What’s in a plan? Training for the Tour de France

It’s hard graft, but pros love it when a plan comes together. Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA

To reach the start line of the Tour de France – currently underway – is an incredible feat in itself for any professional cyclist. It is the culmination of years of dedicated training and competition. So, how is a training plan structured to prepare for Le Tour?

A training plan must reflect the physiological demands of the event. The three-week Grand Tour is extremely challenging because of both the duration of the race and the diversity of environments along the way.

Riders need exceptional aerobic capacity to climb and time trial (both team and individual), ride in a breakaway or on the front of the peloton. Sprinting is required for powering to the finish line and also for accelerating out of corners and closing down gaps.

Finally, the ability to recover rapidly between stages is crucial. Because of the great variety of these demands, riders with particular strengths target specific aspects of the race and therefore require different approaches for their Tour preparation.

Riders who have aspirations for the general classification (the classification from which the overall winner is determined) need to train specifically for two major disciplines: climbing and time-trialling.

Building threshold power

The training plan for general classification contenders involves progressing through training phases or blocks of varied volume, intensity and frequency. Following a few weeks off-season, a rider will return to training by gradually increasing volume and intensity over what’s known as a base period, completing as much as 800 to 1,000km a week.

Following this, a general classification rider would begin to focus on training their most valuable asset: threshold power. Threshold power is how much power can be sustained aerobically for sustained periods of time (20 minutes or more), and is critical to climbing ability when related to body weight, especially on long, steep climbs.

Nicolas Bouvy/EPA

Top general classification contenders at the Tour will need to be able to average around 6 watts per kilo of body weight on the high mountain passes, which means holding about 400W for up to an hour for a 65kg rider.

To put this into perspective, an average young, healthy male could sustain this for no more than one or two minutes. More importantly, this needs to be repeated multiple times on the big mountain stages, and then performed day after day.

The ability to resist fatigue at such high levels of energy output is a key factor in the general classification competition. Training for this involves sessions lasting between four and six hours, three to five times a week consisting of multiple repetitions of 30-60-minute climbs, while holding a target power output measured by a power meter.

Additionally, threshold power is at the core of time-trialling performance, meaning some crossover benefit is gained from climbing training, but specific training on the time trial bike is necessary because of the need to adapt to the extreme aerodynamic riding position, as demonstrated by Australia’s Richie Porte below.

Yoan Valat/EPA

A pre-Tour tour

Depending on the amount of racing that’s already been done and how smoothly the season has gone in the lead-up, many general classification riders choose to race a one-week tour in the four to eight weeks leading into the race, to gain race-intensity training which may not otherwise be able to be replicated in training.

There are disadvantages, though, such as the risk of crashing and not being able to control the level of effort if excess fatigue develops.

A muddy Cadel Evans in the 2010 Giro d'Italia. EPA

On the other hand, a rider such as Cadel Evans – as happened this year – might choose to race the 3,455km Giro d’Italia for three weeks of specific Grand Tour training. This approach carries further risks by creating too much fatigue, or increasing the risk of illness (as happened to Bradley Wiggins this year), which would necessitate extended recovery time.

But a rider with the experience of Evans will likely tolerate the training load of the Giro, take a short recovery period then do a block of highly structured and monitored training, which includes motor pacing behind a scooter to simulate race intensity effort and specific climbing and time trial training.

Taper time

Tapering is the final piece of the puzzle, where training volume is reduced, often by up to 40-50% in the seven to 14 days pre-race.

In this time, training intensity is maintained or even increased to maintain fitness, but overall fatigue is reduced through the minimised workload to optimise performance (or what athletes refer to as “form”). In the week prior to the event, teams looking for sprint stage wins will perform specific sprint drills to refine their performance.

Most teams will also get the chance to perform specific team time trial training, which has different physiological demands and tactical requirements to individual time trialling.

The training plan for the Tour de France is a complex interaction of variables: it’s the balance between doing sufficient training and avoiding excess fatigue. But with the the right training plan, the right timing and taper, the rider could develop the potential to produce the final acceleration where the race-winning time gap is made.

Put simply, it’s not just about training hard – it’s about training smart.


Further reading:
Conversation articles on the Tour de France