Intelligent Energy

Key to cycling champ's energy: a big heart (literally)

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Tour de France victor Bradley Wiggins has a titanic ticker.

Scrappy guy, big heart - especially the left ventricle. Bradley Wiggins.

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Want the energy and endurance of Tour de France cycling champ Bradley Wiggins?

Apparently, it all comes down to the left ventricle. You know, that thing in your heart. One of the four chambers.

We've all heard clichés about great athletes having big ones (hearts). We take that to indicate some unquantifiable conglomeration of desire, passion, commitment, devotion - that sort of intangible thing that weaves itself inextricably into the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Goodness knows we're in for a lot of sappy "heart" talk over the next two weeks of that great corporate sporting event known as the Olympics.

But in the case of Mr. Wiggins - who if you missed it on Sunday dashed across the finish line along Paris' Champs de Elysee as the victor in the world's greatest cycling competition, the Tour de France - a "big heart" literally means just that.

Wiggins may be a srappy looking guy, but he has a titanic ticker, according to the BBC.

And when it comes to endurance athletes and hearts, size matters because the corazon pumps oxygen to the leg muscles and everything else that for three weeks powers the amazing Tour de France super humans across 2,172 grueling miles, through heat and up mountainous climbs unfathomable to most of us ordinary-hearted people.

Big sideburns too. They probably slow him down.

The heart does this in tandem with another extraordinary physical characteristic that these athletes tend to possess: muscles that readily convert the oxygen into energy. The BBC reports:

The two main physiological differences between an elite endurance athlete like Wiggins and the average person are a bigger heart - which allows more oxygen-rich blood to be pumped to the muscles - and the muscles' capability to use that oxygen, said Loughborough University's Dr Keith Tolfrey.

Both heart size and oxygen utilisation by muscles can be improved with training.

The heart is made up of four chambers. The two lower chambers are called ventricles and are the pumps of the heart. The left ventricle pushes blood out from the heart to the rest of the body.

Dr Tolfrey said endurance athletes like Wiggins are likely to have huge left ventricles.

He said supplying blood to the muscles during exercise was like trying to fill a bath with containers of water.

Most people are trying to fill that bath up with a container the size of a thimble, whereas for highly trained athletes like Wiggins, who have bigger hearts, it is like using a bucket.

So there you go. With a little training, you, too, can have a left ventricle the size of a bucket - the sort of thing that helped 32-year-old Wiggns emerge as Britain's first ever winner of the Tour de France, in the race's 99th running.

Whenever I hear tales of cycling heroics - and every Sunday morning when I religiously hit Britain's challenging Mendip Hills for my own 30-mile Tour de Age Defiance - I think back to my trip to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. There, I watched volunteer after volunteer step off the street to take turns vigorously pedaling one of the many stationary bikes hooked up to generators powering the lights at the city's festive central plaza.

And then my thoughts wander onto the prospect of tying all the kinetic energy at gyms around the world into the grid or into some power generation scheme.

But I digress.

Back on topic: Yes, Wiggins' chest does indeed seem to house a heart that rivals his sideburns for size. Not one to simply chill out after thousands of miles of communing with saddle, derailleur, spokes and handlebars, he's now competing in the Olympics.

I leave you with this prediction. Next Internet email spam marketing blitz: Enlarge your ventricle in a week! Pills from Canadian pharmacy!

Photos: Top from heb@wikimedia. Bottom from Nathalie05 via Flickr.

Other energetic feats of athleticism on SmartPlanet:

Thinking laterally, about how things like bikes can power the planet:

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure