KU News Release
June 30, 2011
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, 785-864-8855
Tour de France a spectacle of extreme human performance, says physiologist
LAWRENCE — The 2,100-mile Tour de France, which begins July 2, will showcase the most superb cyclists in the world. As the Tour participants scale the Alps and Pyrenees and sprint through European streets, the aggressive struggle between teams and riders will build to a crescendo as the Tour reaches its final stage on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
But the true soul of the event, one expert said, is a contest of physical stamina and the ability of human beings to tolerate pain.
Phil Gallagher, director of the Applied Physiology Laboratory at the University of Kansas, is excited to watch the upcoming Tour de France as a longtime fan of cycling and a former endurance athlete himself. But the KU researcher also will observe “le Tour” as an authority on the exceptional human physiological processes that allow these select cyclists to ride for 21 days and push their bodies to extremes.
“These guys have been training their entire lives,” Gallagher said. “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.”
Gallagher, who qualified multiple times for the U.S. Olympic trials as a cross-country skier, has led research measuring the output of cyclists with a power meter. Gauging cyclists’ productivity in watts, Gallagher found that average riders generate less than half the power of the elite athletes who compete in the Tour de France.
“For example, I just went out and cycled around 45 miles this weekend, and averaged around 200 to 225 watts,” said Gallagher. “These Tour riders average double that — and they’re riding double that distance each day. They’ll put out 450 watts average power. They’re basically the top athletes in the world.”
To maintain such incredible production of energy, the cyclists in the Tour de France have honed their physiques through extreme training to become specialized for the task, for instance 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 said. “Then, as your blood travels through your lungs, it will grab more oxygen from your lungs and deliver more to your muscles.”
In recent years, it was this need for a high ratio of red blood cells to plasma that led to doping scandals in the sport, 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,” said Gallagher. “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.”
Indeed, this year 198 blood samples will be taken from the riders the Thursday before the race and a further 150 urine tests and 50 blood tests will be made during the event.
Besides rigorous testing, Gallagher said the Tour riders also will be faced with the prospect of fueling themselves with enough calories during the event to make an average person blush.
“These cyclist will consume up to 10,000 calories per day, and they will still lose weight,” the KU researcher said. “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.”
Ultimately, the stress on the bodies of the cyclists will cause them significant physical pain. To a great extent, their psychological power to withstand this discomfort will help determine their success on the Tour.
“You need to have the mental capacity to handle a lot of pain,” Gallagher said. “Every single day you’re going 100-plus miles, you throw in the mountains, and you throw in the fact that it’s a race. 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.”
But for average people looking to achieve a higher level of fitness and endurance, Gallagher says a training regime should be simple, and consist of regularly putting in miles on a bike.
“Just go out and ride,” he said. “You just need a bike and a helmet. Have a good time. Hook up with some friends and go out and ride 20 miles or more.”
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