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How much better are pro cyclists?

James Witts
15 Nov 2020

We know pros are superhuman, but exactly how much better are pros than the average cyclist?

The Etape du Tour, the annual amateur event that follows one of the key mountain stages of the Tour de France, lends us mortals a rare opportunity to make direct comparisons between the pros and ourselves.

Amateurs vs pros

Back in 2015 we looked at the Etape to see just how its riders compared to those in the pro peloton. The first rider across the line in the amateur sportive was France’s Jeremy Bescond in 4h52m44s.

Five days later Vincenzo Nibali took the spoils as the Tour passed through, covering the stage in 4h22m53s at an average speed of 31.5kmh – that’s 11% quicker.

Of course Nibali had the assistance of his team and other riders around him (although on this occasion no obvious use of the team car’s wing mirror), but on the flipside, Bescond was himself a pro rider until recently, as were a good chunk of the top 10 finishers in the Etape.

However, fifth overall in the Etape was France’s William Turnes in the 40-44 age category, and he’s likely to be the first real amateur to cross the line, finishing in 5h02m56s, 15% slower than Nibali.

The last place finisher on Stage 19 of the 2015 Tour de France was Katusha’s Jacopo Guarnieri, in 4h53m23s, 12% slower than Nibali and perilously close to being excluded by the stage time cut-off.

To put this into context, Guarnieri is a sprinter who was doubtless conserving energy for the final yards in Paris, and who already had over 3,000km of racing in his legs.

Yet he still managed to complete the course nearly 10 minutes ahead of the best-placed amateur rider who was no doubt giving everything he had for a single day.

The last male finisher at the Etape took 12h46m07s, nearly three times longer than Nibali, but perhaps a more representative measure of the average rider would be to take the half way point (the median) of the finishers.

That was the rider in 4,986th position, David Hall, who finished in 8h49m07s – 101% slower than Nibali.

By this account, we might say that pros are, on average, twice as good as the rest of us. But there are other ways of measuring ability…

Superhuman physiology

How much better are pro cyclists?

Completion times give a good indication of relative performance, but what about comparing our physiology with the pros?

VO2 max is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen you can use each minute. Theoretically, the more oxygen you can use, the more energy you can generate to fuel muscles.

It’s measured in millilitres per kilogram of bodyweight per minute (ml/kg/min).

‘Your average sedentary office worker comes in with a VO2 max at the 30-40ml/kg/min mark,’ says Matthew Furber, senior sports scientist at the GSK Human Performance Lab in London.

‘Once you reach around 60, we’re talking category 3 riders, maybe category 2. Cat 1 riders are usually over 70 and beyond.’

So what about the pros?

Greg LeMond registered 92.5ml/kg/min, going some way to explaining how the American legend racked up three Tour de France titles.

Even more impressive is Norwegian cyclist Oskar Svendsen, who registered the highest-ever VO2 max across any sport in 2012 at 97.5ml/kg/min.

Some other famed names and their VO2 maxes: Lance Armstrong - 84, Miguel Indurain - 88, Thor Hushovd - 86.

If we consider our cat 3 rider with a VO2 max of 60 as ‘Mr Average’, the top pros (at around 80) have an advantage of 33% in oxygen processing terms.

But having a high VO2 max value alone is not enough to be a star rider.

WattBike creator and sports scientist Eddie Fletcher says, ‘What’s more important is how long you can sustain a high percentage of your VO2 max.’ Which brings us on to threshold.

A rider’s lactate threshold is the maximum steady-state riding intensity they can maintain without a significant build up of lactate.

In other words, it’s the tipping point beyond which your body will rapidly fatigue to exhaustion.

Professor Inigo San Millan compared the blood lactate figures of riders ranging from junior cyclists to amateurs to world-class.

The data revealed that at a power output equal to 3 watts per kilo (W/kg), amateurs produced 37.5% more lactate, but nudge the power up a bit to 3.5W/kg and suddenly the figure jumped to 62.5% more.

At 5.5W/kg (that’s kicking out 412W for a 75kg rider) the grimacing amateurs were producing 77% more lactate than the pros.

How much better are the pros?

Power, power, power

Measuring physiological prowess in the lab is one thing, but when it comes to making comparisons out on the road, it’s all about power output.

Even more so since the media storm surrounding Chris Froome’s second Tour victory, which saw Team Sky release his power files to provide greater transparency about his performances.

Froome’s data reveals an average power output of 414W for 41m28s, equating to 5.78W/kg, with Froome weighing 67kg.

Team Sky’s head of athlete performance, Tim Kerrison, also revealed that Froome regularly exceeds a 30-minute power output of 419W (6.25W/kg) and for 60 minutes he would expect to ride at or above 366W (5.46W/kg).

Also in the spotlight at the time were statistics from Tom Dumoulin’s impressive Vuelta a Espana performances back in 2015.

Dutch Newspaper AD published an article revealing power statistics for key stages of that year’s race. Stage 6 showed Dumoulin rode an average of 508.2W over a climb lasting 5m55s, equating to 7.0W/kg.

How much better are the pros?

Let’s give all these figures some context. Box Hill in Surrey is the most popular Strava segment on the planet, and to place in the top 10% of Strava times you will need a time ahead of Roki Read (who, at the time of original publication, sat around 4,800th place).

A decent club level, amateur cyclist, Read’s time of 7m09s at an average 310W equates to 4.19W/kg – that’s 60% of Dumoulin’s output over a similar duration.

If you fancy yourself as more of a sprinter than a climber, then German powerhouse André Greipel has been recorded to peak at more than 1,900W during a sprint and can hold an average in excess of 1,000W for 30 seconds.

The more aerodynamic Mark Cavendish has been said to hit around 1,600W in the charge to the line.

It sounds like a lot, and it is. Cyclist’s resident crit racer Peter Stuart (a former GB rower) hits a peak of 1,050W in the sprint (55% of Greipel) and can hold 600W for 30 seconds (60%).

So how much better are the pros? It depends on which metrics you use, but a competitive amateur is doing very well if they can get within 60% of the world’s best.

That last 40% may involve a considerable amount of marginal gains.

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