Research Matters

Research Matters

Tour de France

As the Tour participants scale the Alps and Pyrenees and sprint through European streets, the aggressive struggle between teams and riders will build to a crescendo as the Tour reaches its final stage on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. But the true soul of the event, said KU researcher Phil Gallagher, is a contest of physical stamina and the ability of human beings to tolerate pain.

Episode #98

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A physiologist says the Tour de France is a spectacle of extreme human performance. From the University of Kansas, this is Research Matters. I’m Brendan Lynch.

The 2,100-mile Tour de France showcases the most superb cyclists in the world. But according to Phil Gallagher, director of the Applied Physiology Laboratory at KU, the true soul of the event is a contest of physical stamina and the ability of human beings to tolerate pain. He says training is the key.

Gallagher: These guys have been training their entire lives. As a result, elite cyclists have larger hearts than the typical person, so they’re able to push out more blood per beat. They’re able to extract more oxygen from their blood than the typical person would. ”

Gallagher, who cycles and himself qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials as a cross-country skier, has led research measuring the output of cyclists with a power meter. Gauging cyclists’ productivity in watts, Gallagher found that average riders generate less than half the power of the elite athletes who compete in the Tour de France.

Gallagher: For example, I just went out and cycled around 45 miles this weekend, and averaged around 200 to 225 watts. These Tour riders average double that — and they’re riding double that distance each day. They’ll put out 450 watts average power. They’re basically the top athletes in the world.

To maintain such incredible production of energy, the cyclists in the Tour de France have honed their physiques through extreme training to become specialized for the task, for instance producing more oxygen-transporting red blood cells than the average person.

Gallagher: One way to do this is called ‘live high, train low,’ where you either sleep in a tent that reduces the oxygen level, or you literally live at altitude but train at sea level. Then, as your blood travels through your lungs, it will grab more oxygen from your lungs and deliver more to your muscles.

For more on the physiology of the Tour de France, log on to Research Matters dot KU dot EDU. For the University of Kansas, I’m Brendan Lynch.

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