Defining Physiology’s Upper Limits and – Again – Winning Tour de France

Researchers study how the metabolic parameters of elite athletes can inform improved treatments of diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s

Racing in the Pyrenees near the end of the three-week battle of attrition that is the Tour de France, Tadej Pogačar accelerated up a 14% grade and dropped his nearest competitors as if they were slogging through a bog. Pogačar, 22, was on his way to his second Le Tour championship in a row, finishing 5 minutes, 20 seconds ahead of his nearest rival.


Iñigo San Millán, right, and Tadej Pogačar celebrate a second consecutive Tour de France championship on July 18, 2021, in Paris. Photos courtesy of Bettini Photo.

The dominating performance prompted some observers to say the Tour has moved into “the Pogačar era.” Retired Belgian racer Eddy Merckx, who is considered the sport’s all-time best, winning the Tour five times between 1969 and 1974, said Pogačar has the quality to equal his feat.

Hitched in no small way to this historic era is the Slovenian phenom’s coach, Iñigo San Millán, PhD, an assistant professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (SOM) and the Department of Human Physiology and Nutrition at UCCS.

It is perhaps apropos that Pogačar is such an exceptional climber. That’s because, in addition to being his coach, San Millán and his SOM-based research team are using Pogačar and his fellow Team United Arab Emirates (UAE) riders to define the upper limits of human physiology. They are studying how the metabolic parameters of these elite athletes can inform improved treatments of disease, including cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

Following is an interview with San Millán, who was visiting his native Spain after a couple days of well-deserved celebration in Paris, where the Tour de France ended on July 18 in front of a final-stage worldwide TV audience of roughly 7 million (the Tour is surpassed only by World Cup soccer and the Olympics in overall viewership).

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