Cycling races have a long history. The first races took place already at the end of the 19th century and still remain an important part of the cycling world. Any event spawning over such a long period of time is bound to evolve, and cycling races are no exception.
One of the major changes in the cycling world are undoubtedly the technological advances. The bikes are more resistant, faster, and more aerodynamic, which greatly impacts the average racing speed.
Another change, of course, is the progress of sports nutrition and its essential nutritional strategies, such as carb loading, fueling, and muscle recovery. Dietary supplements changed the cycling world, pushing cyclists towards new limits.
Let's analyze the evolution of the average speed based on the example of the eight largest cycling races. We included all the three 3-week races (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and La Vuelta) and all the five monumental races (Milano-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Il Lombardia).
Indipendant cyclists, 400-kilometer stages, and surpassing the magic limit
In the beginning, cycling races were quite different from the races we see today. There were far fewer cyclists on the roads, and everyone was basically racing for themselves. There were no teams, and cyclists could only dream about support.
They were forced to solve problems by themselves, and since the stages in 3-week races were longer than 400 kilometers, you can imagine the amount of problems they had to face.
Combine stage length, absence of support, and poor equipment to understand the lower average speed of that period, which used to be from 25 to 29 km/h. It took a long time for a cyclist to break the magic limit of 30 km/h.
The first to do it was Antonio Pesenti at Giro d'Italia in 1932. In the 20th edition of this prestigious race, he won first place with 11 minutes of advantage, breaking the limit of 30 km/h. His average speed at the 3200-kilometer-long race was 30.59 km/h.
Two years later, this magic limit was surpassed in Tour de France as well. It was the 28th edition of the world's largest cycling race, and it consisted of 23 stages, two more than today. The winner was Antonin Magne, who cycled for 147 hours with an average speed of 30.36 km/h.
In the second edition of Tour de France, cyclists tried various methods to reach the finish line. In an ingenuous plot, 29 competitors, including the top four positions, took a train to cut the course. Five months later they were disqualified, their results annulled, and they were prohibited from joining the race again.
The last of the three stage-based races to break the magic limit was La Vuelta. To its defense, it is the youngest of the three, and initially it had many problems before becoming a regular part of cycling competitions after the Second World War.
The limit of 30 km/h was exceeded in its tenth edition, but this was in 1955. It took 20 more years to break the limit compared to the other two races, which was also assisted by technologic advances that allowed for higher speeds.
Nevertheless, we don't want to deprive Jean Dotto from the title of the first cyclist to break the 30 km/h limit. To be exact, the average speed of the French cyclist was 34.27 km/h.
More than half a century to break the next limit
Once the 30 km/h limit was surpassed, some cyclists were already contemplating how to reach the next one. Breaking the 40 km/h limit was an appealing idea, but with the equipment and cycling methods of the era, this was impossible.
We had to wait for more than half a century until cyclists were able to get close to the 40 km/h limit and finally break it.
This effort was mainly made possible by technological advances and cyclists' racing preparation. Cyclists began to train in a more structured way, and proper sports nutrition became increasingly important. Alcohol, used widely in the past, was replaced by isotonic sports drinks.
The first of the three Grand Tours to break the 40 km/h limit was La Vuelta. To break it was the Swiss Alex Zülle in 1997, who completed the twenty-two stages with an average speed of 41.72 km/h.
Two years later, the magic limit was broken in Tour de France. It was 1999 when Lance Armstrong completed the course with an average speed of 40.27 km/h. For well-known reasons, his victory was revoked, so the first cyclist to officially break the limit of 40 km/h was the runner up Alex Zülle.
Surprisingly, it took a lot of time to break this limit at Giro d'Italia. Only in 2014, Vincenzo Nibali managed to win the race with an average speed of 40.11 km/h.
Another interesting fact. At Giro d'Italia, an average speed above 40 km/h was achieved only four times, the last time in 2021 by Egan Bernal.
The limits were broken sooner at the monuments
We are not surprised that the average speeds in monuments were much higher compared to stage races. It is a lot easier to ride at high speed for a single day, and the terrain on classics is flatter compared to many stages of the Grand Tour.
This was also true in the past. That's why the two magic limits were broken much sooner at the monuments.
Evolution of average speed at the monuments from 1903 to 2021.
The first to break the limit was Paris-Roubaix, in which the winner of the first edition in 1896 had an average speed of 30.16 km/h.
In the following seasons, the average speed was rising rapidly, and in 1943, it already surpassed the second limit. In the first edition after the Second World War, the winner of Paris-Roubaix, Marcel Kint, completed the 250 kilometers with an average speed of 41.49 km/h.
The monuments did not take long to break the magic limits. Milan-San Remo, Il Lombardia, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege surpassed the limit of 30 km/h already before the Second World War, only Tour of Flanders did it after the war.
Amateur cyclists reach an average speed of 30 km/h.
Not long after the Second World War, the average speed exceeded 40 km/h. As said, the first cyclists to do it were those racing at Paris-Roubaix. They broke the limit already during the war.
Ten years later, the feat was done at Milan-San Remo, and the others followed quickly. The last to break the limit was Liege-Bastogne-Liege, in which Frans Melckenbeeck was finally successful in 1963.
More time is needed to break the next limit
Ever since the limit of 40 km/h was broken, we are looking at the next limit – 50 km/h. But this will take time.
Today, the stage races regularly see cyclists reach an average speed of 40 km/h, and in the monuments a few kilometers per hour more. But the limit of 50 km/h seems far away.
To break this limit, we need further technological advances and the development of sports nutrition.
Bicycles are becoming faster and lighter, but this impacts race times only in seconds instead of minutes, which would represent a significant impact on the average speed.
We expect this limit will be first broken at the classic race Milan-San Remo, known as the fastest of the eight races included in our analysis. This is confirmed by the results of the last two editions, in which the average speed already exceeded 45 km/h.
The first step in the right direction would be to remove the minimal weight of a professional racing bike (6.8 kg) by the International Cycling Union. Technology has long been able to make lighter bicycles without sacrificing cyclists' safety. Lighter bicycles could increase the average speed, especially when going uphill, which would greatly affect the race average speed.
But technology is only one aspect. Even the best bicycle is useless if the cyclist is not able to sustain the highest level of performance.
Lately, we see significant changes in this regard. Professional teams put more attention to research and tests in the field of sports nutrition, which is a fundamental aspect of an athlete's preparation.
In the following years, we expect further developments, and every single advantage become extremely important.
Sports nutrition brands like Nduranz follow the latest research and their products aim to increase the endurance of professional athletes. These brands will undoubtedly play a huge role in breaking the limit of 50 km/h.