The Tour de France: Grace under pressure

With the Tour de France due to finish in Paris on Sunday, a Chartered Psychologist has been talking about the physical – and mental – effort required of the competing cyclists.

“Day after day, cycling for up to six hours of at 60-95 per cent of maximum heart rate is tough” says Dr Victor Thompson. “After a few days the body yearns for rest. It is stiff and tired. The daily sports massage can only rub away so much of the fatigue. You are constantly hungry, but it is usually impossible to ingest the thousands of calories required to maintain body weight and power. Eating becomes almost a full-time job.”

Over and above this, he says, we have to remember that most riders are not evening riding for themselves, but are part of a team that exists to help one individual try to win the race. “How many of us could be so selfless – and be so with grace – under such difficult conditions?”

Dr Thompson adds that it each year it is almost a surprise when the large majority of the riders reach the traditional finish on the Champs-Elysees. “Each rider is given a finisher’s medal and the right to be a sporting hero. They have shown of the greatest powers of enduring physical and mental punishment.”

This year’s race has been less affected by drug scandals than recent Tours, though the Russian Olympic medallist Alexandr Kolobnev had to withdraw after failing a test.  Dr Thompson attributes the use of drugs to the pressure to perform – from sponsors, team management, teammates and fans – and to riders’ personal desire for glory.

But there is evidence that the authorities’ attempt to force performance-enhancing drugs out of the sport is succeeding.  A post on The Science of Sport blog about the 2010 race found an overall lowering of the performance level in the Tour compared to the last two decades.  The author, Dr Ross Tucker, took this as “a positive sign that doping control measures are having an effect”.