Even the most casual observers of professional cycling have noticed an increase in intensity and speed in the professional peloton over the past few seasons. This increase in racing speeds has caused established stars like Mike Woods and Jakob Fuglsang to lament the increased difficulty of racing the modern, with both riders going as far as saying if they were producing the power numbers they are today just a few years ago, they would be winning significantly more.
By Spencer Martin
If I’d ridden like I’m doing now just three years ago, I think I’d have won 10 races. Performances in the peloton have gone to another level.
When I was seventh in the Tour de France in 2013, if I had the numbers I have now back then, I would have won the Tour. We all say the same thing for the guys who have been around for a while, ‘I have my best numbers ever’ — today the whole level is so much higher.
At first glance, these statements check out. We have seen an undeniable increase in the speed of racing and the sport seems inundated with young talents like Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogacar, Jonas Vingegaard. However, at the same time, the age of these riders, 35 for Woods and 36 for Fuglsang, can’t be ignored, and any aging athlete is well aware of the perception that the performance of those around them is rising instead of their own performance decreasing.
Increasing Race Speeds
To prove or disprove this theory, the first thing we can look at is the average speed of the peloton. If we look at the average speed across the entire calendar, there has indeed been an undeniable and significant increase in the kilometers per hour since the 2012 season, with a massive bump occurring since the COVID-caused forced break in 2020.
And if we look at the top 25 fastest time trial performances throughout the sport’s history, seven out of the 25 fastest performances have occurred over the last two seasons since racing re-started following the forced COVID break.
This data shows there has been an undeniable trend of increasing speeds since the COVID-shortened 2020 season. The reasons for this peloton-wide speed increase aren’t completely clear, but big stars racing ‘fresher’, a focus on road racing aerodynamics and the rise of more open and aggressive racing tactics have likely played a big role.
Also, an unpleasant piece of information is that out-of-competition PED testing has essentially disappeared since COVID began, which means any rider who wants to blood dope to increase their training load would be unlikely to be caught (which could play into the trend of big stars skipping build-up races).
But Is The Racing Actually Getting ‘Harder’?
While we can tell with little doubt that racing is getting faster, the more pertinent question is if racing is actually getting harder. An increased focus on both rider and equipment aerodynamics, along with the way racing has become more aggressive day-to-day could easily increase the average speed without actually increasing the amount of power required in the key portions of a race.
This is where things get particularly tricky since the overall difficulty of racing could increase (the total amount of power riders put out over the course of a race) due to changing dynamics within the peloton, while the amount of power required during the major set pieces could remain the same, or actually decrease due to the increased amount of overall work.
Due to the lack of full race power data, and the complexity of such data even when it does exist, I am going to be looking specifically at power required during major set pieces for the purpose of this exercise.
Top Tour de France Set-Piece Sustained Power Outputs 2015-2021
Since we don’t have access to the actual power data from the world’s top riders, I’ll be using the data from the French website ChronoWatts, which has derived a formula for estimating riders’ power over the course of a climb. When cross-referenced with the publicly available rider weight information, we can then calculate a fairly accurate power-to-weight estimation, which is the gold standard for measuring the difficulty of the pace on a climb.
When we look at the top sustained non-weighted power outputs for the Tour de France between 2021-2014 (2017 aggregate data isn’t available), we see some years standing out, like the 2020 and 2016 editions, but taken as a whole, there isn’t a completely clear increasing trendline.
2021 Tour de France
2020 Tour de France
2019 Tour de France
2018 Tour de France
2016 Tour de France
2015 Tour de France
2014 Tour de France
Times & Watts per Kilo on Select Tour de France Climbs
To dive in a little bit deeper, I’ve taken a somewhat random selection of climbs that the Tour de France has tackled through multiple editions and pulled the fastest performance from each edition. To keep the information somewhat useful, I’ve filtered out some pre-2010 times from major climbs like Alpe d’Huez, since the EPO turbo-charged performances cloud any conclusions.
Alpe d’Huez (post-2010)
2015-Chris Froome-40’[email protected]/kg
2013-Richie Porte-40’[email protected]/kg
2018-Geraint Thomas-41’[email protected]/kg
*2013-Jakob Fulgsang-41’[email protected]/kg
*Marco Pantini’s record ascent is 36’50 from the 1995 Tour de France (470watts @ an absurd 7.8w/kg)
What immediately sticks out to me, other than just how much EPO increased the speed of ascents between 1995-2007, is just how good Pogačar is, even when compared to the four-time Tour winner Froome. For reference, Pogačar crushed Froome’s best time up La Planche des Belles Filles even though his ascent included a mid-climb bike-change and lacked the benefit of drafting since it was during the stage 20 time trial.
However, that isn’t to say Froome’s performances from the 2013 and 2015 editions are unimpressive. In fact, I believe his 6.4 w/kg ascent of Ax-3-Domaines and 5.85 w/kg, 40’41 ascent of Alpe d’Huez almost single-handedly disprove the theory that final set-pieces have become significantly harder in recent years and prove that Fuglsang would be unable to beat Froome if he was producing his current power numbers (which have to be less than Pogačar) back in 2013. While Pogačar’s nearly 6w/kg 50-minute ascent of Col d’Portet is superior, and shows that Froome would be facing a difficult challenge in a theoretical tete-a-tete of the two riders in their prime, these margins aren’t massive and frankly, it is difficult to know how valid some of the estimated data is.
In fact, Fuglsang’s 5.75w/[email protected]’53 ascent of Alpe d’Huez from the 2013 Tour de France is likely close to, if not a, career-best performance.
Pogačar vs Froome
To dig into this cross-era rivalry a bit more, I’ve pulled the best Tour de France performances from both Pogačar and Froome. While Pogačar’s highs are just a little bit higher, what is surprising to me is just how close a lot of these top performances are.
Tadej Pogačar Best Watts Per Kilo Performances
Chris Froome Best Watts Per Kilo Performances
To simplify this data, I believe that as a rule of thumb, sustaining 6+w/kgs over 40-minutes during a grand tour is something that only the most talented riders can achieve, and if we filter these performance tables, each rider, at least from the Chronowatts database, has only one performance where they sustained 6+ w/kgs for over 40-minutes.
*One could argue that Pogačar’s 5.8w/kg for over an hour at high altitude on the Col de la Loze is potentially his most impressive climbing performance, even though he was outperformed by both Miguel Angel Lopez and Primoz Roglic on that climb.
On balance, Pogačar’s effort on the Grand Colombier is more impressive, which supports my theory from the last off-season that today’s stars are faster than those just a few years ago and shows that Froome would have to be better than he was in his prime if he truly wants to compete for a fifth Tour de France title.
But, even while accounting for the fact that power files are an incredibly complex data set and in some ways, can be open to interpretation, I wouldn’t say any of the above data supports the theory that riders like Woods and Fuglsang would be dominating races from the recent past with their current power output. If anything, this analysis would lead me to respectfully disagree with these aging stars. While this is bad news for riders in their mid-to-late 30s, it is great news for those who are concerned that the recent increase in racing speeds is due to an increase in power increases (aka doping), and shows instead it is more likely due to more open and aggressive racing tactics.