The Tour de France is not for the faint of heart. The annual 21-stage bicycle race features teams of professional riders from around the world who pedal over 2,000 miles of the French countryside and French Alps before reaching the ceremonial last stage in Paris. We don’t all have the calf muscles to tackle a climb at an incline of 15 percent, but read on to learn some secrets of those who are cycling for the winner’s yellow jersey.
1. They eat constantly.
Three meals a day? Try six. Cyclists burn up to 1,000 calories an hour during the grueling race, and the days involve four hours of pure cycling. The thing a rider does the most when he’s not on the bike is eat. Days start with a massive buffet-style breakfast at the hotel and then racers continue to eat and drink up until the bicycling actually begins. During the leg, each team’s support vehicles hand out fruit, sandwiches, water, and sports drinks that the riders consume while pedaling.
The riders have built up a major calorie deficit during the day, and after the finish line, the work begins during the bus ride to the hotel as the cyclists are served starches like boiled potatoes and rice, and proteins like tuna and ham. At the hotel, riders chow down on a 2,000-calorie dinner that is heavy in protein to rebuild muscle. The day ends with a snack before going to sleep, during which they’re probably not dreaming of food.
2. They’re chatting the whole time.
Four hours is a long time to ride a bike, especially when you don’t have anyone to talk to. Early on in the day’s race, cyclists often talk to each other while pedaling, especially if they end up in the large group of riders that forms after the starting gun (this group is called the “peloton”). Historically, riders would first try speaking to each other in French. If that didn’t work, they would try Italian and then Spanish. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when riders from Anglophone countries started appearing at the Tour, that English became widely spoken. The Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body for the world of international cycling, now operates in both French and English.
3. They can pee while riding.
Riders sweat a lot. To make up for the liquid lost, cyclists drink several bottles of water and sports drinks during the ride, some of which will eventually need to leave the body through another method. Usually, riders in the peloton will stop all together or follow the understanding that the group will slow down if a significant number of riders need to stop for a bathroom break. However, when nature calls, it calls when she wants—whether that’s in the peloton or sprinting to catch up with the leaders during the last miles of the race. In such cases, riders have been known to urinate while on the bike by exposing themselves for a few moments (or just letting it go, as-is).
4. They live longer.
Despite the epic crashes that involve dozens of riders at a time, a study released by the Paris Cardiovascular Center in 2014 showed that male professional cyclists live, on average, 6.3 years longer than the general population. The study compared the lifespans of any Frenchman who finished at least once in the Tour de France against an average Frenchman, and found that mortality rates were 41 percent lower for the riders. Scientists attribute the difference to a cyclist’s generally healthy way of life, including a very small likelihood that a professional cyclist smokes.
5. They’ll only ride a clean bicycle.
It should come as no surprise that the bikes themselves are maintained rigorously during the race. Each bicycle is hand washed first with a degreasing solution before receiving a soapy sponge bath and power wash to remove dirt, grime, and memories of the day’s race. Not only are the bikes cleaned thoroughly, but mechanics also readjust and re-tune every bike—including replacing the cables and bearings—on a daily basis.
When not being tuned up or transported or ridden, the bikes for each team remain under lock and key in the team truck. The Cannonade Garmin team is said to park a second team truck directly behind the one that holds the bikes so, even if the lock somehow gets picked, thieves can’t open the rear swinging doors.