Yellow Jersey Training: What we have learnt from Cycling’s Greats [2/4]
In the first post we looked at Eddy Merckx – the Cannibal and considered to be the greatest cyclist ever – Fausto Coppi – 5 time Giro, 2 time Tour de France & World Champ, arguably the Godfather of modern procycling – and the ‘Badger’, Bernard Hinault – 5 time winner of the Tour de France. All these cyclists pushed our knowledge & defined the strategies a rider could use in stage racing for the biggest cycling race out there – The Tour de France.
This post looks at Miguel Indurain, nicknamed ‘The Extraterrestrial’ by his Italian rival Gianni Bugno because of his incredible physical gifts. The name ‘Silent Rider’ is also fitting as often the ‘Big Mig’ didn’t even seem to be suffering as he attacked the mountain roads on his way to winning 5 straight Tour de France title [the only cyclist to now officially do it – 1991 to 1995].
Secondly we have Jacques Anquetil, whos 5 Tour de France victories [in 1957 and from 1961 to 1964] were built on his exceptional ability to ride alone against the clock in individual time trial stages [I mean the rider won 9 out of 9 participations in the Grand Prix des Nations, a now defunct race but at the time was considered unofficial time trial championship of the world and as a Classic cycle race] and his unwavering discipline to maintain a controlled race in the peloton. A riding style which lent him the name ‘Monsieur Chrono’.
Both of them were remarkable cyclists and each had their own styles & training techniques. Next time I think we will look at Lance Armstrong (many of these historic riders did doping, which alright was in part because of a different sport regulation age, but this is about riders who pushed the boundaries in everything else. Therefore in goes Lance)……… Sean Kelly, the best Classics rider of all time…..and…well perhaps Gimondi, Bartali…..how about commenting below on who should be included? It seems a part 4 maybe necessary.
Miguel Indurain – 5 time winner of Tour de France
‘Demonstrating that high cadence is an effective pedaling technique’
Miguel Indurian was the youngest ever Spanish Amateur Road Champion (in 1983) at 18, and soon he joined a team in Pamplona headed by the former Spanish national team coach. The training rides were grueling and Indurain logged tens of thousands of miles to increase his endurance. Although Indurain didn’t make it into his first Tour until 1985 (dropping out in the fourth stage) and then in 1986 dropping out on the 12th stage, his coach & teammates knew the rider had the makings of a legend.
It wasn’t until 1991, when Greg LeMond was favourite for the Tour, that this fine time trialist and veteran stage rider – but generally considered too large to be a good climber – made his mark on the biggest stage. LeMond led the race until the 12th stage but on the 13th he broke down on the Tourmalet and lost more than seven minutes to Indurain, who became the leader and stayed leader to the end.
Even with his tall, 80kg frame Indurain was exceptional in 2 out of the 3 main aspects of the Tour – the individual & team-time trial (often doing more than his share because he was so strong) & climbing. He didn’t excel at the sprints although this isn’t necessarily a requirement to win the Tour. The rider dominated the field in the mountain stages because of his famed pedaling technique (we will touch on this in a second) and is brutal power. Race reports regularly commented on how his fellow cyclists (and teammates) often hurt themselves just trying to hang on to him in the mountains – ‘On the steepest of climbs, other riders notice with disbelief that he rarely appears to sweat or struggle for breath. If there is ever fear in his eyes, he hides it behind large, dark glasses.’
For comparison, Lance Armstrong’s FTP was around 460 watts in the summer of ’98 with a watts per kg at 6.21 (at a weight of 75kg). Our rider Indurain’s was reportedly close to 7w/kg at his peak. A study by Bassett and colleagues (1999) estimated that the mean power outputs required to break the one-hour world records in a velodrome during the last years (53.0 to 56.4 km) ranged between 427 and 460 W. The average power output of Miguel Indurain during his 1994 one-hour record averaged 510 W (Padilla et al. 2000). It seems therefore that the Colombian cycling journalis Louis Viggio (who closely followed Indurain’s career) was correct in writing Miguel did indeed have ” incredible physical gifts.” If you want to read up on what is a ‘good power output’ I can’t recommend more highly Cycling Power Lab’s article – its graphs & tables and everything. There is also this guide on training by power.
To put these extraordinary numbers on the wall, Indurain had a physiology superior to fellow athletes and here is some facts to back up that statement:
– His blood took seven litres of oxygen around his body per minute,compared to 3–4 litres for an ordinary person and 5–6 litres for fellow riders.
– Cardiac output was 50 litres a minute; a fit amateur cyclist’s is about 25 litres.
– Lung capacity was 7.8 litres compared to an average of 6 litres.
– Resting pulse was as low as 28 BPM,compared to an average 60–72 bpm, which meant his heart would be less strained in the tough mountain stages. This is the lowest ever recorded in professional cycling and it is clear why it was quoted in National Geographic’s article – Olympic gold starts with good genes
– VO2 max was 88 ml/kg/min; in comparison, Lance Armstrong’s was 83.8 ml/kg/min. He is trumped unfortunately in this case by 3 time Tour winner Greg LeMond which was more than 92 ml/kg/min. With that fact you can see why Greg came back from a hunting accident in 1987 (which lead to a collapsed lung & 35 pellets – out of 60 – which still remain in his body) to win the Tour 1989; famously winning by only 8 seconds after closing a gap of 50 seconds on the final stage. LeMond’s average speed on that stage 21 time trial was 54.545 km/h – the fastest ever ridden in Tour history at that point. It has since only beaten by Chris Boardman in the 1994 prologue & David Zabriskie’s 2005 time trial performance.
[L’Équipe, France, 2 July 2004 records many of these statistics]
To add to the rider’s legend a 2012 research paper in International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance suggested the five-time Tour de France winner is still a force on the bike and could even hold his place in the pro peloton today. Spanish sports scientist Iñigo Mujika found that he had lost little of his fitness and his power values “still compare favorably with those exhibited by active professional cyclists”.
To quote the paper’s abstract
“age-related fitness declines in athletes can be due to both aging and detraining. Very little is known about the physiological and performance decline of professional cyclists after retirement from competition. To gain some insight into the aging and detraining process of elite cyclists, 5-time Tour de France winner and Olympic Champion Miguel Indurain performed a progressive cycle ergometer test to exhaustion 14 years after retirement from professional cycling”
“His maximal values were: oxygen uptake 5.29 l.min-1 (57.4 ml.kg-1.min-1), aerobic power output 450 W (4.88 W.kg-1), heart rate 191 bpm, blood lactate 11.2 mM. Values at the individual lactate threshold (ILT): 4.28 l.min-1 (46.4 ml.kg-1.min-1), 329 W (3.57 W.kg-1), 159 bpm, 2.4 mM. Values at the 4 mM onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA): 4.68 l.min-1 (50.8 ml.kg-1.min-1), 369 W (4.00 W.kg-1), 170 bpm. Average cycling gross efficiency between 100 and 350 W was 20.1%, with a peak value of 22.3% at 350 W”
It also adds:
“Larger declines in maximal and submaximal values relative to body mass (19.4-26.1%) indicate that body composition changed more than aerobic characteristics”
This is a polite way of saying he’s put on some weight. He now weighs over 92kg, compared to 80kg back in the day.
All this lead to Davis Phinney, one of five Americans to win a Tour stage, to make the comment: “He’s one of the five most physically talented humans on the planet,” said . “He’s like Michael Jordan, a man who is excelling at his sport at a given time like no one else has before him.”
Now back to the pedaling………
Reading ‘Lance Armstrong’ by John Wilcockson, there is an interesting segment on Lance’s foundation night criterium in Austin – just when Armstrong was returning to the racing circuit after his battle with cancer – where after winning the race he met Indurain (who had been special guest and presented the trophy). The two riders had discussed racing, training, the Tour plus Miguel’s technique for pedaling fast up mountains.
[1990 Tour de France;Mountain stage 16 video]
According to Miguel it was faster to climb up mountain roads on lower gears at a higher pedal cadence than trying to overcome steep gradients using pure power with a heavy gear. Specific training could be incorporated with lots of long climbs at medium pace with pedal cadences of between 60-90 RPM in addition to anaerobic threshold training of 90-100 RPM. This advice – which was advocated by the now disgraced trainer Dr Ferrari also – ultimately helped Lance rider faster uphill in the summer of ’98 than before his cancer.
Miguel Indurain’s technique was so successful that Claudio Chiappucci, who had twice finished second in the Tour de France, said that the only way to beat him was to take on the kamikaze role and ‘attack him, attack him and attack him again’. Of course this answer on how to beat him also begs the questions: Who volunteers to throw away his own chances by carrying the fight to Indurain, the strongest rider in the pack? This article from the New York Times reviewed this very question – Target is clear, but who dares to attack?
As Chiappucci proved in the Giro d’Italia earlier this month, the rider who devotes himself to attacking Indurain risks exhaustion long before his intended victim. After days of trying – and failing – to speed away from Indurain in the mountains, the spent Italian staggered in ninth, 4 minutes, 15 seconds behind, in the decisive time trial. The time-trial winner was, of course, Indurain, who was en route to his second successive victory in the Giro, matching his string in the Tour.
Unfortunately for Indurain, the ‘French’ & many fans of the Tour do not see Indurain as a gift to cycling, claiming he lacks adventure – he won only one Tour stage last year. As the next rider on this list – Jacques Anquetil – also found out (leading inevitably to the large fan base for Poulidor -‘The Eternal Second’, on record arguably not as close rival to Anquetil as made out by the media), most cycle- racing followers like their heroes to have a touch of derring-do, skidding down mountain roads, riding off alone into the sunset and visibly suffering. Indurain was exactly like Merckx – with the ‘Attack, attack, attack’ ideology partly because as an athlete he was so superior that he needed only a measured approach with less risk. Of course for the Tour organizers it was difficult to put more mountains and longer time-trials in his path and stopping him relentlessly grinding down the opposition.
Jacques Anquetil – Benefits of short, intense training & calculated racing
During my Christmas homework on Jacques Anquetil, I came across Paul Howard’s book – Sex, Lies & Handlebar Tape – in which it is noted on several occasions how the rider favored intensity in his training: 2 to 2.5 hours of motor pacing behind a car or derny was his preferred method. He would also tailor his training calendar – and weight – around his racing schedule. For example in 1956 upon conclusion of his military service, Anquetil had gained a massive 22 pounds requiring one month and 1,200 kilometres for him to get back into shape. His training regimen was never what you could call spartan, complete with a diet of fine steak washed down with champagne. Yet this isn’t to undermine his excellence or achievements, only to highlight how you can be an epic rider…..and well not be boring.
This is not to say his ‘cool’ approach to training wasn’t always without consequence – there was a particularly low point at the end of 1962 when is training had severely tapered but the contract for the two man 111km time trial – Tropheo Baracchi had been signed; there was no ducking the obligation. There was also the fact that in eight attempts Jacques had also never won it.
Unfortunately it turned into the riders’ most humiliating race when pushed by his partner, Rudi Altig, and absolutely exhausted, Anquetil hit a pillar before reaching the track on which the race finished. Thankfully the race timekeeper had been at the stadium entrance but the time-trial had been a grilling experience, as the writer René de Latour later wrote:
‘One of the most sensational things I have ever seen in any form of cycle racing during my 35 years’ association with the sport — something which I consider as great a physical performance as a world hour record or a classic road race win. Altig was riding at 30mph at the front — and had been doing so for 15 minutes. When Anquetil lost contact, he had to ease the pace, wait for his partner to go by, push him powerfully in the back, sprint to the front again after losing 10 yards in the process, and again settle down to a 30mph stint at the front. Altig did this not just once but dozens of times’
These highlights from the race are fascinating:
All this being said, like Merckx, Anquetil was the master of a generation. But unlike Merckx, Jacques’ mentality was not to try to win everything all the time. He calculated everything by way of expending the least possible effort to win. In all his Tour victories, he only occasionally won a stage. He never took a chance, never attacked except when necessary, never assisted his fellow riders. He remained a cipher, a superb cyclist but never an animateur.
In this crazy world of elite sport & endless talk of diets, training programs, it is refreshing to read about Anquetil’s ‘peaks & troughs’ approach. Yet be under no illusion his record is stunning. In additional to 5 Tour de France victories, Jacques won over 200 professional races, was the first cyclist to win all three Grand Tours (Giro twice & Espana once) & his Tour victory total of 8 is third of all time (Eddy Merckx has 11 and Bernard Hinault has 10). Let’s not forget he was also 2nd in the Giro twice, 3rd twice & 3rd in the Tour de France once.
His cycling career famously exploded onto the world stage with his first pro victory in his first major race – the Grand Prix des Nations – the most famous and difficult of all time trials. A kind of unofficial world time trial of 140kms (indeed it is now defunct since 2004 arguably because of the present World Championships) against the top cyclists of the day such as Louison Bobet. He went on to win that race 9 times….out of the 9 times he competed.
Indeed his legend came to be composed mostly of magnificent solo rides against the clock. Jacques never concealed his disdain for road races and all the uncertainty that goes with it – danger of rubbing elbows in the peloton, explosive jumps of his rivals. However with that being said, and his usual avoidance of the ‘Classics’, the cyclist still won Paris-Nice 5 times.
He was so good against the clock that he broke the hour record twice – eleven years apart. For his second attempt, keeping with his record of high gear sets, Anquetil had an incredible 52 × 13 setting which the current holder – Roger Riviere – was baffled by. Of course as many commentators would point out he refused a piss test after the second edition and wasn’t officially given the record. In passing this is the historical context that riders like Wiggins, Cancellara & Martin are up against in their hour attempts today – good luck to them – and of course Chris Boardman’s record in 2000 (which he did get extensively tested on). Doping (everything from alcohol to caffeine injections to amphetamines) was rampant in cycling – beginning with the notorious indoor “six-day races” of the 1890s, when riders dosed themselves on nitroglycerine or strychnine. It was only in 1966 (the year before the Englishman Tom Simpson collapsed and died on Mount Ventoux from amphetamine overdose) that France passed its first drug law – a law which did not govern the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body. Anquetil, like arguably all professional cyclists took amphetamines, and ironically in a debate with a government minister on French television, he remarked that no one could ride the Bordeaux–Paris on bread and water, and insisted that they had the right to treat themselves as they wished. “Leave me in peace,” he concluded; “everyone takes dope.”
All this is not to dampen Anquetil’s ability or approach – meerly just to put into context. In 1965 he achieved, what has been rated as one of the greatest endurance cycling feats of all time, the ‘impossible double’. After winning the Dauphiné-Liberé, a tough week long stage race, jetted across France the evening of the last day, slept for four hours, and then pedaled off into the four a.m. darkness and rain of the 365 mile long Bordeaux-Paris race.
This crazy bet of 1965 was in response to a challenge/insults from Raphael Geminiani, Directeur Sportif of Anquetil’s St Raphael team, to prove beyond all doubt that he was the superior athlete to the popular ‘arch-rival’ Raymond Poulidor. So supported by his team mate, Jean Stablinski (which can’t be forgotten) Anquetil achieved a feat of endurance which had been forgotten since the early days of cycling [rider strikes and representations from professional associations had largely killed off city to city races like Bordeaux-Paris which had been growing in popularity in the pre-war period]
To fully understand Anquetil’s achievement, here are some numbers to consider:
– Over 2000km covered to win the Dauphine and Bordeaux-Paris
– 35 hours without sleep
– 18,000 calories burned during the final stage of the Dauphine and Bordeaux – Paris equivalent to over 8kg of Steak Tartare that Anquetil liked to consume before racing.