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:
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.
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
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).
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?
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.”