Two Photos Juxtaposed Of Former World Tour Rider Alex Howes Competing At Both The 2016 Tour De France And The 2023 Tour Divide.

The World’s Biggest Bike Races: Tour de France vs. Tour Divide

BY Alex Howes

How do the Tour de France and Tour Divide compare? Can they be compared? Former World Tour rider Alex Howes is the only athlete to ever compete in both. Here, he compares his TSS scores, Intensity Factor, perceived effort, and personal opinion on which one is harder.

In 2016, I was lining up for my second Tour de France (TdF). It was my 5th year in the World Tour, and after a strong early season and two-week altitude camp, my body and mind were ready to compete on the world’s biggest stage.

Scrolling through social media one evening, I received a message from some rando with a link to Mike Hall’s record-breaking Tour Divide (TD) ride. Just days before the start of that Tour de France, Hall broke the TD record by covering an insane 2750 miles in 13 days, 22 hours, and 51 minutes. The message read something like, “You boys in France are a joke, this is what a real bike racer looks like.” I shrugged it off and proceeded to race my heart out around France. But a seed had been planted, and I knew one day I’d have a go at the Tour Divide.

My TdF and TD in Numbers

This year was the year, and with plenty of nerves and far less prep than desired, I jumped straight into the deep end of my first Tour Divide. Did I, the highly touted, “super strong” ex-World Tour rider smash the record? Hahaha, not even remotely close. But I did enjoy watching everything I thought I knew about endurance go right out the window. Have a look at the table below:

Days“Rest” Day(s)TSSElevation Gain (m)Ride TimeDistance (km)Average Speed (kph)Kilojoules
Tour de France2325,47451,827104:22:003,79236.3575,069
per day2382,2534:301643,263
Tour Divide19.515,20259,284244:00:004,42218.199,452
per day2663,04012:302265,100

First thing’s first, it’s important to remember that these are my numbers. The best of the best complete Tour Divide in under 16 days, and I don’t think I need to mention that the best Tour de France riders are lightyears ahead of mid-pack WT rider like me. But let’s not get caught up in semantics. I included the rest days from both events because rest = performance. While Divide riders don’t generally take a rest day to rebuild a wheel like I did, I’m sure they could push harder in the days following if they had mandatory rest days like they do in the TdF.

With those caveats aside, the raw numbers are hard to fully comprehend. The Tour Divide is clearly ahead in terms of kjs, distance, elevation and ride time. Ride time is particularly crazy. 244 hours in 19.5 days equates to three casual 81-hour weeks. That’s absolutely mind-blowing, even for World Tour professionals who see a 35-hour week as monstrous. Add in Unbound the week before and I had a total of 263 hours on the bike for the month of June. My butt is sore just writing that.

Differing Strategy, Tactics, and Intensity

The TdF is obviously much quicker than the TD, with more than double the average speed. Pull out the rest days and that gap becomes even more significant. It’s also incredibly important to understand that the TdF is not raced as a time trial like the Divide. The TdF is more of a contest to see who can save as much energy as possible, and use that saved energy in short, tactically savvy bursts.

Intensity Factor (IF) cuts through some of the noise and gives us an idea of how hard TdF riders are pushing out there. My lowest IF at the TdF (second rest day) was .59 and my highest was a leg-searing .87. An average day at the TdF was mid to high .70s. On the other end of the spectrum, my highest IF at the Tour Divide maxed out at .54, and a few days were a comically slow .40.

Very interestingly, the TSS for the two is incredibly close, but the Tour Divide seems to have a slight edge. While it does have a slightly lower total TSS, it has a higher average per day. What’s interesting is when we remove the rest days and a TT from my TdF (which I admittedly did as little as possible in an effort to save energy and just make time cut on the day), the average TSS per day comes out to 266 — the exact same per day average TSS as the Tour Divide.

There are a whole lot of yeah, buts behind those numbers. For example, my threshold was set about 25w higher for the TdF in 2016 thanks to better fitness and lower altitude. Also, the average temperature of the Divide was much lower than the TdF, which is typically raced in the heat of the day. Nonetheless, I was shocked to see the TSS numbers come out almost exactly the same. This suggests there really is an upper limit to what a particular human engine can handle day after day. After a certain amount of load is applied (whether that’s intensity or duration) the body says, “We’re done, bud.”

Which Is Harder?

No groundbreaking revelations here. We all know that the TdF is way faster and the TD is way more time in the saddle. But which is harder? I guess as the only person to complete both, I’m the one who has to make the call.

I’m inclined to give the nudge to the TdF. It’s hard to fully explain, even to my current self, just how deep one has to dig just to survive the TdF. That said, three weeks after Divide, I still find myself falling asleep at random hours of the day and my left hand hardly works.

New Moms and World-Class Athletes

In my opinion, it’s like comparing a new mother to a professional powerlifter. A professional powerlifter dedicates their life and trains every day in order to execute the perfect lift. In competition and in front of a massive crowd, that powerlifter might do a one-rep max of 1200 lbs, shock the world, and line up all the endorsements.

On the other hand, a new mother lifts that same 1200 lbs by lifting her 10 lb baby 120 times over the course of a day. She won’t sleep, she’s drowning in stress, and other than a tray of lasagna from her neighbor, it’s all on her. There’s little fanfare, no crowd, and no cash prize. She could never lift 1200 lbs at once, but she doesn’t need to because she’s a total rockstar to her baby and making magic one 10 lb lift at a time.

So which is harder, being a new mother or setting a world record in the deadlift? Good question, but I’d posture that just because many people are capable of doing one and only a select few are genetically capable of doing the other, doesn’t necessarily change the effort required.

They’re both hard, but exist in entirely different universes.

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Image Of Cyclist Alex Howes
About Alex Howes

After a decade of racing in the World Tour, Alex is currently exploring all things bikes with Cannondale – Velocio. Whether it’s Tour Divide, the Lifetime Grand Prix or the Fat Pursuit in the winter, Howes is there.

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