Is the Tour de France the toughest competition on earth? | Virgin Media
Is the Tour de France the toughest competition on earth?

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Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! As the Tour de France rolls into its third and final week, we ask writers Matt Blake and Oliver Pickup if the gruelling 2,193-mile race is the hardest challenge in sport…

YES! Cyclists are man machines

“No other sport on earth comprises men so specifically built for their profession” – Matt Blake, sports writer, Virgin Media


The competitors are pistons made flesh

Three weeks, 21 stages, 2,193 miles: the Tour de France is less a race than it is a punishment. To cycle at full pelt for up to six hours a day for 21 days straight is a feat of endurance no human being should be capable of completing. Yet every year, around 198 men do it – and live to tell the tale. That’s the equivalent of 84 football matches, 2,520 rounds of boxing or 61.67 marathons at world-record pace. But then, pro road cyclists are the most finely tuned humans on earth, train pistons made flesh, all quads and veins and pumping temporal lobes. No other sport comprises men so specifically built for their profession.

The climb’s a beast

More than a third of the Tour is up mountains; really high, really steep mountains. Each climb is often more than six miles long, at gradients of 5-10%. That’s more than an hour of relentless climbing. And it only gets harder the higher they get: at 2,408m, the highest summit would turn normal people into quivering, vomiting wrecks, as the atmospheric pressure squeezes the oxygen out of their muscles, reducing their performance by 10-15%. And yet, Tour cyclists are able to man-pump more than 450W of power into their pedals to the top. According to scientists, the average human could maintain that power output for two minutes, max.

The downhill’s even tougher

Tour cyclists career down hills at speeds touching 70mph – faster than France’s national speed limit for cars on such roads. And they don’t have airbags, seatbelts or crumple zones to break their falls. No, they have a helmet, some Lycra and the human skeleton for protection. The focus required to stay on two wheels at such speeds, while weaving round hairpin bends, avoiding over-excited fans and keeping abreast of the peloton, requires superhuman focus. That focus, if lost, isn’t the difference between winning and losing… it’s between living and dying.  

Nothing strains the body more

Is there another sport where competitors have to eat up to 8,000 calories (the equivalent of 20 bowls of pasta) a day, just to keep going? Holding it down is the easy part; they have to literally train their digestive system over months to cope with the vast quantities of sugary gels, bars and drinks they guzzle. Get the balance wrong and you’re staring down the barrel of a gastrointestinal meltdown that would make even Paula Radcliffe wince. Then there are the hormones: the physiological stress of racing such distances leads to a catastrophic depletion of hormones like cortisol and testosterone, reducing energy production, muscle and brain function – a situation that’s typically only observed after months of intense training.

You have to be mentally tough, too

In 2014, two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador crashed on the descent of the third climb of Stage Ten. He completed the next climb before withdrawing at the summit when he realised he’d fractured his tibia. The man literally climbed a mountain on a broken leg! It is an extreme example of an experience every cyclist knows better than the composition of his own blood – when every synapse in his body is screaming at him to give in, he powers on, overriding his pain as easily as you would the factory settings on your iPad. For these men, pain’s not a side effect of competition, as in other sports. No, for them, pain is the competition. Nothing else comes close. 


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NO! It’s not even in the top ten

“In the toughness stakes, the comparison between the old days and now is embarrassing” – Oliver Pickup, sports writer


Google doesn’t lie

The best way to settle an argument, as anybody living in this century knows, is simple: google it. When I fed the words “toughest sport on earth” into the search engine, there was no sign of cycling at all in the top ten entries. Or, for that matter, on the first ten pages. Boxing, mixed martial arts and rugby (both union and league) – as well as bull riding and Calcio Fiorentino (more on this later) – featured prominently. Google’s extremely complex algorithms don’t lie.

The old days are long gone

Once upon a time, cycling was arguably the toughest sport on earth – but we’re talking about a century ago. Stage Ten of the 1926 Tour de France, for instance, is labelled the “toughest” in the race’s 113-year history. The 326km slog from Bayonne to Luchon included four major climbs and began at midnight, with riders enduring horrific weather conditions. After more than 17 hours, Belgian Lucien Buysse crossed first. Within 24 hours, just over half of the 76-strong field had finished. Contrast that with the longest stage in this year’s Tour: Stage Four was 237km from Saumur to Limoges, won by Marcel Kittel in just five-and-a-half hours. In the toughness stakes, the comparison between back then and now is embarrassing.

“Easy” does it in Tour de France

If further evidence were required of how much less fearsome – and more sanitised – the Tour de France is these days, consider the words of Etixx-Quick-Step’s sport director ahead of Stage Seven. Noting that it was the first time in the competition’s history that all riders (198 in this case) were still in contention, Brian Holm said: “It’s one of the better Tours, one of the easiest I’ve seen. No one is going to complain about it this year, maybe just the TV viewers.”

Making a molehill out of a mountain

The climb of Mont Ventoux, with an elevation of 1,912 metres, is notoriously one of the toughest in Tour de France history. It gained infamy when it claimed the life of great English cyclist Tom Simpson in 1967 (though the cause was deemed to be a combination of heat exhaustion, a stomach upset and certain substances in his body). In the 2016 competition organisers cut short the stage, after the wind was deemed too dangerous – further diluting the race’s toughness.

Bulls and balls

America’s Professional Bull Riders bills its sport as the toughest on earth, and having seen clips of contestants tossed from their irate beasts in under ten seconds, it’s certainly more life-threatening than pedalling fast uphill. In terms of brutality, though, Calcio Fiorentino is hard to beat. A form of football which originated in 16th-century Italy, it initially involves an all-out brawl by 30 “forwards” to tire (or maim) the opposition’s defence – and that’s before the ball is introduced. You can bet these guys don’t indulge in post-match massages.



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