Alex Huchinson’s “Sweat Science” column has an interesting comparison of the power output data for two riders in the Tour de France. The first is Marcel Kittel, a great sprinter who has since retired. The second is Tom Dumoulin, a “general classification” contender, which means he tries to win an entire stage race like the Tour de France (where he once placed second), or the Giro d’Italia (which he won). All-around riders like Tom have to be lighter and are generally less muscular than sprinters, because they have to be able to climb well.
The sprinters are bigger and stronger, with higher peak power. But what is really interesting about these stage races is there is a rule that if you fall too far behind the overall leader, you are dropped from the race entirely. So there may be several days of hundred mile plus rides, and climbs over big mountain passes, that Marcel has to survive, just to get to a flat stage with a sprint finish at the end that is suitable for his talents. Alex describes it as if “Usain Bolt had to finish the marathon within a certain time limit in order to start the 100-meter final the next day. What would that take?”. Actually it’s more like Usain has to survive several marathons over several days before running the 100 meter the next day. To survive in the climbs, the back of the pack riders band together in what the French call “l’autobus” and the Italians call the “grupetto”, a group of riders that work to just make it under the cutoff time.
The data show that overall during the race, Marcel has to spend a lot more time at higher intensity than Tom does. And this is especially true when he is trying to just survive the mountain stages. He may end up finishing half an hour after the leader but he was definitely not loafing.
This leads me to speculate what Marcel’s training must have been like. I’m sure he spent a lot of time training at high intensity working on his specialty of sprinting. But he also must have done a lot of lower endurance rides just to have the stamina to make it through the long stages that were not his specialty.
This is interesting in light of the exaggerated claims that steady state cardio training is useless or even harmful, as I’ve discussed previously. Obviously, “all that cardio” did not cause Marcel’s muscles to waste away or for him to get fat.
We all have different mixes of talents. My mix is closer to an all-rounder like Tom Dumoulin than a sprinter (considerably more mediocre overall, of course). But when I need to motivate myself to work on my the things I’m not as good at, like high intensity intervals or strength training. It’s the sprinters like Marcel or 200 meter running great Noah Lyles that inspire me.