Staging Your Personal Tour de France

You may feel like the most inactive person in the world, but it is possible to achieve your own Tour de France victory

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

Your heart races, breath shallow from excitement, and sweat moistens your back. The road ahead looks ominously mountainous. Could a bicycle make it up that high? You don't doubt it for a second. Without a thought to the danger of falling, you go full steam ahead -- with your cheers -- along with other spectators of the Tour de France.

Throughout the three-week competition, millions of viewers follow elite cyclists through some 2,100 miles of French terrain. People root for their favorite contender and stand in awe of these amazing athletes. And for good reason.

"This is the athlete cream of the crop for bike racing in the world today," says Bob Roll, author of The Tour de France Companion. He should know. He was a member of the first American team to participate in the legendary race.

Tour contestants have three times the lung capacity and half the resting heart rate. The typical Tour de France contestant reaches a maximum heart rate of above 200 beats per minute on a regular basis, compared to almost never for any other segment of the population, says Roll.

Don't worry if you feel sluggish next to these guys. Mother Nature handed them their remarkable physiology. They were genetically predisposed to have narrow shoulders, large legs, and relatively skinny arms -- the ideal profile of a competitive racer.

Since the Tour's first run in 1903, there have only been 20 to 25 Americans who have ever qualified for the event, says Roll.

But physical prowess can only take these cyclists so far. Willpower, tenacity, and a never-surrender attitude must also be in the successful racer's repertoire.

"The race throws too much at you," says Roll. "Anything can happen out in the road. The weather could be bad, the crowds can step in front of you, the food can be bad, you might not sleep because there are parties outside your hotel all night, you might crash on oil on the road, or you might be taken out by other riders that fall down."

Roll likens the challenges of the Tour to the trials of everyday life. "The bike racer can slog up the mountains, plunge down the valleys, win, lose, crash, and the guy that gets to the finish in Paris, he's the guy that gets up and recovers from the setbacks."

Cyclist Lance Armstrong is a popular example of someone with an indomitable spirit. After he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain and was given a very low chance to live, he not only survived the disease, but he went on to win five consecutive Tours. A seventh victory would make him the only contender to ever to achieve such a feat.

Be Like Lance

You may feel like the most inactive person in the world, but it is possible to achieve your own Tour de France victory.

"Cycling is a great activity that can be performed by a wide variety of fitness levels, body types, and body sizes," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.

The benefits are just as generous. According to Bryant, biking can help burn calories, control body weight, and reduce stress, blood pressure, and risk of type 2 diabetes. It can also improve overall cardiovascular fitness, cholesterol levels, and immune function.

Not only that, there's the advantage of being outdoors in the sunlight and fresh air, having adequate cooling, and seeing different terrains and scenery.

And if you enjoy the sport, the pros multiply. "The best exercise that you can select is the one that you enjoy, because you're most likely to do that on a consistent basis," says Bryant. "Don't get caught up in 'Well, this one doesn't burn as many calories as the next one.' The most important thing to consider is, what type of activities do you really enjoy?"

Incidentally, a 150-pound cyclist pedaling a gentle pace of 12 miles per hour can work off 410 calories in an hour (about the same amount as a Quarter Pounder hamburger), says Patrick McCormick, a spokesman for the League of American Bicyclists.

Your own biking regimen, though, may pale compared to the 5,900 average calories burned per day in the Tour and may not work off as much as running. (An hour on the bike may burn about 400, while the same time on the treadmill may burn 700 calories.)

Nonetheless, cycling is a still a great exercise and has its merits. It doesn't strain the knees, joints, and back to the extent that running does. In fact, as many runners age, they become cyclists because the pedaling motion reduces pressure on their knees, says McCormick.