La Vuelta a España is sometimes characterised as the bronze medal in cycling’s Grand Tour triumvirate. The race organiser’s ‘creative’ efforts to differentiate their event from the Giro and Tour are perhaps a result of this. This year’s first stage, a seaside Team Time Trial replete with dusty board-walks and sandy beaches, represents just one example.
Despite the lacklustre route from Puerto Banús to Marbella, the startlist was sparkling, including Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and a host of aggressive riders with the potential to animate the stages: Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb, Rafal Majka, 'Purito’ Rodríguez and Tejay van Garderen, to name just a few.
You may notice that all of the competitors listed here have recently returned from Paris and that this line-up includes the complete Tour de France podium. It’s astounding that so many riders can stomach the idea of another three weeks of pressure, performance and pasta for breakfast (for the old-school at least), less than four weeks after the conclusion of the French race on the Champs-Élysées.
It’s also interesting to explore riders' motives for competing in Spain. La Vuelta deserves recognition and commitment for its own sake, but is often cited as having been used for ulterior motives: in recent times, as preparation for the World Championships.
Whatever the drive, residual fatigue from the Tour does not seem to have inhibited many of this year’s Franco-Spanish competitors. As early as stage two in this year’s Vuelta, we saw recent Tour riders Tom Dumoulin and Nicolas Roche finish second and third. Peter Sagan won stage three. Alejandro Valverde was victorious in stage four. Tom Dumoulin took over the race lead on stage five, lost it in the last two kilometres of stage six, before reclaiming the red jersey on stage nine. Dumoulin retained his position at head of the general classification after stage 10 and into the rest day. But how can riders compete at this high-level for such long-periods? What’s more, how is it possible for a three-week race be construed as training?
Essentially, our bodies are an electro-chemical signalling system. ‘Signals’ originate from actions and changes in our environment, both internal and external. For example, when a rider trains, the intensity, duration and frequency of the ride creates an ‘impulse’. In isolation, this impulse describes the immediate stress signal imposed by training or racing. Viewed as a series, over a training block, a season or even a career, we see how the stimuli from each of these impulses echoes and accumulates over time through repeated bouts of of training and racing, before diminishing in periods of rest and recovery. We can also see how training or racing stimuli compare with the frequency and intensity of riding that the athlete is accustomed to.
The body must be stressed beyond its normal state in order to improve. As a clear example of this, in 2014, sports scientists Fred Grappe and Julien Pinot presented a case study based on six years' worth of Thibaut Pinot’s training data. In the lead-up to his Tour de France podium, Pinot’s training volume increased from 526 hours per annum in 2008 to 943 hours in 2013. Within this progression, training load usually rises and falls month to month in a saw-tooth pattern, as stimulus is followed by recovery and adaptation, then a ‘super- compensation’ which facilitates the rider’s tolerance to an increased load in the next period. Statistical models have been developed to describe these elements which can be recorded and analysed using platforms such as TrainingPeaks and Strava. Here, you can see an example from an amateur rider’s statistics, visualised over the last six months of riding.
When interpreting data from these models, context and individuality are key to understanding. Depending on historic training and racing load, one rider’s hard session is another’s recovery ride. Values such as ‘Training Stress Balance’ or ‘Form’ may indicate that a period rest is required for most people, whilst others may thrive in the same conditions of fatigue. Riders recover at different rates, even amongst the professionals.
As Sports Science and physiological knowledge has penetrated the world of cycling, riders and coaches have gained a better understanding of how to ‘dose’ effort, structure individual sessions and even entire seasons to manipulate training load and recovery, creating the desired balance between stimulus and adaptation. One of the results of this is that progressive riders generally train or race with a clear purpose in mind. Also, training loads typically stay relatively high year-round, in contrast to the old-school practise of long, off-season breaks.
Also, it’s important to note that races are not necessarily harder then training. For example, in stage 4, the longest of this year’s Vuelta, Giant-Alpecin’s Lawson Craddock’s efforts resulted in a Training Load of 204 points calculated on the basis that he rode for 5hr41 at an average of 60 per cent of his recorded threshold power of 423 watts.
On August 26, while Craddock raced the next Vuelta stage to Alcalá de Guadáira, Robert Gesink was part way through a Spanish training camp in Girona. The Lotto NL-Jumbo rider spent 4hr31 completing a number of intense intervals as part of a 134.8km outing. Despite the fact that his ride was one hour and 87km shorter than Craddock’s Stage four effort, Gesink expended 3,677kj at an average of 817k.hour vs. Craddock’s 3912 kilojoules at an average of 689kj.hour.
In these two riders, we see two contrasting yet common approaches. One rider gathers the ingredients of a successful career; high loads and racing experience required to perform at professional level. The other, an established pro, ‘ices the cake’ with specific efforts in relation to later goals.
In the context of the recent Tour de France riders and in answer to the earlier question, riders are able to quickly recover and compete in the Vuelta providing: a) their habitual training and racing load, accumulated over many years of high-level competition, is so high that a second Grand Tour does not represent an abnormally high stimulus and b) their preparation and physiology means that they can recover and adapt quickly.
The Tour-Vuelta riders listed at the beginning of this piece are a case in point; established pros with many years of racing and training behind them. And how can a three week race be construed as training? Again, it’s quite possible even the longest stages in a Grand Tour require little more effort than a hard block of structured sessions. The important factors are the context and the rider’s purpose: what have they been doing and what are they trying to achieve?
On one end of the spectrum, Robert Gesink obviously decided that a controlled series of structured training rides would be most beneficial, so he avoided the race entirely. At the other, La Vuelta clearly represents the culmination of a season’s preparation for Orica GreenEdge’s Esteban Chaves.
As for the other riders, Team Sky announced they were “relaxed” at the start and are likely accumulating another large training stimulus of volume and intensity knowing that it will ‘echo’ into the the winter as they prepare for next season. Peter Sagan was probably aiming to accumulate a deep base of muscular endurance to support his attempt to win the World Championships. Perhaps his early exit from the race will facilitate his super-compensation ahead of the race in Richmond.
Whatever the case, Stage 11 - The Queen Stage of this year’s Vuelta taking the peloton over five mountain passes to finish atop a sixth - will provide plenty of stimulus for the remaining riders.
James Hewitt is a performance coach at HINTSA Performance, Geneva