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How long could you last in a WorldTour race?

Imagine jumping into a ‘flat’ and ‘easy’ stage of a pro race

Decidedly not an easy WorldTour race, the 2020 Liege - Bastogne - Liege

Ever wondered how long an average racer could hang on racing with the pros? Let’s assume a typical flat stage of a WorldTour stage race is 200-ish km. How long could you stick in the group? There’s a variety of factors to consider, and it’s not just your FTP. (Although your fitness, of course, plays a big part.)

Not just your watts you need to worry about

First, let’s consider just how good the pros are at the technical aspects. Even if the race were flat, that doesn’t mean there won’t be all sorts of other obstacles. Pro cyclists ride much closer in the peloton, both side by side and on each other’s wheels. If you were thrown in a WT race, you may find yourself freaked out at how close you’re riding to your “peers.” Riders brushing up against you is common. Feeling someone’s hand on your back or thigh would happen several times. The gaps between your front wheel and their back wheel are far closer than your local group ride. Plus, the speeds in which they would carve corners or go through roundabouts might be something you’re not used to. Medians might pop up out of nowhere which would require cat-like reactions.

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But there’s also the question of where you’d be allowed to ride in the actual peloton. If you’re not from a bigger team (and you’re not, BTW) you’d never see the front. The top teams simply wouldn’t permit you anywhere near there, if you could even move up there. And moving up in a pro peloton is not easy. It’s a skill that WorldTour riders master. It’s not just hammering up the side of the pack and moving to the front row. It’s working your way through tiny holes in the pack, or taking risks by riding on shoulders. Either way, you’d find yourself at the back.

The chaos at the back

When you’re hanging on at the back, you’ll notice it’s pretty busy there. Domestiques will be going back for all kinds of things, and that aspect of the race, the “service churn” will create a tough place to just hang on. Pros have the fitness to move back and forth between the bunch and the caravan, but you’ll find yourself getting gapped, exhausting what precious firepower you have.

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Also keep in mind the typical pattern of a WT race. According to Kevin Field, who has run several pro teams, there will usually be an aggressive start for as much as 50 km. Following that, the break establishes a one to three minute gap and the race is “settled” so to speak. During that time, car feeding opens up and the bunch normally takes a massive pee break.

The aggressive start is already going to make you hurt in ways you never knew possible. Surviving it, Field says, would be unlikely, as it happens at a normalized power of 5 W/kg, which is at least 1, if not 2 W/kg beyond an average racer’s threshold. Now, if you are especially talented at sitting on wheels and re-circulating in the field, maybe you survive, and you’ll find yourself tapped from the aggressive efforts.

“The next several hours can be at a manageable pace,” Field says. While you may be able to survive this, no amount of eating, drinking or gels will prepare you for what’s next. “The bunch will increase the tempo in order to start reeling back in the break,” he says. “This will typically happen with 50, 60 or 70 km to go, depending on the time gap to the break.”

It will only get worse

And since you still haven’t recovered from those first 50 km, you’ll only last 10-20 minutes when the speed increases. What really hurts riders at this stage are the accelerations after corners or changes of direction where you are spiking to 500-700 W. The average racer has less ability to recover from these brief, intense anaerobic efforts.

“By the start of the final hour of a long tough race, riders have accrued 3,000-3,500 kJ. A 70-75 kg WT rider is burning about 1,000 kJ/h during an average WT race, which is about 150-200 kJ/h more than an average domestic race. Depending on the profile, you need to be able to do a series of four to five minute efforts at around 6.5 W/kg,” he says. “This is hard when you’re fresh, but top WorldTour pros have fatigue resistance under 8 per cent. They can do this, day after day. ”

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Fitness levels are staggering

To understand how much harder a WorldTour race is in Europe than, say, a top domestic race in Canada or the U.S.A., Field says that in Europe men will spend more than 15 minutes at 9 W/kg in a series of short cumulative efforts. In top domestic races, this effort is often less than 10 minutes. For pro women, the number is 7.5 W/kg, but the same difference is seen in terms of time between WorldTour and North American domestic races.

To put things into perpsective, according to Field, if you took a provincially competitive, local A racer and threw them into the big race, this is what would happen:

  • six in 10 riders are unlikely to manage the first aggressive 50 km of the stage
  • the four survivors of the first hour may last 170-180 km of “easy riding,” but  they would not survive more than 10 minutes of the increased speed during the final 50-60 km
  • perhaps one might be tough enough to survive the whole thing…but that’s very, very unlikely.

Even if a racer managed to make it to those last 50 km, remember, the service churn will come into play again in the finale, only now it’s even more intense. The teams riding tempo are sending riders back to fetch bidons for those riding tempo on the front. Squads that aren’t riding are doing the same, preparing for an aggressive finale. It turns into a frenzy leading into 20 km to go when caravan feeding closes. With work done for the day, small groups of riders will simply “pull the chute” riding easy to the stage finish. The average rider, delirious from the day’s efforts, will probably get caught up in this, not even realizing what’s happened.

But hey, WorldTour races are usually more fun to watch on TV, rather than from the broom wagon.