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Recovery After a Grand Tour

By Jiri Kaloc

Racing for three weeks straight, covering 3,000 km and scaling the Alps and Pyrenees mountains in the process takes a huge toll on the body. What do the pros do to recover day to day? And what happens when their efforts at the Tour finally finish?

Day-to-day recovery

The way riders recover every day during a Grand Tour such as the Tour de France can impact their ability to bounce back when it’s over. They have to replenish their energy stores in the form of glycogen, repair damaged muscles, and maintain optimal weight, all while keeping their morale up. Professional teams developed a number of ways to help their riders do this effectively on a daily basis. Generally speaking, this is what happens when a rider gets to the finish line of a Tour de France stage.

Van Aert and Vingegaard
What do they do to recover after the Tour? © Profimedia
  • The first priority is hydration and getting some quick energy to start replenishing glycogen.
  • This is followed up by a cooldown ride on a stationary bike to reduce heart rate gradually and flush out lactate from the muscles.
  • Then they go onto the team bus and get their recovery shakes and meals prepared by the team chef.
  • During the bus ride to the hotel, riders often wear recovery boots and compressing ice devices.
  • Upon arrival at the hotel, they get a sports massage and the team’s physio takes a look at them and helps them with any pains or issues they might have.
  • The rest of the evening is all about relaxation, listening to music, connecting with loved ones, and eating more good food until it’s bedtime.
  • Teams often bring their own mattresses and blackout curtains to hotels to guarantee optimal sleep.

The Tour takes a toll

Even with a daily routine focused on optimal recovery, three weeks of racing take a toll on the body. There are several things that almost every Tour competitor experiences after.

Big veins – Riders in the peloton start the Tour with impressive leg muscles but those 21 days of hard cycling make their vascularity even more striking. Their veins become even more prominent, aiding blood flow and riders often become even leaner, improving their muscle definition.

Muscle loss – Unfortunately, most of the changes are not that positive. As the extreme energy demands rise throughout the Tour, the riders’ metabolism adapts. They start burning a higher proportion of protein for energy, up to 20 %, which can result in muscle loss.

Sleep issues – As much as teams try to facilitate the best sleep environment for their riders, it’s often not enough. The extreme efforts on the bike elevate the stress hormone cortisol which makes it difficult for the opposing sleep hormone melatonin to do its work.

Suppressed heart rate – At the start of a Grand Tour, riders’ maximum heart rate may be around 190 beats per minute but this number might go as low as 175 by the end of the race. This has an effect on oxygen distribution and the riders’ ability to maintain big efforts.

Reduced immunity – Haemoglobin concentration in the riders’ blood drops as their bodies struggle to deal with the workload. A drop in lymphocyte count, a subtype of white blood cells, is another common side effect of intense exercise. This is why riders at the Tour are at an increased risk of infections.

Mental exhaustion – Ride, eat, sleep: the unrelenting schedule of a Grand Tour creates not only physical but also a lot of mental stress. This can result in decreased concentration and more chances of crashes later in the Tour but also in poor mood and motivation after the Tour is done.

How do they recover from it?

Most of the basic techniques for recovering from a Grand Tour are actually quite similar to what riders already do between stages. They prioritize sleep, good nutrition, massages, and mild activity to keep the blood flowing. How quickly a rider gets back to full form depends on their genetics as well as age and their racing schedule. Young riders in their early 20s tend to recover quicker than veterans over 30. Also, riders that participate in the Tour de France will have a harder time recovering after La Vuelta if they are racing in both.

What’s next for Tour riders when it’s all over?

Can the pros finally put their legs up and chill out on a beach when a Grand Tour finishes? Unfortunately, the answer is no in many cases. Every Grand Tour creates a lot of excitement around the sport of cycling, which means there are a lot of shorter races called criteriums planned in the weeks after. There is a high demand for Grand Tour riders in these races because fans want to see them race in their home town. The most popular riders will do 2-4 of these criterium races in the week after a tour. It’s only after this that riders can truly take a few days in a row off depending on their goals for the rest of their season.