tour de france

Who Can Actually Win the Tour de France?

By Chris Carmichael,
CEO and Head Coach of CTS

What a wild Tour de France! We’re one day from the end and the yellow jersey is still up for grabs. Julian Aliphilippe held on to the leaders jersey right up until the summit of the Col d’Iseran, and then a HAIL STORM led to the stage being called early. Colombian Egan Bernal’s lead over the summit had put him into the virtual yellow jersey on the road, and then with the ruling his virtual jersey became a real one. Defending champion Geraint Thomas is still in the hunt, but since they are on the same team, it looks like there’s a good chance Bernal will become the first Colombian winner of the Tour de France!

What qualities and abilities does a rider need to have in order to win the Tour de France? Some are obvious. He needs a big aerobic engine, a high power-to-weight ratio to excel in the mountains, and the strength to power through individual time trials. If those were all a rider needed, then there would be a huge field of contenders every year. The physical characteristics – VO2 max, power at lactate threshold, power-to-weight ratio, etc. – get you into the front half of the peloton. To make it into the front group and into the yellow jersey, here are the other factors that come into play:

A big appetite and strong stomach

The sheer volume of food and fluids a Tour de France rider has to consume is mind-boggling. It takes a lot of work to eat enough every day, for 23 straight days, and it takes discipline. You also have to have to be able to process all that food and fluid without getting sick. When it gets really hot and you get really tired, you don’t want to eat, and that’s when the champions gain a bit of an edge.

The ability to adapt to temperature extremes

This year’s Tour endured some very hot stages in the south of France, as well as some cold rain in the mountains. To win a 3-week race a rider has to be able to perform well across the full range of temperatures, ride well in the rain, and know how to handle the wind.

Handling skills

You would think this wouldn’t be a limiting factor, considering that every rider in the pro peloton has to have very good handling skills. It is a limiting factor, though, because some riders burn a lot of energy with near misses and poor positioning. Those inefficiencies multiply as riders get tired, which then means they waste even more energy and get more tired. Tired riders are more likely to make mistakes that lead to crashes. So, part of developing into a Tour de France contender is getting to the point where you move efficiently and comfortably through the peloton – no matter the conditions and no matter whether you have teammates around you.

Affinity for pressure

I’ve been around some of the top pro cyclists over the past 35 years, and the men and women who become grand champions are the ones who feel calmer when they have the leader’s jersey. The feel like that’s where they’re supposed to be. It doesn’t add pressure or make them nervous. There are a lot of riders with the physical ability to grab a jersey, but then they get wrapped up in the pressure of wearing it and they falter.

The ability to turn it off and go to sleep

When the stage is done, as well as the press conference, massage, dinner, etc., a rider has to have the discipline and the ability to be done with the day, turn off their brain, and go to sleep. Whether the day was great or a disaster, it’s over. Great riders can compartmentalize well, so they can put today behind them and get to bed.

Great riders also don’t spend too much time obsessing over what might happen, or what they want to happen, the next day. Whether there’s a huge climb or bad weather predicted, or you’re just a few seconds ahead or behind your rivals, those things will be there waiting for you in the morning. Do what you can to prepare, like making sure you have your rain gear, but then stop worrying about it.

Urgency and Patience

A Grand Tour is long enough that every rider goes through good days and bad days, and in order to win the general classification you have to be patient and even keeled so you don’t overreact to the ups or the downs. This goes back to the ability to compartmentalize, as well as the confidence under pressure.

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At the same time, a Grand Tour champion has to have a killer instinct. You have to be alert for any opportunity to gain an advantage or put a rival in difficulty. For instance, you can never wait for there to be a better time to gain seconds or minutes on your rivals. Look at Egan Bernal. He didn’t know the finish for Stage 19 would be recorded at the top of the Col d’Iseran. He was fortunate, but you never know what will happen in the future, and it’s always better to have seconds in the bank rather than banking on coming from behind.

What about the team and director?

No rider can win the Tour de France alone, but with the change to eight-man teams at the Tour de France we’re not seeing as much single-team dominance over any aspect of the race. There isn’t a dominant sprint train, nor a team that can control the whole peloton over mountain after mountain.

We’ve become accustomed to the big team trains, but the Tour has been won before by riders who weren’t backed by dominant teams. Greg LeMond didn’t have a great team around him when he won in 1989. As the team leader he was frequently alone and isolated in the mountains. The same was true for Miguel Indurain with his Banesto squad.

These days, I think the director may play an even bigger role in the success of a Grand Tour champion than before. With race radios and the constant communication with the team, a good director has to know what information to provide, and when. One of the things I learned as a younger coach and US National Team Director was that giving riders too much information just gave them too much to think about. It weighed them down, in a sense.

I’ve long said there are lots of riders who could be champions if the races were held in their home towns, on perfect days, when they can have everything just the way they like it. But that’s not how bike racing goes. You race where and when the race is being held and you have to adapt to the conditions, the roads, the food, the bed, and everything. Champions adapt, even to things like hail storms in the Alps.

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Comments 5

  1. Anyone else find the decision to take the times from the top of the Isoran odd and somewhat unfair? I don’t disagree with stopping the race , but why not cancel the day altogether? Allephillipe was making back huge time on the descent. While I think Bernal probably would have won anyway , we will never know if Julien could have spent at least 1 more day in yellow and Thomas may have been saving something for an attack on the final climb.

    1. Would think riders would be more upset having all their efforts completely discarded versus credit for work done up to when race was stopped. Listen to Robbie McEwen’s comments on how the race stoppage affected JA chances and most likely scenario that he would have lost even more time had the race gone full distance.

  2. What if the TdF this year ended with a more traditional Time Trial on the penultimate stage? Do you think Alaphillipe could have pulled back the yellow jersey?

    (Did the rumored “Froome-proofing” perhaps cost France it’s first yellow jersey in 34 years?)

  3. Cool to the riders from South America..nice to see more geographical dispersion for great riders.
    Had Richard Carapaz from Ecuador win the 2019 Giro d’italia and of course Colombian Nairo Quintana has won it previously 😃 in 2014, the Vuelta de España un 2016, and high standing in previous Tours of France.

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