How Hard Is The Tour De France Really?

cyclists race past mountains in france
Image Credit: williamhill.com,au

As far as endurance competitions go, the Tour de France is in a league of its own.

Cycling’s most prestigious race has been held annually (except during the World Wars) since 1903, and even with advancements in bike technology and fitness knowledge, it hasn’t gotten much easier.

For any endurance discipline, it remains one the most demanding events in the world. How demanding? Enter your daily cycle commute below and see just how long it would take you to complete the Tour De France.

Harder, Hotter, Longer

The actual route changes slightly year to year, but is always made up of 21 stages across 23 days for a total of around 2,200 miles.

Always included in each race are stages through the Alps and Pyrenees mountains as well as flatter, faster stages called time trials. Excluding the shorter time trials, most stages take between 2.5 hours to 6 hours to complete.

racers pedal hard in the tour de france
Image Credit: bicycling.com

While ultramarathoners may go non-stop for longer periods of time, most ultras don’t see as much cumulative time or elevation change that le Tour has. And while it’s been done, most ultra runners need at least a few weeks off before even thinking about doing another race.

In the king of medley endurance sports, Ironman triathlons are of course tough (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run), but are cut off at 17 hours. Meanwhile, at 17 hours of work, Tour riders are only into stage 4.

Refueling (or attempting to)

Doing any form of intense cardio for three weeks with only two days rest is more than even most elite athletes can handle. Throw in sprints, the competitive team aspect of the tour, July heat, and doing much of it at altitude, and cyclists truly put themselves in a class of rare company.

Bradley Wiggins refuels during the tour de france
Image Credit: steephill.tv

The demands of the Tour on their bodies create a high one in their stomachs, too. On flat stages, riders can burn up to 5,000 calories; on climbing days that number soars to 7,000. Curious how that stacks up?

● Ironman Triathlon: 7,000-10,000 (per one race, 17 hours max)
● Cycling: 5,000-7,000 (per Tour stage)
● Marathon: 2,000-3,500 calories
● Swimming: 1,500-2,500 (10km open water swim)
● Rowing: <1,000 (2000m race)

For cyclists, replacing all those calories isn’t as easy as downing heaps of baguettes and duck confit in between stages. It’s something of an art form, as foods need to be nutrient dense instead of voluminous, as the latter can cause severe gastric pain due to slow digestion.

A loss of appetite due to fatigue and eating the same goos and smoothies over and over is common and can also lead to loss of precious muscle.

However, if you love to eat liberally without the consequences of weight gain, maybe training for the Tour is for you.

Saving Energy

All that fuel goes into powering a large array of muscles, including some that get extra usage compared to other endurance sports. While on flat surfaces, both running and cycling are very quad, hamstring, and abductor-centric, on a bike the glutes get super involved too, producing about 27% of a cyclist’s power.

The constant leaning on the handlebars also helps train the abs, triceps, and shoulders more than just running does.

legs of cyclists
Image Credit: sportsgrid.com

To help spare and preserve these muscles as much as possible, riders adopt a number of energy-saving tactics.

Each of the 20-22 teams has nine riders each, with many of them having specific roles that all serve the team’s ‘leader’ (who is usually their best chance at winning the whole thing).

Going all-out, all the time would be a recipe for disaster and teams have servant ‘riders’ (called domestiques) that help pace the leader until it’s time for him to make a surge on his own at the end of a stage.

Teams also jockey to have many of their members at the front of the peloton too in hopes of getting tangled up (and sometimes virtually eliminated from contention) by a crash.

Here Be Hazards

Of course, all the planning and strategy in the world can’t prevent injuries from happening in any sport.

Whereas in ultrarunning or other distance sports you might to forced into quitting by severe cramping or exhaustion, Tour cyclists have to contend with that and much more, including hazardous crosswinds, roadside obstacles, and potential deadly crashes.

cyclists crash in the tour de france
Image Credit: mpora.com

The most recent fatality happened in 1995, when Fabio Casartelli died after crashing during a steep descent at an estimated 55 mph.

There’s been countless other close calls, such as Oscar Pereiro flying over a guardrail in 2008 (resulting in a broken collarbone), Jens Voigt breaking his face in a 2009 crash, or Johnny Hoogerland’s run-in with barbed wire in 2011, earning him 33 stitches.

cyclists get medical help during tour de france race
image Credit: velonews.com

Fortunately, medical treatment is never far from the riders. Every team has a support vehicle following close by with food, water, mechanical, and medical supplies. Also following behind the peloton (the main pack of riders) are seven ambulances, two medical cars, a medical motorcycle, and even a radiology truck offering assistance.

As grueling as the event is, they’ll likely need it.