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Last week I wrote about Tadej Pogačar and the Strava KOMs he took on the Coll de Rates and Val be Ebo. His numbers were impressive to the layman, but nothing serious for a two-time Tour de France Champion – Pogačar did ~6.3w/kg for 36 minutes on Val de Ebo.
As I combed through Pogačar’s data, I couldn’t help but notice the other times on the Strava leaderboards: Thomas De Gendt, Tim Wellens, and Tejay Van Garderen, to name a few. Their power outputs were insane – somewhere between 440w and 490w for 16 minutes. And that got me thinking: How strong are pro cyclists in training?
One of the biggest factors in professional cycling that I harp on and on about is fatigue. Pro cycling is not about who can do the highest watts-per-kilo for 20 minutes, but rather who can do that effort in hot and humid weather, four hours into a road race, and three weeks into a grand tour?
Nevertheless, I’ve never used specific power numbers to back this up. I’ve always said that pro cyclists are stronger in training because they’re tired in races. But in this article, I set out to discover exactly how much stronger they are in training. The numbers I found are quite mind-boggling.
Val de Ebo is a popular climb for pro cyclists and their training camps, and back in January 2021, Lotto-Soudal raced up the 6 percent grade at nearly 18mph. Based on Strava, it seems as though Thomas De Gendt won the “race,” with Tim Wellens in second, and Stef Cras finishing just a few seconds behind. In true pro cycling fashion, the race kicked off from the bottom of the climb with riders pushing over 7w/kg. The pace hardly relented up the climb, and in the final few hundred meters, De Gendt was pushing over 600w (8.5w/kg) to take the win. For a January power test, it was quite the effort.
Thomas De Gendt – Val de Ebo:
Average Power: 470w (6.7w/kg)
Normalized Power: 482w (6.9w/kg)
First 4-min: 510w (7.3w/kg)
Last 3-min: 495w (7.1w/kg)
For context, the strongest in-race 15 to 20-minute effort I’ve ever seen from Tadej Pogačar – arguably the best climber in the world – is ~6.5w/kg on the Peyresourde in the 2020 Tour de France. And not only are we comparing De Gendt (a breakaway specialist) to Pogačar (a pure climber), but we are also comparing De Gendt’s base training form in January to Pogačar’s peak form in July.
With that data in mind, let’s take a look at a pure climber: Rémy Rochas, the Cofidis climber stands 1.65m tall and weighs just 51kg. Even in the context of pro cycling, he is a very small rider, and perfectly suited for steep climbs. At the Cofidis training camp in January 2021, Rochas did an FTP test up the Tarbena climb in Spain and finished with the best 20-minute w/kg I’ve ever seen.
Rémy Rochas – Tarbena
Average Power: 358w (7w/kg)
Rochas went so fast that he crested the climb before the 20 minutes were up – you can see him hitting 55kph on the right side of the graph.
A year earlier, Team DSM (formerly Sunweb) held their January training camp in the same region of Spain, and we saw Wilco Kelderman tackle the same climb as Rochas. But on this ride, the team had each rider perform a 3-minute power test an hour before their 20-minute effort. Kelderman isn’t known as a puncheur, and is a rider who prefers to go for the GC rather than stage win. Nevertheless, his numbers in this test were among the world’s best – or at least, among the best we’ve seen in races.
Wilco Kelderman – 3-minute power test:
Average Power: 558w (8.6w/kg)
Pushing 8w/kg for three minutes puts you in the elite of the elite category, but adding another 40w on top of that is what makes you one of the very best.
Comparing this again to peak power numbers in July, we saw some incredible 3 to 5-minute performances at last year’s Tour de France. Julian Alaphilippe averaged an estimated 9w/kg for 2 minutes and 53 seconds on the Côte de la Fosse aux Loups en route to winning stage 1, while Mathieu van der Poel averaged an estimated 8.1w/kg for four minutes to win stage 2 atop the Mûr-de-Bretagne.
Despite his raw abilities, Kelderman finished 8 seconds and 6 seconds behind Alaphilippe and van der Poel in those two stages, respectively, demonstrating again that pro cycling is much more than just a watts-per-kilo contest.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Kelderman’s training ride – and his abilities as a professional cyclist – is the fact that less than an hour after this lung-busting anaerobic test, he went flying up the Tarbena climb at well over 6.5w/kg.
Wilco Kelderman – 20-minute power test:
Average Power: 430w (6.6w/kg)
Final 90 seconds: 478w (7.4w/kg)
Sitting at 420w and >100rpm, Kelderman floated up the climb at a pace that would have most of us gasping for air in the first two minutes. The most impressive part of this effort came at the very end when Kelderman kicked it up to over 475w for the final minute and a half. This shows that even at 6.5w/kg, Kelderman was relatively comfortable, riding at his threshold, and waiting to make his final effort in the sprint.
The final power file that I had to look at was an all-out sprint effort. All of the quick men in pro cycling claim that they lose a few hundred watts off their fresh sprint compared to sprinting at the end of a race. And it makes sense – at the end of most races, you’ve already been riding for four hours and you have to do 400-500w for the last five minutes just to maintain your position. After you’ve done all that work, that’s when you can unleash your 15-second sprint.
While most sprinters don’t publish their power data, I did find a file from Bryan Coquard, the diminutive Frenchman who’s nearly grabbed a stage win in the last two Tours de France. Again on the roads of Calpe, Coquard finished the “Team Direct Energie 40-second sprint test”…in 35 seconds. While the absolute power numbers aren’t crazy, remember that Coquard weighs just 59kg.
Bryan Coquard – sprint test:
Average Power: 875w (14.1w/kg)
First 15 seconds: 1,025w (16.5w/kg)
Remember Mathieu van der Poel’s final attack at the end of the 2021 Strade Bianche? The Dutchman attacked so hard, he made it look like Alaphilippe wasn’t even moving. But up against Coquard’s fresh sprint – which is ~1.5w/kg stronger, and for 35 seconds versus van der Poel’s 15 seconds – the Dutchman would’ve been trailing behind.
All this data paints a pretty clear picture that pro cyclists are much stronger in training than they are in racing. We already knew that, but it’s good to finally attach some numbers to it. The differences in power output seem to be about 10-20 percent between fresh efforts in training and fatigued efforts at the end of a race. In the context of professional sports, that is massive.
And that’s why we see similar power numbers between elite amateurs, virtual racers, and Tour de France winners. But a 45-minute Zwift race is not the same as stage 17 of the Tour de France. Remember to keep it all in perspective, and that in training Wilco Kelderman can hold your 30-second power for three minutes, and your 2-minute power for 20 minutes.