Chasing the pink jersey: What it takes to challenge at the Giro d'Italia

Looking to discover the training strategies behind hitting top-five at the Giro d’Italia. Well, you’ve come to the right place…

The Giro d’Italia is one of the most gruelling endurance events in the world. Take this year’s event. It covers 3,448km, of which six stages are longer than 200km and climbing measures over 52km. Every rider would have racked up nearly 30,000km of pedalling each year in search of three-week peak performance. But what exactly does it take to head that 176-deep peloton of elite performers? In other words, exactly what training marries with the mystery of genetics to pinpoint which elite of the elite will be challenging for the maglia rosa come late May?

It’s a question Professor Manuel Mateo-March of the University Miguel Hernández de Elche and his team set out to answer in a 2022 study entitled, ‘How do world-class top-five Giro d’Italia finishers train? A qualitative multiple case study.’ It featured in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports in May 2022. Here, we delve deep into the paper to reveal the different pathways a rider follows in search of pink…

Lifting beneath the bonnet

“The first thing to say is that thanks to power meters, it was a relatively simple piece of research to undertake,” says Mateo-Mach. “We analysed the training and racing data of three world-class cyclists who achieved a top-five finish at the Giro at some point between 2015 and 2018 by collecting the data from their Power2Max power meters and analysing it via WKO software. The results were interesting…”

They were. We’ll dig into this shortly. But as interesting is Mateo-March’s eclectic academic palmarès, his past studies ranging from ‘the acute effect of Snus on physical performance and perceived cognitive load in amateur footballers’ to ‘attitudes towards doping and related experience in Spanish national cycling teams according to different Olympic disciplines’. Conclusions? That Snus makes budding Iniestas more mentally alert and that female cyclists are relatively “more permissive” towards the use of banned substances than female triathletes.

We digress. Back to what it takes to challenge for the Giro. Let’s begin with some hard-hitting data, highlighting the anthropometric and physiological characteristics of the top-five trio…

Cyclist A

Cyclist B

Cyclist C

Age (years)




Weight (kg)




Height (cm)




VO2max (ml/min/kg)




20min record power output (watts)




20min power-to-weight ratio (watts/kg)




20min record power output after 45kj/kg (watts)




20min power-to-weight ratio after 45kj/kg (watts/kg)




As you’d expect, there are many world-class physiological boxes ticked here. VO2max – the amount of oxygen that the riders can absorb and assimilate during intense exercise – is in the eighties; weight varies from 57kg to 64kg, so speed-scrubbing gravity’s not assisted too much on the mountains; and power-to-weight ratio is well into the sixes. Interestingly, Mateo-March and his team also examined how the riders’ efforts held up when fatigued, in this case once they’d burn through 45kj/kg, which in the case of cyclist A (64kg) equates to how his maximum 20min power output holds up after burning through 2,880 kilojoules of energy. The figure (420 watts) didn’t deviate and “is in line with the top 10-25 percentile of the normative data of WorldTour cyclists”.

Training split

How did they reach this place? “On average, the cyclists trained for 19.7hrs, 16.2hrs and 14.7hrs a week [peaking at 34.4hrs, 29.3hrs and 27.7hrs] and completed 17, 22 and 29 race days, respectively, before lining up for the Giro,” explains Mateo-March. “This is in line with weekly training volumes of WorldTour riders studied elsewhere.”

Arguably, more important is how that training was structured. The researchers split the training load into three zones: zone one, anything under 85% of functional threshold, which is roughly the maximum power output that can be maintained for an hour; zone two, 86 to 100% functional threshold; and zone three, efforts over 100% functional threshold.

“The overall intensity distribution of the preparation period was pyramidal in all three cyclists with a large proportion of high-volume, low-intensity training,” says Mateo-March. “This means that most of the time was spent at low intensity and a decreasing proportion of time at medium and high intensity.”

More specifically, the three riders averaged 87.2% of low-intensity work in the build-up to the Giro, 8.67% at mid-intensity and 4.13% at high intensity. This is a common split with riders spending the bulk of their training at low intensity to lay a strong aerobic foundation. They then perform high-intensity efforts, like repeated hill work, to crank up strength and power output. “This is in line with previous studies reporting intensity distribution over long periods in endurance athletes,” says Mateo-Mach.

Joao Almedia during the 2023 Giro d'ItaliaJoäo Almedia is UAE Team Emirates' GC rider in the 2023 Giro d'Italia (Image by

Tapering to peak

Where things became a little less textbook was peaking for the Giro. Studies show that tapering, where you look to flush out fatigue for fitness and freshness, is optimum when reducing training volume by around a 40-60% in the last week or two before competition. According to work by legendary exercise physiologist Inigo Mujika, who used to work with Euskaltel-Euskadi, this volume drop should be accompanied by maintaining intensity.

The physiological mechanisms of why maintaining intensity and reducing volume is the ideal isn’t 100% known. However, studies suggest that by working at an effort similar to race pace not only increases VO2max and anaerobic threshold, but also familiarises your neural pathways with the speed of movements you’ll be executing on the day.

This was one of the most significant disconnects between research and the real world as the three cyclists cut volume by 7%, 22% and 64% with two weeks to go and by 21%, 8% and 8% with one week to go.

This surprising minimal drop for cyclists B and C in ‘week minus one’ is down to them riding a stage race a week before the Giro, flipping the science ideal into a sort of inverse tapering of volume. “High-intensity volume work could theoretically be very effective,” the paper read, “especially if combining the high-intensity fast adaptive stimulus with the altitude training haematological adaptations.”

In search of higher performance

Which brings us onto the altitude component of the study. Seemingly since time immemorial, altitude training’s formed a core part of every self-respecting cyclist’s annual programme. As a reminder, the aim is to seek out rarefied air to stress the body so much that your kidneys will generate greater levels of the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, that stimulates the generation of red blood cells. Back at sea level, you’ll then possess greater capacity to carry and deliver oxygen to working muscles. Training at altitude’s also been shown to increase the number and efficiency of mitochondria (the cells’ energy powerhouses), increase the production of human growth hormone and stimulate fat metabolism. All in all, it’s seemingly an endurance athlete’s panacea.

Andreas Lekneussnd in the pink jersey at the 2023 Giro d'ItaliaAndreas Lekneussnd from Team DSM had his chance in the iconic maglia rosa for five stages of the 2023 edition (Image by

But it’s not perfect, especially as while the haematological side improves, a rider’s mechanical side – in other words, the muscular – can suffer because a rider simply can’t train to the same intensity at altitude compared to sea level. It’s why, in general, a rider will mix up training higher up and lower down a mountain during an altitude camp. Or they’ll sleep high and train low. Or a variant of.

Or, in the case of cyclist A, undertake no altitude training at all during the build-up into hitting top-five at the Giro d’Italia. That’s unusual and differed markedly to cyclists B and C who spent 55 and 39 days at altitude, respectively. This was over several stints up high and is in line with the literature that suggests you enjoy greater benefits by continually topping up your altitude-stimulated adaptations. 

Mathieu Heijboer, performance coach at Jumbo-Visma, once told me that this “accumulation of altitude” means riders could often train to a higher quality at later camps. “This is down to what scientists call a ‘hypoxic memory’, which enables them to acclimatise more quickly to altitude at subsequent camps, allowing a higher quality of training (with greater volume and/or intensity),” he said. “This means the overall training stimulus is heightened.”

It clearly worked for cyclists B and C, albeit they trained at a greater altitude (around 2,800m) than the textbook norm (around 1,800m-2,500m). There are potential negative effects to this, like overtraining, but, read the paper, “The fact that cyclists B and C are altitude natives could have ameliorated the negative effects of high-altitude exposure.”

As an aside, this native revelation plus the fact the riders employed Power2Max power meters, used by Movistar in the 2015 to 2018 study period, suggests cyclist B and cyclist C were two of either Costa Rica’s Andrey Amador, now of EF Education-EasyPost, who finished fifth at the 2015 Giro d’Italia; Richard Carapaz, also now at EF Education-EasyPost, who finished fourth at the 2018 Giro d’Italia; and Colombia’s Nairo Quintana who finished second at the 2017 Giro d’Italia.

Richard Carapaz during the 2022 Giro d'Italia (Image by

All three also cranked up the high-intensity volume in the taper as Amador finished 36th in the Tour de Romandie that finished just six days before the Giro started; Carapaz won the Vuelta Asturias Julio Alvarez Mendo, which also finished six days before the Giro; and Quintana did the same, albeit the Vuelta Asturias only finished four days before the Giro started. If we were forced to choose two, it’d have to be Carapaz and Quintana as Ecuador and Colombia are, in general, at higher altitude than Costa Rica.

We digress. But it’s clear that, broadly speaking, being born and raised at altitude pays off when the young South American rider graduates to the WorldTour. This is further supported by another study by Mateo-Mach and his team who showed that those cyclists raised at altitude were “conferred an advantage at mountainous races, especially races including efforts over 1,500m”.

Strength… or lack of it

The final standout from the Giro d’Italia study revolved around strength training – or lack of it. “None of the three cyclists performed strength training during the period analysed,” wrote the authors. “This is in contrast with previous studies that showed superior physiological and performance improvements in well-trained and elite road cyclists after 10 to 25 weeks of heavy strength training.”

Interestingly, the reason why strength training wasn’t performed was that the three cyclists were unwilling to perform strength training despite the coaches’ advice. “Whether a better persuasion method could have led to a better race result remains unknown given the descriptive nature of the study.”

Andrey Amador

Andrey Amador at the Giro d'Italia (SWPix)

Research shows that strength training increases power output while bolstering a rider’s defences against injury. Clearly the Movistar riders weren’t convinced. But would they be now? Analysis of power data stretched from 2015 to 2018 and, though not that long ago, the integration of strength training in the WorldTour is now the norm, even for GC riders and climbers who were once fearful weights meant extra muscle meant extra weight to haul up the mountains. Mateo-Mach certainly thinks they’d have reached a different result if the analysis began now.

“This is a key point as training programmes and strategies for improving performance are changing,” he says. “This is already changing with the new generation of cyclists, and it’ll change even more in the near future. It’s increasingly about implementing what science is demonstrating and leaving certain traditional ‘gurus’ behind.”

So, there you have it, to challenge for the pink jersey is far more individualised than applying textbook sports-science principles. You can train at altitude or maybe not. Pencil in a late week-long stage race or maybe not. And certainly do not strength train! Thought training the world’s greatest cyclists was easy? Maybe not…

*Cover image by

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