Burning matches

Now that the Tour de France is over, one of the main topics of discussion has been the different racing styles of the two leading GC contenders with one rider putting in more attacks, and the other racing more conservatively (matter of opinion).

Without getting into the individuals involved there (please discuss that on the Pro Racing thread), one thing that I’ve been wondering about is the idea that we have a limited set of matches for a race, and once we burn through them, we as racers are a spent force. In more technical terms, I think it’s the idea that the more very high intensity (anaerobic?) efforts that you do over a period, it depletes some type of reserves very quickly, making recovery very difficult. I’m wondering what’s the science behind the common observation/experience.

So a few questions:

  • is this something that’s been specifically studied?
  • is it proven that work done at very high intensity much more difficult to recover from than the same quantum of work at lower intensities?
  • is it possible for an individual rider to know how many of such efforts are sustainable?
  • is it possible to determine the intensity that depletes reserves much more quickly?

Sorry if these questions are basic but just to understand and learn a bit.

“W Prime” is probably as close as it gets to this.


Just a layman here but the answer to all your questions is “yes.”

It is harder to recover from repeated very hard efforts and everyone will have a limit as to how many such efforts they can do in the couple hours of a bike race. Couple that with the benefits of a draft (and the tactical benefits of breaking off from a following drafter) and you have one of the basic elements of of bike racing tactics - hammering on your competitors until they (hopefully) crack first, or better, getting you teammates to do it. In sum the most efficient way to ride engergy wise is not the most effective tactic in a bike race mostly because of the way drafting comes into play. Getting someone off your wheel can trump simple efficiency. In a cat 4 race, that might take a few minutes. In the Tour, it might take a team effort played out over 2 weeks

Here’s an explanation of the W’ Prime metric mentioned above which is a window into what is going on

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For the non-Critical Power adherents, Functional Reserve Capacity (FRC) is effectively the same thing.

(FWIW I will never understand the vehemence with which some choose to believe CP vs. FTP or vice-versa).

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Yep, they can model the burn pretty well but not the recovery.

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I guess my question was motivated to try and find a formula that says, Sten you can do 3 attacks at X watts for 2 minutes, or 2 attacks st Y watts, but if you try to do 3 attacks at Y watts you will blow a gasket.

Is it just experience & trial and error that allows most riders to figure this out?

somewhat personal, and therefore trial&error. But you can do some interval work and modeling to help find your limits.

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Also worth keeping in mind that IMHO the matchbook gets a bit bigger when you’re racing vs. training! So while you could definitely use your X3 Y2-type equation, I would try and pay more attention to your RPE as you go through the exercise of figuring out which efforts wreck you.

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Not really. W’ (or FRC) is a single “match”.

Depletion of W’ is linear with both time and intensity, so calculating it is child’s play. It works okay between ~100 and ~1000 s of exercise continuously above CP, but not very well at shorter or longer durations.

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Excellent answer. As I have always encountered the concept among cyclists, though, I would say that the notion of a ‘match’ relates more to depletion of glycogen than anything else.

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Can you expand on that a little please? How does glycogen depletion compare to W’?

If as you say W’ describes burning a single match, how is the size of the matchbox defined?

I wasn’t comparing glycogen depletion with W’. I meant that when cyclists have talked about “matches”, they (unknowingly) seemed to be relating to glycogen depletion.

(Note that the idea of “matches” has been around in the cycling world far, FAR longer than W’.)

As for the size of your “matchbox”, it would seemingly relate not only to your initial glycogen stores, but also your overall fatigue resistance (“stamina”).

What happens between hard efforts that allows one to repeat them at all?

I am not even necessarily thinking cycling here. Suppose I do a set of 8 reps on a lift, maybe 1-2 short of failure. If I wait 3-4 minutes I can do 8 reps again. Would the process be fundamentally different for cycling vs. lifting?

If you feel like explaining, assume i am a 5 year old :slight_smile:

ATP related.


Fatigue is always multifactorial. Recovery from fatigue is therefore also always going to be multifactorial.

Here’s a figure that I put together a couple of months ago to help teach folks about fatigue:

(“Other” refers to things like hyperthermia or dehydration, which are dependent upon more than just exercise intensity and duration.)

Specific to your question, muscle fatigue (“failure to generate the expected or required force or power output”) while lifting weights would be primarily to due to excitation-contraction coupling failure and changes in high energy phosphate levels, both of which would be (mostly) rapidly reversible.


Im not an expert on W’ but I’m not sure it relates directly to matches. I can deplete it (W’) completely or near completely in a steady TT and not blow up but in a fast paceline if its not running smooth (people surging etc), I can have to chase on a few times I only deplete W’ fractionally if at all and that can eventually blow me up after an hour. I associate burning matches more with that repeated bites of my energy (the latter) rather than a one off effort that corresponds directly to W’ :thinking:

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The science section from Golden Cheetah should give you “science stuff” about it:


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I’ll see if I can find a TT example but a chaingang (pace line) example of me blowing up is easier (more frequent) :joy:

Paceline (minor but frequent depletion on W’ = blow up)

TT (large but infrequent depletion of W’)

It could maybe be described as lots of small matches are equal to one big one :thinking: :joy:


Probably not enough. I’ve not got enough dexterity in my fingers post chemo to have solid food and just have carbs in my bottle a 650ml bottle of carb drinks is my normal on a group ride and less on a TTs. It helps being a relatively light rider. My only 2 hour TT this year though was less than planned and ridden conservatively, as I bit off the bladders bite valve around 28miles and there’s no big match :joy: