How difficult is the Giro d’Italia?
The Giro d’Italia is one of the toughest races on the WorldTour calendar – but what toll does the season-opening Grand Tour impose on the riders?
The EF Education-EasyPost team uses the WHOOP 4.0 tape to measure the physiological exertion, recovery and sleep of their riders throughout the season.
Ahead of the start of the 2022 Giro d’Italia, WHOOP used its data from last year’s race to dive deep into the demands of the Giro – and what it takes to compete in the Grand Tour of Italy.
The WHOOP wearable device records 24/7 data on heart rate, heart rate variability, blood oxygenation, respiratory rate and skin temperature. This data is then used to calculate a “strain score” on a scale of zero to 21, as well as to monitor sleep and recovery.
“Strain is a measure of cardiovascular load — that is, how hard your heart is working,” says Jeremy Powers, a four-time U.S. national cyclocross champion and now coach for WHOOP.
“While this is obviously going to be affected by what you do on the bike – how hard you push, whether you climb or not – there are also other factors which have a subtle impact on this, including temperature, humidity, hydration levels and also how recovered you enter a stage.
Powers says the average stress score for the EF Education-EasyPost team during the 2021 Giro d’Italia was 18.0.
“There were days when guys were running monster strain scores of 20.5+, which for pro riders is an average feat,” he says. “The highest individual tense day in 2021 was May 20 [stage 13 from Ravenna to Verona] by Ruben Guerreiro with 20.7.
Taking an average tension score across the team, the ‘easiest’ race days of the 2021 Giro d’Italia came in stages one (15.4) and 21 (13.0) – both against -the individual watch.
While a race against the clock gives GC contenders a chance to climb the leaderboard – or solidify their position – for many riders it’s a chance to turn their legs around on a day. relatively easy. The short nature of time trials also means there are fewer opportunities to tire out.
On the other hand, three stages saw an average stress score of 20.6 – the team’s highest average score throughout the race. Stage six saw the first summit finish on a medium mountain stage, while stage nine represented the first true high mountain stage of the Giro 2021, and stage 14 ended in a brutal summit finish on the infamous Monte Zoncolan.
While the profile of a particular stage plays a role in how much pressure it puts on a rider, how the stage is raced – and a team’s specific performance or tactics on any given day – is also a factor. important.
“A huge legend here is the unpredictable nature of the Giro d’Italia – you know it’s going to be tough but you just don’t know when,” says Powers.
For this year’s edition, even the first three days in Hungary are tough, with two uphill finishes presenting the potential to lose time before the race even reaches Italy.
There’s no respite once the race reaches its homeland either, with stage four culminating in a monstrous ascent to 1,892m on the slopes of Mount Etna.
Dotted among the mix of lumpy and relatively flat roads as the race winds its way up the Italian mainland are more big days like the 5,000m climb to the finish of stage nine at Blockhaus.
The weather can also be bad in Italy in May.
“It’s usually cold and it’s usually wet,” says Alex Howes, who rides for EF Education-EasyPost and raced the Giro in 2017. “You’re racing through the Dolomites in the spring.”
He says it’s harder to recover if the body is also battling the weather.
As always with the Giro, the last week of the 2022 edition was a real sting in the track, with the queen stage of 168 km on the penultimate day with the passes of San Pellegrino, Pordoi and Fedaia, for a total accumulated 4,490 m of elevation gain.
You can see the effort required as the race reaches its crescendo in the EF Education-EasyPost rider fatigue scores for the final days of the 2021 Giro, averaging 20.4 over the final two mountain stages.
Powers continued: “Despite the fact that the riders will be in such good shape, it’s such a grueling race that you can’t help but start to feel the effects throughout the Giro.
“It’s going to be more difficult for the riders to recover after particularly difficult stages towards the second half,” he added. “You’re also going to see that their maximum heart rate will start to drop.”
Howes agrees and says it’s typical for a runner’s maximum heart rate to drop about ten beats per minute at the end of a Grand Tour.
“You can’t do it up there anymore,” adds the 2019 US National Road Race Champion. “And the gap between some runners will be interesting as well. will be around 140 – it’s not related to their physical condition, it’s just their physiology.
Recovery is crucial
Rest and recovery are crucial for any performance-oriented cyclist, especially during a race like the Giro d’Italia.
“On days when a rider is primed and ready to go, we would expect them to build up tension more slowly than when riding on a day when they were under-recovered, under-hydrated and riding in hot conditions. and wet,” says Powers.
The EF Education-EasyPost team measures recovery across the WHOOP 4.0 band, rated on a scale of 0-100%.
Recovery scores of 0-33% indicate poor recovery, 34%-66% indicate a reasonable level, while scores above 67% mean you’re ready for a day of peak performance.
“During the Giro, the average recovery for the EF cycling team was 53%, which was about right for a Grand Tour,” Powers explains. “These runners are in such good shape that they are able to post consistently high effort scores without being absolutely knocked out the next day.”
However, Powers says the highest average score (78%) still came towards the start of the race (stage three), with the lowest (30%) coming after stage 17 – another great day in the mountains. .
Sponsor and media commitments can also reduce recovery time, especially for well-placed riders and stage winners.
When a rest day arrives, however, most professional cyclists show impressive recovery ability, and heart rate variability (HRV) can help provide an indication of a cyclist’s willingness to perform. .
“Generally after a good day’s rest you would expect to see a pilot’s HRV bounce back towards its baseline, especially for seasoned pro pilots,” says Powers, who points to Lachlan Morton’s data from his epic Alt Tour in 2021.
“After the grueling three weeks [riding every stage of the race ahead of the peloton – including stage transfers] his HRV rebounded to baseline two days after he finished.
Variable sleep duration
The influence of Giro logistics is an unexpected factor that influences recovery and sleep.
With the 2022 Giro spanning all of Italy and the race starting in Hungary, there are likely to be lengthy transfers between stages. The opportunity for quality sleep can vary from day to day, Powers says.
“The only clear trend when it comes to rider sleep performance at Giro 2021 was that there was no clear trend,” he concludes.
“There were days when passengers had more than 9.5 hours of sleep, while other days with travel, transfers, etc., they didn’t have the luxury of time and only managed to about 5.5 hours of sleep.
“A number of runners were able to squeeze in naps, especially on rest days, which helped offset the sleep debt they were accumulating over the course of the race.”
Runners react differently
Ultimately, how each rider reacts to the exertion of a three-week Grand Tour is different, depending on their role on the team, their physiology and a wide range of external factors.
“Some of the drivers are Ferraris, which can be incredibly punchy when they need to be, while others are diesel trucks that can go easy for days on end,” says Powers.
“The WHOOP Stress Score is based on an individual’s heart rate data, which can be affected by a multitude of different things.
“It will very much depend on the rider and what they are capable of – whether they are trying too hard or riding into themselves. If they push harder than they are capable of, they are more likely to burn out faster, which is when you see their heart rate extremely high compared to what it normally would be.
“It’s the same story if they’re massively under-recovered before a stage. They just won’t be able to perform at their usual level.
Crashes and injuries also take a toll on the strain a cyclist can handle, as well as their recovery and sleep quality, which impacts performance.
And what about after the race? Well, for EF Education-EasyPost rider Howes, the end of a Grand Tour is a chance to reset – mentally and physically – before setting off again.
“For the first few days after that, you might wake up at the same time you normally would and think, ‘OK, let’s move here,’ but then you make coffee and sit down and melt into the couch,” says -he. . “And not only because of the physical effort, but also mentally. You don’t have time to disconnect during the race.
“In the weeks and months that follow this deep fatigue, where everything hurts and where you are tired all the time. On the other hand, you get on the bike and do the best numbers you’ve ever done. It’s a weird balance.