In the last 30 years of professional cycling the number of riders able to perform in both three-week stage races and ‘Monument’ classics has markedly decreased. Have we witnessed the slow death of the all-rounder?
One suggestion for this shift is that while the characteristics of the Classics have changed little over the years, generally favouring riders who can produce explosive efforts over shorter periods, Grand Tours have increasingly favoured lighter riders. One need look no further than the increasingly mountainous Vuelta for evidence, and the Spanish tour is only the most extreme example of a ramping up of intensity by organisers of all three Grand Tours.
As a consequence, training and preparation has become more specialised. In particular, Grand Tour competitors have focussed on reducing body mass to increase power to weight ratio. While much of this weight loss has come in the form of reduced fat mass, creating the emaciated appearance that characterises today’s stage race contenders, this extreme whittling down also reduces muscle mass, at the expense of the absolute power demanded by many one-day races. Compare and contrast the physiques of Chris Froome and Fabian Cancellara, or Wout Poels and Tom Boonen. The modern GC rider’s calling is written all over his skeletal features.
Training has become more flexible, too. The contemporary pro is likely to follow a more dynamic programme than his forebears, who would have trained in much the same way throughout the season, maintaining the hard graft, but cutting back on the miles in winter.
As training methods have progressed, this “dynamic variation” can be focussed with great precision. A targeted approach, coupled with the demands of specificity in modern professional cycling – the ever-widening gulf between grimpeur and 1 – mean that when a rider’s early strengths and weaknesses are identified, training is likely to become focussed on eliciting success in a relatively narrow range of events. He is marked early for success as a climber, sprinter, puncheur etc, and his preparation targeted accordingly.
Making Pinot a top-10 hit
The much quoted paper by sports scientists Fred Grappe and Julien Pinot, which presented six years’ worth of Thibaut Pinot’s training data in the lead-up to his 2014 Tour de France campaign, is consistent with this contention. Grappe and Pinot’s study was the first to describe the performance level required for ranking in the top-10 of a Grand Tour event.
Grappe and Pinot’s research is a fascinating insight into the evolution of a modern stage-race rider, the specificity required to be successful and the relative strengths and weaknesses of Pinot in particular.
In the paper, the authors note that Thibaut Pinot:
“…has focused his training on the development of his main strengths since he was in the junior category with endurance workouts and specific intervals spent in zones 2– 3 in ascents.”
However, some events provide the rare opportunity for the Grand Tour contenders to shine on a single day. In a recent example, the 2015 Il Lombardia saw a win for Vincenzo Nibali and a podium finish for Pinot.
We’ve noted before that the progression in Pinot’s preparation over the years saw him increase training volume from 526 hours per annum in 2008 to 943 hours in 2013. In addition, the paper reveals more about the make-up of a typical training year. Most of the FDJ rider’s competitive seasons adopted the same model:
“1. A preparatory period of approximately 12 weeks, which included basic and foundation training (general physical preparation, cycling workouts at low to moderate intensities and strength training). During this period, non cycling activities comprised 30– 40 per cent of total training time, while cycling activities (road cycling, mountain bike and cyclo-cross) represented the remaining 60– 70 per cent.
2. A competitive period divided into three macrocycles, each of which featured a specific period with the aim of improving his peak performance level. These consisted of five to six weeks of cycling workouts, mixing high-volume and high-intensity training with races used as training; two to three weeks of goal races, with tapering before and between the races followed by one to two weeks of recovery. During the competitive period, training was exclusively comprised of road cycling workouts.
3. A rest period of between four and six weeks.”
Macrocycles and the long haul
These five to six week macrocycles, mixing high-volume and high-intensity workouts, with races used as training, are of particular interest. It is these periods, where the most targeted work takes place, which reveal the difference between preparation for Grand Tour vs. single-day races.
Without revealing any the details of individual sessions, the study provides some insight into the nature of these specific periods as well as Pinot’s strengths, weaknesses and how this makes him better suited to some races than others.
Competitive Grand Tour physiology is crafted over many years. A rider who hopes to win the biggest prizes in cycing must know that he is in it for the long haul. It is not only the racing that will test his desire and mental fortitude.
Fred Grappe and Julien Pinot’s analysis describes the changes in Pinot’s best recorded power outputs – maximum efforts over key time durations between 5 seconds and 4 hours – for the six seasons covered in the article. The paper also reveals the relative amounts of time that Thibaut Pinot spent in high-intensity workouts year on year. As Pinot developed from talented youngster into a stage race contender, his progression was characterised by:
• Relatively small improvements in power outputs corresponding to principally anaerobic efforts (efforts from 30-60 seconds improved by +11.3 per cent and +9.7 per cent respectively).
• Pinot’s personal record power outputs from 30-60 seconds do not constitute a high peak performance compared to maximal power outputs reported in previous field-based studies.
• Pinot recorded relatively big improvements in maximum power outputs between 5 min (aerobic power ability) and 60 min (these increased between 12.5 per cent and 15.4 per cent).
• The highest improvement occurred in efforts which were principally aerobic (the greatest being Pinot’s 4-hour maximum average power, which increased by 31.6 per cent between 2008 and 2013).
• Pinot’s training also exhibited an increase in the number of weeks of training at high aerobic intensity, as his career progressed.
Noting that longer efforts equate to lower intensity zones and shorter efforts to higher intensity zones, these results demonstrate that the high part of the severe intensity zone (up to 60 seconds efforts) was Pinot’s least improved physical capacity. In contrast, the heavy intensity zone two and the low part of the severe intensity zone three (aerobic power ability) are revealed as Pinot’s major strength and the basis of his Grand Tour success and climbing prowess.
Il Lombardia vs. The Tour
Consequently, a rider like Pinot can perform well in races, providing the demands of the event are such that he can produce most of his power aerobically i.e. Grand Tours and one-day races with long climbs. Despite this, there are differences in the preparation required for a mountainous Grand Tour stage relative to a climbing orientated Monument Classic. You don’t need to be a statistical guru to see that the climbs in Il Lombardia, for example, are much shorter.
Tour de France Stage 20: (1st)
Elevation: 4040m divided over 2 climbs.
Il Lombardia: (3rd)
Elevation: 2943m divided over 8 climbs.
These differing demands were reflected in the macrocycles and Pinot’s selection of ‘training races’ leading up to the respective events. Before the Tour, Pinot’s training was characterised by high volume and a focus on stage races which saw him finish 4th in Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour de Romandie, the Tour of Switzerland and 10th at the Tour of the Basque Country. In the four weeks leading up to Stage 20 of the Tour de France, (which included 17 days of racing at the Tour itself), Pinot spent over 100 hours on the bike.
￼In contrast, his build up to Il Lombardia was characterised by one and two day events, less time on the bike and likely shorter, higher intensity efforts. In the macrocycle leading into Il Lombardia, Pinot recorded 43 hours on the bike which included the Tour du Gévaudan, a two-day race around Mende. The hilly, narrow roads of this race are well-suited climbers and good preparation for Il Lombardia. Pinot was likely encouraged that his capacity in short efforts was improving after winning a two-man sprint on stage one against Thomas Voeckler. Pinot also rode the one day races Tre Valli Varesine and Milan-Turin in his final preparation.
Pinot vs. Nibali: tools of the trade
This training period could well have paid dividends in the two crucial, final climbs at Il Lombardia. Pinot, Diego Rosa and Mikel Nieve were the main protagonists on the penultimate climb of the Civiglio. However, fellow Grand Tour specialist Vincenzo Nibali made his move near the top of the ascent, 17km from the finish and provided a masterclass as he dispensed with caution on the the twisting descent. The Italian secured an advantage which he held over the final climb of the San Fermo della Battaglia before racing alone to Como.
Perhaps the long season of racing and accumulated fatigue had an equalising effect on the top climbers. Many would argue that it was Nibali’s technical prowess which secured his victory, rather than physiological supremacy. However, it’s clear that Vincenzo Nibali has a more complete set of ‘physiological tools’ available to him. Over the course of his career, Nibali has demonstrated a greater capacity for shorter, more explosive efforts relative to Pinot which resulted in a third place finish in Milano-Sanremo and second at Liège Bastogne-Liège. Perhaps this has been trained, or maybe he was born with a greater potential for anaerobic energy supply. Both are likely to be true to some degree.
While we’re unlikely to see the return of riders who could win Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France in the same season, the most ambitious athletes will continue to bend their abilities, try their luck and attempt to succeed in a range of events.