You tell me what “strong” looks like

There are stereotypical physical builds that reflect a person’s suitability to many sports. Rock climbers and long-distance runners, for example, tend to be wiry and thin, as their sports call for minimum body weight and joint loading. Female gymnasts and figure skaters tend to be short of stature, as this helps them perform axial spinning maneuvers easier and faster. Long limbs and great height are assets in basketball, volleyball, swimming, and racket sports.

All of this got me thinking. What does a strong cyclist look like?

As one early episode of the road cycling anime “Yowamushi Pedal” mentions, cycling is one of the only sports where competitors are freed from supporting their own body weight. The bike frees cyclists to put all of their muscle and sinew into forward propulsion. So you’ll find that great cyclists come in many shapes and sizes.

Let’s look at the professional road cycling peloton first. As glamorous as multi-day Grand Tour races like the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España are, they are actually multiple competitions happening all at once.

Jerseys of the Tour de France. I skipped the white jersey in this post, as it is for riders under 25. Photo credit: probikekit.co.uk

The main one is the “general classification” or “GC,” where the rider with the cumulative fastest time through all of the stages of a given Grand Tour (e.g. 21 for the Tour de France) is declared the ultimate winner. For this prize, each second counts, because it all adds up. As the event progresses, GC leaders are given the yellow jersey (“maillot jaune”) in the Tour de France, a red jersey for the Vuelta a España, and a pink jersey (“maglia rosa”) for the Giro d’Italia.

Traditionally the domain of spindly climbers – cyclists who tend to look like they can be blown away by the wind, but can ascend like nobody’s business – is the “King of the Mountains” (“KOM”) competition. The mountain passes in each stage are given ranks or categories, based on how steep and how long they are, and they are accordingly assigned a points value. Riders who can finish climbing these mountains first are awarded maximum points, and the one with the most of these KOM points at the end of the Grand Tour is the KOM winner. For the Tour de France, the white jersey with red polka dots, or simply “the polka dot jersey,” is worn by the current leader of this competition. There is a similar competition in other multi-day cycling races.

Finally we have the general points classification competition of the Tour de France, which is the domain of muscular sprinters and puncheurs, and symbolized by the green jersey (“maillot vert”). Similar to how mountain climbs have points to be awarded, there are intermediate sprint competitions that happen within a particular stage, and there are points waiting at the end of each stage as well. The first rider to cross the “finish” of an intermediate sprint or the stage finish is awarded maximum points. At the end of the Grand Tour, the rider with the most number of these points is the green jersey winner. Again, there is a similar competition in other multi-day cycling races.

Climber Chris Froome shaking hands with sprinter/puncheur Peter Sagan at the start of Stage 20 of the 2015 Tour de France. Froome is in yellow; Sagan is in green. Note how different their physiques are. Photo credit: Zimbio/Getty Images

So, obviously, the three Grand Tours in professional road cycling account for different types of riders and their respective strengths. Nobody expects a heavy, muscular sprinter like Peter Sagan or Andre Greipel to win on long mountain climbs against the likes of Chris Froome or Nairo Quintana, who are both very lean and prioritize power-to-weight ratio. Conversely, Quintana and Froome are outside bets on an intermediate sprint or a sprint finish.

That’s great, but what about outside professional cycling? It is here that arguably there are even more surprises to see.

The large man with the Corima deep-section wheels is David Charlton, CEO of the David’s Salon chain – and a known triathlete. His appearance belies his riding ability and speed. Photo credit: KulitRunner.

I’ve seen some of the most rotund people outride what most people consider the “favorites” from their external appearance, and many triathlete friends swear by this as well. I’ve seen fixed-gear riders outperform and outride Lycra-clad road cyclists in a 200 km brevet. I’ve seen what appear to be old, rickety guys with simple steel bikes hoof their way up Tagaytay faster than riders in their prime with all the bells and whistles to help them.

Clearly, you can never really tell how much ability a rider has just by looking at them. So the next time you are tempted to body-shame a fellow cyclist, keep this in mind. The only way to know for sure how strong a rider is, is by riding with them.

Now get out there, ride your bike, and you tell me what a “strong” cyclist looks like.

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