The TdF Training Strategies of Pro Cyclists Throughout the Years

By Jiri Kaloc

We asked a former professional road racing cyclist, coach, directeur sportiff, and current cycling commentator, Matthew Stephens, about the evolution of training for the Tour de France. We talked about the main changes that happened over the past 20 years including racing tactics, training camps, Zwift, data analytics, altitude training, and race tactics. Here is the interview.

Cyclists have always been training really hard for races like the Tour de France. Do you think the overall training volume has gone up or down in the last 2 decades? Are athletes training harder or smarter?

To use myself as a reference, from 2000 to 2010 my training shifted to around a third fewer hours but at far higher intensities, which focused on specific efforts and sessions. So, for me I was training harder and smarter. However, the current trend or emphasis in pro cycling is to train smarter, but not necessarily harder. However, this will differ from rider to rider.

Can you think of a training method everyone was using 20 years ago that has gone completely out of fashion?

One particular method that I certainly used along with many pros was “Long Slow Distance” (LSD) training. This involved long, low-intensity rides at a steady pace to build aerobic endurance. It was a very traditional method that is now not thought to offer up too many actual benefits, as the focus has shifted towards more specialised and targeted training methods that maximise performance gains in less time. In short, you spent far too long in the saddle, for little performance gain.

Training periodisation has been a mainstay approach since the 60s. Has it evolved over the past 2 decades?

Training periodisation has changed dramatically. Now we see far more specific and sophisticated approaches tailored to rider’s aims and ambitions, but factoring in far more elements which recognises the varying needs of a particular rider and incorporates more frequent adjustments to training stimuli. There are also far more data points with which to measure a rider’s physiological status. As a team manager who did some general coaching a few years ago, I also found a more holistic approach helped a rider manage these periods far better. By that I mean always listening and reacting to how a rider was feeling physiologically, not just physically. It’s now known as non-linear periodisation.

Virtual cycling platforms such as Zwift have been on the rise in recent years, have they changed how the pros approach the off-season?

From speaking to many pros and riding on Zwift regularly myself, virtual platforms offer up the opportunity to ride in a very controlled environment, with the ability to train exceptionally specifically. Bespoke training sessions can be run on the platform, tailored to each riders aims, without any outside “interference.” Thy also provide a safe alternative for those riders who don’t want to risk training on potentially dangerous roads in the harsh winter. The social element of these platforms also helps the hours pass more enjoyably! In short, these platforms can replace many outdoor sessions that often cannot be done outside in the Winter. They may not change a complete training plan, but they offer a clear alternative to outdoor riding as well as a platform to train hyper specifically and effectively.

How have the advancements in sports science and data analytics influenced the preparation of cyclists over the past 20 years?

More than ever, riders and coaches have access to more sophisticated training tools, data analytics, and scientific research to optimise their training programs. This has led to a shift towards a more evidence-based and systematic approach to training. This was just starting when I was riding, although it was hard to find information unless you had a coach. Now, there is so much open-source information available to all that riders are becoming more informed than ever.

Tour de France
How have the training strategies for the biggest race of them all changed? © Profimedia

How have training camps and their role in preparing for the Tour de France changed over the past 2 decades?

Training camps remain enormously important but over the last 20 years there has been an increased emphasis on the use of scientific methods and technology. Specific training for the Tour’s unique demands has become more data-driven, with teams employing sports scientists, nutritionists, and physiologists to optimise performance. These camps now incorporate advanced physiological testing, like lactate threshold and power output analysis, allowing coaches to tailor individual plans. Many camps will also involve specific recons of key stages in the mountains or even stages that pass over cobbles like on the 2022 Tour de France.

Altitude and heat acclimation training has been a relatively new thing 20 years ago. How important has this part of preparation become?

Short answer? No team will not do altitude camps as they’ll put themselves at enormous disadvantage if they don’t. Altitude training has become a fundamental component of pre-Tour preparation. Teams now frequently organise camps at high-altitude locations like Sierra Nevada or Mount Teide in Tenerife to improve oxygen utilisation and endurance. Some riders will use altitude tents at home or stay in hotels with special adapted “altitude rooms” that replicate the benefits of living up high. Less common, but still carried out when needed, riders will incorporate specific heat acclimation sessions into their training plans leading up to events like the Tour. Back in 1999 I did my own heat acclimation prior to the Tour de Langkawi in very hot and humid Malaysia. My method: training in the garage with the door closed on the home trainer with wet towels in the tumble dryer. It was like riding in a sauna but worked!

Have team dynamics and race tactics changed over the past 2 decades? Has this created a need for some new type of team training?

To deal with the “new style” of racing we’ve seen developments in training camps in recent years. They will incorporate “set piece” training sessions like sprint lead outs or hard race tempo sessions on long mountain climbs. Camps are also massively important places to build camaraderie, foster teamwork and trust. A long list of riders who were selected pre-season to ride the Tour will spend all these camps together, not just training but also socialising and getting to know each other. With the reduction in team size to 8, these camps are essentially laying the foundation for a team to bond as best it can. They are also a place where detailed discussions can be had about potential race scenarios and each riders’ roles within them. Attention to minute detail is more crucial than ever before.

Was there a shift in mental preparation and psychological training over the past 2 decades?

This area of the sport has changed dramatically, to the point where it’s understood emphatically that the mental and physical go completely hand in hand. Team Sky were one of the first teams to really look at this well over a decade ago with a psychologist called Professor Steve Peters. Now it’s the accepted norm, as teams recognise the importance of developing mental resilience, focus, and strategic thinking. Things like goal setting, visualisation, positive self-talk, relaxation techniques, and attention control are now routinely used, but 20 years ago these practices would have seemed almost alien. I know many riders who initially dismissed this sort of thing out of hand, to only wholly embrace it a few years later.

How has the trend towards acceptance and integration of strength and conditioning within cycling training changed cyclist’s weekly training schedule?

Again, back to me briefly. I did no S&C weekly training when I was a pro, although I did do it in the off season. Now this sort of training is part and parcel of a normal week’s training for most riders, its frequency dependent on the rider and personal preference. I’ve sat in and taken part on group S&C sessions at team training camps where there is often a keener focus on this area. However, pros have to strike a balance between their cycling training volume and the demands of S&C to prevent injury or excessive fatigue. I now do daily S&C sessions even though I retired from racing 12 years ago and just wish I did it all those years ago.