The Tour de France Isn’t Just a Race–it’s a Tech Showcase

Authored by Nate Martins • 
June 26, 2018

Side by side comparison of modern and old cyclist

Every year, fans gather along French roads to watch the Tour de France, where riders compete for three weeks during the world’s oldest cycling challenge. While focus is mostly on stage times and yellow jerseys, discerning cyclists use the Tour as a harbinger for cutting-edge bicycle technology.

Innovations in performance have happened throughout the race’s history. At HVMN, we’ll be watching closely this year as riders use our HVMN Ketone ester as superfuel. While taking a look back at other breakthroughs in innovation, we think HVMN Ketone ester is set to join that list.

The Tour offers a glimpse into what moves the needle for riders and how technology is pushing them to operate at peak physical performance. It’s a grueling race that has, in over a century, seen its fair share of changes.

Quick Tour Facts

  • This year will be the 105th edition of the Tour de France, starting on July 7th. The race will last 23 days, covering 2,000+ miles over 21 stages. It was created by L’Auto, a struggling sports magazine, as a ploy to increase readership by setting cyclists on what was thought to be an impossible task.
  • Though called the Tour de France, the race can traverse other countries like Belgium, Italy, Spain and Britain. This year, stage 16 will have a section taking place in Spain.
  • The average cyclist burns about 126,000 calories during the entire race.1
  • Jerseys all have different meanings – yellow is worn by the overall time leader, green is the “sprinter’s jersey” worn by the leader in points, white with red polka dots is the “king of the mountain” jersey worn by the leader in mountain stage points, and white is worn by the fastest overall rider under age 25.
  • In the early 1900s, cyclists often drank beer2 (to “boost energy”) and smoked cigarettes (to "open their lungs”) during stages. Cheating was rampant: riders have taken trains, water bottles have been filled with lead for downhill speed, and gangs have been sent to attack competitors with sticks.

The Evolution of Bicycle Technologyillustration of bicycle schematics

Imagine riding a 40lb bike; that’s about what Maurice Garin’s winning machine weighed at the first ever Tour de France in 1903.3 The bike was a fixed gear single speed and the rims were made of wood, but it debuted toe clips, an innovation at time.

Of course, changes were made to bikes over the years. Saddlebags and pumps were added to bikes, as cyclists were forced to do their own maintenance. Drop handlebars were introduced in 1914. Multiple-geared freewheels were introduced in the 1930s, affording riders the ability to switch gears–but they had to dismount the bike and reposition the chain. Then came the derailleur in 1937, along with aluminum wheels.

Those post-World War years brought big changes to frame geometry, with road surfaces allowing for a more aggressive setup. But elements of the frames themselves remained largely the same: steel-lugged frames, steel cranks and side-pull brakes remained the standard, carrying Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx to wins throughout the 60s and 70s.

That changed in 1994, when Miguel Indurain’s win (the last on a steel-framed bike) marked the death of the steel frame.

Carbon is King

“In the early 1990’s there was a wholesale shift in bicycle frame materials from steel to carbon fiber,” said Daniel Healey, Head Sports Scientist at VirtuGO. “In fact the bicycle industry adopted carbon fiber en masse a long time before the automotive industry. The Tour de France is where, year after year, the flexibility in design afforded by carbon fiber was showcased.”

Healey, who was also the Head Sports Scientist at Tinkoff-Saxo and BMC professional cycling teams, cites the mid-90s as the “era of exotic materials” for bike frames. Aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber were all debuted, with most of the peloton making the switch to carbon fiber by 1998. That year, Marco Pantani's Bianchi Mega Pro XL Reparto Corse, a custom-built aluminum frame, was the last non-carbon fiber bike ridden to Tour victory.

In the early 2000s, Lance Armstrong became a futurist of contemporary cycling technology. Despite the stripping of those titles, Armstrong rode some of the most technologically-advanced bikes on the Tour, marked by his 2003 win on a carbon fiber frame, the lightest bike in the Tour’s history.

Carbon fiber bikes have become so advanced that many add weight to meet the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) minimum weight requirements of about 15lbs.

With all bikes hovering around the same weight, tech has moved to aerodynamics. Things like deep-section wheels (meaning less shallow rims) and closely fitted clothing and teardrop helmets have even started leaking into non-competitive cycling, much like carbon frames did decades prior.

Power Meters: From Academia to Core Bike Technology

Along with wholesale shifts toward carbon frames, power meters were introduced in the late 80s and have since become ubiquitous.

Attached to the bike frame, power meters use strain gauges to measure torque and angular velocity, calculating the power output of a rider. At a time when heart rate data was the primary metric used to gauge rider output,4 power meters provided a deeper look at the intensity of intervals and necessary physical demand of the rider. However, they were expensive and reserved for the elite cycling teams.

Coaches, riders and national teams began to see the benefits of training with power meters. In 1994 the US National Team was the first entire team to use power meters during the Tour de Pont, and Greg Lemond first debuted the SRM power meter at the Tour de France in the mid-80s. “And cycling science changed forever,” said Healey.

What was missing? Software to organize all that data.

In 2003, CyclingPeaks was developed to analyze power meter data. Running on Windows, the software inspired numerous other open-source programs for power meter data analysis and analytical tools. This made the data even more actionable.

Gradually, more riders and teams adopted power meters. When more affordable versions were developed, amateur cyclists began implementing the technology as well. The power meter didn’t just change cycling data; it also changed training by providing real-time insight into elements like pacing and rest. Before the power meter, this type of data could only be gathered in a lab, meaning a cyclist couldn’t measure power while training on the road.

With the newfound abundance of rider data and the ability to easily and accurately gather it, training regimens began to focus less on simple accumulation of volume and instead on more specific, structured efforts.

Old image of cyclist smoking during a race

Human Nutrition Moves to the Forefront

The first Tour de France riders fueled up on champagne and chocolate; now you’re more likely to find that in the basket of a beach cruiser than the backpack of an elite athlete. It wasn’t even until the 1920s that riders began using musette bags to carry their food and drink.

The 30s was a mixed bag for nutrition. On one hand, in 1935, the entire peloton stopped to drink with locals during the 17th stage, with Julien Moineau skipping the beer and winning the stage. On the other, 1939 was the first year riders began taking vitamins to improve performance.5

The Tour de France is the tip of the spear in terms of cycling technology. But nutrition innovations were often adopted from outside the cycling community.

Carb-loading and caffeine dominated the 70s and 80s. Both before and during races, riders relied on carbohydrates and pre-race coffees as fuel sources. A 1988 study by the International Journal of Sports Medicine followed the food consumption of five Tour riders to determine that they, on average, consumed over 5,000 calories daily with 61% of their diet coming from carbs.6 The major source of these calories was...cakes eaten on the course. Riders were even drinking Coca Cola for recovery.

It wasn’t until the 90s that a more thoughtful approach to nutrition was introduced. The 7-Eleven team was the first to bring a chef on Tour to make sure the food was high quality. Previously, riders staying at hotels along the course were victim to what was available there, often bread, meat and pasta.

Today, we’re seeing nutrition taken to a whole new level. Diet was the first to be considered, with riders like Chris Froome seeing benefits from the low-carb, high-fat keto diet.

HVMN is powering cyclists at this year’s Tour with a long promised innovation–exogenous ketones. HVMN Ketone ester is the world's first ketone ester drink, clinically validated to improve training, recovery, and performance. And with recent cycling performance scandals, it was important to make a product that is compliant with use in sport by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Cyclists saw the results of the product in testing and were interested: riders went ~2% further in a 30 minute time trial which was about 400 meters.7

Projected graph of HVMN Ketone performance improvement

Interestingly, the evolution of bike performance came before the performance evolution of riders themselves. We don’t expect riders to stop for a mid-race beer anytime soon. With bikes generally the same, human performance will separate yellow jerseys from everyone else.

Tour de Innovation

On the morning on July 7, fans will line the start of the Tour’s first stage at the French island of Noirmoutier. Riders will continue to the town of Fontenay-le-Comte, twisting along the Vendée coastline, battling cross-winds.

Of course, eyes will be on the riders. But they’ll also be on the new gear, innovations that will shape the cycling community from the top down. Like disc brakes last year, what will be this year’s most discussed piece of technology?

The HVMN team will be watching, and considering ways to push performance even further.

Emails worth reading.

Once a week, we'll send you the most compelling research, stories and updates from the world of human enhancement.

HVMN Co-founders Michael Brandt and Geoffrey Woo