To acquire a more realistic idea of what a man can achieve naturally without injecting PEDs, one has to go back to an era when steroids were not available. Since testosterone was first synthesized in 1935 and used clinically a few years later, the 1920s and most of the 1930s are a good period to hunt for natty specimens.
The cyclists who competed before and during that timeframe offer an opportunity to examine how they developed impressive quadriceps without bodybuilding experience and sophisticated supplementation.
The old-school cyclists competed in conditions and under rules that would be considered unthinkable or even savage today. For a long time, the contestants had to do their own bike repairs, which is why they carried huge pumps and tool kits, as it was against the rules to receive outside help.
The road infrastructure was comprised of dirt tracks rather than smooth asphalt. The cyclists were wearing goggles to protect their eyes from debris and flying insects.
For a long time, helmets were a rarity. Jean Robic, who won the Tour de France in 1947, was one of the first riders to wear one after suffering a skull fracture.
The rough environment filtered out the weaker individuals and produced tough brahs willing to pedal through whatever.
Heavy Bikes = Hypertrophy
In 2000, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) instituted a minimal bike weight limit – 6.8kg/14.99lbs. The measure was introduced to prevent structural failures of the bicycles used in professional competitions as the engineers and the competitors were relying on a multitude of questionable methods (e.g., drilling holes here and there) to make the frame, the wheels and the components lighter.
Today, modern composites allow a fairly safe production of bikes weighing less than the limit which is why some pro cyclists add artificial weight to their frame to satisfy the requirement.
In the past, however, cyclists had to pedal tanks. In 1903, Maurice Garin won the first edition of Tour de France on a bicycle weighing 18kg/39.6lbs. And that was just the bike. The extra gear attached to it wasn’t light either.
In the 1920s and 30s, the weight of road bikes dropped to 11.5kg/25.3lbs. That reduction is very impressive, but the number is still very high in comparison to contemporary machines.
As you can guess, pedaling a heavy bike for 100s of kilometers elicits a stronger growth stimulus than doing the same on a bicycle that weighs less than a full female bag.
No Gears = Even More Hypertrophy
Most modern bicycles have a transmission influencing the “connection” between the motor (your legs) and the wheels. A low gear makes pedaling easier as a full revolution of the cranks results in very little movement of the rear wheel (less than a full rotation). Meanwhile, a complete pedal stroke at the highest gear causes the rear wheel to do several spins. Going uphill while riding in a high gear is more difficult as the force required to spin the cranks over such a great length becomes very high.
Optimal use of gears allows cyclists to conserve energy and cover a greater distance with less fatigue. The old school brahs didn’t have that luxury, however. Derailleurs (the mechanical units that shift the gears) were excluded from the Tour De France until 1937. Before that the only way to change gears was to stop and manually put the chain on a different cog at the back.
To add more gears, the competitors were relying on double-sided rear hubs. By flipping the wheel around, one could access more gears. But since the operation required a lot of time, many were just pedaling through as performing the procedure at the wrong moment could result in a loss.
That inefficiency translated into a harder workout. Riding in a suboptimal gear is the equivalent to lifting weights [high intensity] whereas spinning in a comfortable gear is more like cardio [low intensity].
Insane Distances = More Volume
The 1920 Tour de France lasted a month and consisted of 5,503 km (3,419 mi) divided into 15 stages. From a bodybuilding perspective, that distance equals a lot of…volume. It’s non-stop riding for days.
And since the legs love reps, and the resistance was relatively high [especially on the hills] growth was stimulated.
What about track cycling?
Endurance events can trigger hypertrophy, but sprinting is the ultimate mass builder because it consists of high-intensity bursts activating more fast twitch fibers [the units with the highest growth potential].
As anticipated, the track bikes used during the 20s and 30s were made of steel and thus significantly heavier than the modern ultra-light carbon bicycles with wheel sets costing more than cars.
The track cyclists from that era were tough dudes too. For a long time, they weren’t wearing protective gear even when participating in motor-paced events in which the competitors were riding behind a motorcycle reducing the wind resistance and thus allowing the cyclists to ride faster.
No 5×5, No Squats, No Rippetoe, No Whey?
Today, weight training is a fairly common part of athletes’ conditioning. The net is flooded with articles stating that virtually everyone can benefit from squats, deadlifts, bench presses and other weightlifting exercises.
Want to jump higher? Squat. Want to run faster? Squat. Want to punch harder? Squat.
And while it’s true that extra strength has a beneficial effect on many physical abilities, obsession with conditioning is a fairly recent epidemic. In the past, people were more focused on performing the activity that they wanted to excel at. Now, we constantly search for ways to derive carryover from “side hustles”.
The cyclists of those times weren’t following a sophisticated lifting template. They weren’t spending hours of their day searching for secrets on the Internet. They were just doing what they wanted to be better at – cycling.
Fancy supplements weren’t a part of the equation either. There was no whey, creatine, BCAAs or sexy multi-vitamins. Most cyclists weren’t even following a healthy diet. Many were smoking and stopping for a beer during competitions.
Can you imagine someone doing that today in an official race? They’ll be destroyed by the self-righteous society obsessed with the illusion of perfection.
Does Cycling Stimulate More Leg Growth Than Weight Training?
I wish, but the answer is no. At the end of the day, resistance training and the subsequent adaptation of the stressed area is what causes hypertrophy. Cycling isn’t a magical activity that can somehow trigger more growth than a basic leg routine consisting of squats, leg presses and deadlifts, for example.
However, cycling has one big advantage that many appreciate – it isn’t sterile. Running on a treadmill is boring and mind-numbing because you feel like a hamster spinning a wheel – you get tired, but you don’t really go anywhere. The same holds true when you lift weights. You are spending energy transporting heavy objects that don’t have to be moved. Some people find that artificial and depressing.
Cycling is different. You are doing positive work [moving through space]. The produced euphoria and adrenaline make the sport more attractive than squatting in a dirty gym filled people scrutinizing you.
If I want to add cycling to my regime, primarily for hypertrophy goals, how should I proceed?
There are many different options, but I can tell you what I did one year ago when I relied on my bicycle for transportation.
My total commute was a little long by the average standards [35km roundabout], but it wasn’t that bad because most of the terrain was flat apart from two hills.
One day, while going back home, I decided to turn one of the hills into a super intense leg exercise by climbing it in a higher gear. Every two weeks, I would switch to a smaller cog at the back and push through.
After two months, I was able to get up the hill at a gear three times larger than the original one. My quads got firmer and stronger as a result of this training.
Another option is to do sprints with a bicycle. Some claim that this is one of the best quad exercises. [It’s probably just their perception, though. Don’t get too hyped.]
And by the way, I don’t have a super fancy bike. I ride a 15.5kg/34lbs mountain bike that’s far from optimal for road training.