By Chris Carmichael
With a flat and windy race today and the Tour de France’s second rest day tomorrow, the majority of the peloton was probably hoping for a relatively easy day. And while in some ways it was easier than the previous three stages in the Pyrenees, the high speeds, high winds, and somewhat treacherous finale meant everyone had to stay on their toes. With one week left in the 2011 Tour de France, the riders look to today’s transitional stage and tomorrow’s rest day as preparation for the final push to Paris.
Years ago I used to say that the best riders in the Tour de France could adapt to the stress of the race and actually grow stronger in the final week. In reality, that was probably an incorrect characterization of what happens. A better way of describing it would be to say that the best riders are able to adapt to the cumulative stress of the race and maintain more of their original power than other riders. Everyone experiences fatigue and the power outputs and performance markers for all athletes decline over the course of three weeks. But the riders who perform the best in the third week, the men who stay in contention for the overall victory, are the ones who slow down the least. There are several factors that can mean the difference between excelling and faltering in this crucial final week.
Riders consume a tremendous amount of fluid during the Tour de France, and while they are on their bikes they may drink up to three bottles (each bottle is about 500ml) per hour. And that’s on top of the water, sports drink , and recovery drink they consume before and after the stages. All of that fluid is necessary because the athletes can lose as much as 1.5 liters of fluid per hour through sweat, and they lose electrolytes as they sweat as well. But one potential problem with consuming so much fluid is that their bodies can start having trouble processing and absorbing it. Instead of replenishing plasma volume and intracellular fluid, a rider may reach a point where too much of the fluid they’re consuming is passing right through them. When this starts happening, a rider can become chronically dehydrated despite consuming the appropriate amount of fluid.
In recent years, some of the teams have started using a quick urinalysis test to assess a rider’s hydration status more precisely. Prior to using this test, the best ways to evaluate hydration status were to weigh an athlete after each stage and again in the morning; and to monitor the color of an athlete’s urine. The goal was to minimize weight loss due to dehydration – keeping weight loss during any individual stage to less than 2% of the rider’s bodyweight – and ensure that the athlete’s urine was essentially colorless. Now with the urinalysis test, the athlete and the team can get a more precise assessment of the chemical composition and specific gravity of the rider’s urine. All the athlete has to do is urinate on a stick that has several chemical markers on it. The urine reacts with markers and they change color, and the resulting spectrum of colors indicates the specific gravity of the urine and the concentrations of various substances, like glucose (sugar), protein, and electrolytes. This information, along with the athlete’s weight loss during the stage, can give the team an indication that a rider is heading down the road toward a hydration crisis while there is still time to prevent it.
Just as an athlete who consumes a lot of fluid can start having trouble processing it, the same thing can happen with food. Over the course of a three-week race, athletes often have at least one day where their stomachs revolt and suffer from gastro-intestinal distress. They can feel nauseated and have trouble keeping food down, or at the very least have trouble finding the motivation to eat. When you’re burning upwards of 600-700 calories per hour on the bike (and perhaps around1000 calories per hour when the racing is very intense), the inability to absorb calories can have a devastating impact on performance. To make matters worse, the cumulative stress of the race takes a heavy toll on the riders’ immune systems, making them more vulnerable to stomach viruses. This is the reason that teams bring their own chefs to the Tour so they can make sure the team’s food is clean, fully cooked, and safe. Similarly, the risk of contracting a stomach bug is why you won’t see riders drinking from bottles they might grab from fans in the big mountain stages. You never know where that water came from; for all you know it came out of the stream by the side of the road. They will take bottles from fans and dump them over their heads or their backs to stay cool, but only drink from bottles that come from the team cars or special motorbikes in the race that carry bottles.
After the finish of each stage, the race is on to maximize recovery before the beginning of the next day’s stage. It starts with a recovery drink that’s rich in carbohydrates, electrolytes, and a little bit of protein. The protein is there mostly because it accelerates the replenishment of carbohydrate stores. Protein is also necessary for muscle and immune system repair, but the riders typically focus on getting that protein in their meals instead of with protein-heavy recovery drinks. In addition to focusing on replenishing fluids, electrolytes, and nutrients throughout the evening, riders also visit the soigneurs for a massage. The primary purposes of this massage are to facilitate the circulation of blood and intracellular fluid in the legs (this is already happening, but the massage helps to speed up the process) and to work on the athlete’s range of motion and joint mobility. A cyclist can produce more power when he can use his muscles effectively through the greatest range of motion. When muscles tighten up and an athlete loses range of motion, he also loses power. This means he has to overcompensate by pushing other muscles harder, and that hastens fatigue.
Cooling the athletes is also a big factor in accelerating recovery. During the stages, athletes dump water over their heads and bodies, and sometimes carry socks full of ice in their pockets or tucked into the neckline of their jerseys. After the stages some teams use more ice packs or vests, cool or cold baths, and slushy drinks to help bring the athletes’ core temperatures down more rapidly.
The best athletes at the Tour de France are not only the ones with the biggest aerobic engines and the highest levels of fitness, but also the ones who respond best to the recovery modalities available and who cope best with the long-term hydration and nutrition challenges presented by racing day after day for three weeks. With one week left to go before the Tour de France reaches Paris, this is the time when we start to see a dramatic separation between the riders who adapt best to the stress of a three week race, and the riders who might be great for two weeks but really start to suffer in Week 3.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, or www.trainright.com.