Tour de France training

Time-Crunched Cyclist Training Lessons from This Year’s Tour France


By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”, and “Ride Inside

The 2023 Tour de France was one of the most riveting editions in recent memory. Amateur and Time-Crunched Cyclists rightly marvel at the power, resilience, and speed of top pros, but typically find their training and racing exploits unrelatable. A recent article by Jim Cotton in Velo – featuring information from interviews with Jumbo-Visma performance director Mathieu Heijboer and UAE performance director Iñigo San Millán – contains useful and relatable training information for all cyclists, and there are particular aspects that Time-Crunched Cyclists should take to heart.

Don’t Miss Training Days

The lead between defending Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard and 2-time champion Tadej Pogačar hovering between 7-10 seconds for much of this year’s Tour. Vingegaard broke the stalemate with a brilliant time trial performance on Stage 16, then crushed Pogačar’s hopes of a comeback with a dominating performance on the Col de la Loze on Stage 17. Always a fighter, Pogačar found his legs again on Stage 20 to take the stage win on the final mountain stage of the race. But why did Pogačar crack in the first place?

In post-race comments, San Millán confirmed what many people suspected. Tadej Pogačar missed some training and couldn’t train as effectively for a period after he broke his wrist in a crash a Liege-Bastogne-Liege in April. As a result, he was great for two weeks but lacked the depth of fitness to withstand the pressure in the final week.

On the other side of the rivalry, Jonas Vingegaard’s performance team had focused on reducing the number of missed training days in the year between the 2022 and 2023 Tours. Cotton quoted Heijboer as saying, “What we call ‘availability’ of a rider is them being prepared every day to train, making sure they’re not losing days because of injury or sickness. In my opinion, the biggest difference from last year is there was a lot more consistency in Jonas’ training.”

It’s easy to say the difference between Pogačar and Vingegaard came down to Pogačar’s broken wrist, but we must be careful not to underestimate the progress Vingegaard made between 2022 and 2023.

How to train consistently

Time-Crunched Cyclists can’t rack up the 20- and 30-hour training weeks that Tour de France pros can. But when you are only training 6-8 or even 10 hours a week, each workout you miss is a significant reduction in weekly training hours. Missing multiple rides per month puts a big dent in the overall workload you can accumulate. How can increase your training consistency and miss fewer workouts per week, month, and year? Here’s how we walk through it with athletes:

Find Your Controllable Time

The goal is to devise a realistic and adaptable structure for training availability. What days of the week are the most predictable in terms of work and family priorities? Many Time-Crunched Cyclist default to early mornings because waking up early is something they can control. But it doesn’t have to be early mornings. Mid-day or post-work training sessions can be just as effective. The most important thing is to minimize the chances that other tasks and priorities bleed into your controllable training time.

Respect Your Individuality

Athletes are not robots, and effective training must reflect an athlete’s personality, values, and motivations. Early in the season, Tadej Pogačar raced more, and Jonas Vingegaard stuck to structured training. Either strategy can work because the fundamental principles of training underly both. San Millán told Cotton, “We understood how Tadej’s body works and how it responds to different types of efforts. It is not because he reached his peak at the Tour of Flanders in April that he mortgaged his chances of winning the Tour in July.”

Training consistency diminishes when athletes don’t enjoy working out. That doesn’t mean you’re going to love every training ride, but it’s important to recognize the type of athlete you are. Some athletes thrive on long, steady intervals on the indoor trainer. Others consider that torture but love short intervals and group rides. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking there’s only one way to train, or that Zone 2 is the only path to aerobic development. The beauty of human physiology is its adaptability!

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Invest in Sleep

Sleep is the best recovery tool for athletes, and one of the best ways athletes can support immune function. If you want to lose fewer training days to minor illnesses and inuries throughout the year, focus on improving the quality, duration, and consistency of your sleep. This means:

  • Create bedtime and wake times: A consistent waking time is the more important of the two. Even if you must stay up a little later occasionally, wake up at the same time as usual. Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep per night, with 8-9 being an even better goal.
  • Make the room cool, dark, and quiet. Your body temperature falls as you go to sleep and a cool room (60-67 degrees F) facilitates the process. Light has a big influence on telling your body it’s time to sleep, so eliminate light when it’s time for sleep and use light exposure to help you wake up.
  • Create routines: Your evening activities should ease your transition to sleep. Reading books on paper, turning off the television, taking a warm shower, connecting with your partner can all help you wind down.

Support yourself nutritionally

Undernourishment is the silent killer of training plans. Athletes who chronically consume too few calories are more likely to become ill or injured. They are less likely to recover adequately from workouts, which diminishes the quality of subsequent workouts. Continuing to train with inadequate nutritional support hinders immune function, leading to missed workouts due illness or injury. Motivation then crashes because it’s hard to stay enthusiastic about training when you’re tired, hungry, and always coming back from a small illness or injury.

Many Time-Crunched Cyclists focus on what they eat directly before and during training. This is important for acute performance. How much you eat after training and throughout the day is more important for maintaining the long-term consistency of your training over weeks and months.

When we see athletes exhibiting the signs and behaviors above, the first remedy is to reduce training load and increase daily calorie intake for 3-4 weeks. Many times, that’s sufficient because their previous balance wasn’t very far off.

Expand Your Training Options

This is one area where Time-Crunched Cyclists and Tour de France differ. Professional cyclists are highly specialized. Although pros are doing more strength training and other activities than they used to, the vast majority of their training is on the bike. Time-Crunched Cyclists benefit from diversifying exercise options to increase the range of activities you’re prepared to utilize. From a cycling perspective, that means riding indoors if you can’t get outside, buying a collapsible travel bike for frequent business trips, or obtaining the equipment to ride on varying terrain.

Off the bike, you want to be capable of running, hiking, swimming, lifting weights, playing pickleball… whatever it takes to keep moving. In the short-term pursuit of cycling goals, sport-specific consistency is important. In the long-term, consistency of exercise is most important.

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Comments 9

  1. @Jim, now that I’m older (54) and not as concerned with being at my best on the bike, I’ve often thought a 30-60 min casual walk would be a smarter choice than my habitual 60 min easy recovery spin on the bike on Mondays, any real difference in expected performance anyway?

    1. Post

      A walk or a recovery spin will have a similar effect on deloading/recovery. Of course, this is once a 30-60 minute walk is something you’re accustomed to. For some long-term, sport-specific cyclists, a 60-minute walk can actually induce significant muscle soreness, particular in hip flexors and tibialis anterior (muscle at the front of your lower leg, responsible for dorsiflexion of the foot). In truth, neither the walk nor the recovery ride is more effective than complete rest for markers of recovery and readiness to resume training. However, from a behavioral standpoint, maintaining the routine of scheduling time to exercise can be crucial for maintaining consistency week after week. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

  2. If you believe that the the Dane’s ride was clean, then you probably enjoyed the tour. I found it impossible to believe that he suddenly could put out the highest Watts to weight ration ever (higher than the Lance) and put nearly three minutes on Waut, one of the world’s strongest cyclists, in a short 14 mile TT. I for one, can’t believe it.

    1. Clearly you watched the Tour, despite your personal views. Whether someone was or was not clean when they raced is to be determined by experts. As someone who is not an expert (and I dare say you are not either) I keep my opinion to myself unless asked. As my Dad pointed out, best to be quiet and have people guess about your intelligence vs open your mouth and remove all doubt.

  3. A fellow cyclist locally who is a tri-athlete and a great climber on a bike has mentioned he believes this swimming helps contribute to his cycling ability because he tends to be in more oxygen debt swimming – Thoughts on swimming as a complimentary activity for cyclists?

    1. Post

      Swimming is certainly a complementary exercise for cyclists because it contributes to aeorbic conditioning. However, in the long run, sport-specific cyclists – particularly older cyclists – should at least consider that swimming is less helpful than cycling when it comes to preserving bone mineral density. Cyclists already have trouble with bone mineral density because it’s a weight-supported sport, so expanding our activities to include weight-bearing sports would be ideal. Even rowing, which was mentioned by a previous commenter and is weight-supported, has been shown to increase bone density in some areas of the spine. Swimming is not weight-bearing, which makes it a superb exercise for runners because it stresses the aerobic engine while reducing stress to the bones in the legs and feet.

      So, the answer is, yes, swimming can be an excellent component of a Time-Crunched Cyclist’s training repertoire, but be careful to include some weight-bearing activities in that selection, too.
      – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach

    1. Post

      Absolutely! Rowing and cycling are complimentary activities and rowing is a great way to get an aerobic workout in. For many athletes who have been primarily cyclists for a long time, rowing can be advantageous compared to running because it is also a weight-supported activity. In “The Ultimate Ride” book, I described what I call the “Cyclist’s Paradox”, which is the fact cyclists have well developed aerobic engines but less developed connective tissues (e.g. tendons and ligaments) compared to runners. So, when a single-sport cyclist starts running, their aerobic engine can outpace their musculoskeletal system, leading to pain and potentially injury. That’s possible with rowing, but less likely. So, if you’re a cyclist looking to expand your horizons, rowing can be a great step. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach

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