With the 2,277-mile Tour de France (TDF) at an end, the world’s attention is on the 198 athletes who pushed themselves to all levels of physical extremes over the three-week competition. Even more so, it’s left us wondering about the magic formula that makes these master cyclists tick. What is it about a TDF athlete’s physique that allows him to cycle so hard for so long?
Take a look at Tour frontrunners Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, and Rui Costa. Together, they average five feet 11 inches in height, 143 pounds in weight, and 30 years in age. For the level of athleticism these men have reached, these stats seem unremarkable – just on the skinny and tall side of average. The majority of this year’s TDF athletes fall between five foot six and six foot two, ranging between 128 and 181 pounds.
Predictably, a cyclist’s physique is different from the ideal body type for a runner or a swimmer, but the formula isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Unlike runners and swimmers, cyclists don’t have a hard-and-fast ideal body type. If we consider what separates cyclists from their athlete counterparts, we’ll see that cycling is more forgiving of height, weight, and even age than other sports are.
Distance runners tend to be light and lean. They need to be smaller, in terms of both height and weight. The more mass runners have to lift, the harder they have to fight gravity, and the less efficient they’ll be over time.
Swimmers, on the other hand, benefit from longer torsos and wingspans. Depending on the stroke, a swimmer’s arms or legs do most of the propelling. And since swimmers are positioned horizontally, the length of their bodies is an automatic advantage when reaching for the finish.
Rowers also tend to be bigger. Rowing utilizes every major muscle group in your body. Starting with the legs a rowing stroke also requires a strong back, hips, and arm muscles. It’s easy to imagine that more weight might drag the boat down, but it’s actually more important to have the bigger muscle mass.
Cyclists seem to fall in a category of their own. The stereotypical cyclist has muscular legs and a skinny upper body. Strong legs are definitely an important factor in successful cycling, but cyclists have more room in the height and weight categories.
Whether taller or shorter, every cyclist is spinning on the same bike, so stride length isn’t necessarily a benefit. And the aerodynamics of cycling are different than that of any other sport. This year’s TDF athletes tend to fall on the leaner side, but weight can actually be an advantage in areas that involve downhill cycling — the more mass you have, the more speed you’ll gain when heading downhill.
At the end of the day, training and experience are more important to successful cycling than your natural physique. No matter what your body type, don’t discourage yourself from taking up or getting serious about cycling. The height and weight requirements for the sport are loose and ill defined. You’ll just need the patience and stamina for long distances and slower muscle buildup.