The dangers of a Tour de France travel day: ‘You always have s**t legs because of the journey’

In-race flights are not a new phenomenon, but many suspect further away Grand Départs will become more common, posing headaches for all involved

Tour de France
(Image credit: Getty)

Every Tour de France rider will be desperately hoping that the pause in racing due to a travel day does not see them suffer like Mark Cavendish did at the Giro d’Italia when the race crossed from Hungary back to its home nation.

“Mark started the first three days in Hungary great and won one stage but after we took the flight, the day after he was in a really bad way,” reveals Vasilis Anastopoulos, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s coach to the Briton. “We couldn’t find the explanation as to why, but he didn’t feel good on the flight or throughout the whole day. I had a talk to him about it and he said that travel really affects him.”

By and large, most riders should avoid the struggle that Cavendish experienced two months ago, mostly because the entire peloton flew from Denmark to France on Sunday evening, thereby reserving Monday as an additional rest day with no further travel required.

But with all three Grand Tours starting outside their home bases this year, and with more foreign starts already confirmed in the coming years, managing the issue is becoming a new stress for teams and riders.

“We didn’t have so much evidence of what was actually going on with Mark, and apparently there are some riders who don’t struggle,” Anastopoulos adds. “We had a two hour flight from Hungary and Mark felt sleepy, perhaps because of the cabin pressure and having to sit for two hours on the flight. Added to that is the wait in the airport and the travel to the hotel. 

“We need to try and find out why it affects some riders. That particular day [when they got to Italy] they rode for one-and-a-half hours, but maybe they needed to do some more riding because with Cav he also didn’t feel good the day after. And this is something I have seen regularly.”

To limit the risk of fatigue settling in and muscles struggling to reactivate when the racing resumes, teams give their riders a few instructions to abide by. Anastopoulos continues: “We ask them all to wear compression socks during the flight, to stay as relaxed as possible, and to drink a lot - a minimum of 500ml per hour. They also need get out on a ride as soon as they can, and if possible have a longer massage than the usual one.

“They should also have a light breakfast so the stomach isn’t too full, as we don’t want to overload them with carbs. As it’s not a rest day, but actually a stressful one because of the physical and mental fatigue due to the travel, we want them having dinner by 7pm and in bed by just after 8 so that they can get some sleep early. That loss of sleep [due to the travel] is a really important factor.” Some riders Cycling Weekly spoke to insist on taking an afternoon sleep, too.

Tour de France

Flights during the Tour are now new. Here is France's Sylvain Calzati (AG2R Prevoyance) sleeping on a plane after winning the eighth stage of the 2006 edition, when the race had to get from Lorient to Bordeaux. 

(Image credit: Getty)

Lennard Kämna of Bora-Hansgrohe is one of a small selection of the peloton riding the Giro-Tour double this season, and he though he was impressed by the organisation of the Giro’s travel day, he too confesses that having to make up such a big distance negatively affects his performance.

“I really don’t like it,” the German says. “You are doing all the travel after a race and you’re not really feeling great. Travelling is harder than sometimes you expect and you always have s**t legs the next day. I totally feel it. After the Nationals, I had a long drive home and then a long flight, and the next day on the bike I felt so s**t.

“I think this one is more like a rest day because we have all day Monday to recover. It should be OK, and it feels like one more rest day than normal in the Tour, which I guess is not as hard as riding 10 days straight.”

Pressures to bring money into the sport have sparked debate in the past about the Tour’s Grand Départ potentially taking place in the United States or Asia, but Kemna is against such a prospect, citing the travel toll on a rider’s body. “I don’t know if this is the future, but I hope we stay in Europe for Gand Tours and we don’t go somewhere further,” he says. 

“I think it’s fine [for European destinations] if you have this rest day afterwards, but if you have the travel and then race straight afters then it’s too hard. But with the rest day it’s fine.”

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