Aims: In the context of recent concerns regarding performance enhancing techniques and potential negative health effects of high-level physical activity, data on the long-term outcomes and causes of death in elite endurance cyclists are of particular interest.
Methods and results: Characteristics and vital status of all French participants in the Tour de France were collected for the 1947-2012 period. Causes of death were obtained from 1968. Overall and disease-specific mortalities were compared with the French male population using overall and specific standardized mortality ratios (SMRs) with their 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Among the 786 French cyclists who participated at least once between 1947 and 2012, 208 (26%) died by 1 September 2012. Neoplasms and cardiovascular diseases accounted for 61% of deaths. We observed a 41% lower mortality in French cyclists (SMR: 0.59, 95% CI: 0.51-0.68, P < 0.0001), which did not change over time (P = 0.70). It was observed for main mortality causes: for neoplasms (SMR: 0.56; 95% CI: 0.42-0.72, P < 0.0001) and for cardiovascular death (SMR: 0.67; 95% CI: 0.50-0.88, P = 0.004), except mortality related to external causes (SMR: 1.06, 95% CI: 0.71-1.53, P = 0.80).
Conclusion: We observed a substantially and significantly lower mortality in participants in the Tour de France, compared with the general male population. However, our results do not allow us to assess in detail the balance between positive effects of high-level sports activity and selection of healthy elite athletes, vs. any potential deleterious effects of excessive physical exercise or alleged doping.
Keywords: Athletes; Cardiovascular; Cycling; Doping; Mortality.