La Vuelta is often looked upon by cycling-snobs (especially those in France and Italy!) as third in importance and prestige of the Grand Tours. It’s the youngest of the big three and also comes at the end of the season, so it’s often the last refuge for those looking to redeem a poor Tour or season. Sometimes it works (e.g., Jan Ullrich took an awesome victory in 1999 after sitting out most of the season and carried it through to a TT worlds victory) and sometimes it doesn’t (e.g., Levi Leipheimer and Cadel Evans only reinforced their bad luck season in 2003). Rare are the foreign winners, as many are at the end of a long season, while Spanish riders and teams often focus their entire seasons on the race.
The shorter daily stages and early arrival of the mountains, combined with the cut-throat, constantly aggressive racing style of the Spaniards (it’s as if somebody slathered Tiger Balm all over every rider’s chamois) guarantees three weeks of racing that’s muy caliente. As discussed above, the late scheduling of La Vuelta makes it especially difficult for riders who may have already peaked once for the Tour or Giro. As we have seen in 2004 so far, many riders who were supposedly favourites have already suffered badly right from the early goings or found themselves many minutes adrift as soon as the mountains arrived. For example, take a look at Floyd Landis. The team performed spectacularly in the early goings, but it became obvious that, regardless of talent and desire, Floyd found it impossible to recover sufficiently from Le Tour to truly match the Spaniards.
Dissecting the Races
But from a physiological perspective, just how difficult is La Vuelta compared to Le Tour? Remember our friend Dr. Alejandro Lucia, the University of Madrid scientist who was the consultant to the former ibanesto.com team (If not, go read the interview)? He published a paper in the prestigious Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. journal in 2003 looking at this exact question of comparing La Vuelta and Le Tour (1). One of the difficulties of the experimental design was simply finding sufficient subjects for the experiment, because it’s a sad fact that so few riders ride both events now in the same year. As it stands, he took heart rate data throughout every single stage on seven riders who raced the double in either 1997, 1999, 2000, or 2001. The subjects performed a baseline test in the lab, and the heart rate zones were broken down into the three intensity zones suggested by Lucia.
With the HR data and zones in hand, Lucia calculated a total workload score based on the time spent in each zone. The end result? Despite the Tour lasting much longer (5552 min) than the Vuelta (5086 min), the total workload score were similar for both races. This meant that the pundits were right. The peloton made up for the shorter distances by spending at least the same if not more time dunking their bodies in major lactic acid baths. This also meant that the UCI’s hope that shorter stages would make stages races physiologically “easier” and therefore less tempting for riders to assist recovery using illegal means may not really be successful!
What to Tell the UCI?
A simple study, but with potentially explosive implications. Maybe the peloton cannot be simply regulated by shorter stages or other “comforts” like more rest days during stages races, and that they will simply adjust the intensity of racing to match the imposed limits? We have seen evidence of this recently in my own field of environmental physiology, where elite runners seem to auto-regulate their running speed right from the onset of exercise based on perceived ambient heat stress or other environmental factors.
If it’s true that athletes will go as hard as possible given whatever circumstances they’re provided with, then the fight against drug use may not be helped as much by scheduling changes as assumed. Then what?
1. Lucia A, Hoyos J, Santalla A, Earnest C, and Chicharro JL. Tour de France versus Vuelta a Espana: which is harder? Med Sci Sports Exerc 35: 872-878, 2003.
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Stephen’s company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at email@example.com.