The 2021 Vuelta a Espana enters its third and final week with a rest day, which, as you’ll discover, could make or break a rider’s race.
Monday 30th August 2021 is a date most prescient in the minds of many of the world’s greatest cyclists, for this is the date of the Vuelta a Espana’s second rest day.
After 15 gruelling stages, the likes of Rémy Rochas of Cofidis, who uses Campagnolo Super Record, and Lilian Calmejane (AG2R Citroen Team), who uses Campagnolo’s wheels and groupset, can look forward to a day of recovery, a day where they can shift down the gears and seek a degree of freshness before the last big push to the final stage’s 33.8km time-trial from Padron to Santiago de Compostela on Sunday 5th September.
SLEEP IS THE MAIN AIM
But what exactly do the riders do?
Lie back, watch TV and consume mountains of Big Macs? ? Not quite, though sleep is essential. Riders will enjoy a lie-in, usually rising around 9.30-10am. They’ll also look to nap in the afternoon.
That’s because despite the wealth of cutting-edge recovery tools on the market, the best recovery tool remains the most natural one: sleep.
When it comes to a rider’s performance, sleep’s vital for many reasons. Lack of it – common at GrandTours, especially during the final week – and a rider’s speed and power output decreases.
It also leads to reduced reaction times – not great when descending in the mountains – and lowers the immune system.
This is one reason why upper-respiratory infections can be so prevalent as a race like the Vuelta rolls into its final week.
Importantly, lack of sleep impairs muscular recovery, too. You see, when you sleep, your brain releases human growth hormone (HGH).
This repairs and rebuilds muscles by stimulating the liver and other tissues to create a protein called insulin-like growth factor 1. Ergo, lack of sleep reduces HGH production, leading to restricted muscle growth.
Finally, insufficient sleep can affect eating habits.
Which brings us onto a rider’s rest-day diet. After burning up to 8,000 calories a day, you’d think the riders would be given carte-blanche to eat what they’d like.
Not a bit of it. While it’s true the team chefs will conjure up rest-day treats, they’ll actually consume fewer calories than normal.
Why? Let’s go back to the 2012 Vuelta a Espana to explain. After stage 16, Joaquim Rodriguez led Alberto Contador by 28secs. The next day was a rest day before the riders returned for stage 17 – 187.3km between Santander and Fuente Dé.
Unlike several of the previous days, stage 17 was viewed as relatively safe for Rodriguez with only the occasional mountain punctuating a predominantly flat route.
That didn’t matter to Contador who broke Rodriguez on the flat before pulling further away on the category-two ascent to Fuente Dé. Rodriguez looked sluggish after the rest day, losing two minutes 38 seconds to his Spanish rival and with it the chance of his first GrandTour title.
What went wrong with Rodriguez? Let us explain our thoughts.
A GrandTour rider’s used to turning over a huge number of calories and carbohydrate every day but when the rider is less active, like on a rest day, if they don’t temper their calorie intake you see what’s called a supercompensation of calorie stores.
What’s supercompensation? Simply, every gramme of carbohydrate stored in the body attracts three grammes of water. If riders eat the same amount of carbohydrate on a rest day, without expending all that energy, they’re left with an excess.
This makes the cells swell up and, when they do, metabolic processes become inefficient and the rider can underperform, just like Rodriguez.
RIDE AND MASSAGE
This is also why few riders won’t ride at all; in fact, most will ride between one and two hours, generally at an easy, chatting pace but with a few sprints thrown in to keep mind and body active.
It’s after this ride that they’ll enjoy a massage. The recovery benefits of this are numerous and include dilating blood vessels to accelerate the removal of waste products and enhance the speed of oxygen deliver to the muscles; relieve muscle tension and soreness; and improve a muscle’s range of motion.
This recovery takes more technological forms, too. At the 2021 Tour de France, an AG2R Citroen physiotherapist worked on rider Dorian Godon with an EME Polyter Evo. This is a portable recovery device designed to ease trauma in case of crashes and overuse injuries.
Compression boots are also popular. The rider slips into what looks like a sleeping bag shaped into a pair of leggings, which then inflates and compresses.
This increases blood pressure from the ankles through to the calves and thighs, and is a useful tool for alleviating the supercompensation issues talked about earlier as it keeps the blood flowing at a high volume and doesn’t let the inactive cells swell with water.
The riders will also have media and sponsorship engagements, albeit many of those are online at the moment due to the Covid situation.
They’ll then hit the sack again for hopefully a good night’s sleep before, in the case of the 2021 Vuelta a Espana, the 180km 16th stage between Laredo and Santa Cruz de Bezana.
From there, the most successful could well be the one who rests best!