Tour de France: 2,100 miles of pain

U. KANSAS (US) — The psychological ability of cyclists in the Tour de France to deal with extreme physical and mental pain for 21 days is what will determine the outcome of the world’s best known bicycle race.

“These guys have been training their entire lives,” says Phil Gallagher, associate professor at the University of Kansas and director of the Applied Physiology Laboratory.

“As a result, elite cyclists have larger hearts than the typical person, so they’re able to push out more blood per beat. They’re able to extract more oxygen from their blood than an untrained individual would.”

Gauging cyclists’ productivity in watts, Gallagher says average riders generate less than half the power of the athletes who compete in the Tour de France.

“I just went out and cycled around 45 miles this weekend, and averaged around 200 to 225 watts,” Gallagher says. “These Tour riders average double that, and they’re riding double that distance each day. They’ll put out 450 watts average power.”

To maintain such incredible production of energy, cyclists hone their physiques through extreme specialized training—producing more oxygen-transporting red blood cells than the average person.

“One way to do this is called “live high, train low,” where you either sleep in a tent that reduces the oxygen level, or you literally live at altitude but train at sea level,” Gallagher says.

“Then, as your blood travels through your lungs, it will grab more oxygen from your lungs and deliver more to your muscles.”

The need for a high ratio of red blood cells to plasma has led to doping scandals in the sport, Gallagher says, where many riders have been charged with using erythropoietin, or EPO. Others reportedly have undergone secret blood transfusions, where their own blood was stored and returned to their bodies during the race.

“Doping is not just in this sport. But the Tour is such a big event, especially in Europe. In the 1990s, doping was just rampant. If you were a Tour rider in the 1990s, chances are that you were doping.

“There have been a couple of teams since then that have set an anti-doping agenda, and the Tour itself has done a better job of testing these athletes as well.”

This year 198 blood samples were taken from the riders before the race and 150 urine tests and 50 blood tests will be made during the event.

Besides rigorous testing, riders need to replenish fuel with enough calories to make an average person blush.

“These cyclists will consume up to 10,000 calories per day, and they will still lose weight. Even when they’re riding they’ll go through what are called feed zones. They’ll grab a bag with a bunch of food in it. And after they get done riding each day, they’re just gobbling food.

“You need to have the mental capacity to handle a lot of pain. Every single day you’re going 100-plus miles, you throw in the mountains, and you throw in the fact that it¹s a race,” Gallagher says.

“So it’s prolonged pain that’s going to last for minutes to hours at a time, where you’re just going to be miserable. It takes a special person to handle that.”

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