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Cycling performance - is it really more genetics?

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Cycling performance - is it really more genetics?

Old 09-26-12, 03:58 AM
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Cycling performance - is it really more genetics?

Hi There - I originally posted this in the Cyclocross forums because that's what I race - but wanted some road racers to weigh in...

So I'm wondering: How much of bike racing performance is genetics vs actual training? I'm curious because it seems the top place guys have always done well and the bottom of the pack racers always seem to stay there. Also, I know some slightly over-weight guys who don't even train that hard - show up to a race and place in the top 20 of a regional Cat 4 event (and they're in they're 40's and new to racing).

My observation, not just from this but working with athletes for many years and competing in many sports over the last 25 years, is that when it comes to strength, speed and endurance - people are hard-wired. You can teach a boxer to hit harder, but you can't teach him to hit hard (as my old boxing coach used to say). I believe the same is true with cycling - perhaps even more so. You can increase power and aerobic /anaerobic threshold - refocus your training, buy new equipment - but actual race placement will not vary significantly from year to year.

Thoughts on this?
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Old 09-26-12, 05:00 AM
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Saying one doesn't have the genetics to make it in cycling would be a cop out.

I have personally seen and helped many folks to cat2 that had low wattage, but made up for it with a bit of determination.

Also, Vo2max and power #'s are only the fitness parameters of a bike racer. Add in technique/tactics and the genetically less gifted can learn to win certain races.

Harvey Nitz from the '84 Olympics was a great example. Very low #'s compared to other top athletes, but that guy figured out how to win.
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Old 09-26-12, 05:29 AM
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Determination is genetic.
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Old 09-26-12, 05:57 AM
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Originally Posted by YMCA
Saying one doesn't have the genetics to make it in cycling would be a cop out.

I have personally seen and helped many folks to cat2 that had low wattage, but made up for it with a bit of determination.

Also, Vo2max and power #'s are only the fitness parameters of a bike racer. Add in technique/tactics and the genetically less gifted can learn to win certain races.

Harvey Nitz from the '84 Olympics was a great example. Very low #'s compared to other top athletes, but that guy figured out how to win.
It's not a cope out, it's reality...

You need both to truly make it, genetics and proper training. I think most people who are into bike racing are trying to maximize what they can eke out of their body.

Developing skills and technique to make you a good racer is also genetics. Some people just pick up things faster.

All this doesn't mean you you pack in the bags if you aren't winning, it just means you have to work harder and see if you can find that next level. It's alll about pushing the limits, mental and physical.
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Old 09-26-12, 06:54 AM
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After watching racers come and go for 30 years I believe, with just anecdotal evidence, that genetics is virtually the only basic determining factor in cycling.

When I started racing I was a little guy, skinny, weak, could barely bench 90 lbs after 3 years of racing (I was using 5 lbs dumb bells and thought they were pretty heavy). Yet, once I could finish a race I immediately started winning field sprints. I never trained for them - I thought that my 100 lbs body would be well suited for climbs. Well I never made it to the top of any significant climb with the field, ever, but I could demolish fields in sprints (usually behind a break - a certain George Hincapie did many of the same races and after him a certain Frank McCormack). The first few sprints I won (for the race win) I was convinced, as I was sprinting, that I was sprinting on the wrong lap since no one else seemed intent on sprinting - they never jumped hard and didn't go fast. They were sprinting but I didn't think they were.

Genetically I seem to be optimized for short bursts. With little or no training I can go and rip out a 1200w peak sprint; with a bit more training 1500+ is normal. At the same time my FTP is in the 200s, 210-220 right now, a max of 268w (but now I suspect that I hadn't calibrated properly since I've never come close to that number).

Compare that to a local Cat 1. He placed 3rd at Nationals one year (Elite RR). His FTP is something like 450w. He is probably 100 lbs heavier now than before, his FTP is down some, but he can still bridge seemingly unbridgeable gaps to breaks, or he goes and solos for laps at a time on his own. Lighter he won races outright. Heavy he struggles but still has that huge motor. I asked him what kind of peak power he hits - with 900w average efforts to bridge to breaks, 550w 5 min efforts, I figured he could easily put down 1500+ watts. He admitted that he's never broken 1200w and when I told him I had broken 1550 a few times he asked me seriously if I had checked the calibration of my SRM - he felt that number untouchable.

With cross it's a bit different. There's a technical and mental aspect to it. I've only mountain bike raced, never cross, but I understand the importance of technical skills in cross. I also understand that a good cross racer has to be able to put down some serious steady power on the power absorbing grass type terrain. However the aerobic engine in the rider is still a huge factor, pretty much "the" factor. Everything else hinges around the engine's potential.

Once you factor in genetics' coarse factors then individual determination, technical knowledge, tactical acumen, etc, hone natural selection. Genetics gives you a range to work with; you try and maximize your potential within that range.

Note that I have no idea what makes a good engine. I have a naturally higher hematocrit, 46-49%, which according to Vaughters means I'm not very efficient. In a lung capacity experiment in biology I had 5 liter lungs. Another guy in class had 8 liter lungs. I don't weight train my legs, my knees are too fragile (or I do things wrong or whatever), I only do light weights for the upper body. I'm not super strong or anything, that's for sure.

Finally new riders need to think outside the box. I do this myself when I find myself doing the same thing over and over. Before I started racing I asked a current racer what gear he used going up a really steep hill. I used my bottom gear so I figured that it'd be one or two gears higher. He replied that in a race he'd use his biggest gear. I was floored, flabbergasted. When the weather got warmer I went out and tried it and found that, yes, it's possible. I just never thought it possible.

I love crits because I can use guile to make up for my lack of engine and my sprint power allows me to convert survival into places. Cross, road races, time trials, they absolutely and totally emphasize fitness (i.e. genetics, and, to a lessor extent, training to maximize genetics). I've never finished a road race with any kind of a hill with the lead group, even weighing 100 lbs. I've never gotten close to winning TT times - at my best I could go about 25 mph in a 7 mi TT, doing a 16:28. I had a prototype Olympic Training Center disk wheel, 24" 17mm front tire on an aero front wheel, 100k TT bars, aero helmet, aero or no bottle, skinsuit, had done the TT maybe 20-30 times in the past, trained on the TT bike, was absolutely at the peak of my fitness. My leadout man did a 15:55 on a 32 spoke box section wheels on a non-aero bike. The winner that day did a 14:05 with TriSpokes, aero bars, TT helmet, on an otherwise stock road bike.
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Old 09-26-12, 07:04 AM
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Originally Posted by jolly_ross
Determination can be genetic.
Fixed that for you. Anyone can pull up their boot-straps.
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Old 09-26-12, 07:23 AM
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Besides power of various durations, and determination, for cross there's also technical skill.

After many years of motorcycling and cycling I think that there's a genetic factor for that as well- some people are just natural on two wheels. But determination can help quite a bit.
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Old 09-26-12, 07:40 AM
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It's all genetics. How much does each person let it affect them? Not sure...

For example, I started cycling with a friend. We both started riding at the same time, and got the same bike. He would just absolutely destroy me. I had the better fitness, but he was naturally significantly better. However, I like things very structured, and did a training plan I designed after reading some training books where as he just rode a couple times a week when he wanted. 3 months down the road and I was crushing him. The genetics of me liking structure lead me to be the better cyclist, but if he was able to do the same structure he would be crushing me because of his physical genetics.

It's now been about 3 years and I think addiction runs genetically in my family, so obviously I've kept up the cycling and taken it very seriously. My friend has hardly touched his bike after the first 3 months he got it. Sometimes I wish he'd just pick up the bike and ride though, because I think with 6 months of serious work he could be at the P12 level.

Just goes to show we all have something genetically that has allowed us to do something over and over and over again. Some people just can't do that, they pick up cycling, get bored, and move on. Same thing goes for training, some people will take it very seriously and try their very hardest, and others will just do it randomly. Sometimes the random people will prevail because of physical genetics, and other times they won't. Some people are risk takers, and will corner harder and faster than others in crits, where as some might have a bit of fear and never be able to do that, no matter how hard they work on it. Genetics affects everything though, not just the physical ability, so it's kind of an open ended question.
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Old 09-26-12, 07:44 AM
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Originally Posted by waterrockets
Fixed that for you. Anyone can pull up their boot-straps.
And some pull them up better then others...

I've got an example here...Not related to cycling though...

I have 2 brothers, one is a half brother, same mother...He was raised by my dad just like his son from the age of 3 or so. I actually didn't know he was my half brother until I was in my teens. He's my oldest brother and night and day different then my older brother and I. I'm not talking little differences, I'm talking huge differences. It's quite interesting because my dad raised us all the same and treated us all the same. That was his big thing, he did want him to feel different.

You can fight genetics as much as you want, but you can only do that to a point.
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Old 09-26-12, 07:48 AM
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I will second the vote for genetics. At 17 when I started riding before I was a trained cyclist I had a V02 max in excess of 70, I had huge lung capacity and tenacious drive. It all helps BUT I would say like YMCA did that determination, training scope and a little luck can take you to a high level in the sport. Will you be pro with poor genes? No. It is a reality.
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Old 09-26-12, 08:30 AM
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btw I managed to snipe my way up to Cat 2 with not-that-great overall physiology. This only works now with the very objective points based system for racers like me that target very specific types of races.

In the past, when a racer had to get balanced results in road races and crits, I couldn't apply for upgrades because the rep would point out that I need at least one RR placing before he'd give me the Cat 2. I never placed in a RR but I tried really hard, focusing on flatter races that qualified as road races (Plymouth for example).

I'm also someone that many riders think of as "natural" on the bike. I'm not though, other than having a good feel for what I need to do on a bike (since I rode around for fun in cycling friendly Holland from 8-12). My brother's wife, for example, doesn't know how to rock the bike while standing up whereas for me and him it's something that just happens. I have a few basics down but I'm nowhere near a coordinated balanced kind of rider like some others I know. I think practice makes technical stuff possible - look at a very specific skill like Tae Kwon Do / karate. The instructor I had was a top level guy in the world and everything he did was second nature to him because he'd practiced so much for so many years. For me trackstands is natural now but truly high bunny hops (12+ inches) isn't natural.

I've been thinking about this because I'm thinking of buying a cross bike just for drills. Okay, I'd give cross a shot, but the appeal is really learning the technical skills (and going really fast on flat corners and such ).
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Old 09-26-12, 08:39 AM
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I agree that genetics are huge. However, until you get to a certain level, most anybody can do well by training harder, smarter, and racing smarter.

At a certain level, everyone is pretty much maximizing their potential to get to that level. Below that level, you can succeed by getting a greater percentage of your more limited potential.

Exactly where that level is can be debated. I'd suggest it's around Cat 1, perhaps Cat 2.
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Old 09-26-12, 09:48 AM
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Originally Posted by merlinextraligh
I agree that genetics are huge. However, until you get to a certain level, most anybody can do well by training harder, smarter, and racing smarter.

At a certain level, everyone is pretty much maximizing their potential to get to that level. Below that level, you can succeed by getting a greater percentage of your more limited potential.

Exactly where that level is can be debated. I'd suggest it's around Cat 1, perhaps Cat 2.
Agreed. You have to define what it means to be a successful bike racer. Is it making a teacher's salary racing in the US? To reach the pro levels, absolutely agree that genetics will determine your ceiling. I also agree that anybody without a disability should be able to make it to Cat 2, physiologically speaking, and motivationally speaking if they can get a couple years of reasonable focus after they get to Cat 3.

I imagine it's genetics that got me to Cat 2 on 6.5 hrs/week of riding, but those 6.5 hours were very boot-strappy.
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Old 09-26-12, 09:50 AM
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i think genetics take effect at a certain point, but in the lower levels i would say its more just knowing how to use what u got. Once you hit a certain point though everyone is good, and u cant just make ur way through by being technical, you need to have genetics on your side.

Note: i think my genetics are awful! Have you seen my family
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Old 09-26-12, 10:17 AM
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I think genetics are probably 90% of the physical end. To be a successful racer you must also have the will and mental toughness to succeed. I'm of the opinion that most of that is innate as well. Schmucks like me can still enjoy the sport, but we don't expect to be very successful. The first time you get next to a 16 year old kid that blows your doors off, the light should come on.

The local hot-rod kid here is Geoffrey Curran. You'd see him a year or 2 ago on the big local training rides. When the road would tilt up, he would just kill it. Funny thing was, even as a small teen he could hammer on the flats as well. You ever try to get a draft off of a 110# 15 year-old? It doesn't work very well. Anyway, he was in the Jr. Worlds last Sunday. That's genetic.
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Old 09-26-12, 11:40 AM
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Originally Posted by rbart4506
It's not a cop out, it's reality...

I'm not putting it out there that anyone should be able to be a pro, but for sure it is a cop out to say one couldn't make it to at least cat2, no matter their genetics.

The year I upgraded to cat1, I had 5 friends do the same. Of those 5, two of them barely had real cycling ability. In fact I'd say nobody would have pegged those two guys past cat3 ever.

But through pure determination, a closely watched diet, the art of tactics and entering enough events each year (60+), they plugged away and did the "impossible".

I have rarely seen anyone actually put out the effort these two did to succeed. In fact if any of the rest of us with more genetic abilty had those guys minds, we'd probably have gone on to much bigger arenas.

Again, I believe anyone can be at least a cat2 if the "want" to.
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Old 09-26-12, 11:55 AM
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Gender is genetic.
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Old 09-26-12, 11:59 AM
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Originally Posted by YMCA
I'm not putting it out there that anyone should be able to be a pro, but for sure it is a cop out to say one couldn't make it to at least cat2, no matter their genetics.

The year I upgraded to cat1, I had 5 friends do the same. Of those 5, two of them barely had real cycling ability. In fact I'd say nobody would have pegged those two guys past cat3 ever.

But through pure determination, a closely watched diet, the art of tactics and entering enough events each year (60+), they plugged away and did the "impossible".

I have rarely seen anyone actually put out the effort these two did to succeed. In fact if any of the rest of us with more genetic abilty had those guys minds, we'd probably have gone on to much bigger arenas.

Again, I believe anyone can be at least a cat2 if the "want" to.
i believe that you are wrong.

in your post, as well as some of the ones above, we see the bias continually exhibited across sports in terms of sports and genetics vs hard/smart training and tactics. doesn't matter if it is running, cycling, etc. there is a very perceptible tendency for those who have had success to think it is because of hard work and minimize the genetics. cat 3's think that you can make it to cat 3 before genetics become important. guys who upgraded from 5 to 1 in a season tend to think that anyone can do it with enough training. ask a guy who runs a 4:40 mile how many people could go sub 5 with enough training and dedication - he will probably say that almost anyone can do it. ask a guy that has been training his ass off for years and still can't get below 6, and you will have a different answer.
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Old 09-26-12, 12:06 PM
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I think usually when genetics comes up (in amateur racing) it's used as an excuse.

Those that have a genetic gift will be, are, or have been pro. As in, if you have a genetic gift you'll know it.

Everyone else is pretty much in the same boat and they just need to train better.
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Old 09-26-12, 12:15 PM
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Do I have genetic talent? Depends on who I'm racing against.
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Old 09-26-12, 12:26 PM
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Originally Posted by YMCA
I'm not putting it out there that anyone should be able to be a pro, but for sure it is a cop out to say one couldn't make it to at least cat2, no matter their genetics.
Says the guy on the pointy end of the stick.

Honestly, maybe Cat2 is out there for anyone willing to ride their bike enough to get there. I think some guys would have to train at a pro level to get there (1000-1500 hr/yr). For most of us, that's just not possible. I don't know that I'd have to train that much, but I'd have to train a hell of a lot more than I do, I know that.

I'm an all-rounder. I do everything equally poorly. It's tough to get upgrade points when true climbers can get you on road races and true sprinters can get you in crits. That's not sour grapes, it's just reality. I can 'hang' in pretty much any race or group ride I do (due to reasonable power, lowish weight, reasonable pack savvy), but there's a big difference in 'hanging' and making S--- happen.
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Old 09-26-12, 12:42 PM
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Genetics plays a role in one's athletic abilities, and for everyone it is different. For some people, surviving a Cat 5 race is their genetic limit. For others, it's winning grand tours. Everyone is so very different it is impossible to say that with enough hard work, anyone should be able to reach Cat 2 or Cat 3 or do anything. There is no single standard for humanity.

There was a great study of baseball players several years ago, and what it found was that great hitters have a genetic mutation that allows them to transmit what they see to their muscles faster than the average person, giving them the ability to hit a fastball. Without that genetic mutation, no matter how hard you work, you will not be able to hit a fastball. It's not a cop out. It's a scientific fact. Essentially, great athletes are freaks of nature.

Clearly, the people on this forum have a greater genetic disposition for cycling that the general population - as this forum attracts people who ride a lot and race a lot.
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Old 09-26-12, 01:19 PM
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Originally Posted by waterrockets
I also agree that anybody without a disability should be able to make it to Cat 2, physiologically speaking, and motivationally speaking if they can get a couple years of reasonable focus after they get to Cat 3.
I so wish that were true. Or perhaps my small lungs and complete lack of fast twitch fibers is a qualifying disability.
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Old 09-26-12, 01:45 PM
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Let's not forget that there is a huge selection bias among bike racers. Consider for every racer there are dozens if not hundreds or thousands of "just recreational" riders. Now consider that many of those people follow training plans, put in volume, but still never get anywhere near fast enough that their friends bother to encourage them to try cat 5 racing. They are just that slow.

Now back off another step and consider the people who hate exercise so much that they just don't do it. Sure, you say, that's just American laziness / ******es etc... but I beg to differ. There's science to show that a decent % of the population simply does not respond to exercise / training in the way that you and I are accustomed to. Basically, they could do 2x20's for ten years and still be at "untrained" levels.

So, yeah, absolutely it's genetics, even to get in the door to consider a cat 5 race. From there, more genetics and all the other stuff too.
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Old 09-26-12, 02:01 PM
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I would say I'm the prime example of the "anyone can train themselves to cat 2" rule. My only genetic gift is that I easily maintain a "good" size for bike racing @ 5'8" 145lbs. I've had asthma my entire life and have zero inherited athletic ability. I have zero relatives on either side of the family with endurance athlete genes. My only athletic history is playing very low level baseball & soccer up till jr. high. From high school to 36yrs old the only activity I participated in was occasional pick-up basketball games.

That being said I've been able to train myself into a decent cat 3 crit racer and at 41 I'm still making noticeable improvements. I just barely missed out on getting cat 2 upgrade points this year. Next year I'm sure to get a few.

So with my limitations I'm willing to agree that most people can train themselves up to cat 2/good cat3. Beyond that requires some genetic gifts & mental fortitude.

edit: I would also agree that on the other side of the spectrum there are those with genetic qualities that prevent them from succeeding in any type of athletics. But I believe that number is as small as the genetically gifted (bell curve).
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