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How did amateurs compare with pros at the Tour Down Under?

If you’ve ever watched a professional bike race such as the Tour de France on TV, you might have thought to yourself: “Just how good are the professionals?” And if you do a bit of cycling yourself, you…

Serge Pauwels (left) rode conservatively during stage 4 of the Tour Down Under. AAP Image/Benjamin Macmahon

If you’ve ever watched a professional bike race such as the Tour de France on TV, you might have thought to yourself: “Just how good are the professionals?” And if you do a bit of cycling yourself, you might be inclined to wonder: “How much better are they than me?”

Using data from the 2013 Tour Down Under – held in late January in and around Adelaide – I was able to compare the efforts of amateur recreational cyclists against those of professionals in the race.

On Stage 4 of the Tour Down Under more than 6,500 recreational cyclists took part in the Bupa Challenge Tour, riding along the same route as the professionals just a few hours before the race.

Of the 6,500 cyclists that took part in the recreational event, 950 recorded their ride using the popular “social fitness” website Strava. I was then able to analyse this wealth of shared data to compare the efforts of amateur cyclists with the efforts of professional rider Serge Pauwels from the Omega Pharma-Quickstep team.

Serge Pauwels from the Omega Pharma-Quickstep team. Petit Brun

While German sprinter Andre Greipel won that Tour Down Under stage at the head of the peloton, Pauwels finished 42nd as part of the same group. This meant that Pauwels’s time was considered equal to that of Greipel’s.

As Pauwels remained in the peloton all day, riding conservatively, his effort represents the minimum needed to ride with the pros on a fast stage that averaged 41.5km/h.

So how did the non-pro riders perform over the same course?

While there could be a difference in the effort put in by pros and amateurs – for a start, the pros were racing and the public were not – many riders seem to have been giving it their best, particularly the faster amateurs.

As Kalvin Bartlett, the 10th fastest amateur rider on the day (from those on Strava) said: “… some people need to distinguish between a charity ride and a race”.

The amateur riders also had to be motivated enough to turn up and choose the full 127km of Stage 4 rather than one of the shorter alternatives available on the day. This would suggest that the riders in question are all reasonably strong.

(If you didn’t ride in the Bupa Challenge you can get a rough idea of how you would have gone by comparing your average speed over a long ride to that of the amateur field below. You’d have to be able to average a punishing 26km/h including rest stops to make the top half of the amateur field in the Bupa Challenge Tour.)

Figure 2: Bupa Challenge ride average speeds. Ken Taylor

The image above shows that Pauwels and the rest of the riders in the pro peloton were 4.4 standard deviations faster than the mean of everyone else and a full 5.7km/h faster than the quickest amateur.

How did they do it?

Well the obvious answer would be “they pedalled harder” but as it turns out, for the best of the amateurs, this isn’t the case.

A cyclist generates power to propel the bike forward, and this is measured by multiplying the force they exert on the pedals by how fast the pedals are rotating. Power is lost to air drag, rolling resistance and fighting gravity as they climb hills.

The heavier the cyclist, the higher the power they should be able to produce. As such, Serge Pauwels’s weight of 64kg makes his average of 223W more impressive than if he’d been, say, 80kg.

A cyclist can produce high power for short intervals but this will leave them tired. Each cyclist has a maximum amount of power they can produce over any particular interval. These best efforts can be shown in a curve compiled from their highest power over multiple efforts.

The image below compares Pauwels’s previously established best-effort power curve (dashed blue line) against his power curve for stage 4 (dashed red line) and the power curves of the four fastest amateurs (as per Strava) that had power meters during the Bupa Challenge Tour.

Figure 3: Despite going much faster Serge Pauwels produced less power than some other riders. Rider speeds are speed while moving and speed including rest stops. Ken Taylor

This image shows that Pauwels rode at his long-distance best but fairly conservatively – that is, he was well below his best over shorter intervals.

This conservative riding would have helped Pauwels stay fresh enough to achieve strong results in later stages of the six-stage tour. In turn, these strong results allowed him to finish the Tour Down Under in 20th place overall.

Three of the amateurs produced a higher average power than Pauwels, including one who recorded 243W – nearly 10% more than Pauwels’s 223W.

And one of the amateurs, “Spartacus Flying Scotsman”, was able to ride more conservatively (i.e producing less power in short intervals – see figure 3 above) while producing more power overall.

But Pauwels was more efficient, riding at a higher average speed from a lower average power than all of the amateurs.

Just how efficiently Pauwels rode can be seen by plotting speed against power, for all riders who uploaded power meter data to Strava (as seen in figure 4 below). Only 28 of the 950 riders used power meters and of these four were identified as unreliable and excluded.

Figure 4: Power vs speed for the 2013 Bupa Challenge, Tour Down Under Stage 4. Unexpectedly, the relationship is approximately linear for all but the pros despite air drag being proportional to velocity cubed. Ken Taylor

The power required to overcome air drag is proportional to a rider’s velocity cubed (i.e. the drag increases dramatically the faster you go). And yet the power vs speed relationship for the amateurs is approximately linear.

This is unexpected, but because Pauwels is well below the trend, it emphasises just how efficiently he rode.

So, to keep up with the pros, the average Bupa Challenge rider needs to produce an additional 50W – an increase of a little more than a third – and ride much more efficiently to increase their speed by more than 50%.

And for the rest of us, matching the pros is an even more difficult task – most probably couldn’t ride 127km at any speed.

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24 Comments sorted by

  1. Craig Minns

    Self-employed

    Surely a lot of the greater efficiency is explained by his being within the peloton? The amateurs at the front of the field were presumably not riding in a group of 40+?

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    1. Ken Taylor

      Research Scientist at CSIRO

      In reply to Craig Minns

      Yes I think you are right. Maybe the amateurs should get organised and take on the pros.

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    2. Mitch Dillon

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ken Taylor

      People that i ride with suggest a 5-10% saving of 'energy' by riding in, or behind a group. Have studies been done to come up with real figures for that?
      cheers..

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    3. Arno Nymous

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mitch Dillon

      It's 30%. Far, far more than 10%. This is based on consistent wind and comparing various positions in a pace line of single-file riders at a steady pace (35-40km/hr). Put people either side of you and it's consistently easier.

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    4. Rosco Hamilton

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ken Taylor

      Sitting in a peleton of 100 riders moving along at 45km h is a piece of cake even for C or D grade amateur racers.
      This article brought to mind the day I did the Eastlink race before the tollway opened in 2008. I was just a hack racing C grade but it was doing 130bpm and sitting at 50km h in the middle of the peleton due to huge draft of so many riders.
      Amateurs would be unlikely to have groups of more than 10 when they are "racing" a charity ride.

      Due to the wonderful drafting effect, it isnt the average speed that makes elite racing hard, it is the sudden change in speed when attacks happen, or the riders ability to corner very fast in the final few twists and turns of a race.

      I think what would differentiate Pauwels from the amateurs would be his ability to put out significant power for 1 to 2 minute bursts and be able to do so after 120km.

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    5. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Rosco Hamilton

      Agree + doing it for day after day. what is sometimes forgotten also is the times where drafting is less consequential: climbing.

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  2. Gareth Townsend

    logged in via Twitter

    I hope you are using real power numbers (lightning bolt next to numbers) for the amateurs and not the made up calculations that Strava gives. The calculations are wildly inaccurate.

    I ride with a power meter, and so do the people I train with. I'm short, my friends are taller. Riding next to each other we regularly see a 30w difference riding at the same speed with a similar cadence. Frontal exposure to wind drag makes a significant difference.

    Riding in a peloton, while racing, I've seen over 150w difference when riding into a headwind compared with pulling a turn on the front of the peloton.

    Exposure to wind makes a huge difference, so making comparisons like this without taking into account the wind and aerodynamic drag on the rider are always going to be hugely inaccurate, just like strava's calculated power numbers.

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    1. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Gareth Townsend

      i agree Gareth, also pro riders probably have a smaller surface area to the wind, on average. Their positions are optimised for riding and they would have greater flexibility to enable a more aero position. They are often smaller than the average australian male, which means they are lighter and have a smaller surface area to present to the wind.
      I'm sure even their 'aero' bike frames would make some difference over the course of a stage.
      Pro-riders haver other err... enhancements as well, such as individualised training regimes which even the most enthusiastic A-grader would have difficulty finding the means to follow.

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    2. Matt de Neef

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Gareth Townsend

      Hi Gareth. As per the paragraph directly above figure 4:

      "Just how efficiently Pauwels rode can be seen by plotting speed against power, for all riders who uploaded power meter data to Strava (as seen in figure 4 below). Only 28 of the 950 riders used power meters and of these four were identified as unreliable and excluded."

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  3. Stuart Corney

    PhD; Climate Systems Modeller at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC at University of Tasmania

    Great idea for a story and an interesting article, but as other commenters have suggested I think it misses a few key points that render the analysis pretty pointless. On that day Serge Pauwels rode in the bunch and perhaps never went to the front. Thus he was taking it pretty easy for most of the day (perhaps only really exerting himself for the last half hour to an hour). In contrast an amateur rider riding at 36 km/h is working hard, almost certainly in a small group, and spending a significant…

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    1. Kalvin Bartlett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stuart Corney

      Hey everyone. It appears that I am famous (or infamous depending on your point of view). The Bupa was not an event i peaked for and I certainly didn't attack it like a race. I went to Adelaide to train for the week. Between Saturday 19 and Thursday 24/1 I had clocked up around 800kms, with plenty of climbing and hard work. Some solo, some with a group. I guess you could say I came into that event with my legs already partly 'cooked'. When making comparisons between anyone on Strava and the pros…

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  4. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    In many (most?) sports and some other pursuits, the very best amateurs are better than the lower ranking professionals. I remarked once to a young conductor (it was 1976, he was Simon Rattle) of the amateur choir and orchestra I was in, in London. I said the clarinetist was good enough to be in a professional London orchestra. He said he is probably an accountant and makes more money and has a more interesting life than an orchestral player!
    Bobby Jones an amateur golfer in 1930 won the US and British Open Championships.

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    1. Stuart Corney

      PhD; Climate Systems Modeller at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC at University of Tasmania

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      I am not sure I believe Colin's comment. One need only look at the struggles most neo-pros have just trying to keep up with the training load and pace in pro races to come to a different conclusion (the same could be said of young AFL footballers). There may be amateurs who are arguably more talented than some pros, or who could out perform a pro rider on a given day, but the sheer hours of training and racing the pro riders do makes it almost impossible for an amateur to compete against them. I have ridden with a "lower ranking professional" and was flattered when he said our group ride was pretty hard work, but we stopped after an hour and I could barely stand up, he kept riding for a further 4 hours and came out the next day (and the one after that) and rode similar distances and intensity again,

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    2. Rosco Hamilton

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Amateurs being better than pros can be especially applicable in cycling. After all, until the Tour Down Under became part of the Protour it was mostly an opportunity for in-form Australians to race hard while the euros worked on their tans. Just take a look at Andy Schleck for how this is still the case.
      I bet you wont see him 'just clocking up the k's' in July.

      Anecdotally one of the important factors for seasoned pros is being able to handle a high training and racing load all year round, not just when the weather is good.

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    3. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Stuart Corney

      Hi Stuart
      I was careful to say "In many (most?) sports and some other pursuits" A sports pro has to be very keen on training (Rosco said this below) and I guess probably doesn't have rocket science or brain surgery as alternative career choices.

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  5. Ken Taylor

    Research Scientist at CSIRO

    Thank you for the comments, especially Kalvin. Many of you are tough critics.

    Mitch Dillon - Yes it's been investigated and the energy savings are significant, hence the lead out trains.

    Gareth Townsend - In the article I said "Only 28 of the 950 riders used power meters and of these four were identified as unreliable and excluded." This was the data I plotted in Figure 4 and I was surprised how few there were.

    Unfortunately power meters can be "wildly inaccurate" as well. They need zeroing…

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    1. Arno Nymous

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Ken Taylor

      Ah Ken. I have to agree with the others pointing out the apples vs oranges comparison of this article.

      I expected more from someone working at CSIRO with a PhD who has done a stint with the AIS.

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    2. Umran Abdulla

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Arno Nymous

      Don't you think you're being harsh in your expectations!

      It might seem pointless to you and many other readers, but most of those "oranges" do wish to know how well they compare against "apples", and what they can do to get better.

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    3. Arno Nymous

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Umran Abdulla

      No, not at all. Do you know what a PhD is? Do you know what the AIS is? Do you know what it takes to earn a PhD and work at the AIS?

      If this were a highschool essay, I think the biology teacher may have pointed out the flaws in the comparison. We're not in highschool. We're in the real world.

      My expectations scale to match the qualification and experience of the author. Doesn't get much higher than PhD + AIS.

      This essay tells you nothing about what to do to get better. All the comparisons are based on final average speed, despite riding in a group vs riding solo. No amateur (or pro!) is ever going to match a group of pros riding together.

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  6. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Coincidentally today:
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/auckland/sport/8264789/Lydia-Ko-sets-course-for-NZ-title-honours
    Lydia Ko admits to feeling the pressure ahead of the New Zealand Women's Open (Golf) ….. Ko is perhaps the only amateur in the world who can tee it up in a professional tournament and be considered a favourite, and this week will be no different for the seemingly unflappable 15-year-old.
    Ko did not play at the inaugural event in 2009, at Clearwater, but finished tied for seventh in 2010 (aged 12), tied for fourth in 2011 (aged 13), and tied for 17th last year (aged 14) when she was in contention but faded in the final round.

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  7. Mark Wells

    logged in via Facebook

    Ken - I personally enjoyed your article (and I suspect most people did, it certainly sparked some debate in my cycling group). Agree there are some inappropriately harsh critics out there.

    A follow-up article on the benefits of drafting would be interesting if it were possible ( need power meter data from a bunch of riders in different positions in the peleton - that would be fascinating).

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  8. Steve P

    Engineer

    Its an interesting dataset and I enjoyed reading it but as one of those that uploaded power data (my point is bang in the middle of the graph) a few things do stand out:

    I find it hard to believe that the Serge's best 1 hour (the dotted blue line) is 300 watts. For him that ammounts to 4.6 watts / kilo which really isnt that great, I can do 4.2 for example, and I consider myself VERY average. Similarly 550 watts for 1 minute is only 8.6w/kg, I can do 8.51w/kg..... I suspect that data is not…

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  9. Michael Bland

    logged in via Facebook

    I totally agree with Stuart Corney's criticism of your article . It does not really give a true comparison of a Professional cyclist and amateur cyclist .All you really had to do was choose a pro, who was on the font more, punching into the wind .
    your article was still slightly interesting .

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