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Metabolomics at the Tour de France

The 2020 Tour de France ended recently with a totally exciting finish that may have been predicted if you knew your citric acid cycle*. Let me explain: The Tour de France is one of the oldest and arguably the most famous cycle race in the world. The multi-stage race that was first run in 1903 now covers 3500 km in 21 stages over a 23-day period. The athletes climbed close to 50,000 metres. Endurance and the ability to recover are of extreme importance to professional cyclists in this (or any) stage race. Will the science of metabolomics assist the cyclists achieve marginal gains?

I have heard claims that the Tour is the biggest sporting event in the world. For cycling fans, it is! It ranks in the top 15 on many lists, along with the Olympics, FIFA World Cup Soccer, World Series Baseball, Superbowl American football, and the Cricket World Cup. It all depends on how ‘biggest’ is measured and operationally defined.

Of course I am a big fan due to the excitement of the race. However, I am also fascinated by the science of the sport including the physics and mathematics related to bicycle design, the nutritional requirements of the riders, and the strict anti-doping procedures. Many of these topics suggest the possibility for independent project ideas that would engage students who are more motivated by athletics than learning the citric acid cycle. While listening to an analysis of the Tour by Alex Stieda (FloBikes) interviewing Jeroen Swart (head UAE Team Emirates' medical staff), I was delighted learn of a recent scientific paper: Metabolomics of Endurance Capacity in World Tour Professional Cyclists.

To illustrate their paper, the authors include step-by-step glycolysis, the citric acid cycle, and where amino acid catabolism fits into the overall metabolism.

By studying an elite group of professional cyclists, the authors learned that “from the perspective of physical fitness, the robustness and breadth of coverage provided by high-throughput metabolomics highlighted differences with regards to energy and amino acid metabolism, and oxidative stress”. According to the authors, this study complements and expands on the knowledge about lactate clearance and what they call “a gold standard to monitor athletic training status”.

The participants in this study are all anonymous, but according to the authors, “Many cyclists in the Gold group ended up winning or reaching the podium in the first few races of the season, while riders in the Silver group did not show a great level of performance at the beginning of the year. These results highlight the use of our metabolomics platform as a powerful tool to monitor training status and predict athletic performance.” Watching this analysis, I got the impression that this year’s Tour de France winner might have been in their Gold standard group.

My suggestion: download this paper or have your students look for it. I am convinced it will give them a new appreciation for the metabolic pathways they are expected to learn in high school biology.

*The citric acid cycle is also known as the Krebs cycle or the TCA cycle depending on source material.

Links of Interest:
   Metabolomics of Endurance
   Most Watched Sporting Events
   Gerry Ward on Twitter

Metabolomics at the Tour de France

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