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Training for the Tour de France looks very different to how it did a few decades ago.
Long trips to altitude and less time in the peloton carries riders like Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar to Tour de France-crushing form. Nutrition follows a “more is more” mindset and “peaking too soon” is in the past.
Jumbo-Visma’s Tour captains Roglič, Wout van Aert and Jonas Vingegaard demolished this month’s Dauphiné off the back of a training plan that would have seen sniggers late last century.
“We are very very happy with their shape and how their form is at the moment,” team performance director Mathieu Heijboer told VeloNews after the Critérium du Dauphiné.
“As you could see at the Daupiné, Primož, Wout and Jonas are very good. And those guys are feeling recovered already. The program and training we scheduled definitely seem to be paying off, and going on track.”
Jumbo-Visma’s Tour de France route map reveals a lot about how the road to the world’s biggest race evolved over recent decades. Here’s how.
Train more, race less
Some fundamentals of modern-day training plans haven’t changed, and never will.
“One of the key aspects of winning the Tour de France is having a good and consistent training block over a very long period, months,” Heijboer said. “That’s the foundation, the most important part.”
Consistent weeks of riding for anywhere up to 30 hours grow the gains through the early months. A series of cycles bring racers blocks of increasing stress before a one-week decompress.
Roglič and Pogačar don’t publish much of their data. But Tour-bound Sepp Kuss does. Jumbo-Visma’s U.S. ace climbs weekly blocks that ramp from 15 to 25 hours in a template that’s become a no-brainer over dozens of years.
But what is very different from decades before is the trade between racing form and training fitness.
Not so long ago, Tour contenders would be in the peloton week-in-week-out. Now, riders like Kuss, Roglič and Pogačar go off-grid for weeks in high-altitude training lockdowns.
Workouts are prescribed with laser precision and replicate racing efforts to the watt.
“We all do different efforts when we’re on camp,” Kuss told VeloNews after he returned from Sierra Nevada at the turn of the month.
“We have different guys with different goals and different roles, so training is pretty varied between riders. There’s some pretty specific intervals for all of us.”
The elbows and potholes of racing are saved for only when it matters most.
Kuss clocked a huge late-spring form boost with 31 hours of racing Tirreno-Adriatico, setting him up for an early summer push toward France.
Those seven days in Italy gave Kuss a quarter of the competition of his threadbare race calendar. Roglič, Pogačar, and the GC pack are similarly selective about when they brave the stresses and strains of the bunch.
“We always incorporate enough time to train, especially for the GC riders. On the other hand, it’s also important to be racing, to get the feeling of the peloton and the need to be competitive,” Heijboer said.
“But we always keep in mind there’s enough time to train for a rider like Primož, that’s almost priority. And that’s why his race program is quite limited when you compare it to riders a decade ago.”
Roglič banked 26 race days so far this year. Pogačar is at 24. Those numbers would have been 50 percent bigger not so long ago.
“Being able to train consistently is key as a GC guy,” Heijboer said. “It means we can get them to a high level and able to recover from the training. Then they can improve from racing at certain points instead of losing form from racing too much.”
Altitude, altitude, altitude
It’s not just about accumulation and consistency on the training bike.
It’s also amassing about time at thin air.
Jumbo-Visma’s Tour team is currently hunkered down on Tignes for their third trip to altitude this year.
“The timing of altitude is an important part of the program but also the accumulation of altitude,” Heijboer said.
“We send riders likely to do the Tour de France to altitude in February not only to prepare the spring races, it’s also to build some altitude into the beginning of the season. Then they accumulate more and more time at altitude during the year. It’s about building the adaption.”
The so-called “altitude effect” – when riders suffer leg-sapping hangovers after returning to sea level – is rarely a thing now camps on Teide, Sierra Nevada, and the high Alps are so hardwired.
Jumbo-Visma’s Tour crew will travel from Tignes to Copenhagen as late as possible this week.
“There are some riders who we know of that have some bad days after altitude. But since we have now so much experience with all the riders because they have been to altitude so many times, we know well when they might have a bad day and if they have a bad day at all,” Heijboer said.
“The ‘altitude window’ is a good excuse they use when they have shit legs I think. We see most riders being very strong straight after altitude [without sea-level adaption time].”
Bigger dinner plates are better dinner plates
And the thorny issue of race weight?
The era of picking the center out of bread, filling up on water, and going to bed hungry is no longer a thing.
Power is the kingmaker of the W/Kg equation and riders eat more than ever under the eagle eyes of nutritionists.
“Towards the Tour de France, we are trying to reach an optimal race weight. But most important is optimal nutrition and hydration in training so that the effect of training is maximized, and so the recovery after training is maximized. That lets riders train and race consistently,” Heijboer said.
“Of course race weight is important and we are focused on that. But we prioritize the right nutrition at the right time so they can be best.”
Fed riders are healthy riders. An extra 500 grams can make the difference between the Paris podium, and illness and overuse injuries.
“Being 100 percent focused on losing weight is a big threat for mental well-being. And if that’s harmed, you certainly don’t have a good rider and performance,” Heijboer said. “That’s always in our mind.”
Peaking too soon? Nah
But are Roglič, Vingegaard, and Van Aert too hot too soon?
Chris Froome famously started the 2018 Giro d’Italia out of shape and overweight. Team Sky profiled the stages and mapped out the numbers to see weight loss and performance gains through a three-week spell that took Froome to the pink jersey.
So should riders go into the Tour undercooked? Screw that, says Heijboer.
“I don’t believe that you can be too good too early. I think peaking and growing to a shape is also a mental thing. And although we raced to win in the Dauphiné, we always kept the Tour in mind. So we still know there’s a bigger goal ahead of us,” he said.
“I’m sure that Jonas and also the other guys can at least maintain but probably improve their level.”
Heijboer’s hypothesis will be put to the ultimate test in the coming weeks.