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Is the Tour de France the Toughest Sporting event in the world?


If you’re curious as to the physical (and mental) exertion required to cycle in the Tour de France, then read on. This event must surely stack up as the world’s most gruelling endurance event. In fact, it’s no wonder the cyclists need to devise devious means by which to overcome the fatigue and stresses put onto their bodies. But what makes the TdF so tough?

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For 103 years the Tour de France has pitted brave cyclists against each other over unforgiving European mountains.

The Distance: Let’s start with the actual distance covered (this is for the 2016 edition). At 3,542km, the TdF would be like cycling from Cape Town to Johannesburg. And then back to Cape Town! Now the daily distances need to be pretty far to make up this distance in the allotted time – so the average day is about 175km. The Cape Town Cycle Tour (or Argus) is 109km. Imagine doing an Argus every day for three weeks? And you’d still be way off the distance covered in the TdF.

The Climbing: In truth, the distance is one thing, but the real pain is actually the climbing (and the steep gradients) that the riders must overcome. The ABSA Cape Epic climbs around 16,000m in its 8 days of mountainbiking racing. Thats going over Mount Everest – twice. The TdF climbs close to 59,000m – that’s nearly 9 Mount Everest summits. On your way to Joburg and Back from Cape Town remember…. In local perspective, imagine cycling up to The Mast (above Constantiaberg) about 70 times over 3 weeks. Thats about 3 times a day…but whilst doing a daily ride of 175km. Starts to add up hey?

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Just an example of one mountain stage on the Tour.

The Speeds: So now that you have a better appreciation for the distance and climbing, another factor to consider is how fast these guys actually go over this terrain. Every year at the Cape Town Cycle Tour, about 2% of the 35,000 field manage to ride the 109km route in under 3 hours. Thats quite an achievement as an amateur cyclist. To do that, you need to average around 37kmph. Thats pretty decent on a bicycle! Now the TdF riders can complete a mountain stage at that speed as the average. On a flat course they average around 47kmph…and in 1999, Mario Cippolini won a 195km stage at an average speed of 50.4kmph. In 2015, Rohan Denis clocked an average speed of 55.44kmph for the individual time trial…burning some serious rubber there! The sprinters at the end of a stage manage to generate nearly 1500 watts of power as they cross the 75kmph speed barrier. And downhill, speeds over 130kmph have been recorded.

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The sprinters of the Tour are the Ferraris in the stable!

The Riders: Now if all of the above doesn’t make you pinch a rose bud into your bibs’ chamois, consider the genetic physiological traits you need to possess. The average South African male is not a small specimen. Whether it’s African or Afrikaans genes, we have some bulky boys bicycling nowadays and they would look quite out of place in a TdF peloton. The average weight of a TdF rider does vary, but consider the fact that Nairo Quintana is a meagre 59kgs – and still not the lightest rider on the Tour (most South Africans own a dog that is heavier than him). The Italian Domenico Pozzovivo from AG2R Mondiale stacks in at a featherweight 53kg. Winner Chris Froome weighs in at around 72kg – the same weight as the mischievous yet brilliant all rounder Peter Sagan (although their builds are completely different – with Froome being rather awkward and stringy and Sagan being more muscular and defined…as the ladies prefer, so I’m told).

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The brilliant and mischievous Peter Sagan – the rock n roll star of cycling nowadays (keep your wives and girlfriends far away!)

So boys – if you’re looking to compete in the world’s most gruelling endurance event, best you first see if you can complete this local Cape Town Route 21 days in a row:

Leave town on the Cape Town Cycle Tour route and sprint to Tokai. Head up to the Mast twice….and then continue around Cape Point. Go to town again and head out towards the Mast again. Now sprint up the mast one last time. ANd hope that your average is around 36kmph. Simple hey? (And you wonder why they need something extra for the endurance). Or you could simply kick back on the couch and watch the Tour de France – the world’s Toughest Sporting event.

Rens Rezelman

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