The Tour de France is widely regarded as the ultimate test of endurance. Over the course of 21 days, riders cover more than 3,500 kilometres, conquering over 50,000 metres of elevation. There are athletes, and then there are Tour de France athletes.
Merely watching them on television, you can sense their exceptional fitness as they effortlessly tackle steep mountain passes with gradients reaching double digits. Of course, they dedicate countless hours to training and have teams of professionals meticulously measuring and preparing every aspect of performance. There is no room for error in cycling, as even slight differences can significantly impact a rider's success in the Tour de France. But how much fitter are they compared to your average cyclist?
To answer this question, the sports scientists at the Porsche Human Performance Centre needed a volunteer from the Rouleur team. Stepping up to the challenge, I made my way to their HQ located at the Silverstone race circuit to meet sports scientists Jack Wilson and Tristen Reed, who were prepared to subject me to three gruelling tests to determine how I stacked up against the pros.
Test one: VO2 Max
A VO2 max test is a rigorous exercise test conduction on a treadmill or stationary bike while connected to a machine that analyses a person's expired air. The test measures the amount of oxygen utilised during exercise and determines the maximum amount of oxygen a person can consume during physical activity. Simply, the higher your VO2 max, the bigger your engine.
A person's VO2 max does depend on sex, weight and height, and the average sedentary male has a VO2 max of 35 to 40 ml/kg/min and females have a range of 27 to 30 ml/kg/min. The score will be higher for your average cyclist as they are training their aerobic fitness, and this will improve further if they are training particularly hard.
In my case, I underwent the VO2 max test using a stationary bike. I was equipped with an oxygen mask and a heart rate monitor, both connected to a computer which would measure my oxygen levels. Once set up, I was instructed to start pedalling. As the minutes pass, I was asked to increase my cadence as the resistance on the bike intensified. During the test, I also had to rate my perceived exertion level (RPE).
After eight and a half minutes, I reached my peak performance and could no longer sustain the set cadence – this marked my time to exhaustion. In total, my VO2 max score was measured at 55 ml/kg/min. According to Garmin's website, this score falls within the "superior" range for a 27-year-old woman. However, Wilson and Reed presented some statistics that toppled my "superior" status.
Tadej Pogačar is said to have a VO2 max score of 89.4 ml/kg/min (Zac Williams/SWPix.com)
They revealed that the expected VO2 max range for a Tour de France rider in the men's peloton is between 70 and 85. Notably, the yellow jersey favourite, Tadej Pogačar, boasts a remarkable VO2 max of 89.4. It's safe to say I would never stand a chance racing against him! Then comparing myself to the women's peloton, though, I'm not as far off. The average VO2 max for Tour de France Femmes riders falls between 60 and 70. Maybe a chance in the grupetto?
Test two: peak power output
After completing one test, it was time for the next: peak power output. This test measures the maximum amount of power an individual can generate within a given time frame and provides insights into anaerobic performance.
The test involved a six-second effort on a Wattbike repeated three times, with a few minutes of rest inbetween. It's worth noting that the six seconds had to be initiated from a static position without pedalling. The overall results revealed a peak power output of 754 watts at a cadence of 121. Considering my weight at 66kg, this translates to 11.4 watts per kilogram (w/kg).
According to Cycling Analytics, the average watts for a male in a five-second sprint is around 930 watts or 12.14w/kg. Whereas for women, the average watts in a five-second sprint is slightly lower at 632 or 10.03w/kg.
So, how does that compare to what the pros can produce? Well, it pales in comparison to their staggering numbers. Wilson and Reed shared some metrics indicating that male riders can reach between 1,600 and 1,800 watts during a five-second sprint at the end of a race, and up to 1,900 watts if they are not fatigued.
Lorena Wiebes winning the opening stage of the 2022 Tour de France Femmes where she recorded an impressive 1,211 watts (Zac Williams/SWPix.com)
The female riders also exhibit impressive strength, achieving between 1,000 and 1,200 watts in a sprint. Sprint queen Lorena Wiebes, for example, celebrated a victory on the iconic Champs-Élysées during the 2022 Tour de France Femmes. She recorded an astonishing 1,211 watts as she crossed the finish line, putting her into the race's first yellow jersey.
Test three: heat chamber
The Tour de France can be scorchingly hot, especially as it takes place during the peak of the French summer. Temperatures can reach up to 40 degrees Celsius, which significantly impacts the performance of many riders. To demonstrate this effect, my third and final test of the day involved spending 30 minutes in a heat chamber set to 40 degrees, while pedalling on a static bike. The objective of the test was to observe how my body adapted to the heat.
Before entering the chamber, my core body temperature was recorded at 36.9 degrees Celsius. Throughout the heat chamber test, my temperature and heart rate was monitored every five minutes, and even after five minutes of cycling, my body temperature had jumped to 38.1 degrees Celsius, accompanied by a heart rate of 174 beats per minute.
During stage nine of this year's Tour de France temperatures where in the mid-30s as the riders climbed the Puy de Dôme (Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)
As time went on, I started sweating profusely and contemplated how much more I would perspire during one of the Tour's gruelling mountain stages in 40-degree heat. Keeping in mind that during this test, I only had to maintain around 130 watts on a stationary bike, not battle it out for a stage win.
By the end of the 30-minute session, my core body temperature had soared to 39.9 degrees Celsius, while my heart rate matched this intensity at 198 beats per minute. Comparing this to my VO2 max test, where my heart rate at the point of exhaustion was 196 beats per minute, it became evident just how much riding in the heat can put a strain on the body.
The overall stats achieved by the Tour de France riders are extraordinary. From the VO2 max test to the gruelling task of riding in such high temperatures and the peak power output assessment, it's evident that the elite riders competing in the Tour de France possess remarkable levels of fitness, endurance, and power.
Their VO2 max scores far exceeded the average cyclist, showcasing their superior aerobic capacity. The intense heat of the race also takes a toll on their bodies, pushing them to their limits. Moreover, the jaw-dropping peak power outputs achieved by the pros highlight their explosive strength and anaerobic performance capabilities. It is clear that the Tour de France athletes operate on an entirely different level, exemplifying the pinnacle of endurance sport.