What makes a good bicycle racer? Genetics? Training? Location?

Ben - Lance Comparison

This is a topic I have been thinking about for a while.

What makes a strong cyclist? Specifically, a racer?

Is someone’s ability to move up through the categories solely determined my training?

Is there a natural “genetic ceiling” for most racers?

Can anyone become a Cat 2 with hard work?

I can’t guarantee that I can answer all the questions above, but I can definitely provide some insight on what I’ve discovered in my own bicycle-racing-introspective-journey.

As a primer, my Evolution of a cyclist post can provide a little info on my cycling background. But to summarize:

  • I’ve been road riding pretty seriously for 3 years
  • 2 of those three years I have been racing (although I’ve done little racing this year) – I am currently a Cat 4
  • 1 of those years I trained with power
  • I weigh 68 kilos (150 lbs)
  • I live in North Texas (this is key . . . as I’ll explain later)

For those of you new to amateur bicycle racing in the U.S., here is how categories work:

  • To compete in a sanctioned race you need a license. Anyone can purchase a license and everyone starts their racing career as a Category 5 (Cat 5) racer.
  • After you start in 10 qualifying races, you can upgrade to Cat 4.
  • To move from Cat 4 to Cat 3 to Cat 2 to Cat 1, you must earn points. Points are earned by placing in races. The number of points you earn is determined by your placing, the length of the race, number of participants in the race, etc. You must earn a certain number of points in a rolling 12-month-period in order to upgrade.
  • For example, as a Cat 4, if you win two road races with 50+ participants each, that would earn you enough points to submit an upgrade to Cat 3.  If you place 8th in both those races, you would need 8 more 8th place or better finishes to earn the required points.  Keep in mind these points must all be earned in a 12 month period and there are only so many qualifying races in a given season.

I get a lot of questions at work, from friends & family, etc. as the “cycling expert” about how far someone can go:

“Can anyone become a Cat 2 cyclist with lot’s of hard work?”

“Why are you still a Cat 4?”

The short answers:

No

I live in the wrong place for my physiology

Cycling definitely has a genetic ceiling. Factors such as VO2 max, weight, power production, etc. all determine how far someone can go in the sport. Intelligence, experience, guts, and hard work are also huge factors, but I’ll focus on the physiological limits.

Most experts will tell you that the greatest predictor of cycling success is the power/weight ratio. Essentially, how many watts you can produce per kilogram of body weight for a given duration of time. The chart below comes from Training and Racing with a Power Meter, by Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan. This book is the “bible” of training with power. 

power-to-weight cycling chart

I was really excited when I first saw the chart above in 2008 because it was the first time I found a resource that compared capabilities of different categories. Unfortunately, the chart above also highlights the problem I have as a racer – more specifically, a racer in North Texas.

Here are my values with what “category” I should be in given those values

My power to weight ratio chart

So the data above would suggest that I should be killing it in the Cat 4s. I should be as good as most in the sprint (indicated by 5 second power), attacking (1 minute power) and I should be totally dominant in long, sustained efforts (5 and 20 minute power). However, the power-to-weight ratio method of predicting performance/abilities does not take into account absolute power. When you’re racing on flat terrain, absolute power is more meaningful since gravity only kicks-in as the road kicks-up.

Let’s look at another comparison of my values (in absolute watts) versus my typical competition (a high Cat 4 that weighs 175 lbs).

comparison chart

Since North Texas is relatively flat, most of the races come down to a field sprint and as the above chart illustrates, I am at a severe disadvantage in the sprint.

So what does this all mean for me?

  1. I should be living in California, Oregon, Colorado, etc. From a cycling standpoint, I would be much better off racing in places where I could use my power-to-weight advantage on long climbs. However, a move to one of these locales for cycling reasons  would probably not be appreciated by my friends, family, company, etc.
  2. The “power” of genetics. I could do sprint-specific training year-round and I still wouldn’t be a threat in a sprint finish. I just wasn’t blessed with enough fast-twitch muscle fibers. This was also a hindrance for my biggest athletic goal growing-up – to dunk a basketball in a game (the fact that I’m 5’10” didn’t help that goal either).
  3. Aero equipment trumps weight. Since I have no problems on the climbs, by a large margin, I should always opt for the most aero set-up possible. On a flat road 70%-90% of the resistant you fight on a bike comes from the wind. Flat roads are where I need the most help – for example, I’m probably better off running deep dish (even if slightly heavier) wheels.
  4. Focus on the areas I excel and enjoy. I’m not Lance Armstrong or Taylor Phinney. I don’t have unbelievable genetics that allow me to do anything I want on a bike . . . which is fine. I’m a dad and husband first, a key member of my company second and a cyclist third. But I still want to be the best cyclist “I” can be. That means being smart about my race/event selection that focuses on my strengths – climbing, long sustained efforts and general endurance.

Does this mean I’m going to train or ride less? Heck no. I’ll hopefully ride 10,000 miles again this year . . . mostly because I just love to ride my bike. In the words of Albert Einstein:

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

10 responses to “What makes a good bicycle racer? Genetics? Training? Location?

  1. Great post! To quote Lance: “You can have all the heart in the world, but if you don’t have the legs it doesn’t matter.” I like to think that if you measure watts/hours-of-training I stack up pretty well ;-)

  2. I think your #4 item at the end is an important one. Since you’re likely not working to knock Lance or Jens or Alberto off the podium, work toward attainable goals. Or nearly attainable goals. There’s nothing like a fat juicy carrot at the end of a stick to help with focus. There’s no need for the stick to be 2 miles long.

    Besides, being a good dad and husband blows everything else outta the water. Do that AND keep rolling.

    Kind regards,
    Andy

  3. To quote a local rider, “All you can do is the best that you can do. ” If you do your best, then there is absolutely no reason to be disappointed with your results. As you stated, you will never be Lance Armstrong, but niether will anyone else in the world.
    Your writing makes me, a 38 y/o man who has not done anything close to racing in over 20 years, want to ramp up my miles on the bike and to start racing.

  4. As an ex-North Texas racer who weighed 145-150, the best days I had there was with my 27IB steel bike. Funny how having the extra mass moving forward works to your advantage on those flat roads!

  5. I think you’re too focused on the chart and your own self-limiting perception that you can’t do well in sprints with your physiology.

    I think your race results are limited by your tactics.

    Sprint results aren’t limited by absolute power. The jump in a sprint is more about power-to-weight and surprise than absolute power. A sprint is won as much if not more so by tactics.

    Besides at the end of a race, people can never put out their tested max power. If your 5 and 20 min figures are correct, you should be less fatigued at the end of the race than your pure sprinter competition, further evening things.

    Easy for me to say from afar, but with your 5 and 20 min power, you should be trying to get into breaks or attacking with 4-5k to go. 325w is good on an absolute basis relative to your competition, especially if your avg TX cat 4 racer chart is correct.

    Just my thoughts. I’m a 160 pound CA cat 2 sprinter with a modest 1250-1300w 5-second (but can hold it for a long time). Despite that, I ripped through the 4’s in new york city, a high horsepower flat region. But I know my strengths and optimum take off point.

    Lastly (this won’t help my argument) your chart is out of date. On the newer chart, you’ll see that all of your ratios “put you in a lower class” but we don’t race figures, we toe the line.

    If I remember correctly, your 5 and 20 min ratios are still firmly in Cat 2. So go kill it!

    Practice your tactics, race your strengths and lose the mental block. You’ll upgrade in no time.

  6. Pingback: Threshold test results – what’s my watts? « Texas Tailwind

  7. You could always move to Austin if you need more hills. I love riding here.

  8. Heres one thing about that chart if its right than I am really good as I had an avg of 275watts over 33 miles and weigh 65 which comes to a little over 4.24watts/kg or enough to be a cat2 and high in the field. I havent raced yet but I do train with other cat 5 on a 30lb MTB with slicks then hop on my 18lb road bike for fun. I also am from southern indiana where i have hill that are almost 1000ft per mile. I mean pretty much anyone on the road I come up to I can crush even some of the shop sponsored ones @ about 27-28mph. So maybe after all the chart is right.

  9. You’re logic is not quite sound — just because it’s flat doesn’t mean “gravity hasn’t kicked in” or whatever. Mass of the rider matters, even on flat ground, because the mass of the rider is an integral factor in generating speed. The heavier the object, the more work required to accelerate it. That is precisely why the watt/kg model is used.

    If your power levels are as high as you say, based on your weight, then I would posit that your failure to get results is mental, not physiological.

    Cheers!

  10. totally agree with rob above

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