Is the Tour de France really getting faster?

Blink and they’re gone – professional cyclists are on overdrive. But how? What factors are sending them to Paris (okay, maybe Nice) in greater urgency than ever before? We talk training, nutrition and parcours profile to find out…

The 2022 Tour de France, won by Jonas Vingegaard, was the fastest on record with the great Dane averaging a table-topping 42.102kph en route to Paris. Last year’s reclamation of the yellow jersey came via the third fastest in history at 41.408kph. Lance Armstrong’s 2005 triumph split the past two episodes at 41.654kph but, as we all know, that and his other six wins were scrubbed from the annals of cycling history; in fact, that year’s top-10 saw three riders disqualified and featured no official winner. Suffice to say, we can erase the 2005 average speed from the record books, too. That doesn’t mean we leave cynicism aside for every race that’s deemed clean. But until it’s proven otherwise… In short, there’s compelling evidence that the Tour de France is on fast-forward. But why? What are the contributory factors resulting in this mooted greater speed? Let’s investigate…

First up, we’ll flag up what we won’t take a deep-dive into and that’s bikes and gear. Much has been written about bikes, helmets and apparel becoming more aerodynamic and/or lighter, and it’d be perverse if manufacturers ploughed money and resources into making equipment slower. But after taking a brief straw poll at the recent Science & Cycling Conference in Florence, Italy, it’s clear that you can’t underestimate the impact of what’s happening at the contact point, namely the wheel and tyre combination. Wider tyres, the advent of tubeless, reduced tyre pressure and more compliance in the tyre walls were given as key advancements in the need for speed. Instead, we’re going to focus on the evolution of training and nutrition, but as we’re focusing on the Tour de France, well, that’s exactly where we’ll start; in other words, the course profile.

Speed-friendly parcours

Vingegaard’s 2022 record-breaking triumph came via 21 stages that equated to 3,328km, the shortest in the last 10 years. For comparison, this year’s race measures 3,492km. It’s a far cry from the 5,000km-plus brutes of the 1920s. But does size really matter? Of course. But, says Dan Green, performance consultant at Israel-Premier Tech, it’s more complex than that.

“The course profile can have a big impact on average speed, especially when it comes to climbing,” Green says. The 2024 version comes in at around 52,320m of elevation gain over the 21 stages. That’s actually fewer altitude metres gained than 2023’s 56,400m, meaning 2024 could well be the fastest yet. Maybe. We couldn’t locate the overall climbing metres for 2022’s. But, says Green, they’re always similar. What’s more important, he says, is where those ascents end. “There are nuances to the climbs as some might be a mountaintop finish while others you’ll descend from the peak to the finish at the base. So, on paper, it’s the same amount of climbing; in reality, a rider might conquer a mountaintop-finish climb at an average speed of 21kph while if the finish follows a descent, the average could be around 40kph.”

It makes sense, albeit doesn’t fully stack up with our far from scientific comparison with the 2016 edition, which is the ‘slowest’ of the past 10 years at an almost pedestrian 39.616kph. That was the year Chris Froome won the third of his four Tour titles, courtesy of four summit finishes. That was actually one fewer than the 2022 edition with both featuring seven hors categorie ascents. So, a maybe. 

“The road surface matters,” says Green. “In recent times, I’d suggest there’s certainly been more of an effort to resurface roads. And another course-related factor could be if the riders have prevailing winds. The wind in France predominantly comes from the west. If a course drops down the Atlantic coast and across to the Pyrenees and then the Alps, they might have more of a tailwind than headwind. This advantage would be exacerbated if the riders were then transferred back to Paris and so avoid riding from east to west to the finish line.”

This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny for the 2022 edition as the course profile hugged the Belgian, German and Swiss borders before heading west to the Pyrenees. But it does a year later with the 2023 Grand Départ taking place in Bilbao before the race weaved its way north and east up to stage 20 in Le Markstein in the Vosges mountains before the riders hopped on a plane for the ceremonial stage into the French capital. 

As for the naughty 2005 edition, Lance Armstrong was assisted by the wind as well as the needle, as the race couldn’t have been more directly west to east for half the race, starting in Fromentine in the Vendee with stage nine in Mulhouse close to the Swiss and German borders. The second half was a pretty even split of east to west and back again.

This year’s Tour is heavily east to west until Pau on stage 14, whereby it does a 180 and heads back toward Nice. That’d heighten the chance of headwinds, meaning this year may not be a record breaker.  Arguably it’d take a more forensic look at the 111 editions of the Tour to determine the impact of course profile. But it’s clearly a key determinant of overall speed. As is rider preparation. 

Training more power and less drag 

“All of the riders at WorldTour level are much better prepared these days,” says Green. “Training’s improved across the board, which is heavily down to the coaching departments having more coaches, more expertise and more information available to them. That means more precise sessions and fitter riders.”

As an example, according to the Ineos Grenadiers’ website they have 93 support staff on their books in addition to 29 riders. Of these 93, 18 are on the ‘performance team’. Six are coaches who are assisted by sports directors as well as modern-day vocations such as performance scientist (Jonny Wale), data scientist (Kevin Yven) and performance engineer (Dan Bigham). That results in far more individualised training. 

“In fact, the teams are obligated by the UCI to have a maximum number of riders per coach these days,” says Green, with UCI rules stipulating that there must be “one full-time trainer for a maximum of eight to 10 riders who is responsible for organising and managing the riders’ preparation”. At Ineos, that broadly corresponds to one coach per five riders. That means more time to analyse and act on data from popular power software TrainingPeaks and the myriad of HRV apps.

This relatively tight coach-to-rider ratio was one of the maximal gains brought in by Team Sky. The result, says Green, is that their riders were better managed and could absorb ever-greater workloads without falling into the realm of overtraining.

“Ineos, née Team Sky, used to be the team that’d do 25 to 30 hours a week regularly,” says Green. “That was more than their rivals. Now that workload mentality is shifted to other teams. In the past you might have had individual riders racking up that amount of miles but not collectively. That’s the norm now.”

And could grow further if some trainers get their way. We recall speaking to coach and sport scientist Teun van Erp at last year’s Science & Cycling Conference in Bilbao. Then at Ineos Grenadiers and now at Tudor Pro Cycling, the Dutchman told us that he could see the benefits of riders ticking off eight-hour rides in search of greater endurance and durability. “Whether the riders would be up for it,” he continued, “remains to be seen.”

Specificity of training and monitoring of workload is made easier by the UCI capping race days at no more than 85 per season. “Many years ago, riders would be competing for over 120 race days a season,” says Green. “Ten years ago, many were still racing 100 days. Now, for most, it’s around 70 to 75.” That not only means you can more easily control the rider’s workload than in the dynamic and chaotic world of racing, but when they do pin on the race number, there’s more emphasis and importance on competing.

That training workload and race motivation/target has resulted in the growing strength of the breakaway in modern-day cycling. “In times gone by, there was a bigger gap between the top-tier guys and the others,” says Green. “There are still outliers, of course, but in general the fitness levels have become more homogenised and higher. That means there’s less fear in attacking a stage than before. And that happens all of the time from all teams, whereas before breakaways were the main preserve of the French wildcard teams.

“Take a rider like Michael Matthews. In the past he’d aim to win from a reduced bunch sprint. But his last Tour stage win [2022] came courtesy of a breakaway. There are some real classy riders in the breakaway and that’s had a real impact on the average speeds. In the past, you might have been looking at the peloton averaging around 40kph as they knew they’d catch the breakaway. Now it’s around 44kph as the peloton must keep them in check.” 

As the human engines have roared louder, the speeds have risen. But it’s not all about the power output. Aerodynamics is big business in modern-day cycling. And it’s not all about the gear.

“Aerodynamic positioning on the road is something that’s been neglected in the past,” says Green. “Road bikes were becoming more aero, helmets were becoming more aero, but a rider’s position on the road bike wasn’t. But now that’s becoming more optimised. In the past, it was all about the time trial position. Now, there’s far more focus on the road with many teams hiring the services of an aerodynamic specialist to work on their riders’ road positions. 

“I always use Victor Campenaerts [of Lotto Dstny] as an example. He won the combativity award at last year’s Tour de France. He’s so efficient on the bike but he trains that efficiency so much. He spends many hours in the wind tunnel, and then will head out onto the road and train for hours and hours in that aero position. So, when it comes to race day and he needs to hold a good position for two hours, he’s well established at doing that. That’s the type of aero-position mentality spreading through the peloton and I reckon has increased the speed by at least 1kph.”

Individualisation of fuelling

Reducing your frontal profile cuts drag, which increases speed. Simple. It’s the same principle with nutrition. Cutting the excess results in a leaner, healthier, stronger rider that, in theory, results in greater speeds. We’re talking nutrition that historically took more of a back seat due to its insignificance compared to huge vials of EPO and repeated blood bags. Now, with no widespread doping scandals, that suggests the sport is cleaner, nutrition is front, back and centre when it comes to riding harder and recovering faster. And, like the training programmes or riders, key to its effectiveness is individualisation.

“As every athlete is unique, individualisation or personalisation of nutrition is essential for a rider’s performance, especially at a Grand Tour,” says Dr Sam Impey, previously head of nutrition for the Great Britain cycling team and now chief scientific officer at Hexis. You might have heard of Hexis. They’ve been enjoying a fair amount of airplay recently as, in their words, they’re the first-ever intelligent fuelling plan technology that predicts how athletes should fuel to enhance their performance. They’re currently working with a number of WorldTour teams and riders including Bob Jungels of Red Bull-Bora-Hansgrohe. 

Back to Impey and individualisation. “A good example would be how a GC rider will often sit in the peloton sheltered from the wind, on flat fast stages. This means they’ll have a much lower energy expenditure then a domestique or a sprinter that might be sheltering them from the wind, pulling the peloton along or going for a sprint win. However, when they get into the mountains, the GC riders will have much higher energy output as they rapidly climb to try and take the overall win.”

Whether it’s via Hexis or other fuelling software that taps into energy output of that specific stage – as per Visma-Lease-a-Bike’s AI methods – it’s all about energy balance for optimum race weight and optimum speed. In other words, the periodisation of fuelling.

“Carbohydrate periodisation refers to changing the total amount of carbohydrate a rider eats day-to-day depending on how long and how hard the stage is,” says Impey. “This can create significant differences in the total daily intake of carbohydrate. The average intake of carbohydrate each day is generally 12 or 13 grammes for every gramme of body weight, but this can drop to six or seven grammes on a time-trial day and could be as high as 18 or 20 on the queen stage.”

Many teams will employ a traffic-light feeding scheme where red is a high carbohydrate-feeding day, amber moderate and green low. It’s an easily understood method to ensure nutrition matches training and racing needs, with one of the knock-on benefits around controlling race weight.

“The body fat percentage that someone will ride a Grand Tour at is only sustained for the build-up and the duration of the Tour,” says Impey. “For this, riders will often be much leaner than they are day-to-day. For a Grand Tour, GC riders would normally sit somewhere in the region of 8% body fat and would look to maintain this throughout all three weeks of the Grand Tour. Compared to riders from the 80s and 90s, the athletes today are about the same body mass but with lower body-fat percentages and slightly higher muscle mass.”

Which, as many of you are aware, are lithe, power-packed bodies that are fuelled by an ever-increasing amount of carbohydrates. Where once it was thought you’d hit an hourly feeding ceiling of 60g carbohydrates without falling into gastric distress, now it’s up to 120g. In theory, that means more energy to fuel working muscles to ride longer and stronger. Green’s an advocate, revealing that his Israel-Premier Tech riders will spend sessions training their gut by regularly targeting, say, 100g per hour of carbs on five-hour training rides. “Your gut is, like muscle, very trainable,” he says.

As for Impey, he’s all over the theory, albeit suggesting more work needs to be done to suggest greater on-bike fuelling’s responsible for faster times. “It’s an interesting topic because there actually isn't any conclusive evidence that shows 120g of carbohydrate per hour can improve race performance,” he says. “What we can see quite clearly when fuelling with 120g of carbohydrate per hour, delivered as a mixture of glucose and fructose, is an increased oxidation of exogenous carbohydrates, i.e. sources of carbohydrates coming from outside of the body. 

“It’s generally considered that the greater amount of exogenous carbohydrates you can burn as fuel on the bike, the more liver glycogen or internal sources of carbohydrate you can spare, and this potentially may have a performance effect. But it’s worth pointing out that all of these studies were done on athletes who aren’t at the same level as those riding the Tour. We also must consider the duration of the stages as these are often much longer than the exercise time used in studies.”

As I put the final touches to this piece, I’m distracted (again) by watching this year’s Tour de France. It’s stage four and the riders are already battling with the Galibier. Tadej Pogačar ‘effortlessly’ wins the battle, launching an attack with 800m to go that blitzed the competition and sent his bike computer reeling.

According to reports, he covered the final 700m, which averaged 10%, in 1:55. During that effort, he averaged 24kph, helped somewhat by a top speed of 37.8kph. It helped the Slovenian to a Galibier final-segment 8.6km record of 28:48 mins at an average 6.28 watts per kilogramme, a chasmic 1:33 mins faster than previous record holder Nairo Quintana 2019. It’s further evidence that the likes of Pogačar and Vingegaard are rewriting what was thought possible on two wheels, and it’s (potentially) down to the individualisation of training, precise fuelling and a speed-friendly parcours. How fast can they go? Let’s reassess on Sunday July 21, from the promenade in Nice.

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