Yellow Jersey Training – What we have learnt from Cycling’s Greats – Part 1/4

5 time winner of Tour de France - Bernard Hinault, or the 'Badger'.No rider radios then, he was famed for solo breaks of 100+km!

5 time winner of Tour de France – Bernard Hinault, or the ‘Badger’.No rider radios then, he was famed for solo breaks of 100+km!

                                  ‘If you wish to be out front, then act as if you were behind’

 – Lao-Tzu, 6th Century BC

This January Athlete Lab are doing a 12 hour cycle challenge and being inspired by the training benefits of such a feat (it is a charity event notably) and from reading all the masochist training regimes by history’s top cyclists – Merckx, Coppi, Hinault, Anquetil,Pancani – over Christmas in the depths of Burma, I thought it could be interesting to summarize the ‘Yellow Jersey’ strategies over the years. I mean it didn’t all start with Dave Brailsford, Wiggo and marginal gains in 2012.

Miguel has still got it

Miguel has still got it

Understandably all of these champions had exceptional traits both physiological – including exceptional aerobic capacity [for example, not only did Miguel Indurain have a reported resting heart rate of 28 BPM but a 2012 paper in Intl J Sports Physiol Performance – ‘The cycling physiology of Miguel Indurain 14 years after retirement‘ – found that his absolute maximal & submaximal oxygen uptake & power output still compared favourably with those exhibited by active professional cyclists – you may want to reread that to fully take it in….] – and psychological – personality traits such as what made Armstrong famous, ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger’, and the aggressiveness displayed during lead attacks [Hinault was nicknamed the Badger because he wouldn’t let his prey go!].

Yet these attributes were always complimented by rigorous training regimes and race focus.  This can be seen in both preparation – Lance Armstrong, who in a field packed with a large group of riders that were also cheating (and that isn’t excusing it at all), stood out because his team made significant contributions into the science behind winning the Tour – look at the lead out strategy for a brunch sprint or train up a mountain stage.

Can't always focus on the racing

Can’t always focus on the racing

And when racing – As shown by Anquetil biography – ‘Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape’ – many of his victories & dominance of the sport was brought about when he wasn’t necessarily racing for his first concern of money but with pride on the line.Famously his famed rivalry with Poulidor, as labelled the ‘Eternal Second’ by the press, being one such example. Anquetil never mention him as a rival, referencing a far superior record one on one, but whose race strategy would play out in order not to give him an advantage on a break away – the French national team’s lose in the 1959 being a clear case. Furthermore, Geminiani (Anquetil’s manager) successful persuasion of him to do the inevitable double triumph in the 8 day Dauphine and Bordeaux-Paris (longest single pro day race of 557km) – still rated as one of the greatest victories in professional cycling and known as the ‘impossible double‘ – was arguably brought on by the riders disappointment at the public warm perception of Poulidor.

But I want to touch on some of the training that these leaders went through as they built up to the Tour.

After all every cycling forum you will still see posts from riders – hoping to be a top ‘all-rounder’ cyclist – asking what is the most effective training method? How can they get ahead of the rest?

Without provoking the sport scientists (and I have no doubt research in the field has brought massive gains) out there, maybe a revision of some of these approaches could at least pose some debate on the age old argument – less-is-more versus more-is-more. Indeed some commentators have posed the question of why Tour de France riders aren’t going any faster? (interesting post here) with improved nutrition, training, equipment. No doubt alot of this comes down to the reduced use of drugs including  amphetamines, race strategy meaning that you don’t go out breaking yourself from the first kilometre, race radios telling you that other riders are in fact not right behind you, etc.

Stage 17 of 1969 Tour de France - Merckx risked blowing up and losing the Tour when he attacked over the top of the Tourmalet then rode solo for 130 kilometers. He won the stage by nearly eight minutes. That year he won every jersey possible and won the race with a margin of 17 minutes. Definition of no guts, no glory.

Stage 17 of 1969 Tour de France – Merckx risked blowing up and losing the Tour when he attacked over the top of the Tourmalet then rode solo for 130 kilometers. He won the stage by nearly eight minutes. That year he won every jersey possible and won the race with a margin of 17 minutes. Definition of no guts, no glory.

Still history could teach us something or at least inspire us to not sit too comfortably on our training rides.

So without going through stacks and stacks of recent sport science papers let look at the approaches of the ‘Greats’ – Merckx, Hinault, Anquetil, Coppi, Armstrong (just out of interest, let’s not forget many of the historic riders had huge amounts of drugs helping them), LeMond and I’ll have a ponder on who else to include in the next few days………..

Eddy Merckx – Attack, Attack, Attack

Quite simply this rider is considered to be the greatest pro-cyclist ever. So if you are on the other side of the internet reading this and just getting the cycling bug, know that Lance Armstrong (Pre-drug fallout) got nothing on this guy, no matter what you hear on CNN.

No tri-bar nonsense on these time trials!

No tri-bar nonsense on these time trials!

His training advice was simply and famously put – ‘Ride, lots’, which no doubt leads to some tension against that training philosophies – less-is-more – which is by no means a new thing from the Sky Team etc being pioneered by the Pelissier Brothers as early as the 1920s, more of which you will read later.

Love this promo poster from Eddy Merckx bikes....little doubt they will mind me using it!

Love this promo poster from Eddy Merckx bikes….little doubt they will mind me using it!

Of course it would be stupid to say that this advice is flat out wrong – after turning professional in 1965, Merckx won the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia 5 times each and the Vuelta a Espana once. He also finished 2nd in the Tour de France in 1975 after breaking his jaw. Beast. Additionally he won all of the classic ‘monument’ races at least twice each (19 victories in all), was World Champion 4 times (including once as an amateur).

Never considered the strongest or most technically gifted cyclist on the European circuit, Merckx amassed his impressive record partly through a sheer competitive drive and was nicknamed ‘The Cannibal’ because of the way he used to gobble up race wins! He won 525 professional races before retiring in 1978. The man.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was breaking the UCI hour record in 1972 at 49.431km, which in its pure form (which is indeed the ‘UCI hour record’,whereby record holders can only use a copy of Merckx bike) was only broken in 2000 by Chris Boardman by 11metres! [The record has subsequently been broken only once after by Ondrej Sosenka in 2005 at 49.7km – the rider subsequently been banned for drugs in other races…hmmmm]. The split times for that challenge was as follows:

Split Times

      km Ritter
Mexico City, 10.10.68
Mexico City, 25.10.1972
time time avg. speed

1.10 51.43
5 6.11 5.55.7 50.60
10 12.21  11.53 50.49
15 18.33 18.01 49.95
20 24.42 24.07 49.76
25 30.47 30.10 49.72
30 36.59 36.17 49.61
35 43.10 42.25 49.51
40 49.17 48.32 49.45
45 55.27 54.38 49.42
1 hour

48,653 km

49.431 49.431

The Training

Merckx’s training called for daily workouts of up to 150 miles a day, totaling 20,000 a year,  and another 16,120 km (10,000 miles) annually in races. The outcome of this ‘muscle memory’ was not only race wins but an exceptional ability to put power through the bike. A paper entitled ‘Experiments in Human Ergometry as Applied to the Design of Human Powered Vehicles’ from the International Journal of Sport Biomechanics noted that Merckx maintained an output of 455 watts for 1 hour at the Sportshocsschule in Koln, Germany on April 24, 1975 (notably only 3 years before he retired). Even conditioned recreational cyclists can only maintain this power level for slightly more than 1 minute.

Yet these long rides weren’t without focus. Eddy Merckx trainer, Dr. Marco Pierfederici, and who also worked with the Italian pro teams back in the ’70 and ‘80s, delivered this summary to a training camp organized by  ‘Italia Velo Sport’.

Start the season easy – It’s all based on how the body transports oxygen.

“To create the desired increase in the size of the capillaries that deliver blood to the muscle fibers, all training should be quite slow and easy, especially in the early season… To enhance their size and ability to transport blood, the best training is not to fatigue the muscle but to maintain it in motion.”

The gears and RPM should be adjusted to feel some resistance without overexertion:

“I advise beginning the year by pedaling at 60-70 rpm in at 42×17 or 16. Do this for 30-35 miles a day for three weeks, then start riding 50-60 miles. Add more long rides until you are alternating days of 50-60 miles with those of 30-35. It is extremely important that the first 1,500 miles never include hard efforts. Otherwise, you are not training the muscle, you are just training the cardiovascular system. Why pedal so slowly? Why such a moderate effort? We have a saying in Italy that you must feel the pedals, feel the chain.

If you are pedaling at a high rpm in an easy gear, you won’t feel like there is anything under your feet. You’ll just be spinning the air. Your pedaling effort should be above spinning but below pushing. This is a subjective thing, so it is very hard to give a schedule for which gear and rpm to use. As you gradually increase your training, you will gradually increase your gears and pedal rpm. This doesn’t mean that by July you should be doing all of your riding in a huge gear.

No training should take you to the point of fatigue. It is in the race, not the training, that you should get tired. You should come in from every training ride feeling like you could go out and do it again. You shouldn’t come back wasted. When you train too hard there is no development of the muscle mass.”

And the issue of doing weights, well this was his response:

“Doing only leg exercises with weights might not be a negative thing. However, the type of training most suitable for cycling is that which lengthens the muscle. The cycling motion itself is perfect because it is one of lengthening, shortening, lengthening, and so on. Those who do gymnastics and lift weights as their first sport and then take up riding must quit these activities. The blood must be made accessible to the lower extremities.

Stretching exercises? Fine, there is nothing wrong with them if you know the correct techniques. But nothing takes the place of riding the bicycle. The same time that you are stretching could be spent pedaling.”

Fausto Coppi – Pioneer in specific training for race preparation

Was voted the greatest Italian sportsman....and football is quite popular over there!

Was voted the greatest Italian sportsman….and football is quite popular over there!

Coppi won the Giro d’Italia five times (1940, 1947, 1949, 1952,1953), the Tour de France twice (1949 and1952), and the World Championship in 1953. Other notable results include winning the Giro di Lombardia five times, the Milan – San Remothree times, as well as wins at Paris–Roubaixand La Flèche Wallonne and setting the hour record (45.798 km) in 1942.

Raphaël Géminiani – Jacques Anquetil’s directeur sportif – said of Coppi’s domination:

‘When Fausto won and you wanted to check the time gap to the man in second place, you didn’t need a Swiss stopwatch. The bell of the church clock tower would do the job just as well. Paris–Roubaix? Milan – San Remo? Lombardy? We’re talking 10 minutes to a quarter of an hour. That’s how Fausto Coppi was.’

As detailed in the biography – ‘Fallen Angel:The Passion of Fausto Coppi’ – Coppi would ignore the traditional two month break in the winter – many Italians at the time were famed in their approach in using early season races to train – and as his preparation for Milano-Sanremo in 1946 showed, when he arrived at the start line, on March 19th, he was already in terrific shape.



He was also a pioneer in the idea of ‘peaking’, of targeting individual events, maybe only one or two in a season, and doing specific training in preparation – very much an concept that we take as a modern development. Along with being up-to-date on the latest doping techniques – and to be honest criticism of doping in cycling circles only really began with Tom Simpson’s death in 1967 on Mount Ventoux – he spent considerable time perfecting his diet, paying attention to hydration, and focusing on all the minor details in his training that could make a difference. To ensure both his endurance and speed work could stand up to the conditions in a race – and I mean a brunch sprint is at the end right! – Coppi would ride solo in training for 150 kilometres before meeting up with a group of amateur riders who would attack him constantly for the 100 kilometres remaining on the ride. This help to simulate racing conditions and this sort of intensity blew away the opposition in many of his races.

Bernard Hinault – How to race aggressively

‘The Badger’ is one of only five cyclists to have won all three Grand Tours, and the only cyclist to have won each more than once. He won the Tour de France in 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1985. He came second in 1984 and 1986 and won 28 stages, of which 13 were individual time trials. The other three to have achieved five Tour de France victories are Jacques Anquetil (1964),Eddy Merckx (1974) and Miguel Indurain (1995). Of these, Hinault is the only one to have finished either first or second in each Tour de France he finished. He remains the last French winner of the Tour de France.

This Grand Tour record is nothing short of phenomenal – in fact a knee injury probably stopped him winning a sixth Tour in both 1980 & 1983 and if he didn’t ‘bonk’ at the start of the Col d’Aspin on Stage 13 after an attack right from the start (no doubt trying to replicate Eddy Merckx legendary 1969 Stage 17 win!) – by all accounts regarded in many pro cycling circles today as stupid/suicidal (still epic) – he may have landed the 1986 Tour [If you read ‘Slaying the Badger‘ which covers the build up & running of that Tour, you can see this would have been controversial as LeMond – Hinault’s great rival and teammate in one of the most gripping Tour de France ever – could have won the Tour in 1985 but instead helped Hinault; which resulted in Hinault promising to help LeMond win it the following year].

Guess which one Hinault is

Guess which one Hinault is

As the 1978 rider protest in the Tour de France showed, Bernard Hinault – who was a Tour rookie – was a natural born leader and had no fear of overreaching himself when he was riding. Only Eddy Merckx was more frightening in his record and not by much. As hard as the granite coastline of his native Brittany, the rider was absolutely fearless, to the point of over-boldness, and indeed suffered many more crashes than is typical of a rider of his standing. You may have even came across in a list of the ‘Top Moments in Cycling’ Hinault’s crash in the Dauphiné Libéré in 1977 – when I say crash I mean flying off a mountain road on a descend (barely missing the vertical drop) followed by climbing back up the roadside and on to his bike for the win in Bastille of Grenoble.

Yet with this gritted teeth approach there was an all round ability in the saddle which was reflected by the fact that he won all classifications at the Tour. He could do everything – sprint, time trial and climb.

Inimitable and indefatigable, The Badger is truly one of the Tour’s great personalities.

Hinault punch

Told you

Alongside all this aggression was of course a physique which could allow Hinault to pound the opposition. Interesting Chairman Bill McGann, Founder of Torelli Bicycle Company, had an interview with Greg LeMond in which the 3 time winner & officially the only Amercian to win the Tour, stated in fascinating detail the physical talent of himself & Hinault. Alongside this great stat –

Wasn't all smiles back in the day

Wasn’t all smiles back in the day

‘I was on average about 6.2 to 6.4 liters of Oxygen, which translated to my racing weight would be 92, 93, 94 VO2 Max. I think only cross-country skier Bjørn Dæhlie [Generally considered the greatest Nordic skier of all time, 1992 Olympic Gold Medalist 15 km, 50 km, 4 x 10 km relay cross country skiing], had those same numbers. So I think I had one of, if not the highest.’

He mentioned that Bernard Hinault’s VO2 Max – this being one of the important measurements to determine the vital physical ability of a rider – was 88. In terms of wattage these guys were capable of producing ‘450 to 460 watts’ with even the pairs famous but arguably controlled (slow) l’Alpe d’Huez climb yielding a wattage of around 380 & 390 [this with a reduced hematocrit count as you reach the end of the 3 weeks].

And that my friend is the motor for these stunning victories in the hardest endurance races in the world.

That’s all for today but in the next part I will look at Miguel Indurian, winner of 5 consecutive Tour de France, Jacques Anquetil, the first cyclist to win the TdF 5 times, there may be a touch of Lance Armstrong – not sure what ‘stat’ I am allowed to put there – and maybe we will touch on some ultra endurance riders…….

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Tour de France cycling race stage 19You can find Part 2 here

Part 3 coming up and we will be looking, in part, at focusing a race strategy on riders’ strengths *cough* Wiggins.