Photo by Phillip Slaughter

The 101st annual Tour de France is nearing what the French cycling fans might call its denouement. Cycling biggest event started on July 5th  and continues through July 27th  covering 3,663 kilometers. It’s been a tough ride for many of these athletes.

According to news reports, through its first fifteen stages, the Tour has seen the twenty-seven riders drop out due to injuries, including the returning champion, Chris Froome, top contender Alberto Contador and first-tier sprinter Mark Cavendish. American hopeful, Andrew Talansky, hindered by back pain from crashes accumulated early in the race, was also forced out of the race.

With these riders out, the favorites to be standing on the platform in Paris are Vincenzo Nibali of Italy and Alejandro Valverde of Spain. American Tejay van Garderen is also a long shot to win. At the time of this writing, the Washington native was in fifth-place overall, but is less than a minute out of podium placement, a gap that can be eliminated on the grueling Alps and Pyrenees mountains.

With this number of injuries, one wonders about the physical challenges of this sport. We sought some insights from spine surgeon and avid cyclist Dr. Richard Guyer of Texas Back Institute.

How do They Do It?

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“These riders are  in great shape,” Dr. Guyer said. “They are world-class athletes. They ride at amazing speeds for four or five hours every day of the competition,” he noted.

This begs the question, even as superior athletes, how is it possible for these competitors to remain hunched over their handlebars for more than 100 miles a day?

“They use several tactics to relax their backs,” he said. “The tall riders raise their seats. Most will also hold on the top of the handlebar. This gives their back a break from the lumbar strain,” he said.

“We always advise our patients who have had back surgery or who are experiencing back pain to get up and move around,” Dr. Guyer noted. “Of course, the guys who make the cut for the Tour de France, don’t have any back problems,” he laughed.

“One of the biggest causes for back injuries in a race like this is the crashes that inevitably occur,” he said. “When a cyclists is traveling at 30 or 40 miles per hour, in the middle of a pack of other riders, there’s always the possibility of crashes. This can cause muscle strains or even fractures of the vertebrae,” he noted.

What About the Rest of Us?

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While following the Tour de France, many casual cyclists renew their interest in the sport and many start riding again. What are the most important things an amateur rider can do to protect his/her back from injury from riding?

“The most important thing is to change the position of the body,” said Dr. Guyer. “If you have back pain, put the handle bars a little higher and lower the seat so that the posture is not as extreme. Plus, if the rider is flexed down too far, they will have to hyper-extend their neck and this will cause pain.

“Building a strong core, with abdominals and back muscle strength, will also help the casual rider avoid pain,” he said. “It’s also important to stretch one’s back muscles before taking off for a long ride.”

What Type of Bike Design is Best for Your Back 

“Racing bikes, with the small tires and curved handlebars, put the most strain on the back,” Dr. Guyer notes. “However, they travel fast and that’s why serious cyclists like them.”

Hybrid bikestrail bikes, with horizontal handlebars and old fashion ‘cruiser’ bikes are easier on the back,” he said.  “If you have a bad back, the more upright the bike, the better.”

“Overall, cycling is great aerobic exercise,” he said. “It doesn’t help with building bone strength, however. “Walking several miles every day is the best exercise for bone maintenance.”

If you’ve started biking and have developed back pain, or if you’re wondering if your back is strong enough to start this exercise, give us a call and set an appointment to talk with the back specialists at Texas Back Institute.

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