CYCLING: What can a young cyclist do at training? (3)

We continue the series on the theme of youth cycling training and try to understand the ins and outs of the young athlete's long-term development. By the way, some information is quite adaptable to adults and other sports.

What is cycling?

Watching a Classic or the Tour de France shows you roughly what cycling is but from a physiological point of view, we don’t see much about cycling. Moreover what we see during an XCO World Cup or cyclo-cross WC or a single stage of a Grand Tour is not the real picture of the basic cyclist practice.

For this article, let's focus on road cycling and its reality.

Understanding of the effort during a criterium or a circuit race :

By Criterium, I mean all the Sunday events that mark the amateur cyclist season. Often rolling race course with heavy braking during the turns generating intense stimulus, what we call in French “vire-vires” are the basic unit of cycling competition in many countries.

Outside of the Grand Tour or Classic, the biggest races are on circuits with several laps. We can mention the World Championships or the Olympic Games. The races often have more varied profiles combining rolling sectors and more hilly sectors to designate complete cyclist as winners.

For our young cyclists:

Depending on the category, the distances will range from 20k for cyclists from 10-12 years up to 120k for juniors.

Distance - Race duration for youth categories in France

There is some progressivity in the mileage to facilitate progression without excessive overload for a growing organism.

However, especially in France, the female practice faces some "nonsense": because of a smaller number of participants, the U18 girls ride with seniors on inappropriate distances. Faced with the difficulty to really race, many girls desert competitions when they enter into U18 categories.

Energy expenditure:

It is necessary to make a difference in terms of energy cost between a flat race course and a hillier circuit but also according to the position of the cyclist in the pack.

Indeed, there is a noticeable difference in the amount of energy spent between the cyclist riding in the pack and the one during a lonely effort.

A Bert BLOCKEN’s study[1]focused on the dynamics of pack shows interesting things thanks to numerical analyzes: the case of compact or more stretched packs has been discussed in 2018.

What do we learn?

  • When drafting cyclist, the air resistance is 50% lower compared to a solitary effort.
  • All cyclists in a pack have less resistance to air, even the leader.
  • Cyclists positioned on the outside of a pack have the highest air resistance.
  • The leader of a pack only feels 86% of the aerodynamic resistance of a solo cyclist.

We are in a situation where clearly defining the energetic cost on variable race profiles is an utopia.

Riding 50km to 60% of the maximum oxygen uptake of the athlete only represents between 400 and 500kcal / hour in a pack.  Positioning yourself at the front of the pack or in the situation of an escaped cyclist will generate an energy expenditure of 800 to 1000 kcal / hour.

To draw a definitive conclusion of the measured data in competition is indicative but the energetic intake during a competition is necessary to cover all the situations starting from the U16 category.

Body temperature management

Measurements of the body's response to the violent effort quickly showed that managing the internal temperature of our body could become a drag on performance, even on short races.

We must imagine that our most important organs (brain and digestive system) must remain at a constant temperature of about 38 °C. But the violence of the effort can sometimes induce failures.

The loss of liquids to interstitial spaces and then to sweating increases blood viscosity by making more difficult cardiac work.

On triathlon experimentation, BAILLOT and HUE[2]observed that our body cooled during swimming (37.1 °C in water at 29 °C, all the same) and slightly climbed on the bike (37.8 °C) without entering in harmful values. This limited increase is probably due to the impact of speed displacement on the sweat evaporation.

A cyclist moving at high speed does not heat up too much but loose a massive quantity of sweat.

The strategy to limit the overheating of the body (by high temperature or in an effort with a low wind-speed - ascent) is to facilitate the cooling by various means:

  • The choice of the color of the jersey;
  • Regular hydration on the bike even without feeling the need;
  • Regularly wet the head, clavicles and left arm, to cool areas where blood flows to the brain;
  • Realize a progressive acclimatization with controlled efforts at temperatures above 25 °C.

Traditionally, it is said that the loss of 1% of its body weight in sweat reduces the physical and mental performances of 10%: a cyclist of 60kg losing 600gr of sweat thus reduces its performances of unacceptable way.

What qualities are needed?

We will probably break open doors:

  • An important endurance to assume the kilometers of race but also the sequence of the competitions and the trainings.
  • An ability to recover quickly: related to the cyclist’s endurance and his ability to use his cardiovascular system at high intensity to recharge the batteries.
  • An important power to ride at a fast pace and skim a peloton or try a breakaway (so a high O2 uptake).
  • A high Lactate threshold power (LT2) for a fast pace, buffer acceleration and maintain a high level of commitment.
  • An massive strength to ride with big gear at high speed especially during a sprint or during an attack. A large maximum strength also allows a better efficiency on low intensity efforts (thus a lower energy consumption).
  • A developed agonist-antagonist muscles coordination: the pedaling at high speed requires nervous innervation qualities, a higher muscular coactivation often visible at the track cyclist. In conclusion, a correct pedaling efficiency.

We can add an advanced observation and reflexion qualities to be an outstanding tactician, some driving skills to evolve in a pack. A harmonious muscular development to avoid important injuries: the core-training protects a cyclist during a fall, the development of the back and chest muscles avoids the postural imbalances ....

Irreparably, a weakness in one of these qualities will lead the cyclist to the difficulty to express himself in this race situation: 

  • A lack of endurance promises complicated ends of race and season,
  • A weak power will generate a lower ability to maintain a high pace: either I slow down or I explode by granting too much space to the lactic energetic input,
  • A lack of strength causes a “too-fast” spin but as the power is a combination of the strength and the cadence, the power will be limited.
  • An inability to turn the legs generates a limitation in muscle function: I have a single mode of pedaling and can’t "shift" to seek comfort in the effort.
  • A degraded muscular efficiency means that the cyclist spends much more energy to turn his legs than his competitors.

Here is what the coach must "inject" into the body of a cyclist to create performance: it is not done in a day and requires frequent trips and returns to stabilize assets or continue to develop .


[1]Bert Blocken - The peloton project, a record CFD simulation.

[2]Baillot and coll. - Hydration andthermoregulationduring a half-ironman performed in tropical climate - Journal of Sports Science Medecine.

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