tour de france takeaways

Tour de France Takeaways for Masters and 50+ Cyclists

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By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

In a year where nothing seems normal, it has been a welcome comfort to watch the Tour de France over the past three weeks. On top of being exciting, watching pro races is a great way for amateurs to learn about strategies and techniques you can use in your next group ride or race. The pros go faster, but the tactics that work in the pro peloton work anywhere. Here are some key takeaways for masters racers and riders over 50.

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Don’t Pigeonhole Yourself as an Athlete

As athletes get older, extreme specialization becomes less effective. Perhaps less so in track cycling, but definitely in road cycling, where some younger riders fancy themselves as sprinters or climbing specialists. It’s not that 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound riders suddenly climb like mountain goats or that 5-foot-3, 135-pound riders suddenly develop explosive power. It’s that age generally dulls the sharp edges on both extremes. Sarcopenia gradually robs the bigger riders of muscle mass and some fast-twitch muscle fibers adapt to function more like slow-twitch fibers. The smaller riders gain some weight and lose some aerobic capacity (lower VO2 max) and see a decline in their power-to-weight ratio. In other words, age starts to level the playing field between riders, especially in the middle of the pack where riders were only slightly better suited to climbing vs. sprinting.

While it is important to play to your strengths, it is also good to approach racing with an open and opportunistic viewpoint. In the Tour de France this year, quite a few stages were won by opportunistic roleurs. Attack the climb, no matter your size. Go in the breakaway, even if it’s windy. Take a flyer with 3-kilometers to go instead of waiting for the sprint, or try your hand in the sprint instead of flogging yourself with a flyer. The differences between riders tend to narrow as we get older, meaning you may get better at aspects of cycling you weren’t great at 15 years ago, and you may not be as dominant in other areas.

Practice Descending Skills

I’ll be 60 years old this year (next month, actually) and I still love going downhill fast. I don’t take as many risks as I did in my 20s and 30s, but I’m comfortable with speed and confident in my judgement and skills. Tour de France commentators like to exclaim that riders are taking big risks on the descents, but most of the time the riders wouldn’t consider it particularly risky. They’ve normalized descending at that speed through years of practice, not the recklessness of youth. Older riders tend to prioritize safety over speed, because we have a different perspective on risk and consequences. But, despite decades of experience, many become overly cautious going downhill.

Getting to the summit of a climb should be the hard part, and the descent should be stress-free, fun, and free speed. If you’re anxious about descending or riding your brakes all the way down, it’s time for a skills clinic. Golfers take lessons, and so do skiers, even after decades in their respective sports. A refresher course on descending can do wonders for your confidence and comfort, which reduces stress. Increased speed isn’t even the goal; it’s a fun byproduct.

Don’t sit up

On Stage 7 of the 2020 Tour de France, crosswinds caused major splits in the peloton. At one point, after chasing for several kilometers, the second echelon came within 15 seconds of rejoining the front group. They were almost there, but didn’t make it and that was the last they saw of the front of the race. Later in the race, on Stage 12, Marc Hirschi jumped away from his breakaway companions and held a slim 8-10 second gap for a few kilometers on a climb. A lot of riders give up when they only have a small gap and it’s not growing. Hirschi kept the pressure on and eventually the gap opened–partly due to his descending skills–and he won the stage solo.

Whether you are trying to close a gap or pry one open, don’t give up too soon. If you’re in the front, make the chasers get all the way to you. The exception is making the judgement call to ease up slightly so you can integrate into the group as you get caught. If you’re in the back, keep the pressure on because you don’t know if the pace ahead will slow down. Whether a gap grows or comes back together often depends on decisions on both sides of the split, not just the power output of the person or pack in front.

It’s not how much power you have, but how much you have left

When you are watching critical moments in the Tour de France, it is hard to imagine how a rider can have so much power in the closing kilometers of a long stage, especially after weeks of racing. While there is no ‘easy’ place in the Tour peloton, what you’re not seeing are the steps riders take to do as little as possible whenever possible. Staying in the wheels, reading the wind, and anticipating places where the peloton is likely to split are important for minimizing wasted energy.

When it’s time to go, you want to have the strength to go full power for as long as you need to. Time to exhaustion is as important–if not more important–than peak power, particularly hours into a ride or race. Your peak 20-minute power might be 340 watts from a performance test, but can you reach or maintain that output with 3 hours of riding in your legs, or several days into a multi-day event? To have the most power for the time you really need it, you have to be as frugal as possible with your efforts everywhere else. Masters and 50+ riders often have the capacity for fewer repeated maximum efforts compared to younger riders, so you have to use your experience and wisdom to outfox the kids.


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Comments 12

  1. Joe, as a scientist/engineer and age grouper triathlete/cyclist and hockey player I also looked at PRP from a research perspective and as a less invasive modality for treatment of use/age related injuries (including loss of cartilage). What I have found is both inconclusive and non-derterminative. For example – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5632954/ The 2017/18 studies from the NIH show no correlation to increased recovery/improvements except for a small subset as follows. Can you provide research that supports PRP use? I am eager to find a way to address both degenerative arthritis in my knees and both shoulders. “Due to the conflicting evidence and multiple meta-analyses conducted on the topic, a literature review of high-quality evidence on the use of PRP for common orthopaedic conditions was performed. Thus far, the evidence appears to suggest that PRP may provide some benefit in patients who present with knee osteoarthritis or lateral epicondylitis. On the other hand, evidence appears to be inconsistent or shows a minimal benefit for PRP usage in rotator cuff repair, patellar and Achilles tendinopathies, hamstring injuries, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) repair, and medial epicondylitis.” Are you treating with activated or non-activated and with or without leukocytes? Are you tracking the results by demographic and time as these studies indicate a positive trend > 12 months v. > 6 months.? Please reply so we can share the knowledge and experience! In closing it appears that PRP will do no harm but may be an expensive protocol with limited testing to support some claims of success…for me it may be well worth it…but others need to choose for themselves. Thanks!

  2. What is this? A medical blog? We all have physical challenges. How about telling what works for you to be a better racer or fondo rider, Do you ride two 4 hour rides back to back or go 6 hours 2x a month if you are training for something long? How are you training successfully? or not so successfully? Are you riding tempo or endurance?

  3. I had my left knee replaced 4 years ago when I was 63. Absolutely no problem biking.

    Recovery from the surgery as well as outcomes do depend though. My own recovery was quite long. And, as a volunteer at my local hospital in the joint replacement center, I’ve seen the variability in how patients react to the procedure. As others have mentioned, persistence in PT and patience are keys to success.

  4. Getting old is certainly not for the faint hearted. I am 70. I broke my femur in 2016 (a freak fall on ice), recovered well enough to ride again 7 months later, but the fear of falling was always in the back of my mind. I let that fear push cycling to the back of my fitness repertoire. I was able to return to telemark and cross country skiing the very next season and taking a few tumbles helped me overcome fear of falling. Then my hip began to hurt and I ended up with a hip replacement on the same leg in 2019. I was able to ski in 7 months. A few more falls both in skiing and tripping over rocks while hiking helped my confidence. My surgeon encouraged me to try cycling again when I mentioned I was a bit hesitant. He said I had fall tested the hip pretty well.
    So I started off on the long road back. My goals are extremely modest, but what the heck!
    The one thing I did this summer was schedule a bike fit. I am lucky enough to live near a CTS training facility. My body had obviously changed during this 3+ year ordeal. The results of having my bike fit were increased comfort, more power, and identification of some strength imbalances. The improvements were immediately evident and made a huge difference in my motivation and progress. It was certainly money well spent.

  5. Speaking of aging. Wanted to see want “Active Aging” cyclists out there, have had joint replacement(S), and what has their recovery been.
    Last year I had hip replacement, and I was gradually able to get back on the bike. Only had some issues when climbing out of the saddle, but nothing to prevent me from regular training and rides. NOW, the Knees are going (fun never stops). Pretty much bone on bone, thus the inevitable knee replacement, possible staged bi replacement is coming soon. I’m 64 and looking for any wisdom knowing that I will get thru it and continue riding. Thanks for your comments

    1. I was 66 when I had to have a total knee replacement. Best thing I did was to take that leap while the worst thing was to wait so long (about 2 1/2 years) to do so … I was strictly bone on bone and had literally “ground off” a combined total of 3/4 inch of bone. I had a great surgeon and great physical therapist. I implemented quite a bit of “no load” home indoor trainer spinning into my physical therapy (therapist recommended) and recovered quite quickly (3 1/2 weeks to total release). The hardest part of the recovery (stretching all of the connective tissues) can be attributed to my mistake of waiting to have the replacement. I am approaching three years out and all is great.

      Listen to your therapist, religiously practice the given exercises and ask to incorporate “no load” spinning and you will be back on your bike in no time.

    2. Paul, getting older sure is a bitch. IN 2016 had a fusion of L4-5, after years of back pain, I was at once pain free, and racing bikes and triathlons 5 months later. IN 2018, one week before the WC 6 hour time trial, a nemesis race I had been chasing for several years, I had a massive retinal tear, that almost took my vision in my right eye. 6 surgeries later I still have problems riding TT, as in the bars, my vision doubles. Persistence pays off as Last year at age 61 I won worlds aquabike in Spain by 14 minutes and the WC 6 hour TT in California setting a new course record by 22 K. 2 Months later my left hip went and running and even cycling was getting painful. In july I had a replacement and within 10 days I was back on the bike. Through all this I learned that the body is a remarkable thing and can bounce back (yes with a lot of hard work and stretching). Also the better in shape you are getting into surgery, the quicker and better you recovery will be. Stay the course, and keep biking. Good luck.

      1. As a masters athlete with a particular passion for cyclocross (and hockey, but this is a cycling post) and as a physician specializing in Regenerative Orthopaedics, I feel obligated to all of you with osteoarthritis and back problems. There is an alternative to joint replacement and fusions for back pain. Don’t feel like you have to go down that road. Those who posted sound like they’ve done well and that’s great. However, I see many people in my practice who have not fared so well.
        Regenerative Orthopedics involves using your own blood (Platelet Rich Plasma) and the associated growth factors or stem cells from your fat or bone marrow to help with these problems. We’ve had great success with our patients in Utah and from all over the country. I don’t want this to sound like a commercial but want to inform you of your options. But be careful. There are snake oil salesmen out there and a lot of them! Be sure to do your research!

        1. Hi Dr Albano,
          I am very interested in the regenerative treatments you are using for your patients. Have you had success treating osteoarthritis in the cervical vertebra? Specifically the articular facets? I have OA at the C 4-5 level that effects me primarily during riding and would very much like to avoid steroid injections to reduce the pain during riding. Thanks!

    3. I’ve had both knees replaced. The 1st was 5 years ago. The 2nd 2 years ago. The 2nd was easier due to the technological advances. For both surgeries I prepared myself by cycling further & harder. The morning of my 2nd surgery my Dr. (Robert Klapper- Cedars-Sinai) commented on my superb health as I was 68. Recovery time 4 weeks…Best of Luck. BTW my pedaling is stronger than ever. Now all I hear is complaints from my riding buddies as I’m breaking away from our mini peloton. I attribute this to my new bionic knees.

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