle mass and strength training. A cyclist like Buchmann might ask whether adding 2kg muscle mass to reach 61kg is desirable, but clearly that’s extra to carry in the mountains. It’s why GC riders often fear strength training, while with triathletes there’s no discussion.”

Training comparison

This approach to strength training, plus the multi-disciplinary nature of triathlon, resulted in two very training programmes, as we can see from a comparison of their training hours in 2019.

TYPE OF TRAINING

CYCLIST (Buchmann)

IRONMAN (Frodeno)

Bike hours (% of training)

1,085 (96.8)

602 (55.2)

Core training

35 (3.2)

30

Strength training

Negligible

72

Swim

n/a

250 (22.8)

Run

n/a

241 (22)

Total endurance hours

1,085

1,093

 

“When you look at training hours, it matches what we know from literature into world-class endurance athletes and that’s them training around 1,000 hours each year,” Lorang said. “Emmanuel and Jan are similar in this respect. Cleary, Emmanuel undertakes his exclusively on the bike while Jan’s split across the three main disciplines.

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“As mentioned, it’s also clear that Jan’s bought into the strength-training benefits and has done for years. Emmanuel less so. Is that something cyclists can learn from? Could we reduce bike hours and add more gym work? Maybe but, again as mentioned, a GC rider must perform in the mountains whereas an Ironman mainly competes over flatter parcours.”

Race frequency also plays an important role here. Road cyclists regularly tick off upwards of 80 race days each year, albeit in 2019 Buchmann came in at a relatively light 63 days. Still, that’s significantly more than an Ironman who’ll rarely race more than three full Ironmans each year. That means significantly more ‘free’ time to focus and recover from training, including strength training, compared to a road cyclist like Buchmann.

Lorang reflected on whether cyclists could benefit from this multisport approach, albeit clearly a much watered-down version. Multisport’s certainly popular in America at junior level to bulletproof the body and prevent overuse injuries. The likes of Primoz Roglic and Tom Pidcock are renowned for integrating running into their programme, Roglic’s coach Mathieu Heijoboer revealing at this same conference that the Slovenian would run 30 minutes every day before breakfast. It’s certainly been shown to improve bone density, though Lorang warned, “Running for a cyclist isn’t always a positive because of the muscle damage and impact from landing.”

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Intensity of training Lorang then dug deep into the intensity-distribution data. All of you who’ve spent the winter riding Zwift on a smart trainer will be aware of the importance of training intensity and workload, the idea being to stress but not destroy the body and mind in an effort to ride further and faster. Adaptation’s a complex balance of duration, effort and recovery, and is something the empirical minded like Lorang have seemingly mastered. This is the data he presented.

RIDING INTENSITY

CYCLIST (Buchmann)

IRONMAN (Frodeno)

40-80% FTP

83.22%

77.1%

81-95%

6.8%

16%

96-104%

4.1%

5.4%

105-130%

4.3%

1.5%

Over 130%

1.58%

0.94%

 

Most of you will be aware that FTP’s shorthand for functional threshold of power, which is broadly the power output in watts that you can hold for an hour. Power aficionados question its 100% validity, but it’s a strong enough benchmark for most of us.

“The profiles were relatively similar,” Lorang concludes. “Jan did a little more VO2max training (96-104% FTP) whereas Emmanuel spent longer at the lower level of around 40-80% FTP.” Arguably, this is no surprise as Buchmann would spend many stages sheltered by his team and the peloton as a whole. Ironman, on the other hand, is non-drafting, meaning you can’t benefit from the energy-saving joy of slipstreaming another rider. 

Dan Lorang, Head of performance and innovation at BORA-Hansgrohe and coach of Jan Frodeno. Photo: BORA-hansgrohe/Lukgood Studio.

Intensity and power profiling’s at the heart of every modern-day professionals’ training prescription, its importance highlighted by Lorang then delving into the time-based maximum power profile for Buchmann and Frodeno, plus another GC rider from a study by sport scientist Teun van Erp. Van Erp revealed the power breakdown of Tom Dumoulin when both were at Sunweb. Van Erp’s now at Ineos Grenadiers. For data-philes it makes interesting reading.

 

CYCLIST (Buchmann w/kg)

CYCLIST (Dumoulin w/kg)

IRONMAN (Frodeno w/kg)

5secs

14.3

15

10.1

10secs

13.3

14.1

7.94

30secs

10.2

10.1

5.66

1min

8.49

8.9

5.23

5mins

6.94

7.2

4.7

10mins

6.5

6.8

4.45

20mins

6.1

6

4.34

60mins

5.35

5.3

4.1

120mins

4.47

4.7

4

180mins

4.34

4.4

3.97

 

This data shows what it takes to be a top GC rider and top Ironman,” Lorang said. “You can see from the profiles how different road racing and Ironman racing are. In a bike race, there’s a lot of low intensity but this is interspersed with many periods of high intensity, like a climb or breakaway. In Ironman, it’s much more about an even-paced effort.”

That’s why the power profiling over 180 minutes is similar across the three athletes but ‘decouples’ as the efforts become shorter.

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“It shows how important pacing is to both disciplines, but especially for the fluctuating nature of cycling; that said, when we talk about pacing I’m not a fan of giving a rider numbers like you have to go 305 or 380 watts and that’s it. It’s very much down to how they feel on the day.

“Where this information is more useful is more broadly working through a course with a rider and pointing out different sections where you might increase or decrease power. It’s all about managing energy reserves and is particularly useful for younger riders."

Buchmann at the 2021 Giro d'Italia alongside Egan Bernal. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“When it comes to older athletes, often it’s more down to feel. Then again, with Annie we’d collect data but she didn’t want to follow her power meter. She’d just go easy or go hard. So she faced an Ironman and we gave her no pacing strategy at all and she struggled on the run. Some months later she competed again, stayed in the zones prescribed and the difference was amazing.

“Ultimately, we’re always looking at the data to help steer decisions but that doesn’t take away from speaking to the athlete and understanding between the lines. That’s much more important than a number. Day-to-day, what are they telling you and how are they telling you? Explain to the athlete what a session is for and seek feedback on whether the intensity feels too high or too low depending on how they feel. Communication is key.” Lorang then finished things off by examining the season as a whole of both Buchmann and Frodeno.

Related: How UAE Team Emirates test their riders in just three minutes.

Altitude and heat training

Altitude training’s as omnipresent within a GC rider’s ‘toolkit’ as rice cakes, massage balm and Training Peaks. It was the same for Buchmann in the build-up to his fourth place at the 2019 Tour de France. 

“The season went well from the beginning where he won in Mallorca [February],” Lorang said. “He then finished fourth overall at the UAE Tour before his first altitude camp. It was then onto the Itzulia Basque Country, where he came third, and then Tour de Romandie, where he finished seventh. A second altitude camp followed before his third place at the Critérium du Dauphiné and a third altitude camp. That was an important one, particularly with regards coping with the third week of the Tour’s high-altitude mountains. It was a tough, long period away from home but the physiological and performance results were amazing. Key to this was that Emmanuel started the season at a good level and was only 1kg over race bodyweight. He only had two days off sick, which helped.

“Jan’s preparation couldn’t have been more different. The Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, are in October. In 2019, Jan didn’t train at altitude but did train in the heat to match the heat of Hawaii. He also based himself in Maui for around four weeks before the big day in Kona. He’d been injured the year before and came back with some huge volume weeks. And it all came together as he won his third Hawaii title and so kept his word… At the end of 2018, his manager, myself and Jan all signed an agreement that he would win the World Championships 2019. We framed it and went forward. There were no doubts.

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Elite-level conclusions

Lorang concluded his rich insight into what it takes to mould world-class endurance athletes with these bullets. For the Rouleur rider, they’re all takeaways, albeit you might have to tone a couple of them down somewhat.

  • Consistency of training is key with a good mixture of volume and intensity. 
  • Mental and physical recovery is vital for progress and to prevent injury and burnout.
  • To be an elite athlete  at the top level requires training and racing for over 1,000 hours each year.
  • A variation in bodyweight of 2-3kg over year seems optimum.
  • Monitor your training and look to increase performance week by week, month by month. 
  • A good team around you helps.
  • 100% dedication. That’s not new but is the most important factor.

 

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