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by Matthew de Vroet
June 6, 2017
Photography by Kristof Ramon & Cor Vos
Could you sit in the peloton for the start of a professional race? Perhaps maybe even try to make the breakaway? How hard would it be to win a pro race?
With the growing popularity of power meters it has become possible to quantify the differences in strength between amateur and professional cyclists. Using power files from various professional races, we have been able to measure just how good the pros are and demonstrate how strong you’d need to be to compete.
Before hitting you with power numbers and other data though, here’s a refresher on a few key terms.
Average power is simply the average amount of power (in watts) that was produced for a given effort.
Normalised power is a more realistic way of representing a rider’s workload than average power and can be expressed as “the power a rider could have maintained for the same physiological ‘cost’ if their power had been perfectly constant.” Normalised power adjusts average power to take into account how frequently and by how much a rider lifted their power above their threshold power — a particularly useful measure for hiller races. Click here to learn more about normalised power.
TSS: Training Stress Score is a measure of the intensity and duration of a ride. A TSS of 100 represents a 100%, hour-long effort, but since most rides aren’t completed at 100% intensity, most efforts will accumulate less than 100 TSS per hour. Click here to learn more about TSS.
Watts-per-kilo (W/kg) is a rider’s power output for a given effort divided by their weight. This gives a useful measurement to compare riders of different abilities and weights.
For example, a rider that weighs 90kg might be able to push out 300 watts for 10 minutes, while a rider who weighs 70kg could hold 270 watts for the same time, yet go faster. This is because the 90kg rider is holding 3.3 W/kg whilst the 70kg rideris pushing out 3.85 W/kg and a higher power-to-weight ratio corresponds to a greater speed, particularly uphill.
The following table from Training Peaks shows the power-to-weight ratios you’re likely to see for efforts of different durations, at different levels of competition.
So with all that in mind, what would it take to compete with the professionals? Here are a few different scenarios:
The Tour of Flanders is known to be one of the most stressful and difficult days on the race calendar. Getting in the early breakaway is often the sole goal for many of the smaller teams and therefore, with so much competition, it takes a lot of work to get one established.
Two of the riders who made the breakaway in the 2017 Tour of Flanders were Oliviero Troia (UAE Team Emirates) and Julien Duval (Ag2r-La Mondiale). Here are the stats from Troia as he got himself in the breakaway, starting from just 700m into the race:
Average power: 401W (5.17 W/kg)
Max power: 1,370W (19.02 W/kg)
The breakaway members were pushing out some big numbers with still 250km to race. This is the key difference between the professionals and the average rider. While a top amateur rider might be able to hold 400W for the same length of time, they wouldn’t be doing so in the first 11km of a 250km race. If they did, they wouldn’t make it to the end, as they’d be past their limit.
Troia averaged 302W (4.19 W/kg) for the first hour of racing, which really highlights how hard the breakaway riders need to push to get an advantage over the peloton. Looking at the Training Peaks chart above, this power actually falls under the B-grade/C-grade category for threshold power. The difference is that this is the highest possible power such amateur riders could hold for an hour, whereas Troia went on to average 304W (4.22 W/kg) for the entirety of his race (he pulled out after 216km).
Jos van Emden’s power file from the start of the 2017 Milan San Remo paints a picture of what’s required to stay in the bunch at the start of a one-day WorldTour race. The LottoNL-Jumbo rider averaged 138W for the first 10km, which took 16:54 at a casual pace of 35.8km/h. This equates to 1.86 W/kg which, according to the Training Peaks chart, most untrained riders could manage. So, sitting tight mid-pack at the start of Milan-San Remo wouldn’t be too difficult.
That being said, Van Emden is a seasoned professional cyclist so his bunch skills would be of high quality, allowing him to make the most of the draft of the peloton. And Milan-San Remo is also known for being a little more relaxed at the start than some of the other one-day classics, such as Paris-Roubaix or Tour of Flanders.
And as we can see from the 2017 Tour of Flanders, one-day WorldTour races tend to get quite a bit harder towards the end.
Staying in the bunch at the start of a pro race might be reasonably easy, but it won’t stay that way.
Eventual 11th place finisher Michael Valgren (Astana) sat in the bunch and averaged just 178W (2.4 W/kg) for the first half of the race – something even E-grade/Cat 5 racers should be able to do quite comfortably. But things got much trickier in the second half where he averaged 297W (4.0 W/kg) with a normalised power of 318W for the entire race.
A normalised power of 318W is often around what you need to average to be competitive in a full-gas A-grade criterium. Therefore a very rough comparison would be doing seven back-to-back A-grade criteriums at max effort. I don’t know about you, but after one criterium I’m usually done.
So even if you could hang on for the first few kilometres or even the first half of a WorldTour race, the professionals certainly make up for it in the back half, using all the energy they saved to push out some enormous numbers.
If you saw the 2017 Milan-San Remo you almost certainly remember the blistering attack from Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) on the Poggio. Only two riders could follow him and one of them, Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), went on to win the race.
For Kwiatkowski to follow Sagan on the climb he had to do the following:
Average Power: 443W
Power-to-weight: 6.51 W/kg
The numbers are highly impressive even before you consider this was after seven hours of racing — almost 300km deep. Perhaps the biggest indicator that the professionals are a step above even the best amateurs is the fact “Kwiato” needed to average 619W for the last 800m of the climb at an incredible 9.1 W/kg. The best A-grade riders would struggle to do this fresh, and certainly couldn’t seven hours into a race.
To top it off, Kwiatkowski averaged 1,149W (16.9W/kg) for the last five seconds of the race to just get past Sagan. Most amateurs are happy to see over 1,000 watts in a max sprint, and again this is without nearly 300km in their legs.
To properly analyse what it takes to win a bunch kick we’ll look at Fernando Gaviria’s data from his stage 5 win at the 2017 Giro d’Italia.
Gaviria’s QuickStep Floors teammates controlled the last six kilometres of the stage on the finishing circuit around Messina and even though the Colombian stayed in the wheels, utilising the slipstream, he still had to average 340W (4.86 W/kg) for seven minutes with a one-minute peak effort of 576W (8.23 W/kg).
These numbers don’t necessarily jump out at you as enormous, but Gaviria’s main goal in the last few kilometres was to save as much energy as possible and push out as little power as he could.
Gaviria’s statistics for the final sprint were:
Time: 20 seconds
Speed: 65 km/h
Max speed: 67.8 km/h
Power: 934W (13.34 W/kg)
Peak Power: 1,339W (19.13 W/kg)
This puts Gaviria in the “exceptional” (i.e. domestic pro) category of the Training Peaks chart but sprinting is not always about max power. Third place finisher on the day Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrophe) actually had a higher power-to-weight ratio in the sprint than Gaviria (1,352W at 19.59 W/kg), the Irishman holding 965W (13.99 W/kg) for the last 20 seconds.
The video shows that Gaviria actually sits behind Bennett while he opens up his sprint, gaining an advantage through Bennett’s slipstream. If it had been a straight-up, head-to-head sprint, the raw power numbers suggest Bennett would have won.
For context, the top A-graders probably push out close to 17 W/kg to win a high level local criterium. Again the key point is this is what the best local riders can produce usually after an hour of racing, not after 160km and five days into a Grand Tour. Professionals can continue to produce max efforts throughout the whole race, which puts them on another level.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the professionals and amateurs can be seen in the high mountains. Michael Valgren’s powerfile from Stage 20 of the 2016 Tour de France is instructive in this way.
Even with four categorised climbs on the menu, Valgren hit his peak five-minute power at the base of the first climb, only 30 minutes into the stage. He averaged 403W (5.57 W/kg), which puts him in the excellent category (A-grade level) on the Training Peaks chart. However, A-graders and even domestic pros would be on their limit to produce this power fresh, whereas Valgren pushed it out 20 days into the Tour de France, and with many hard efforts still to come in the stage.
Valgren’s best 40-minute power for the day came on the final hors categorie climb of the Tour. He produced 335W at 4.63 W/kg which landed him 44th on the stage, 12 minutes down on stage winner Ion Izagirre. To win the stage, Valgren would need to have produced 5.9 to 6.0 W/kg for 30 to 45 minutes. To win the Tour de France you need to be able to do this three or four times over the course of a five- to six-hour day in the mountains, over and over again.
This shows that there is not only a huge gap between the professionals and amateurs, but also a large difference between the top professionals and those who are domestiques. Valgren produced a TSS of 315 in only 4:30 hours, which shows just how hard these stages are, even for the professionals.
Valgren went on to win the Tour of Denmark only a week later.
Luke Durbridge’s prologue time trial at the 2015 Tour de France in Utrecht shows how strong specialist time trialists actually are. Durbridge averaged 445W (5.85 W/kg) for the technical 13.8km prologue which puts “Durbo” in the ‘World Class’ section on the Training Peaks graph.
Durbridge finished 32nd on the stage, 46 seconds down on his compatriot and stage winner Rohan Dennis (BMC).
It is clear that to be competitive in a WorldTour time trial, you need to be pushing the highest level of the Training Peaks graph and averaging a monstrous 6 W/kg or higher. However, time trials also come down to a lot of work off the bike including aerodynamics. The best time trialists in the world will spend hours perfecting their position in order to reduce their frontal area and save as many watts as possible.
When you break down power numbers to watts-per-kilo you can paint a clear picture of how good the professionals are. While some domestic pros can match the same power as professionals for five- or even ten-minute efforts, they can only do this while fresh and certainly not at the end of six-hour-long WorldTour races.
This is perhaps the most impressive thing about professional cyclists: their ability to not just push out big power numbers, but to do so over and over again, particularly while fatigued, and over the course of several weeks in the case of the Grand Tours.
Matt de Vroet joined CyclingTips as an editorial intern in April 2017. He is a third-year journalism student at Monash University in Melbourne and currently races for Van D’am Racing in Australia’s National Road Series.