Tour de France: How new technology is letting elite and recreational cyclists understand their performance better than ever – and maybe too much

Andrew Griffin
Friday 16 July 2021 11:22 BST

As the cyclists of the Tour de France pull into Paris, they will have collected not just an array of jerseys, crashes, drama, records and more than 2,000 miles of cycling. They also bring with them a vast array of data, second-by-second accounts of their body in the 21 days of riding their bikes that have come before.

Every pedal stroke is weighed, measured and the watts produced handed back to a cycling computer that will stick each of those measurements together to gather a precise picture of how each leg stroke added up to a successful or failed race. Every heartbeat that pumps the blood to power those strokes is tracked too, watched for how the faintest increase or decrease in speed could indicate an imminent win or loss.

This year, that tracking technology is more detailed and cutting-edge than it has ever been, getting literally under the skin of athletes to understand how their bodies keep ticking. It is sometimes so futuristic that it has actually been banned from the traditional world of the tour, for fear that the tracking could spoil the fun.

It is also more accessible than ever. Just as the advances in bikes themselves trickle down – carbon fibre was once the preserve only of the elite pro, but is now the material of choice of the weekend warrior – so has other technology, allowing even the lightest hobbyist to gather insight that would have seemed impossible to anyone just years ago.

There is no more visceral example of that than Supersapiens, a company that makes the name “wearable” seem somewhat quaint. The company sells what it calls a “biosensor”, using technology made by Abbott, which tracks how much glucose is in the blood and uses that to give information about fuelling.

It does all that so well that the UCI, cycling’s governing body, has banned the sensors from use in the Tour de France. Early in June, it published a new rule that said that devices that capture physiological data “including any metabolic values such as but not limited to glucose or lactate are not authorised in competition”.

The decision drew criticism from people including the manager of EF Education-Nippo, Jonathan Vaughters, who wrote on Twitter: “On brand. If they can’t understan’ it, they ban it.”

(The UCI’s rules are often about setting limits on performance, intentionally; it has weight limits that prohibit bikes from being too light, for instance. This year, Specialized released its Aethos bike; it is precisely intended as an experiment in breaking those rules – it said it wanted to make a bike that is focused on ride quality and lightness, worrying about whether it could be used in a race – making it almost the bike version of Supersapiens’ dilemma.)

But Supersapiens founder and chief executive Phil Southerland notes that the problem is also that the trackers are understood as a danger not to the cyclists but to the fun of the sport: if nutrition is turned into a pure and precise science, it takes away some of the artistry that has led cycling teams to bring their own rockstar chefs and cyclists to practise eating with the same intensity they practise cycling. Having too much information could make cycling boring.

Southerland points to other, similarly precise tracking technologies that could be subject to the same complaint: power metres that measure exactly how hard a cyclist is pedalling, core body temperature sensors that watch for how hot or cold they are. And those same arguments have indeed been made, with current UCI president David Lappartient saying in 2018 that he would back the idea of banning power meters that provide live feedback to cyclists during the race, similarly arguing that it holds back the “attractiveness” of the sport.

(Last year, previous Tour winner Geraint Thomas accidentally gave that idea a try, when a mixup meant that he went without his Garmin head unit during the World Championships. He came fourth during the time trial, and said that having the data normally “keeps you so focused and dialled in”.)

There is also an obvious commercial opportunity to keeping the products in the tour: as the cavalcade of advertising around the event shows, having a product featured there is big business. When the power meter ban was floated in 2017, James Shaw noted that “If the pros don’t ride them, people aren’t going to buy them”, and if the money fell out of the market then the teams probably would too.

But the companies making such precise tracking technology are clear that they believe it can provide value to those watching at home, too. The way they’re used might be vastly different, but the principles remain the same.

This year, for instance, one of the things that has been noticeable about the EF-Education Nippo riders – already hard to miss in their hot pink kit – is a matching pink band strapped around their wrist. It’s a Whoop band, which measures not only how hard they are working but also how hard they are not working.

It does that with the help of an optical heart rate sensor of the kind now offered in just about every sports wearable. (The sensor itself is not especially notable – and reviews have suggested that it might not be especially accurate when compared to other rivals – but Whoop stresses the value of the platform it has for analysing the data it gives out.)

The data collects information such as resting heart rate, infers a riders’ respiration from the changes in their heartbeat, and tracks heart rate variability, measuring the tiny differences in the rhythm of each beat as a way of knowing how calm a person’s body is. All of that is merged together with information about how hard a cyclist is working, how hydrated they might be, to give what Whoop’s vice president of performance says is a holistic picture aimed at making them “as ready as humanly possible”.

And it is just one of many companies pitching those elite technologies to non-elite athletes. Holmes says that while the details of a Tour de France riders’ activity is going to be different, the principles are much the same; normal people have to balance rest with stress and understand how the two work together best, too.

“In the end, we’re all trying to do the same thing,” she says. “We’re trying to live our values with more joy and more energy, and this is technology that helps facilitate that.”

Southerland pitches Supersapiens similarly. It might be obvious how elite athletes can benefit – potentially too much – from the technology, and also how those living with diabetes can be helped by it, but it has plenty to offer people who don’t fall into either camp, too, he says.

The “literature and the textbooks” would suggest that it is a specialist product, he says. But the company’s data doesn’t – it has found that around 45 per cent of the time, when people exercise for more than an hour, they are doing it without enough fuel.

The problems of that might appear in ways that would be familiar to anyone who has exercised: the feeling of being out of shape, not fit or fast enough to keep up. “But really, they’re just under-fuelled,” he says – “so everyone has to improve their fueling strategies.”

Supersapiens hopes to provide the data to prove that, showing precisely how an energy gel taken at the right moment can help spur a personal best, or a massive night of tacos and margaritas could hinder one. “We give you the data to showcase how important it really is.”

There is a danger, of course, that all of this is too much; the sheer level of data that could make cycling boring could also serve as a stress for people who find themselves worrying too much about those numbers. Holmes says that she believes the “cost of that does not outweigh the benefit of understanding how your body is actually adapting to your environment”, especially when people can control many of the factors that are likely to drive those numbers in the right or wrong direction.

There might also be a concern that all of the data is nice to have but fundamentally redundant; you probably know if you are tired, or haven’t eaten enough, whether you are testing those things at the Tour de France or just in your normal life. But both Holmes and Southerland stress that the information is not just decorative – both companies charge not insubstantial amounts of money for their products o the promise that they will highlight behaviours and their effects in ways you might not realise for yourself.

Like Supersapiens, Whoop is exercise technology that is as much focused on the time you don’t spend exercising – one of its biggest metrics is the recovery score, tracking those 23 hours a day when you might not be working out. All of those products come at a time when the various bits of the health picture that are not actually about physical activity, such as rest, nutrition and general wellbeing, are being recognised as being at least as important to performance as the actual workout.

As such, much of the data being provided to athletes – both elite, Tour de France level cyclists and normal people just trying to be healthier – is as much about telling them when not to exercise, and how to do that, as it is about ensuring they do. That data helps inform those efforts, and Holmes notes that it’s not really today’s training session that informs how well you’ll do tomorrow, but rather the sleep and everything else that goes into the rest of the day.

All of this works together with more traditional tracking and technology, all of which has advanced alongside the more cutting-edge work. This year, for instance, Garmin released its new Rally tracking pedals, allowing people to gather information on the power their legs were putting out even when riding in rough terrain; many wearables including those from Apple and Garmin also monitor blood oxygen, shining lights into the skin to get a picture of how saturated the blood is, using that as a way to understand the effect of altitude as well as possible health problems.

It is all a long way from the spirit of the early Tour, when technology did not even extend to gears and sport science was so primitive that cyclists avoided keeping themselves hydrated because of a sense that they raced better when “dry”. But it embodies the same commitment to finding and transcending limits that have always characterised elite sport.

The speed and might of the Tour is rivalled by the fast pace of the technology that has helped its riders come to be so quick. It might now be electronic and wearable, but the history of cycling has been won and lost by rapid innovation as much as by rapid legs, and that looks set to continue.

It has often not been for the good; professional cycling has not always shown much care for the well-being of its athletes. Much worse has been done to cyclists’ blood than monitoring it for glucose; their hearts have been treated with far less care than they are by Whoop; power meters are relatively pedestrian as far as manipulating the performance of cyclists’ legs goes.

It is almost unusual that the latest technology is focused on making cyclists healthy so they are fast, when in the past it has been almost the opposite; cyclists resting to ensure their sleep metrics is high is a welcome departure from the horror stories of them having to wake up in the middle of the night and cycling for 10 minutes on rollers in their hotel rooms to ensure that their fit and drug-enhanced hearts didn’t fail as they slept.

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