Why is Tour de France the Hardest Cycling Race in the World?

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The Tour de France is the most famous, and difficult, cycling race in the world. Running for over a century, it’s on a completely different level when comparing it to other endurance competitions.

The riders that decide to compete in these races have to battle through multiple factors in order to come out on top, making it an extremely unique challenge in relation to all other sporting events.

If you thought this race was simply a challenge of hopping on a bike and seeing who is fastest, you’re right but there’s more to it. Let’s take a closer look at why the Tour De France is the world’s toughest cycling race.

Mountain Stages

Every year, the race takes cyclists through numerous mountain stages where the competitors have to fight through the altitudes. It seems like they make this part of the race harder and harder as the years go by.

To some competitors, they are the most challenging part of the Tour de France and are often where the race is either won or lost. Not only is biking up a steep hill difficult in itself, doing so after putting in countless hours of cardio exercise isn’t an easy task.

There are also elements at those heights — especially tough wind resistance. The altitude is also worth mentioning as well, as cyclists will be faced to battle thin air, which could end up hurting their overall stamina.

Individual Time Trials

When cyclists head into the time trial stages, they are forced to rely upon their sheer will and determination. Instead of having the luxury of drafting behind a few stronger cyclists in the peloton during the flat stages, competitors have to map out a course on their own.

Running about 10 to 40 kilometers long, the goal of the course is to end with the fastest time. Not every competitor is able to just walk into a time trial and come out on top; they need very specific skillsets in order to succeed here and they completely vary in each course.

There have been trials that are just flat all the way through while others are a combination of flat and mountain terrain. These time trials really test the versatility of the riders in a way that few other races in the world do.

Refueling

The Tour de France demands an incredible amount of cardio work, which means calories are being burned at an epic pace per stage. There have been some reports that certain riders could burn all the way up to 5,000 calories in each stage, so mapping out the refueling strategy is part of what makes the Tour de France so difficult.

To start, you have to pack in that many calories, which isn’t easy. Then you also have to think about eating a ton of calories and then hopping on a bike, which isn’t easy in and of itself. Then when you’re burning that many calories in a short period of time, cyclists have to fuel their bodies back up but not overdo it.

They don’t have the luxury of simply stuffing their face with any food they can get their hands on as it will just cause more problems for them down the competition. Instead, they will need to fill themselves back up with nutrient-dense foods.

Carefully planning out the diet is one of the most difficult things about this competition. Some cyclists struggle to find the perfect balance of refueling without losing muscle or having issues with their digestion.

Injuries And Hazards

One thing that makes the Tour de France so difficult is the possible hazards and injuries. As we saw this year, one fan actually wiped out the peloton with a sign, causing an enormous crash. That was just one of the many ways that Tour de France could cause some serious injuries to the riders.

Each year, the race causes quite a bit of short-term injuries such as muscle cramps and complete exhaustion, but there have been a few more extreme injuries in the past decade of the race.

These injuries include one rider flying over a guardrail and breaking his collarbone and another man getting himself wedged in barbed wire, resulting in over 30 stitches. The peloton rides super tight and one off move can create a ripple effect of crashes.

Crashing into one another during the peloton could not only eliminate you from contention but could also hand riders devastating injuries. With so many bodies and bikes in the same area, one cyclist slipping up and falling over could send countless others to crash on top of one another.

This race forces competitors to stay laser-focused the entire way as they’ll pay for each wrong move they make.

Distance

It should go without saying but the distance in this race is enough to make it one of the hardest competitions out there. The route frequently makes minor changes as the years pass by but overall, it’s 21 stages that riders will need to push through in just 23 total days.

In total, the course is about 2,200 miles long, including the mountain stages that demand even more concentration and effort. Some of the stages are grueling as well distance-wise, with one of them being 123 miles long (back in 2020). The longest career stage was back in 1920 when it was a whopping 300 miles long.

Whenever riders take part in races of this distance, at some point their legs will begin to ache and they will have to fight through the urges to stop. There aren’t many other cycling races out there that demand their cyclists go the distance that these competitors do here.

Stamina

In most sports, athletes need to keep track of their energy and stamina to avoid wasting it away too quickly. These riders are on another level, though, as they have to know exactly how to measure their own stamina and know when to push themselves hard enough without burning away too fast.

Remember, this isn’t a 40-yard route in the NFL or a 30-second NHL shift where a player gives everything they have for a short burst and then rests for a while. This is a three-week race where budgeting your stamina from the beginning is critical.

professional biker solo

When riding the Tour de France, stamina is crucial.

The Tour de France is 21 stages long with each of them lasting around two to six hours. Cyclists do, in fact, get two days of rest throughout the 23 days of competition, but that doesn’t mean they can take it easy. Drafting in the peloton is probably the best way to save stamina but they aren’t able to do that during the individual time trials or towards the final break.

At that point, the riders attempt to go all out for the victory. Each cyclist has to know exactly when to exert themselves as hard as they can while also preserving stamina throughout an entire stage without falling behind. Fail to do that and they fail to finish competitively.

The Weather

We’ve talked about the insane distance and different stages that these riders have to battle through already but don’t forget about the elements. When cyclists go out in these stages, they have to work through insanely hot weather the entire time as the race takes place in the summer months.

Not only does this rapidly drain the energy out of each rider but it also drastically increases the chances of heatstroke. Every rider has to be well aware of their hydration but can’t afford to down an entire water bottle due to cramps. They have to be efficient and smart about their water intake without ignoring it completely.

If the heat isn’t enough, there is usually some other weather that comes into play. That might be rainy days at some point or windy days in the mountains. When it starts raining down pretty hard, cyclists have to be extra careful to avoid slipping on the very slick roadways.

Remember, this isn’t like in baseball where they’ll just delay the game during the rain; this race continues rain or shine. Unless the weather gets extremely bad, the riders are expected to battle through the weather conditions whether it’s incredibly hot or pouring rain.

Teamwork

Believe it or not, teamwork is a huge factor of the Tour de France and is another reason the race is so brutal. These riders already have enough to be worrying about with their hydration and calorie intake, the insane heat, and their stamina.

Now they also have to be thinking about their fellow teammates during certain stages. In some cases, riders will push themselves to be in the front of the peloton while their leaders sit towards the middle of the pack behind them. Then right at the very end of the stage, the leaders will burst out in front after regaining their energy from drafting.

Riders have to work together to make sure they are all saving their stamina and helping their leader get across that finish line first. That sounds like an easy task but definitely isn’t when you are completely exhausted and overworked already.

The Mental Toll

One overlooked element in the Tour de France is the mental toll that it takes on all the riders. It is incredibly difficult to push yourself to keep going – especially when your legs and body are on fire from the cardio.

However, the mental toll isn’t just pushing yourself to keep going. It is also fighting off other aspects that could impact the way your race such as the fear of failure, the fear of crashing and thinking about possibly feeling sick.

This is a long, grueling competition and keeping the right frame of mind is crucial. Riders have to constantly battle those thoughts off and overcome them if they want any chance of winning this brutal contest.

Pressure

Often times when an athlete is competing in a massive event like this, the pressure and stress begin to wear down on them. That is exactly the case for the Tour de France as riders have to battle off the tons of eyes watching over them at all times.

Not only are there loads of media crews and spectators along the sides of the course but there is also constant medical attention on standby. After all, this is the biggest cycling race in the world and just as there is with the Super Bowl or Wimbledon, the pressure amps up when athletes are on the biggest stage.

The stress and pressure of this race is especially common in the team leaders, who are often charged with the responsibilities of winning the race.

These leaders have other teammates constantly helping them out if they need anything in the hopes of them winning it all, so when a rider knows how many sacrifices are being made for them it could wear them down mentally.

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