When watching the Tour de France on TV, it's very easy to become complacent about just how hard the race actually is. Seeing riders like Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) dance away from his rivals on steep mountain gradients whilst still breathing through his nose makes the whole thing seem like a walk in the park.
Of course, deep down we all know that it's a world apart from the Sunday ride with your local cycling club, else we'd all be on the start line vying for the maillot jaune, but nonetheless, it makes for inspiring viewing.
As a result of that inspiration, at some point or another we've probably all wondered how we'd fare in the pro peloton, and how long we'd last. For those of us familiar with power numbers – watts per KG, FTP, and so on – you've no doubt wondered how those numbers stack up against the best. Ultimately, what we all want to know is how hard is the Tour de France?
It goes without saying that the Tour de France is hard. Very very hard. But we want more of an answer than that, so we're here to try to quantify exactly how hard and work out roughly how it compares to what the rest of us mere mortals do.
To answer the question, we've been digging. We dug through the roadbook of the 2021 race, through the power files of various riders to quantify their effort, as well as through the recovery files to see just how much strain it puts on their bodies. We also pulled in data from the general public to try and provide a sense of comparison.
At its close, the riders in the 2021 Tour de France will have covered 3,414 kilometres (2,121 miles) – not including the riding they do on the two rest days. Put plainly, if you were to get in a car in New York and head west, that'd get you as far as Salt Lake City. If you were to get onto a plane in London, you could get to Paris and back again five times and if you were in Australia you'd make it from Melbourne right over to Perth on the coast of Western Australia.
Throughout this distance, riders face a whole host of climbs, from small hills to enormous mountain passes. This year, a double ascent of Mont Ventoux faced riders on stage 11 on a day that saw riders tackle over 4,000 metres of vertical ascent in 199 kilometres of riding.
In addition, while it's easy and obvious to focus on the difficulty of going uphill, there's a level of difficulty involved in coming down the other side too.
For us average Janes and Joes, coming downhill might seem like the easy part – you can often stop pedalling and simply let gravity do the work – but let's not forget these riders are in a race so will be sprinting out of corners and pushing the limits of physics to go as quickly as possible, which in itself takes an enormous amount of mental energy and focus.
As an example of this, according to that same data from Mohorič, the maximum speed he has hit during the Tour de France has been 99km/h (61.5mph), a speed that he has hit on more than one occasion. He clocked this speed whilst descending the Col du Tourmalet on Stage 18, averaging 92km/h for 23 seconds immediately before reaching a duo of hairpin bends. It is hard to begin to imagine the amount of focus this needs and the cognitive load it creates.
The Tour de France is ridden by the world's best road cyclists, all of whom are full-time professionals that ride for around 30 to 40 hours per week. But wait, before you quit your nine to five job and start cycling all day, know that these riders aren't just riding their bike for fun, they are completing highly tailored structured training programs designed by some of the best physiologists and coaches in the world.
Sadly, even with that knowledge at our disposal, most of us still couldn't quit the day job, because professional cyclists are also blessed with the right mix of genetic potential that enables them to respond to such a high training stimulus and recover quickly enough to go again the next day.
To try and quantify this, we reached out to TrainerRoad – a popular training-based indoor cycling app turned all-around training platform that boasts a dataset of over a million users – to get a sense of the amount of structured training that the 'average' cyclist tackles.
According to TrainerRoad's data, an average 'beginner cyclist' performs 3.53 hours of structured training per week, split at 3.61 hours for men and 3.06 hours for women. While 'experienced cyclists' perform 6.43 hours per week (6.5 hours for men, 5.46 for women).
What this means is that your average beginner is performing just 10 per cent of the training hours of a Tour de France cyclist.
The time cut
To complete the Tour de France, you cannot simply commit to finishing the route, you'll need to do so within the constraints of a time cut on each stage.
According to rule 2.6.032 of the UCI rulebook, exactly what that time cut will be is defined as follows:
"The finishing deadline shall be set in the specific regulations for each race in according with the characteristics of the stage.
“In exceptional cases only, unpredictable and of force majeure [unforeseeable circumstances], the commissaires panel may extend the finishing time limits after consultation with the organisers."
So in layman's terms, the organisers will decide the time cut based on the difficulty of the stage. We won't go into the details of how they then calculate it, but depending on the difficulty of the stage and the pace of the fastest rider, it will usually be the winner's time plus anything between four and 18 per cent.
It has been a hotly discussed topic this year, with sprinter Mark Cavendish fighting on every mountain stage, and Nic Dlamini famously continuing to the finish on stage 9 after a crash despite missing the time cut by an hour and a half.
This essentially means that to complete the Tour de France, you need to not only finish the route, you need to be able to do so within a percentage of the winner's time, which leads us nicely onto speed.
In trying to work out how hard the Tour de France actually is, you will need to know what speed you'll need to be able to ride at in order to keep up.
Combining every edition of the Tour since 2007, the average pace of the winner has been 40.07km/h (24.89mph). Anyone who has ridden a local time trial will know that it's difficult to maintain this pace for 10 miles, let alone the 2000 plus miles covered in the Tour.
However, of course, anyone who's ridden in a group will also know that there's an enormous benefit from being in the draft. That is until the road points up and gravity does its best to slow you down.
After Ben O'Connor's victory into Tignes on stage 9, we analysed his performance and saw just how strong the AG2R Citroën rider had to be to win a stage of the Tour de France. The final climb on this stage was Montée de Tignes, which is 31.1km long with an average gradient of 4.1 per cent. This climb took O'Connor 1 hour and 12 minutes, during which he rode at an average speed of 26kph (16.15mph), naturally taking the Strava KOM along the way.
But even if you're not vying for a win, and you're simply trying to make it to the finish line within the time cut, you'll still need to maintain a very high pace. In 2020, Roger Kluge finished at the very bottom of the GC standings, at 6:07:02 behind Tadej Pogačar's winning time of 87:20:13. With that, Kluge still maintained an average speed of 39.09km/h (24.29mph).
A commonly used and widely understood assessment of a rider's ability is FTP, or Functional Threshold Power, which is said to be the maximum amount of power that a rider can sustain for an hour. It is often tested with a sustained 20-minute effort, with the average power from this effort multiplied by 0.95.
Measured in watts, this can be quoted in an absolute figure, or in 'watts per kilogram' where the absolute figure is divided by the rider's weight. So for example, a 75kg rider with an absolute FTP of 300 watts would have a weight-adjusted FTP of 4w/kg.
In our analysis of O'Connor's data, we calculated his absolute FTP to be 395 watts, and according to ProCyclingStats, his weight is 67kg, meaning he boasts an FTP of 5.89w/kg.
Similarly, during the 2020 Tour, we analysed the power file of Tadej Pogačar after his record-breaking ascent of the Col de Peyresourde and calculated his FTP to be 410 watts, or 6.2w/kg.
To compare this to an average cyclist, we went back to TrainerRoad, who supplied the average FTP of its entire database.
- Male beginners, the average FTP sits at 214 watts (2.81w/kg)
- Experienced male cyclists, the average jumps to 271 watts (3.75w/kg)
- Female beginners, the average FTP sits at 146 watts (2.45w/kg)
- Experienced female cyclists, the average jumps to 204 watts (2.75w/kg)
- All beginner cyclists combined, the average FTP sits at 204 watts (2.75w/kg)
- All experienced cyclists combined, the average FTP sits at 266 watts (3.72w/kg)
Of course, beyond this simple metric, there are a lot of other factors at play. Not least fatigue resistance, the ability to output the same high power numbers at the end of a long day or at the end of three weeks of back to back racing.
For his ascent of Montée de Tignes, O'Connor needed to put out an average of 345 watts (5.1w/kg) for the 1 hour and 12 minutes duration, on a day where, in total, he averaged 311 watts (4.6w/kg) for over four-and-a-half hours.
And for Pogačar's ascent of the Col de Peyresourde in 2020, which came on stage 8, he averaged 429 watts (6.7w/kg) for 24:08 at the end of a four-hour stage that included three mountains.
For a reference of just how good this is, anyone who's spent time racing on Zwift may be familiar with the five Zwift Power categories (A+, A, B, C and D). A+ is the highest here, and to get yourself into this category, you'll need an FTP of 4.6 W/kg.
To maintain all this effort, a rider needs to eat. A lot.
Going back to Matej Mohorič and adding up his calorie expenditure as of stage 19, the Slovenian has averaged 4277 calories per day, for a total of 81,274 Kcal.
So how hard is it for the professional riders?
By now we have a pretty good idea of just how hard the Tour de France is, but these are professional athletes, they're the best road racing cyclists in the world and this is their job. So while it might be an impossible task for us mere mortals to even consider getting round La Grande Boucle, surely it's just another day at the office for them. Not exactly.
To quantify this, we reached out to Whoop, sponsor to EF Education-Nippo, and makers of a wearable wrist strap that uses an optical heart rate sensor to continuously monitor heart rate and heart rate variability to quantify various metrics.
For those interested in how this works, Dr Stephanie Shell, a Senior Physiologist specialising in recovery at the Australian Institute of Sport explained the science a little more as part of our Whoop 3.0 review, but put simply, it uses these metrics to allocate a 'strain' and 'recovery' score. Both are calculated using proprietary Whoop algorithms, and strain is scored out of 21, while recovery is scored as a percentage out of 100.
Whoop duly shared data for a number of its riders on various stages in this year's race. The most complete of these datasets is for time trialling specialists Stefan Bissegger.
Looking at his data, we're able to see how these algorithms rate the difficulty of Bissegger's days in comparison to his own baseline, thus quantifying how hard the days must be for Bissegger himself.
The data here is threefold, covering strain, recovery, and sleep performance data.
Across the nine stages for which we have data, Bissegger is yet to have a day with a strain score below 17.4, with all of stages 9 to 13 scoring above 20 out of 21, suggesting that even for him, the Tour de France is putting his body through extreme strain. Alongside this, his recovery has ranged widely. His lowest score being 30 per cent, with his highest being 81.
So all in all, it's safe to conclude that the Tour de France is truly brutal in its difficulty. It's well in excess of the capabilities of the general public and still beyond the reach of experienced, trained cyclists. Even for many of the professional athletes who start the Tour de France, actually finishing it is an altogether different proposal, and the 2021 Tour has already seen dozens of riders miss the time cut.
And for those who do make it to Paris, it's still right at the upper limits of their capability and that's what makes it such a thrilling sport for us viewers to consume.
Josh has been with us as Senior Tech Writer since the summer of 2019 and throughout that time he's covered everything from buyer's guides and deals to the latest tech news and reviews. On the bike, Josh has been riding and racing for over 15 years. He started out racing cross country in his teens back when 26-inch wheels and triple chainsets were still mainstream, but he found favour in road racing in his early 20s, racing at a local and national level for Team Tor 2000. He's always keen to get his hands on the newest tech, and while he enjoys a good long road race, he's much more at home in a local criterium.
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