FRANCE – Walk around the team buses here at the Tour de France after most any stage and you’ll see the world’s best cyclists still turning the pedals even though they’ve just finished racing a hundred miles or more, often in extreme heat and over massive mountains.
Over the past few years, teams have incorporated more specific “active recovery” into their riders’ performance plans. Chris Froome‘s Team Sky was one of the first big Tour teams to have its riders cool down on stationary trainers after each stage, and other teams have followed suit.
Riders get several benefits from pedaling after a hard day’s racing, according to Keith Flory, the director of performance for the Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team.
Business Insider caught up with Flory to get the inside take on postrace pedaling at the Tour. Here’s what he had to say.
“The process of ‘cooling down’ has long been integrated into sport culture as a whole, but the application of it within sports is vastly different,” Flory said. “Within road cycling, the process of cooling down certainly isn’t new or revolutionary, whether it was intentional or not.
“Many times, riders will have a number of kilometers to ride to their team vehicles or, if they’re lucky, to their hotel after a race. They therefore will have engaged in a cooldown during this ride, most of the time unknowingly. And this is where understanding and analyzing everything that is involved in the sport is so critical.”
“I don’t know whether Sky was the first team to implement more structure to their postrace cool-down protocol,” Flory told Business Insider, “but they certainly embedded the practice into their postrace strategy very well, which has made it so visible to everyone else.”
“There are some distinct advantages of using trainers to execute the cooldown protocol,” Flory said. “First, you’re able to execute a complete cooldown and not run the risk of it being compromised.
“For example, if, at the Tour, a rider used the roads poststage, it’s unlikely they’d get very far given the crowds and road closures. Having the riders cool down at the team bus also enables the postrace nutrition plan to be executed without compromise.”
“In respect to the ‘science’ behind the cooldown, the goal of enhancing recovery is achieved through a number of mechanisms,” Flory said. “The physical activity will result in enhanced blood flow – when compared to passive recovery – which in turn increases the removal of accumulated metabolic ‘waste’ products, such as lactate, and the restoration of muscle pH. And it increases the dissipation of heat.
“In addition to the physical recovery, cooling down provides an opportunity to mentally relax from the stresses of racing and to personally reflect on the race.”
“The application of a structured cooldown is also very contextual,” Flory said. “For example, take a team that is completing a sprint lead-out. The sprinter will have undergone massive physiological strain immediately before the line. The benefits to them in completing an effective cooldown is significant. But the rider who was first in the train, who has rolled to the line once their job was completed, will have had five or more minutes to start the process of active recovery as they finish the race and then, say, another five minutes to ride to their team bus.
“So deciding who completes or implements a cooldown poststage is really dependent on what physical load they have gone through in the final of the race. At Cannondale-Drapac, we operate a cooldown protocol that’s dependent on the loads experienced during the final part of the race. All riders are encouraged to cool down, so when the riders return to the bus, trainers are laid out for them.
“The riders will ride for 10 minutes, at about 150 watts. If the cooldown is too hard, it is obviously counterproductive, and if it’s too easy, the clearance of the waste products is not as optimal as it could be.”