Source: New York Times, July 22, 2007
Author: GINA KOLATA
How hard is the Tour de France?
Ask Andy Hampsten, who rode the tour eight times and finished fourth twice. He says it was the hardest thing he ever did as a cyclist, so hard that it is difficult for him to convey the stress and utter bone-tiredness that sets in during the three weeks of competition. At night, the cyclists could barely move.
“It hurt to walk, it hurt to lie in bed and do nothing,” Mr. Hampsten said. “When we were not racing, we were sitting down or lying down if we could. It’s funny to see these 20- and 30-year-old superathletes never standing up. Even when we would sit on the edge of a bed, we would slump down to a horizontal position as quickly as possible.”
This year’s tour, which began on July 7, will cover 2,205 miles over 23 days, including six days in the Alps and Pyrenees, before ending next Sunday in Paris. Only two days are set aside for rest.
Today, the race enters perhaps its toughest week, beginning with a 122-mile stage through the Pyrenees that includes two extremely steep climbs — a 10.5-mile ascent with an average gradient of 7.2 percent, and another 10-mile climb with an average incline of 7.9 percent.
Then the riders still in the race — 21 of the original 189 had dropped out as of Friday — will spend two more days climbing the steep slopes of the Pyrenees, ride three relatively flat stages and compete in a 34-mile individual time-trial.
Compare that with, say, running a marathon at an average pace of less than five minutes a mile. Elite runners have their own war stories and their races sound impossibly hard, too.
“The thing with the marathon is the distance,” he said. “It’s a long, long distance. I’ve learned about the marathon the hard way. I’ve experienced its pain. When the going gets hard, you still have to run hard. You have to give it everything. It took me a while to learn the pain of the marathon.”
Marathon running is so hard that elite runners often recuperate by taking two or three weeks off after a race with no running at all. And they only race in marathons twice a year.
Tour riders, by contrast, typically are racing again a month after the Tour and race as many as 100 times a year.
But the question of which is harder — the Tour or a marathon — depends, scientists say, on what you mean by hard.
“Running is less of a test of pure cardiovascular strength and muscle strength,” says Robert Wolfe, a physiologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “Other factors come into play. In particular, the physical pounding of the legs on the road brings a kind of fatigue and muscle damage that lasts and persists.”
For pure energy expenditure, it is hard to match the Tour de France, whose riders consume as much as 8,000 to 9,000 calories a day.
By studying four racers as they rode in the 1985 Tour, Klaas Westerterp of Maastricht University in the Netherlands concluded that their metabolic rates increased 4.3- to 5.3-fold. That sort of increase in metabolic rate, he added, is what birds reach when they fly and is thought to be a physiological limit.
David Gordon Wilson, an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of “Bicycling Science” (MIT Press, 2004), calculated that Tour riders generate 400 watts of power when they are riding up mountains or trying to break away from the pack. An average person riding a bicycle and working as hard as possible puts out 150 to 200 watts, he said.
There are no comparable wattage values for runners, Dr. Wilson said, because the two sports are so different. Cyclists use nearly all their energy to propel themselves forward. Runners, he said, “spend a lot of energy bouncing up and down.”
In any event, Dr. Wilson said, no ordinary human being could even dream of matching these top athletes.
“The difference between people who think they’re good athletes and really good athletes is fantastic,” he said.
Edward Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, offered another perspective on the comparison between elite cyclists and elite runners.
“In the end, performance is where you give it your all and you are suffering as much as you can,” he said. “From the suffering point of view, cycling and running are about the same.”