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How did Egan Bernal train to win the Tour de France?

What kind of riding do you need to do to win the Tour and how does that compare to other riders?

Zach Nehr
1 Aug 2019

When it comes to preparing for the Tour de France, arguably the hardest sporting event on the planet, the question is often asked: how do the riders do it?

How do they prepare for the mountains, such as the Col de Tourmalet which climbs to over 2,000m?

How do they prepare for the crazy crosswind stages, where they reach speeds in excess of 70kmh on a flat road? And how do they prepare for being in the saddle for almost six hours a day for three consecutive weeks?

Every single rider’s approach to the Tour de France is different. Some like to race more than they train, others train more than they race. Some like to go to isolation – I mean, altitude – camps, while others prefer the comforts of home.

We are often asked how the Tour was won. Was it in the mountains? Was it in the time-trials? Was it in the crosswinds in the first week, or the Col de Tourmalet on Stage 14?

But instead of looking at the Tour de France alone, we probably need to look further back. Because the Tour de France is not won in July.

It's won in April, May, and June. It is won over the winter in December in January. And it is won in the years before that, with genetics and training, with great coaches and supportive clubs, and with the building of a passion for the sport of cycling.

So to get a sense of how the narrative of this year's Tour was really shaped, we went back and looked at the training and racing plans of several stand-out riders from this year’s Tour: Thomas de Gendt, Michael Woods, and the eventual winner Egan Bernal.

Perhaps we'd expect more similarities than differences when comparing their pre-Tour training plans, considering they are all training for the same exact race. But as you will see, that is completely wrong.

8 weeks out:

De Gendt: Eight weeks before Le Grand Depart, De Gendt was just finishing the first week of the Giro d’Italia. He spent 33 hours in the saddle, and climbed over 13,700 meters.

Woods: Woods spent the middle of May in Andorra, and eight weeks out from the Tour was just beginning what was a massive training block. He spent 30 hours in the saddle over the week and climbed over 16,000 meters, a very similar workload to the riders competing at the Giro.

Bernal: Less than a week before the start of the Giro d’Italia, Bernal crashed while training in Andorra and broke his collarbone. Remarkably, he was back on the bike just nine days later. Even more impressive was that Bernal had been riding on the turbo trainer in between.

He may have only had a couple days off the bike in total. Just inside eight weeks from the Tour, that meant Bernal was almost back to his normal training, putting over 19 hours in the saddle and climbing 9,500 meters in seven days.

He wasn't shying away from intensity either, performing plenty of threshold and sub-threshold efforts on the climbs, and taking a number of prominent Strava KOMs.

It is fascinating to see how closely Woods’ training resembled that of the riders competing in the Giro. They both spent a huge amount of time in the saddle, though of course Woods didn't come with the added intensity of racing.

Those not racing were still clearly putting out huge efforts in the mountains, on five and six hours rides not too dissimilar to the typical stage at the Giro.

With Bernal’s Giro plans derailed by his crash, his focus immediately turned to the Tour, and at the time that meant a supporting role for Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.

*Note: Andorra sits at roughly 2,000m above sea level, so Woods and Bernal were already training at altitude, and their power numbers (below) would have been lower than at sea-level.

4 weeks out:

De Gendt: After finishing the Giro – and placing third in the final TT, no less – De Gendt took four days off before easing back into training. For his first two days back on the bike, he rode less than two hours each. A 90km ride over the weekend brought his 7-day total up to just 6.5 hours.

Woods: After a few weeks of training in Andorra, Woods headed to France to race the Critérium du Dauphiné. After finishing fifth on Stage 2, in a select group of expected Tour de France GC contenders and stage winners, Woods fell ill and was unable to start the final stage of the race.

Despite only riding six of the seven days, Woods still spent over 26 hours in the saddle and climbed over 11,000 meters.

His performance on Stage 2 required a weighted average power of 295W (4.61W/kg) for nearly 4.5 hours, including a 10-minute effort at 411W (6.42W/kg) in the race’s finale. 

Bernal: One month before the Tour, Bernal returned to racing at the Tour de Suisse. He put in a dominating performance throughout the week, dropping all of the GC favourites on back-to-back summit finishes, and riding two impressive time-trials to take the GC win over Rohan Dennis and Patrick Konrad.

On Sunday’s final stage – a three-mountain epic won by Hugh Carthy – Bernal finished with a weighted average power of nearly 5W/kg for over three hours of racing.

On each climb, he rode at above 5W/kg for over half an hour, including a 10-minute surge at 5.5W/kg as the climb hit 2,600 meters in height.

It is important to note that – like the 2019 Tour de France – the major climbs at the Tour de Suisse climb over 2,000-3,000m meters, which hurts the efforts of those less-acclimated, and favours those who were born at altitude such as Bernal.

Just four weeks away from the biggest race of the year, De Gendt barely rode, whereas Woods and Bernal were racing two of the hardest week-long races of the year: the Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse.

But it all made sense in context – De Gendt was coming off of the Giro d’Italia: 100+ hours of racing in three weeks, attacking into breakaways, climbing snow-lined mountain passes, and nearly time-trialling to a stage win. It was a well-deserved rest.

2 weeks out:

De Gendt: Two weeks before the Tour, De Gendt returned home to Belgium to race the National Championships.

He placed sixth in the time-trial (averaging 393W, 5.7W/kg, and 49.1kmh, for 46 minutes – and still finishing two minutes down on winner Wout Van Aert) and 70th in the road race.

A total of just 15 hours in the saddle and with only 3,300 meters of climbing, De Gendt’s week was one of low-volume week punctuated by high race intensity.

Woods: A couple of weeks out, Woods was in Girona, along with Tejay Van Garderen and sports physiologist Dr. Allen Lim, at a highly structured pre-Tour training camp.

Their journey was chronicled in Velonews’ Beyond Limits, a series of videos and articles covering such topics as e-bike ‘motor pacing’, rider sweat rate, and the psychology of cycling.

Woods put in a solid week – 21 hours in the saddle with 9,100 meters of climbing – but this time the focus was on targeting specific intensities rather than volume.

With the help of ex-pro Tim Johnson, and teammate Taylor Phinney, Woods and Van Garderen performed race-simulation efforts on the climbs, riding at threshold (>400W, or 6W/kg for these guys), following surges, and settling back in to high tempo, all on rides as long as six hours.

Bernal: After a short rest following the Tour de Suisse, Bernal was back training at altitude in Andorra, and he put in a solid week of 23 hours of riding with 15,500m of climbing.

In addition to a near-six hour ride earlier in the week, Bernal knocked out some high-intensity intervals as well. One of his workouts consisted of 15-20 minute blocks at tempo (300W) with 10-second surges (600+W) every three minutes.

Within the same ride, Bernal did a 30-minute climb at 5.7W/kg, with the first 10 minutes being a series of 20/40sec: 20 seconds at 500+W followed by 40sec at ~310W.

It was National Championships week, and while most other riders travel home to compete for their National colours, only De Gendt chose to make the trek out of this group (Bernal raced the Colombian nationals back in February).

For Woods and Bernal, this is the time for super-focused training. That means altitude camps, mountainous rides, plenty of motor pacing, and no distractions.

1 week out:

De Gendt: After the National Championships, De Gendt never rode more than two hours prior to the start of the Tour. The hard work had been done, the miles were in the legs, and the form was good. All that was left now to do was rest.

Woods: Just five days out, Woods and Van Garderen headed out for one more epic ride in the mountains. By the end of the day, they’d spent over five hours in the saddle and climbed over 3,000m in 172 km.

They rode the climbs at a blistering pace – 5.0-6.0W/kg, for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Their power charts were erratic for these efforts: over threshold on the steep bits, easier on the shallow sections, punching it around switchbacks, and sprinting to the top.

This was a race simulation day, the last day of hard work before resting before the Tour de France.

Bernal: Bernal closed out his training Andorra block with a huge ride on Monday, five hours in the mountains with a couple of long blocks (10-30 minutes) of tempo, followed by three hours of endurance riding.

After a full day of travel, Bernal met up with his Team INEOS teammates at a closed test track for TTT training. This day was just a short ride, of about 90 minutes, but Bernal covered over 69 km, an average of 41.5kmh.

The next day the riders were in Brussels, and Bernal spent nearly three hours in the saddle two days before the race. In total, this week wasn’t an extreme taper for Bernal, with still over 20 hours of riding over the week.

One week out from the Tour, most riders were focused on resting as much as possible. But Woods and Bernal were quite different – they wanted to arrive to the Tour fresh but also peaked.

Training hard at this point could lead to fatigue and burnout, but over-resting could lead to staleness and feeling ‘blocked’, which is the last thing these climbers want on Stage 6’s summit finish to La Planche des Belles Filles.

It is interesting to see that, four days out from the Tour, Woods and Bernal took a day completely off. Instead of easy training or just spinning the legs, they spent a day in bed – probably on an airplane, actually – their legs with nothing to do other than soak up the huge training load that has accumulated over the past few weeks.

1 day out:

De Gendt: The day before the Tour, De Gendt spent just an hour on the bike. Enough to spin the legs and keep the blood moving, but not enough to cause any kind of fatigue.

For De Gendt – an experienced pro with no personal ambitions for Stage 1 – openers are unnecessary. Easy pedalling at 200-250W is the only thing he needs.

Woods: Education First opted for a two-hour ride – as opposed to Lotto Soudal’s hour – the day before the Tour. Spinning around Brussels at less than 200W, Woods didn’t do any openers either. Just another couple hours of spinning the legs.

Bernal: *At the moment, Bernal hasn’t uploaded any rides to Strava after July 4th, two days before the start of the Tour. Hopefully he will upload his rides from the Tour, giving us a glimpse at what it takes to win the Tour de France.

One more day. For the riders, all that’s left to do is prime the engine and trust your training. One last ride to open up the legs – if they need it – and then it’s all about resting. Save as much mental, physical, and emotional energy as you can for the next three weeks.

Because you’re sure as hell gonna need it.

So what happened? 

De Gendt put on a show and soloed to the win on Stage 8 of this year’s Tour. After spending over 200km in the break, the Belgian pulled away from his last breakaway companion on the final climb of the day, soloing to the finish ahead of the hard-charging duo of Thibaut Pinot and Julian Alaphilippe.

He then went on to produce a head-turning effort in Stage 13’s TT, finishing 3rd only behind Geraint Thomas and Julian Alaphilippe.

On Stage 11, Mike Woods crashed and broke two ribs. He finished the stage and went on to finish the Tour.

Bernal became the first Colombian to win the Tour de France, and the youngest winner since Henri Cornet in 1904.

Bernal’s broken collarbone turned out to be a blessing in disguise, shifting his focus from the Giro d’Italia to the Tour de France.

In his second participation, Bernal took small bits of time out of his rivals throughout the first and second week, most notably in Stage 2’s TTT and Stage 10’s crosswinds.

But after losing over a minute in Stage 12’s ITT to teammate Geraint Thomas, it looked as though Bernal may be put to work in the mountains for the 2018 Tour winner.

But on Stage 18 to Vallorie, Bernal attacked the group of GC favourites and stayed away, taking 32 seconds back and, more importantly, moving in front of teammate Thomas into second overall.

On one of the most memorable days in recent Tour history – a day in which the stage was cancelled, no official stage winner was declared for only the second time in the race’s history, and Thibaut Pinot climbed off his bike in tears – Bernal again rode away from the GC favourites on the major climb of the day, the Col de l’Iseran.

ASO decided that the GC times would be taken at the top of this climb, instead of in the valley below where confused riders were climbing into their team cars, making Bernal the new overall race leader.

Wearing yellow for the first time in his career, Bernal and Team INEOS controlled Stage 20 with ease, and rode into Paris with the team’s 7th yellow jersey in eight Tours.