Science plays increasingly large role in cycling

Hopping on a bike and pedaling fast not enough

February 15, 2009 

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If you've been at the starting point of a bike race, you may have been surprised to see what the cyclists were doing ahead of time.

Riding their bikes. And riding and riding.

With their colorful, high-tech machines clamped to sturdy little contraptions called stationary trainers, athletes typically will go through a warm-up that lasts about an hour and includes several bursts of high-intensity riding to get their heart rates up near the maximum.

Have a bad warm-up -- whether too rushed, too abbreviated, too lackadaisical -- and an excellent rider will invariably have an off day.

It's all part of science of cycling that is playing an increasingly large role in the sport, whether at the highest level in the Amgen Tour of California or for the recreational rider striving to improve.

A race actually starts with a pre-race meal about three hours before the start, according to Roberto Quintana, an exercise physiology professor and director of the Human Performance Lab at California State University, Sacramento.

Cyclists likely will eat complex carbohydrates -- bran cereal, steel-cut oatmeal with a banana. These foods break down gradually, Quintana said, providing a steady stream of glucose during the race," Quintana said.

Then comes the warm-up, beginning up to two hours before.

When pressed about why pro cyclists take it so seriously, Quintana grabs a pencil and hastily draws two charts comparing two riders of equal ability. One warms up poorly, the other thoroughly.

The key line on the professor's sketch shows how much energy is expended to reach full power and settle in for an all-out effort through the course.

The one with the poor warm-up doesn't get to his aerobic capacity (known in sports labs around the world as VO2 max) for about three minutes. And in doing so, in clawing his way to that level, he encounters a large oxygen deficit that essentially dooms his race. In other words, he is blowing up.

The good warm-upper, if we can call him that, gets to capacity much more efficiently because he has come to the start line with a higher heart rate and doesn't have to do as much to reach his maximum. He is bound to have a superior result.

But let's assume most pros get the warm-up right. What is happening to their bodies as they go around the course? Saturday's Amgen prologue stage in downtown Sacramento was only

2.4 miles. Isn't that pretty easy for these guys? "This is exceptionally hard," said Daryl Parker, also an exercise physiology professor at CSUS. "If you do that course all-out, you'll find your body is absolutely screaming with pain." Our pain and their pain are pretty much the same. Only their pain happens at much higher speeds.

Top cyclists can reach those speeds -- and more importantly, hold those speeds -- because they are able to utilize oxygen more efficiently than we mortals who ride their bikes for fun.

That aerobic capacity is measured in a performance lab by putting athletes through a strenuous test. They breath into a tube and ride a stationary bike in which the resistance is gradually made more difficult. That's the popular VO2 max test, measuring the amount of oxygen used every minute per kilogram of a cyclist's weight. It's pretty much an athlete's motor. VO2 max tests can cost $100 or more at some labs.

Parker says a 20-something, physically fit athlete with a 55 VO2 max would be in the 90th percentile for his age group. Let's call that a Honda Accord.

An average elite cyclist would have a VO2 in the 70s -- a Corvette. And the stars of the sport are in the mid-80s -- Ferraris and Aston Martins.

Not all pros have good lab numbers. Sacramento native Mike Sayers, who enjoyed a long career before retiring last year, had a mediocre VO2 max. In fact, he says his lab numbers suggested he shouldn't even be a pro.

Sayers had to do everything else to near-perfection -- riding properly in a pack, positioning himself in crosswinds so he wouldn't expend energy, attacking at only the right times.

"I've only been able to survive on my instincts and what my head was telling me, because I didn't really have the numbers to survive in the pro peloton," he said.

Getting back to the pro vs. weekend athlete comparison: In an hour-plus race on a flat bike trail, how would the fit 20-something fare?

"The elite guy will blow him away," said Parker.

In fact, the pro will be 2.75 miles ahead in an hour, according to the professor's calculations, factoring body weight and how much power each rider could maintain at 70 or 80 percent of VO2 max.

That huge gap is just a little longer than the course the pros rode in Sacramento on Saturday.

With the inevitable poor warm-up by the amateur, that gap goes from glaring to ugly.

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