Sprinters and Grand Tours – What Does it Take?


For sprinters in Grand Tours, it’s a polarized world to the extreme. Suffer and survive the mountains in the hopes of sprint stage glory. What does it take for a world-class sprinter to tackle the Tour de France?

On-board with Marcel Kittel

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Hidden Camera

A lot of the intrigue of stage racing comes in the stories that the cameras don’t often catch. It’s only recently that some of the Grand Tour stages are televised start to finish, showing the vicious battles to get into the day’s break.

Sprinters are highly visible in the final kilometres of sprint stages. But for that brief shot at glory, there is a world of suffering through the mountain stages, where their typically larger mass fights a relentless battle with gravity. Further, there’s the battle to finish within the time cut, leading to relentless grinding while climbing followed by high-stakes descending to take back time against the time cut clock.

The pressures can test even the closest friendships. Probably my favourite chapter in “L’Etape” by Richard Moore was the chapter on Mark Cavendish and best pal and teammate Bernhard Eisel getting so mad at each other during a 2009 mountain that they rode side by side but on the opposite edges of the road.

The ‘Power House’ that is Marcel Kittel

From Speedsuit to Labcoat

One of the dominant sprinters of the past decade, Marcel Kittel can add published scientist to his palmarès, with a new paper on his data from 4 editions of the Tour de France (2013, 2014, 2016, and 2017) (van Erp et al. 2020).

The goal of this study was to look at the power demands and loads over the course of the Tour, and specifically the demands of different types of stages. To this end, stages were categorized as flat (FLAT), semi-mountainous (SMT), mountainous (MT), and time trials (TT, both individual and team).

  • Functional Threshold Power (FTP) was based on 95% of the best 20 min effort (in training or racing) over each of the 4 years. This worked out to 429 W (4.8 W/kg), 442 (4.9), 431 (4.9) and 438 (4.9) for the 4 years.
  • Load was based on kJ and Training Stress Score (TSS) per stage. Load was also normalized to kJ and TSS per kilometre.
  • Intensity distribution was categorized over a 5 zone power model.
  • To compare across 4 Tours, each stage had their power duration curve modelled based on the mean maximal power for 5, 10, 15, 30, 60 seconds along with 3, 5, 20, 60, and 120 minutes.
  • FLAT: <2,200 m climbing (still a ridiculous amount!), no more than a Cat 3 climb and not in the final 10% of the stage.
  • SMT: >2,200 m climbing but could be less if a Cat 2-4 climb came in final 10% of the stage.
  • MT: >3,000 m climbing or when a Cat 1 or Hors Categorie climb came at the end.

No, it's not Belgium in the spring! The echelons formed on Tour stage 7 as the cross wind split the peloton. It all came together for the sprint, probably one of the closest. The decision went to Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) from Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) by 6mm. Pic:CorVos/PezCyclingNews.
You have to fight to get in the echelons. Tour’17 stage 7 Marcel Kittel won from Edvald Boasson Hagen by 6mm

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Stage Types

First off, kudos to Kittel for making his data available, as it really does provide unique insight into the demands of Grand Tour racing for a sprinter, away from just the sprint itself.

Of course, being a retrospective study, there were some inevitable potential confounds. This included riding for different teams in 2013/14 versus 2016/17, and different power meter brands being used across that divide. On top of that, of course multiple bikes and individual power meters were also used.

  • No differences in volume, load, intensity, and peak powers were observed across the 4 Tours. However, while not statistically significant, the 2014 Tour had 16% greater load (kJ) than 2013, which is in real life quite a difference.
  • Not surprisingly, volume and load were lower in TT but intensity measures (kj and TSS/km) were higher.
  • Load (kJ, TSS) and intensity (PO, km and TSS/km) were higher in MT compared with FLAT and SMT, and no differences were seen between the latter two stage types.
  • Reflective of the need, in the immortal words of the late Paul Sherwen, to “haul your carcass up the mountain,” less time was spent in Zone 1 and more in Zone 3 (76-90% FTP) and 4 (91-105%) in MT compared to FLAT and SMT.
  • Somewhat surprisingly, SMT had more time spent in Zone 1 than FLAT. This was probably reflective of Kittel not fighting for the stage win and not having to maintain pack position. For me, this was the most interesting result, suggesting that sprinters do not receive an armchair ride and are not “just” there for the final kilometre or 200 m, but that they have to put in work throughout these prime stages.

Tom Veelers and Albert Timmer pacing Marcel Kittel in Tour de France 2014 stage 13 to Chamrousse

Mountain Pacing

One interesting additional analysis was how Kittel paced mountain stages, and whether they differed depending on if the climbs were early, middle, or late. Overall, distance and duration were similar, though of course it’s usually the Cat 1 or HC climbs that are placed at the end of stages as a confounder.

  • Cadence, speed, and PO were higher with early climb stages compared to middle or late. Cadence and PO were also higher with early compared to middle. This likely reflected the early breakaway battle along with the fresher legs. Also, there’s the need to ensure that you stick with the grupetto as it forms and not get isolated and ride the stage solo.
  • Supporting my theory above about fresher legs and breakaway battles, more time was spent in Zones 4/5 and less in Zones 2/3 with early stages compared to late. And more in Zones 5 and less in one 3 with early compared to middle.
  • Summit finishes are truly tough, with the climbs coming while fatigued. More time was spent in Zones 4/5 and less in Zone 2 with middle climbs compared to late climbs.

Thanks to Marcel Kittel for the data, and I hope you enjoyed this insight into the demands of a Grand Tour on a world-class sprinter, Next time, we’ll get to the fun part for Marcel, namely the demands of the actual sprints!

Ride fast and have fun!

Marcel Kittel getting the better of John Degenkolb and Dylan Groenewegen in Chambéry – Tour de France 2017


van Erp T, Kittel M, Lamberts RP (2020) Demands of the Tour de France: A Case Study of a World-Class Sprinter (Part I). Int J Sports Physiol Perform 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2020-0700

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