What Can You Learn From the Tour de France?

Ever since taking a class in graduate school titled “Comparative Anatomy and Physiology” where we compared humans to other mammals, I realized that we humans are actually one of the slowest of all mammals. Try racing a dog, horse or rabbit, you name it, over a short distance and you will lose time after time. Make the race a long-distance affair and you will beat them all.  Humans have the capacity to do amazing endurance events.  One of the reasons is our ability to sweat all over our bodies making it very efficient at cooling. So, why even bother to try to go fast when we can go long!?!

I have always been intrigued by endurance events and have participated in them over the past 25+ years.  I am writing this blog on the final day of the Tour de France which is arguably the hardest endurance event in the world. Cyclists race, on average, over 100 miles per day for essentially 20 straight days. I thought I would share some of the fascinating facts of the Tour de France and some health lessons that we can learn from this amazing event.

Cycling is one of the best forms of exercise allowing you to really work your cardiovascular system for long periods of time without a lot of impact. Lance Armstrong was quoted as saying that the bicycle is the best piece of exercise equipment ever made.  There is one down side to this though, and one lesson we can all learn from the Tour. Cycling, as great of an exercise as it is, does not help promote bone density – in fact, the average Tour de France cyclist loses bone density throughout the 3-week race. This is due to the fact that the Tour cyclists are essentially non-weight bearing for 3 weeks! They are taught to stay off their feet during every waking moment before and after their race stages. Exercising at extremely intense levels for 5-6 hours for 20 days straight will cause the body to start to catabolize – including muscle and even calcium stores. So, for those of you who do cycling as your primary exercise make sure to add some weight bearing exercise(s) to your routine. One suggestion is weight training – which is a great way to help maintain your muscle mass and maintain your bone density.

A lot of cutting-edge nutritional strategies have been developed by studying the demands of Tour de France cyclists. The average cyclist consumes 7,500 calories per day during the Tour. That is a feat in itself, or should I say feast! Hydration and electrolyte balance are critical and a lot of the sports drinks we all use today have been developed with the Tour de France in mind.

All 180+ cyclists that race in the Tour get daily body work done including Active Release Techniques and Chiropractic adjustments. Lance Armstrong was quoted as saying the most important person on his staff during the Tour de France, as far as keeping the team healthy, was the team Chiropractor.

And as promised some fascinating facts from the Tour:

It may come as a huge surprise, but once upon a time the Tour de France used to be just a bunch of cigarette-smoking, booze-guzzling men riding their bikes on unpaved roads through the French Alps.

The Tour de France Was Originally A Sales Gimick! (Then vs now). In November of 1902, Geo Lefevre, a journalist from the newspaper L’Auto had an idea to boost circulation of the newspaper. The idea was the Tour de France. Two months later in January of 1903, the very first Tour de France was had but the circumstances and details were very different than what they are today. There were only 6 fairly flat stages over the course of 18 days vs. the 21 rather mountainous stages over 23 days of today. There were 60 entrants in the 1903 race vs. the nearly 200 entrants of 2014. 39 riders, roughly 60% of the 60 entrants of the first Tour de France of 1903 did NOT complete the race while only 18% of riders of the nearly 200 entrants completed the race of 2014.

As a result of the Tour de France, not only did Geo Lefevre succeed at boosting circulation of the newspaper, he created a cycling event that would go on to become one of the biggest racing events in the world of sports altogether. That original paper was printed on yellow paper- hence the leader was to wear a yellow jersey, something that they still do today.

The route of the course, and the total distance of the Tour de France changes every year, however the 21 competing teams of 9 riders from around the world can expect to cycle over 2000 miles (3,500 kilometers), up and down many hills and on routes that alternate between clockwise and counter clockwise circuits of France. In the original 1903 tour, the length was 2,428 kilometers.

The average Tour de France rider burns between 7,000-8,000 calories per day. That’s a whopping 123,900 calories over the course of the 21-day race – 123,900! That’s the calorie equivalent of eating 1,625 apples, or 872 slices of cheese pizza from Pizza Hut, or 252 McDonalds double cheeseburgers, or 619 original glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts! Over the course of the roughly 3,500 kilometers Tour de France; a cyclist will sweat about 1.5 liters per hour totaling 130 liters (32 gallons) for the entire race.

In the 1920’s it was not uncommon for cyclists to share cigarettes while riding. Believe it or not, it was believed that smoking would help “open the lungs” before big climbs.   Now that is crazy!

So, another Tour de France has been completed providing millions of spectators a magnificent event to watch and learn from. Can’t wait until next year’s Tour starts!Tour

If you have any questions about this blog or your health in general or you just want to talk about the Tour you can reach me at drtomball@performancehealthcenter.com