The Science & Cycling Conference takes place annually in the week prior to the Tour de France’s Grand Départ and marries academics with WorldTour practitioners. Inigo San Millán headed up one of the most popular seminars at this year’s event in Bilbao, and with good reason. Basque-born San Millán is a professor at the University of Colorado and is performing clinical and research work into cellular metabolism, especially in diabetics and cancer patients. Incredible work but not what the attendees were there for as San Millán’s also the head of performance at UAE Team Emirates and oversees Tadej Pogačar’s training.
“What gets measured gets managed.” That was San Millán’s opening salvo, referencing Peter Drucker, commonly known as the father of business analytics. San Millán’s arguably taken that to extremes with a level of detail that sees the UAE Team Emirates riders train according to their “metabolic map”.
We were in Bilbao. That’s how we can reveal San Millán’s key training tenets, bringing them to life by applying them to Mr Pogačar and stage 14 of this year’s Tour de France. If the Slovenian’s still in contention, the 151.8km stage from Annemasse to Morzine Les Portes Du Soleil could prove pivotal as it features three category one climbs and a hors catégorie climb that racks up over 4,100m of ascending. (Note: our crystal ball is known to crack on occasions. If this scenario fails to unfold and Pogačar’s merely a bystander by this point, simply apply these principles of performance to next year’s Tour…!)
0km - Annemasse (470m above sea level)
After losing time to the leaders on stage five, many are questioning how much fitness and form Pogačar leached due to his enforced break from ‘that’ break. How much has his damaged race programme impacted his performance?
Inigo San Millán (ISM): We start designing the following year’s race calendar the moment the Tour de France has finished; in fact, I’m already working through in my head where Tadej should race in 2024, although the calendar won’t be definite until October, November time.
When he won the Tour in 2021, he had a January training camp followed by racing the UAE Tour, Strade Bianche and then Tirreno-Adriatico. That was followed by the Tour of the Basque Country and the Ardennes Classics before a recovery period and altitude training, his National Championships and then the Tour de France. It was similar this year though that was hit due to injury.
It's a balancing act with the calendar as we have 30 riders and there are something like 260 races a year. It’s a lot of monitoring and makes life very busy.
Tadej Pogačar won this year's Flèche Wallonne (Zac Williams/SWPix.com)
18.7km - Col de Saxel Crest (944m; 4.2km at 4.6%)
Pogačar’s in relatively jovial mood despite the previous day’s endgame – the 17.4km-long, 7.1% Grand Colombier, that bade farewell to the Jura. Now in the Alps, he’ll be hoping he can reel in Jonas Vingegaard who looks as strong in week two as he did in week one. Still, Pogacar remains unperturbed; he winks at the moto-camera, knocks back a gel and rides on…
ISM: Nutrition is arguably the area that’s seen the most significant changes in the last five years, albeit I’ve been using similar methodologies since 2005 when analysing fat and carbohydrate oxidation rates. With information like FatMax [the intensity at which a rider burns the highest amount of fat], we can translate this into heart rate and power outputs. This is different across populations. Recreational riders are around 60% of their maximum while world-class riders are much higher.
When it comes to feeding, years ago many would prescribe no more than 55g of carbohydrates an hour. I never believed in this and would recommend 80 to 100g an hour. Many nailed me but that’s changed now. In our team, we use different formulations and individualise the feeding for each rider.
The relationship between the nutritionist, chefs (we have three on the team) and myself is very important. Gorka [Prieto-Bellver, nutritionist] is great and will liaise with the chefs about what to eat and how much. We look at energy expenditure during different stages, determining how much might be carbohydrate oxidation and how much fat oxidation, and how many calories burnt. We can then closely match this output with the correct nutrition.
It looked like Tadej Pogačar's Tour de France chances were over on stage five, but the Slovenian came back fighting on stage six (Zac Williams/SWPix.com)
36.3km - Col de Cou (1,116m; 7km at 7.4%)
The first of three category-one climbs of the day but there’s little movement upfront, though the likes of Rafał Majka and Marc Soler give Vegard Stake Laengen and Mikkel Bjerg a rest as the ground tilts up. Pogačar continues to breathe easy and ride effortlessly. His huge aerobic capacity is sending him ever higher. Or is it…?
ISN: You have central and local adaptations to training. Central adaptations are cardiorespiratory adaptations. For example, your VO2 max. Local adaptations are at a cellular level and include mitochondria. This isn’t about how much oxygen you can deliver to the cells – it’s how well that oxygen is utilised by the cell, and how the different fuels and substrates are utilised by mitochondria.
This is one of the reasons why VO2max isn’t a vital parameter of fitness. We worked with one rider who had a VO2max of 72.2ml/kg/min and, two years later, it’d improved to just 72.7ml/kg/min. (As an aside, I use a different, longer protocol than most VO2max tests so what you might normally see in the 80s is usually the 70s in my test.) However, in those two years he’d become one of the strongest in the world because at the cellular level, in the mitochondria, he’d made significant improvements. Metabolomics has helped here…
Tadej Pogačar went deep on stage six to claw back some time between himself and Jonas Vingegaard (Zac Williams/SWPix.com)
55.5km - Col de Feu (1,117m; 5.8km at 7.8%)
The second category one climb of the day and Adam Yates ghosts to the front, closely followed by his shadow Pogačar. The GC contenders from Jumbo-Visma and Bora-Hansgrohe watch every pedal stroke, every twitch, and no gap is forged. Pogačar tests the competition’s mettle further on a quarter-mile stretch that averages 11%. This time he edges ahead of his rivals but, as the gradient eases, his lead disappears. His legs certainly seem to have recovered since week one’s anomaly…
ISN: I always say that genetics is the science of probability, metabolomics is the science of reality. Metabolomics is the study of metabolites. We are the first team to develop a metabolic map, which is crucial in order to prescribe the most accurate and progressive training programme. You need to evaluate the athlete, all from just a droplet of blood. Do we have a Ferrari or a Fiat? Find out the weak and strong points of an athlete. Lactate variances, lactate metabolising, fat metabolism and carbohydrate metabolism, they’re all important.
Based on metabolic efficiency, it’s possible to establish appropriate individual training zones for a rider. For someone who’s looking to contest the Tour de France, you need something more specific than FTP [functional threshold of power]. Yes, we do a lot of zonen two work and a lot of glycolytic training, but we really monitor this to precise detail. We test a lot out on the road; in fact, I spend a lot of time staring at Tadej’s ass!
It’s important to analyse blood as every day we destroy 200-billion red blood cells and you have to replace them. Red blood cells are the taxis of oxygen and haemoglobin is the seat on which oxygen sits, so we lactate test, test, test as haemoglobin fluctuates throughout the season.
Tadej Pogačar looked confident in Bilbao at the team presentation (Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)
101.6km - Col de la Ramaz (1,619m; 13.9km at 7.1%)
Pogačar looks comfortable behind Yates and Majka, who nestle in a shrinking leading group. Not only is the Slovenian receiving shelter, at 1,691m he’s well within his rarefied-air comfort zone. Still, above 1,500m the air feels thinner and, theoretically, makes cycling harder. The oxygen pressure is lower and, if not prepped, you could expect the 13.9km, 7.7% gradient to send heart rate shooting up and power output down. But Pogačar’s pre-Tour altitude camp is paying off as he breaks from the front group in an effort to claim yellow from Jonas…
ISM: Sierra Nevada’s perfect for altitude training as, if needed, you can train low and live high. [The Centro de Alto Rendimiento, a hotel and sports facilities, is a popular venue for WorldTour teams as it’s 2,320m above sea level.] We trained in Sierra Nevada ahead of the Dauphiné [of which Pogačar was part of a 13-rider group], but it would have been logistically challenging to return there after the race, so we had a final pre-Tour de France training camp in Sestriere, which is only two hours from Grenoble where the Dauphiné finished. We were there for 12 days.
Altitude’s important as you realise two key adaptations. There’s an increase in haemoglobin and EPO (erythropoietin), but there’s also an angiogenesis response in skeletal muscle tissue, which leads to the growth of muscle capillaries. Again, this is a positive adaptation to altitude training.
San Millán is the head of performance at UAE Team Emirates (Zac Williams/SWPix.com)
139.8km - Col de Joux Plane (1,691m; 11.6km at 8.5%)
His attack on Col de la Ramez would be reeled in but Pogačar remains strong. In a solo effort reminiscent of Jumbo-Visma’s ganging-up ‘attack, attack, attack’ on the Glandon last year, Pogačar attacks, recovers, attacks, recovers before attacking once more and breaking free of the madding crowd…
ISM: Glycolytic capacity is important. This is the maximum amount of glucose the cells can breakdown. However, arguably how you deal with lactate is even more important. Lactate is a byproduct of carbohydrate metabolism and has a bad reputation. However, lactate is the main fuel for the body. Still, the higher the exercise intensity, the more lactate you produce. That brings with it associative hydrogen ions, which is one cause of muscle fatigue. So, we need to oxidise lactate as far as we can. For that, you need a strong and robust mitochondrial function. And this is what we need to target with training specifically.
What we’ve seen with a rider like Tadej is that he has an incredible lactate-clearance capacity, which means his recovery is much quicker than many riders. While some riders might take 20 minutes for their lactate levels to return to normal, with Tadej it might be two or three minutes. This helps with repeated attacks as well as recovering between stages. It’s something we first noted before the 2019 Vuelta a España where he finished third. People thought we were mad to lead with a 20-year-old but we had the metabolic information that told us he was strong.
Tadej Pogačar has his eyes set on the yellow jersey, claiming his third Tour de France title (Zac Williams/SWPix.com)
Finish: 151.8km - Morzine les Portes du Soleil (977m)
Once Pogačar crests the Col de Joux Plane, there’s no time to enjoy a glance at the mountain lake as it’s a descent all the way to the Morzine finish line. The road isn’t wide, the gradient is steep and danger lurks around every corner. But his textbook handling and low CdA see the Slovenian take the stage and with it the yellow jersey. It’s a monumental effort. But will he wear it till Paris?
ISM: Biomechanics is another area that’s exploded over the past few years. And this is very, very important. Before, nobody went to the wind tunnel. Now, everybody does. We see athletes enduring fewer overuse injuries and this is thanks to the great work of by biomechanical experts. We do a lot of aerodynamic testing with Tadej – in the wind tunnel and in the velodrome – and we find the best position that’s comfortable as well as low on drag.
Ultimately, epigenetics helps to create a champion like Tadej. He has great genes, but without the right environment – the nutrition, training, his lifestyle, recovery, mental strength – he won’t maximise what his parents gave him. For me, genetics is only 20% responsible for peak performance.