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Are WorldTour cyclists really stronger than their ProTeam counterparts?

A new study looks at data from the 2020 Vuelta a España

Photo by: Sirotti

WorldTour cyclists should be at the top of the food chain in terms of cycling, but just how much better are they than a team that is one division lower?

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) categorizes men’s professional cycling teams into three divisions. The top division, WorldTour, consists of 19 teams that race at the highest level of competition in the UCI WorldTour (teams you would likely recognize such as Ineos Grenadiers, Deceunick-Quick-Step and Jumbo-Visma.) The second division, which was formerly known as Pro Continental, is now officially re-named as ‘ProTeams.’ This division includes teams such as Alpecin-Fenix and Rally, who often compete in WorldTour events.  The third division, Continental teams, are more likely to complete only in UCI Continental races, though they will sometimes be invited to UCI ProSeries events as well.

While it would be logical to conclude that male WorldTour cyclists are stronger than their ProTeams counterparts, other factors such as better support could also be at play. A recent study looked at how WorldTour cyclists compared to ProTeam riders during the 2020 Vuelta a España.

Physiological performance

In the study, that will be published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, researchers compared the physiological performance of WorldTour and ProTeam volunteer cyclists during the full 18 days of the 2020 Vuelta a España. Data on the riders’ kilojoules spent, training stress score, time spent at different power output bands/zones, and mean maximal power output for different exertion durations was collected and analyzed.

The volunteer WorldTour cyclists achieved a higher final individual position by the end of the race, but how they got there is possibly explained in their data. The researchers state that despite the “multifactorial nature of cycling performance,” it appears that the ability to produce a higher mean power output, expend more kilojoules (both in absolute and relative units) as
well as the ability to sustain high-intensity power output values (which they classify as greater than 5.25 Watts/kg) for a longer time and higher power output zones (91 per cent to 120 per cent of FTP) is what differentiates WorldTour from ProTeam cyclists.

Interestingly, the mean maximal power output for both groups was the same when looking at the whole race. But when the researchers looked at the mean maximal power output on a more detailed scale, they found that the gap between WorldTour and ProTeam’s values increased as the stage race went on. WorldTour cyclists reached higher mean maximal power output values in efforts that lasted five minutes or less during the second and third weeks of the race.

The WorldTour riders had an average FTP of 5.8 W/kg, while the ProTeam cyclists’ FTP was, on average, 5.4 W/kg. The researchers suggest that their results can have potential implications both for training prescription and for designing testing protocols in elite cyclists, though the ProTeam cyclists (average age 26.9) still have a few years of riding to focus on increasing their mean maximal power output before they (hopefully) get to world WorlTour level (where riders have an average age of 31.4.)