Words: Kenny Wilson
The Tour de France, the world's most prestigious cycling race. A gruelling three-week inspection of the worlds elite cyclists' physical and mental capacities. To conquer the brutal mountain stages, riders require an exceptional aerobic capacity, often measured by their VO2 max. In this blog, I will delve into the significance of VO2 max at the Tour de France and explore why Jonas Vingegaard has emerged as a formidable force in the high mountains.
Understanding VO2 Max
VO2 max, or maximal oxygen consumption, is a crucial physiological indicator of a rider's cardiovascular fitness and endurance. It represents the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can utilise during intense exercise. In cycling, a high VO2 max is essential for maintaining sustainable power output during extended efforts, especially in mountainous terrain.
VO2 Max at the Tour de France
The Tour de France consists of diverse stages, including flat sprints, rolling hills and high-altitude mountain passes. However, it is the mountain stages where riders face the most significant challenges and the time gaps really open up! These stages often determine the general classification winner due to the vast physical demands they place on the athletes. Cyclists with higher VO2 max values have a distinct advantage in these stages for several reasons:
Improved Oxygen Delivery: A higher VO2 max allows more oxygen to be transported to the muscles, where it is crucial for energy production. This increased oxygen delivery delays the onset of fatigue, allowing cyclists to sustain higher power outputs for longer periods.
Enhanced Aerobic Endurance: As mountain stages are long and gruelling, a high VO2 max enables cyclists to rely on their aerobic energy systems, which provide a more sustainable source of energy compared to anaerobic pathways.
Efficient Energy Utilisation: Cyclists with higher VO2 max values can efficiently utilise available oxygen, optimising their energy expenditure during climbs. This efficiency is vital in conserving energy for the latter parts of the race where fatigue resistance becomes critical and overall recovery is strained.
Jonas Vingegaard's Rise in the High Mountains
Jumbo-Visma's Jonas Vingegaard, already a defining figure of a special generation, rose above all the rest on the Tour de France's highest mountains. He stomped his authority onto the 2023 edition with phenomenal performances on back-to-back days, stages 15 and 16. His exceptional V02 peak sent him soaring into a commanding yellow jersey lead. Several factors contribute to his success on such terrain:
Natural Talent: Vingegaard possesses exceptional physiological attributes that set him apart as a climbing specialist. His naturally high VO2 max, reported to be in excess of 97ml/kg/min, sets the foundation for truly legendary performances.
Proper Training and Preparation: Behind every successful cyclist is a rigorous training regime tailored to their strengths. Vingegaard's coaches likely focus on enhancing his climbing abilities and optimising his VO2 max through specific training programs.
Jumbo-Visma is a team notorious for detail and it can be assumed Vingegaard has simulated each key stage of this Tour in training prior to this month. Closely mirrored reconnaissance rides will have built trust in all the pacing strategies devised by the team.
Mental Toughness: High mountain success requires immense mental resilience. Vingegaard's tolerance for suffering demonstrates his mental toughness, a trait shared with every Tour de France champion. This is no video game and though the Danish star might be a cycling great... he suffers like a dog!
Team Support: Cycling is a team sport and Vingegaard benefits from the support of a well-drilled squad packed with talent. On mountain days his teammates play a crucial role, protecting him, providing assistance and pacing him strategically. Jumbo-Visma dictate the yellow jersey group's tempo by sacrificing Vingegaard's teammates, saving their leader's key climbing lieutenants for the latter stages. That way Vingegaard can save his maximum aerobic output until the air is thinnest and contains less oxygen. On the lower slopes, Vingegaard's team have usually led the peloton at ~5.5w/kg; eye-watering number for most but comfortable for the flying Danish machine thanks to his aerobic boundaries.
The Role of Strategy
In the high mountains, a stage's dynamics differ significantly from those on flat terrain. Tactics come into play, and a rider's VO2 max can influence their approach. A cyclist with a higher VO2 max might choose to attack early, maintaining a constant tempo throughout the climb, while others may prefer to employ patience before launching one decisive attack near the summit – as demonstrated by Tadej Pogacar. Though, for the record, Pogacar is also an aerobic atom bomb capable of producing nuclear VO2 levels on his day!
The road to Paris
VO2 max plays a pivotal role in fate of cyclists at the Tour de France, particularly in the major mountain stages. A higher VO2 max allows cyclists to efficiently deliver oxygen to their muscles, sustain aerobic endurance and optimise energy utilisation during climbs. Jonas Vingegaard's status as the man to beat in the high mountains can be attributed to his exceptional VO2 max, proper training, mental toughness and the support of a strong team.
As the Tour de France continues to showcase the world's best cyclists, the importance of VO2 max will remain a critical factor in determining who conquers the gruelling mountain stages and ultimately takes home the coveted yellow jersey. Many advancements in technology and aerodynamics have arrived over the years but this key physiological attribute will always separate the elites.
"I have worked with many coaches but with Kenny I got the most communication. His honest feedback helped me improve on many levels both on and off the bike. Unsurprisingly, that got me into the best shape of my life and helped me win the Junior Tour of Wales." Tyler Hannay, 2021 Junior Tour of Wales GC winner.