Michael Kwiatkowski’s data from Stage 11 of the Tour de France provides a lot of data to sift through, and after sifting, the value of bike handling skills becomes clearer.
Screen shot of Michael’s data from Stage 11:
Click on the chart above to link to Michal Kwiatkowski’s data on Strava.
Notable Data Points & Observations
Kwiatkowski averaged a cadence of 85 rpm for the 5hr 34min ride which covered 187 km. On the flats in the early parts of the stage he rode in a range of 100-110 rpm, with his lowest turnover occuring as expected in the mountain climbs where speeds fell as low as 10kph and turnover into the 60s. Although riders do have their bikes tuned specifically for each stage and are riding cassettes with 10-11 cogs, the ability of the rider to have numerous gears is made visible through this data. If Kwiatkowski maxed out in the high 80s or low 90s – like many age group and masters athletes – then he would have needed either additional gears on his bike (not possible), his cadence on steep grades could drop so low that it could cause him to fall, he could overextend himself attempting the Stage failing to pace Cavendish for whom he served as domestique on the day, failing his team. In short, Kwiatkowski would not be a pro rider if all he could sustain was a cadence in the 80s or 90s.
It is not a coincidence that many of the pro riders are former track cyclists or mountain bikers. High turnover is typical of both of these sports but for different reasons: track cyclists ride fixed gear bikes requiring the rider to possess ‘gears’ aka wide band of cadence, and mountain bikers climb short but incredible steep grades on unstable surfaces uncooperative to grinding.
Cyclists and triathletes can become more efficient by having a wider range of cadences at which they can ride. Depending on the bike alone is insufficient if you are going to deliver your peak potential day in day out. Cyclists can become better all around simply by adding variety into training: mountain biking, track riding, and training on rollers will undoubtedly widen the range of skill of any athlete.
The ascents made up a full 1/3 of the Stage, or approximately 65km. There were three major climbs: (i) the category 1 climb up Col d’Aspin which had an average incline of 7% for 7km, (ii) the category HC climb up the 7% average grade off the Col du Tourmalet for 17km, and (iii) the final category 3 climb of the stage called Cauterets was 10km long averaging a 4% grade. The stage had 3 smaller climbs: 2 category 3s, and one category 4 climb. These and other shorter steep climbs had inclines in the range of 19-25% such as the one on Route De Benque and the 25% incline on the descent from Col d’Aspin.
During the ascent, Kwiatkowski’s data shows that he slowed to a range of 10-12kph with turnover in the 60s. To focus effort into ascending, riders must have the agility, balance, and coordination to ensure an efficient climb, otherwise energy is spent in staying on two wheels, fighting the bike to keep it upright. This is energy wasted especially if your competitors aren’t expending similar amounts and are able to focus themselves entirely on climbing. With two of the mountain pass climbs lasting more than an hour, riders need to have these skills both when fresh, and most importantly when verging on exhaustion. With another 10 Stages after this one, efficiency is paramount if the goal is to arrive on the Champs d’Elysee in Paris.
In his book ‘The Long Road to Paris‘, Tour de France winner Cadel Evans (BMC) shares that at times on mountain stages he would be seeing double, almost unable to remain on his bike due to the toll of exerting himself on the climb; yet rarely is a pro rider ever seen falling over, off their bike. This is the extent to which the pros have trained, embedding bike handling skills into their subconscious so that they are always available to them even when they are unable to think or see straight.
The descents made up almost 30% of the Stage and as both Kwiatkowski’s and Cavendish’s data reveal, hitting 100+ kph was normal for the riders.
Kwiatkowski shared that he was eating on the descents, which makes sense as it is a perfect recovery period after the exertion of a mountain pass climb, and required in order to be fully fueled for the upcoming climbs. But think about that for a moment… descending at speeds as high as 100kph and riding so comfortably that you are not only recovering, but eating. Eating requires shoving something into your pie-hole, so that means these riders are capable of riding at these speeds one handed.
The following video with footage of descending technique is from a TdF a few years back and shows how these riders can indeed ride one handed, handling their bike with ease even at speeds over 100kph…
If none of this is sufficient to challenge your bike handling skills, what about avoiding cows? Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) had to avoid a herd while descending off the Col du Tourmalet while holding 90+kph. Not sure what would be worse… hitting a cow or having to go off-roading at this speed?
The range in temperatures during Stage 11 and more so on Stage 12 were massive. Peak temperatures occurred in both stages on the first climbs with 37 oC (98.6 oF) as the high, not accounting for any humidity. On Stage 11, the temperature dropped 12 oC (53 oF) to a temperature of 25 oC (77 oF) on each descent into the valleys below. Average temperature for Stage 11 was 31 oC (88 oF), little different than the average temperature of the Hawaiian Ironman which has a day range of 82 to 95oF. Humidity hovers around 90% in Hawaii, but no data was available for these stages. On Stage 12, the temperature on the final climb started in the mid 20s, dropping to 10oC (50 oF) by the summit of Plateau de Beille, almost a 30oC (86 oF) change from high to low.
In some years, snow still covers the highest mountain peaks and temperatures can hover in the single digits resulting in windchill becoming a factor on descents. Riding cold, even freezing, yet maneuvering, and braking effectively with rigid hands and a frigid body requires skill which can arise only from training across all environmental conditions.
Equivalent to the altitude at or near that of high altitude training camps, with the exception of the first climb of Stage 12, all other mountain passes were at or above 1,500m above sea level, with the highest peak being on Stage 11 at 2,000m+ above sea level. So, if you manage the long duration of the climbs, plus the grades, plus the extremes in temperature, plus the narrow roads, plus in your face spectators then at the summit you still have to deal with the altitude and the declining partial pressure of oxygen (O2).
No wonder Cadel Evans saw double at times on mountain pass peaks when he competed… completing an exhausting climb only to then have to sprint for mountain points or a finish line such as in Stage 12 when oxygen is in not exactly flying into the bloodstream, when recovery from the climb hasn’t had a moment to occur, reveals the width of base training and the depth of aerobic capacity that these athletes possess.
Now consider that in the final week of this TdF, Stages 17, 18, 19, and 20 cover a total of 600km, each is a mountain stage with no less than 2 mountain passes, Stage 18 has 7 climbs, and 3 of the Stages climb into the clouds with peaks above 2,000m above sea level… perhaps this offers a glimpse to the full extent of preparation and training these athletes have made to be competitive at this level.