Chris Froome has the perfect storm of physiological attributes it takes to rack up Grand Tour wins, according to science. By Selene Yeager
The infamously grueling Tour de France places extraordinary demands on rider’s bodies. To even consider being competitive, you need extraordinary physiological capabilities, including (but not limited to) the ability to produce in excess of 400 watts (enough power to light up four or five rooms in your house) for up to an hour to hit the leaderboard in time trials.
You need to be built like a whippet so you’re not just powerful, but also able to generate massive power relative to your weight (to the tune of six watts per kilogram) to stay with the pointy end of the pack over multiple hors category climbs. As if that’s not already a lot to ask, you also need to have a high lactate threshold, a high “gross efficiency” (the ability to produce lots of watts without using lots of energy), the capacity to handle high summer heat, and enough luck to survive among 200 other nervous riders in all kinds of road and weather conditions.
And that’s just to get your name mentioned on TV a few times. To win the big dance—especially multiple times a la 2016 champion Chris Froome—you need all that and then some, which was the topic of a study published ahead of print in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. In it, a team of British and South African researchers brought the now three-time Tour de France winner into the lab for a battery of tests, including body composition, VO2 peak, gross efficiency, peak power output, blood lactate, heart rate, lactate threshold, core and skin temperature, sweat rate, and more.
Unsurprisingly, the British champion was an extraordinarily fit lab specimen. His peak power output was 525 watts, which adds up to a whopping 7.5 watts per kilogram. His VO2 peak (the highest volume of oxygen he used during the test; indicative of VO2 max, an individual’s highest possible amount) was 84 mL per kilogram per minute (for the record, 54 mL per kilogram for a man his age would be considered “superior;” in elite cycling ranks, 70 mL per kilogram and above is generally the norm).
Surprisingly, in the weight category, he was measured at 9.5-percent body fat, which is twice as high as is typical for an elite Tour rider. But given the fact that these tests were taken three weeks after the Tour, when he’d already admittedly gained 7 or 8 pounds back from what is an unsustainable peak competition weight, it’s not too farfetched—nor unhealthy.
What really stood out, however, was that Froome exhibits a unique condition inverse to what’s normal with regard to his VO2 peak and his gross efficiency. For reasons that scientists are still unpacking, high efficiency is generally associated with a relatively lower (though still elite level high) VO2 peak. Not so in this case. Froome’s efficiency came in at a relatively high 23 percent (28 percent is considered exceptionally high) in addition to his exceptionally high VO2 peak.
“Though it’s very speculative, it’s possible that in most situations, the natural adaptation of improving gross efficiency—getting more mechanical work done for the same energy—through training offsets the need for an increase in VO2 peak, as this more efficient energy usage covers the need for greater oxygen utilization to produce more energy through aerobic pathways,” says study author Phillip Bell, PhD, senior scientist at GSK Human Performance Lab in Brentford, UK. “That his VO2 peak is very high and gross efficiency is relatively high compared to other professional cyclists gives a potential rationale for what sets a multiple Grand Tour winner apart from the rest.”
Notably, Froome also showed a remarkable thermoregulation, which means he has a great ability to maintain his performance in the heat, key to success in a three-week mid-summer race where high temperatures and humidity are the norm for many stages. And while the researchers didn’t do a gait analysis, he’s also a pretty keen runner—though we don’t recommend he continue doing so in cycling shoes.