Tour de France: The Long Journey to Yellow – What it takes to develop into a Tour de France Champion

The journey from a cyclist’s first race to the top of the podium in Paris is long and arduous, but the route is pretty well defined. Riders progress along the route at different rates, and many have to endure setbacks and detours along the way, but the basic pattern for developing a potential Tour de France champion has been the same for many years. Vincenzo Nibali is the latest man to reach the promised land, and this year we saw great performances from riders taking the necessary steps to join him. 

The beginning
Talent is the first component to being a Tour de France champion, and that doesn’t just mean genetic advantages like a large lung volume, long femurs, and a high VO2 max. By numbers alone, there are men and women who should be able out-perform the best competitive athletes in the world. The cyclists who rise to the top of the sport have the rare combination of physical gifts, an intense competitive drive, a strong work ethic, and an often-indefinable “talent”. It’s the natural ability to see, in a split second, exactly what needs to be done in order to win, and the unhesitating confidence to go for it. You can teach a good rider how to race, and he’ll win races here and there, but truly talented riders have traits that simply cannot be taught. Identifying talented cyclists is imperative, and then you have to start the process of building the endurance, power, habits, and experience necessary to win the Tour de France

Riding the learning curve
The next step in a rider’s development is to learn how to race and win in Europe. Programs like the Hincapie Sportswear Development Team help young riders learn how to train and compete at the elite level, and CTS is proud to be the Official Coaching and Sports Science Partner for the team. For the Hincapie Devo riders and other US riders, USA Cycling has continued to develop their European-based junior and U23 Programs to provide many young American riders with the opportunity to race and learn in Europe. It’s imperative to get young riders over to Europe because there’s no other way for them to learn the skills, tactics, and culture of the European peloton. They aren’t expected to start winning immediately. They’re there to learn and get better, and soon the best rise to the top and start winning one-day amateur races and placing in the top 20 in three-day amateur stage races.

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Progressing through stage races
Even when young racers graduate from the national team programs and amateur development teams, they aren’t immediately thrown into three-week stage races because they simply don’t have the endurance yet. Fortunately, the amateur and professional racing calendars are full of shorter events that are three to six days long. This is where up-and-coming riders start figuring out whether they are better one-day racers or stage racers. It’s also where they learn important lessons about recovering between the end of one day and the beginning of the next. They start out just riding to survive these races, and then they progress to leading their teams and trying to win them. The most recent example of this is Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky. He won the 8-day Dauphine Libere stage race in June over Alberto Contador, a major victory that established him as a potential favorite for the Tour de France. His Tour hopes came crashing down, unfortunately, after a few crashes in the first 10 days of the race. Nevertheless, his progress toward team leadership and challenging for a Grand Tour win have followed the normal trajectory.

Moving up to the big leagues
After gaining experience in stage races lasting 10-14 days, many riders are ready to ride their first Grand Tour. Finishing a three-week race is a right of passage in the pro peloton, and it changes the way they view racing, suffering, training, and recovery. Riders aren’t expected to win, or even place very well, in their first Grand Tour. Sometimes, if they are very young, they are not even expected to finish. Simon Yates of the Orica-GreenEDGE team was an example of that in the 2014 Tour de France. He rode well, did his job, and went home early. He has plenty of years to develop and rushing the process wouldn’t help him. There have been exceptions, of course. Greg LeMond, for instance, finished third in his Tour de France debut. A more typical progression is to ride as a domestique in a few Grand Tours as you gradually gain endurance and experience.

This year’s Tour de France has a lot of first-timers in it, including almost the entire NetApp-Endura squad. And four Americans – Alex Howes, Peter Stetina, Ben King, and Matthew Busche were all in their first Tour de France. It seems that every 5-7 years, there’s a year that sees a large influx of new riders into the Tour de France, and this was one of those years.

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A continuing trend
Regardless of who wins the Tour de France, there are always riders progressing to the level of potential Tour de France champions. Several years ago we were talking about Vincenzo Nibali as a young talent who might one day win the Tour. Now he’s in yellow. Thibaut Pinot might be the best hope France has to win the Tour de France in the next several years, and Americans Tejay Van Garderen and Andrew Talansky have both shown the potential to stand on the podium and perhaps win the Tour. In other areas of the race, Rafal Majka is only 24 years old and he just won the Climber’s polka dot jersey. Peter Sagan is also 24 and just won his second green points jersey. Both men have long careers and hopefully illustrious careers ahead of them

A lot of cyclists pay their entry fee, pin on a number, and enter their first bike race. A small number of them progress through the ranks to become professionals, and an even smaller percentage are successful enough to earn a starting position in a Grand Tour. Winning a stage in a Grand Tour can be the defining moment of a rider’s career and wearing the leader’s jersey puts him in an elite club. The right to wear the yellow jersey into Paris as the winner of the Tour de France, though, is reserved for true champions. Today Vincenzo Nibali adds his name to long list of Tour de France Champions and the men who preceded him will be happy to welcome him to the most elite club in cycling.

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