Tour de France
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Week three brings a new level of fatigue to the Tour de France peloton

After 17 stages the Tour de France riders are nearing exhaustion. Teams have multiple ways to overcome fatigue.

GAP (VN) – Each night after dinner, riders on EF Education First’s Tour de France team sit down to play a card game. The game, Uno, maintains a continuous score, and the riders have been tallying points since they left Brussels on stage 1. The game will continue all the way to Paris, where the Tour finishes on Sunday.

The game has a specific purpose for the riders, beyond entertainment, says Jon Greenwell, the team’s doctor. It helps build teamwork and sharpen mental skills. And, more importantly, the game helps the riders slow their bodies and brains down after a stressful and physically demanding day in the saddle.

“It’s really valuable,” Greenwell said. “They are normally more energized at about half past nine before they go to bed than any other time.”

This game is just one small – and quirky – element to a complex and detailed process aimed at combatting the mental and physical fatigue that builds up during a three-week bicycle race. All of the teams and their riders have tricks and methods to relax their bodies and minds. Ever since the riders left Brussels on July 6, they have been working to overcome exhaustion both on and off the bike.

The level and degree of fatigue will vary, as will their own specific ailments that may range from injuries from crashes or the physical duress of racing, to illness or even psychological wear and tear. And this fatigue tugs at every rider in the peloton, from the last-place finisher to the top-10 riders battling for the overall.

“I think the fatigue of the last 17 days is going to catch up with people at different times,” Mitchelton-Scott head sports director Matt White told VeloNews. “You don’t usually have three key mountain stages back to back. Some guys will be probably very concerned. Some will be able to get away with two days, but in that third they’ll hope for a place to hide. Unfortunately, there is not.”

To overcome this physical and mental exhaustion, teams employ staffs of doctors and physiologists to monitor the riders for dehydration and exhaustion. They weight the riders every morning and monitor their intake of calories and fluids. Chefs and nutritionists then plan specific meals to help the riders recover from each day’s demanding stage.

And yes, they also play card games.

The warning signs of a rider being on the brink vary. There are the obvious ones from injuries – bandages, road rash, bruising and infection. More subtle indicators come from the analysis of a team’s medical staff.

Principal dangers are weight loss which can indicate a decrease of muscle and thus power; a too low body fat level which risks damaging resistance to disease and energy loss; dehydration, especially in the heat like what the Tour has experienced in the last two days; respiratory tract infections which can break down the immune system; or a loss in bone density from sweating so much and losing fluids that contain bone building minerals like potassium and calcium.

Add to that the signal from a rider’s behavior and how it may reflect their mental state as the Tour reaches its most stressful, toughest and definitive days when so much is on the line, and for so many.

Throw in the anxiety a Tour can arouse for a rider through all its hype, the crowds, road furniture and constantly changing roads that speeding peloton must negotiate, riders are understandably on edge.

At EF Education First, the checkups for fatigue begin first thing, with doctors and staffers checking each rider’s body weight and hydration levels. Greenwell said that the team’s six remaining riders are—despite the heat—in good condition.

“Our guys are in a fairly good place at the moment, particularly after stage 16 when we were really worried about dehydration from racing in the heat,” Greenwell. said.

Next, Greenwell inspects those riders who are nursing ailments, either from crashes or from sore muscles and overuse. More than a few riders have hit the tarmac during these 17 stages.

“Most of it is just stiffness and soreness—a few stiff backs, a few tight backs which have come on over the time of the race,” Greenwell said. ““We have got our injuries too. We have got Mike [Woods] with his broken ribs, but they are settling down and hopefully he is going to turn a corner. Then I think it is more mental, as much as anything.”

Everyone is tired at the Tour de France, and some riders are even battling injuries. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Greenwell believes a factor in this is the self-care and self-awareness of riders about their health. This understanding comes from racing grand tours, whether it is the Tour, Giro d’Italia or Vuelta a España. The more one races over three weeks, the more a body learns to adapt to the stresses too.

“We haven’t got anybody here riding in their first grand tour,” Greenwell says. “Everyone has ridden at least three. They know how to look after themselves. They know how to dose their efforts.”

At EF Education First, riders do not have their body fat measured, even though it is known the levels of riders who can start a Tour with a reading of five to six per cent can drop to two to three per cent.

Greenwell says that is due to the team’s nutritional plan on the Tour where they have a chef and nutritionist on board. It is styled to every rider’s diet and requirements for a balanced measure of proteins, carbohydrates and fats in an event where they consume about 6,000 calories a day.

“Our chef and nutritionist work so closely together,” Greenwell says. “They know pretty much what everybody’s metabolic needs are. They have calculated what they need to do to get them through.”

At Team CCC, doctors monitor each rider’s body weight, fat percentage, body mass, and hydration levels are closely monitored each day, said team doctor Daniele Zaccaria. Should a rider lose too much weight, he may be deemed unfit to carry on for the next stage.

Dehydration is one of the biggest causes of fatigue in week three, so riders weigh themselves every morning to see how much fluid they need. Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“If you are lower than two per cent of your weight you have lost too much,” said Zaccaria. “We have to be safe and keep them under control with the weight and hydration.”

There is no set amount of weight that a rider will drop from one day to the next, Zaccaria said, so instead the team simply monitors the riders for major losses. A sudden loss in weight is a sign of dehydration or exhaustion.

“A rider can come to a grand tour with a very low body fat of five, six or seven per cent, and expecting that to go lower during the race. In a three week race, they can lose one, or one and a half kilos. And the percentage of their body mass is always going lower and lower, Zaccaria said.

“There is a physiological limit. [But] there are different types of riders. If one is a climber, body weight has a more important impact on their climbing. The sprinter has to keep power higher for the sprints, so he needs to keep control of the higher weight. The limit is four per cent of body fat.”

The accumulative fatigue is inevitable this late in the Tour for a peloton that has raced 2,887.5km of the 3,480km route. Of the 592.5km left, 464.5km will be in the Alps on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“At this point of the race, especially with the kilometers they have raced, they have a big amount already in the legs, they’re expected to do more in a tough week,” Zaccaria said