The Science of Cycling: How Top Athletes Prepare For The Tour De France

Photo of author
Written by
reviewed by Ben Gibbons
Last Updated:

Bicycles and yellow jerseys. The Champs-Élysées and punishing Alpine climbs. All these images converge in the minds of cycling enthusiasts when the Tour de France is mentioned.

However, what often goes unnoticed is the meticulous science and sheer human effort behind this grand spectacle of athleticism.

As we count down to this year’s Tour, we delve into the intense preparation that makes each pedal stroke on the road to Paris possible.

Join us as we explore the science of cycling, revealing what it truly takes to compete in the world’s most prestigious cycling race, the Tour de France.

Prepare to be amazed by the synergy of human endeavor and cutting-edge science that forms the backbone of professional cycling.

We’ll be covering:

  • The Physiology Of Cycling
  • Training Regimens of Top Cyclists in 6 Key Stages
  • Nutrition And Hydration
  • Mental Preparation
  • Equipment
  • Technology
  • Injury Prevention And Recovery

Let’s dive in!

The Science of Cycling: How Top Athletes Prepare For The Tour De France 1
© A.S.O./Pauline Ballet. Edited from the original.

The Physiology of Cycling

Cycling is a demanding sport that requires not just technical skills and strategic acumen but also robust physical stamina.

The intensity varies with different types of races, but all require a combination of endurance, strength, and speed.

Endurance allows one to maintain a steady pace for extended periods, strength is needed for climbing hills or sprinting, and speed is necessary for breaking away from the pack or finishing strongly.

Key Muscle Groups Used and the Role of the Cardiovascular System

The major muscle groups employed include the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and core muscles:

  • The quadriceps and hamstrings are particularly important as they generate the power to push and pull the pedals.
  • Core muscles stabilize the body, allowing for efficient power transfer from the torso to the legs.
Diagram of the cardiovascular system with the heart and blood platelets.

Training Regimens of Top Cyclists in 6 Key Stages

Part 1: Construct A Base

The preparatory phase, which usually begins in late November or early December, is devoted to building a strong aerobic foundation.

During winter, riders engage in an intensive volume-building regimen, often clocking between 20 to 31 hours per week on their bikes.

The aim during these months is to develop aerobic proficiency and train the body to burn fat as fuel.

Low-intensity, long-duration rides are the backbone of this phase, enabling riders to substantially enhance their endurance capabilities.

In addition, riders also focus on strength and flexibility exercises two to three times a week. These exercises, involving bodyweight training, physical therapy routines, core work, yoga, and stretching, maintain overall fitness.

This base-building phase equips riders with the necessary resilience and stamina to manage the subsequent intense phases and, eventually, the grueling stages of the Tour de France.

Part 2: Amplify The Intensity

In February, about five months before the Tour, training significantly intensifies.

This is when riders start to incorporate more tempo, sub-threshold, and threshold work into their regimen.

Threshold refers to the maximum effort a rider can sustain for an hour.

Training at this intensity helps riders adapt to the demands of stage races, which last anywhere between six to ten days. However, coaches ensure that they don’t push too hard during this phase, as conserving energy for the actual races is equally important.

In conjunction with the shift in intensity, cyclists also begin to fine-tune their nutrition during this period.

They work meticulously on achieving their ideal racing weight, generally adhering to a rule of thumb that they shouldn’t lose more than 0.5% of their body weight per week.

Nutrition management includes conditioning their bodies to consume up to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour and observing steady weight loss without hindering performance.

This phase, combining high-intensity rides and meticulous nutrition planning, allows riders to transition smoothly from base-building to specific preparation, priming them for the challenges of the Tour de France.

Cyclist wearing green and black rides a time trial bike with mountains in the background.

Part 3: How Training Adjusts as the Race Approaches

By the time April rolls around, riders switch their focus to race-specific training.

The primary goal here isn’t so much about developing aerobic fitness but about managing fatigue and gearing up for high-intensity exertion.

Strength work also transitions to more of a maintenance phase.

This block centers on yielding results and preparing for the Tour de France.

Riders generally hit at least one peak before the Tour, often for the Ardennes Classics in April. Competing as a form of training is a critical aspect of preparing for the Tour.

This peak is followed by a recovery phase before shifting into the preparation phase.

Training camps are another integral part, where riders undergo structured sessions. These camps involve altitude training, time trial training, and often even race simulations in the mountains.

A rider’s approach to a training camp largely depends on their role in the team and their specialization. Climbers, for instance, spend more time in the mountains engaging in long, steady climbs.

Regardless of their specific methods, riders typically reach the peak of their training anywhere from three to six weeks prior to the start of the Tour. This is generally followed by a recovery period and then a tapering or sharpening period.

Cyclist on red bike and bib shorts cycles along tarmac road with the sun in the background.

Part 4: Tapering

The tapering process starts around two weeks before the Tour.

During this period, riders gradually reduce their daily training hours from five to six hours a day to approximately an hour or even a complete rest day.

Some intensity is maintained despite the shorter sessions.

In the week leading up to the Tour, riders might engage in a short speed workout to simulate the race environment. The primary goal is to keep the body active and functioning optimally without inducing fatigue.

Later in the week, they might have a team time trial session, riding on the time trial bikes for two to three hours and making sure everything is tuned perfectly.

Despite all the planning and preparation, it’s important to note that there are no guarantees of success.

Part 5: Altitude Training and Its Physiological Effects

Altitude stimulates the production of more red blood cells due to the lower oxygen concentration in high-altitude environments.

These cells improve the body’s oxygen-carrying and delivery capacity, aiding endurance during races.

However, for those living close to sea level, adapting can be challenging as the reduced oxygen intake may lead to quicker fatigue, slower recovery, and a constant feeling of being short of breath.

This raises questions about whether it’s worth sacrificing training volume to gain more red blood cells.

With regular camps, cyclists can acclimatize faster and benefit from high-quality training and an increased red blood cell count.

Some teams even provide their riders with hypoxic tents, enabling them to maintain their adaptations between camps.

Part 6: Living High, Training Low

Altitude can have a double-edged effect; while it improves blood markers, it can also lead to muscle detraining.

To counteract this, many follow a “live high, train low” strategy.

They sleep at high altitudes but train closer to sea level to prevent muscle detraining while still benefiting from improved blood markers.

A group of road cyclists cycle in a group on a clear day.

Nutrition and Hydration

A well-balanced diet rich in carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats provides energy and aids in muscle repair and recovery:

  • Carb Cycling: One popular diet strategy is carb cycling. This involves alternating between high- and low-carbohydrate intake days to optimize energy use and facilitate recovery.
  • Hydration: Hydration is paramount to replace fluids lost through sweating. Additionally, maintaining electrolyte balance helps prevent muscle cramping and fatigue.
  • Food Prep: Pre-race meals typically focus on high-carbohydrate foods for sustained energy.
  • Race food: During the race, cyclists consume easy-to-digest carbohydrates and hydration drinks.
  • Post-race: After the race, the focus shifts to protein for muscle repair, along with carbohydrates to replenish energy stores.
Cyclist gets handed a black and red water bottle to rehydrate.

Mental Preparation

Mental strength is as important as physical fitness in sports. Cyclists need to maintain focus, manage discomfort, and stay motivated during long and grueling races.

Cyclists use various techniques, including visualization, mindfulness, and goal setting.

These help enhance focus, reduce anxiety, and increase resilience under pressure.

Sports psychologists prepare athletes for mental challenges by offering techniques to handle stress, improve concentration, and boost confidence.

Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard fist bump at the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Charly Lopez


The design of a bike and how well it fits the cyclist affect performance and risk of injury.

A properly fitted bike can optimize efficiency, comfort, and handling while reducing strain on the body.

Moreover, attire and equipment are designed with aerodynamics in mind to reduce wind resistance and enhance speed. From streamlined helmets to form-fitting clothing, every detail can contribute to shaving off valuable seconds.


Wearable Devices

Wearable devices such as smartwatches and heart rate monitors have made tracking metrics simpler and more accessible. These devices can monitor heart rate, speed, cadence, distance traveled, and even sleep and recovery data.

All this data can provide a detailed picture of a cyclist’s health and performance status, providing crucial insights to optimize training plans.

Smart Trainers

Smart trainers can simulate the physical conditions of a race. By adjusting resistance according to a virtual course’s topography, these devices provide an immersive experience at home.

They can also be connected to online platforms, enabling cyclists to compete with others in real time and prepare for the competitive aspect.

Two cyclists wearing blue and black clothing ride next to each other on indoor trainers.

Power Meters

Power meters measure the force that a cyclist applies to the pedals. By providing a direct power output, they offer a precise and objective measure of performance.

Cyclists can use this data to track their progress, adjust their intensity, and ensure that they are working towards their goals in the most effective way.

Injury Prevention and Recovery

Rest and recovery are vital parts of a cyclist’s training regimen.

These periods allow the body to repair damaged tissues, strengthen the immune system, and restore energy reserves.

Physiotherapy and massage can aid in reducing muscle tension and promoting blood flow.

Common injuries include knee pain, lower back pain, and neck pain. These can be prevented through proper bike fit and correct riding technique.

Finally, sleep plays an important role in recovery. During sleep, the body produces growth hormone, which helps repair and build tissues.

This deep dive underscores the reality that professional cycling is not simply about the grit and glamour of the race.

An athlete’s preparation for the Tour de France is a true testament to the remarkable synergy of mind, body, and machine.

Excited to watch the Tour? Check out: How To Watch Tour De France 2023: Nation-By-Nation.

Photo of author
Quentin's background in bike racing runs deep. In his youth, he won the prestigious junior Roc d'Azur MTB race before representing Belgium at the U17 European Championships in Graz, Austria. Shifting to road racing, he then competed in some of the biggest races on the junior calendar, including Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, before stepping up to race Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix as an U23. With a breakthrough into the cut-throat environment of professional racing just out of reach, Quentin decided to shift his focus to embrace bike racing as a passion rather than a career. Now writing for BikeTips, Quentin's experience provides invaluable insight into performance cycling - though he's always ready to embrace the fun side of the sport he loves too and share his passion with others.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.