28 June 2016

Here come the African cyclists

There's a good chance that African cyclists will soon dominate the Tour de France. The success of Eritrean cyclist Daniel Teklehaimanot in the 2015 Tour may be considered a harbinger of things to come. Researchers at Maastricht University recently published an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine with their assessment of four cyclists in Team Rwanada. 'They seem to be matching the performance and capabilities of Western professional cyclists,' says PhD candidate Jean Nyakayiru. As this is the first scientific study on the athletic performance of African cyclists, it quickly caught the attention of the prestigious British journal.

When four members of the Rwandan national cycling team decided to visit Limburg, PhD candidate Jean Nyakayiru saw it as a unique opportunity to run some tests. In the Maastricht lab, where he researches the effects of sports food on the performance of Dutch amateur cyclists as part of his PhD research, he examined oxygen intake and peak performance while cycling. 'I looked for data on African cyclists so I could compare their performance, but I couldn't find anything in the literature. Their performance was comparable to that of Western professional cyclists, despite not having the same opportunities. Many start cycling at a much later age and use standard city bikes; one cyclist was sixteen when he first rode a bike. He’s now 21 years old and has been biking for just five years. That's not something you see with Western cyclists.' The researchers expect these talented cyclists to perform extremely well in major cycling events like the Tour de France if they can manage to overcome the physical obstacles that stand in their way.

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The cyclists used a bicycle ergometer in the Maastricht lab, which increased the resistance every 2.5 minutes. Their oxygen intake and CO2 output was measured using a mask. 'Your muscles need oxygen to work properly. At a certain point, maximum oxygen uptake is reached, leading to a build up of lactic acid in the muscles. This is relative to body weight and the results were comparable to those of Western top athletes.' It’s possible that their physical build is ideal for this sport, similar to that of African long-distance runners. Living and training at a higher altitude, like Rwanda, may also be an advantage; however, there is not enough scientific evidence to support these assumptions.

Jean Nyakayiru, who is half Rwandese, hopes to obtain his PhD in October 2017 for his research question: In which types of athletes do nitrate supplements (e.g. beet juice) have a performance-enhancing effect? His supervisors are Lex Verdijk and Luc van Loon, professor of the Physiology of Exercise, with a special interest in the role of nutrition. The full title of the publication is: ‘Team Rwanda: will Africans dominate professional road cycling in the future?