Do I Have What It Takes?
With about 6-8 weeks to go towards my season’s first serious targets I am starting to get antsy. Most of the hay is in the barn when it comes to my training and I have a good idea of what my sharpened and honed form will amount to when I line up at my first start lines. I feel excited, I feel anxious but more than anything I always start to speculate. How will the races play out? How will it feel to fly 3 wide into those tight corners at 40 km/h again? Most of all though: What will it take to get results? I wonder if I will be skilled enough to make the right moves and whether I will be strong enough to make those moves count. Do I have what it takes?
This pattern of pointless pondering is somewhat of a preseason ritual for me at this point. Over the years, I have gradually learned ways to quite my mind and get the work done without dwelling on the uncertainty. This winter has been different though and it feels as though someone has dumped a bucket of fuel on my fire of speculative insecurity.
Looking insecure at the Catskills start line.
Perhaps naively, I thought I was starting to figure out the whole “what it takes” question in 2013. I had what was far and away my best season, including 3 TT wins, 8 podiums and a pair of queen-stage victories in two of North America’s biggest Pro/Am stage races. I had performed far beyond my own expectations and I thought I had made a breakthrough.
And so it came as a repeated and unpleasant surprise when I was ignored and passed up by every fund, bursary and Division 3 Pro or development squad I made contact with. I will admit that some of this failure was due to my overestimating my own appeal and some was due to my off-day at Nationals (bed shat, message received). But the most frustrating of these “thanks for contacting us, but not at this time” responses have come with either no explanation at all or a failure to meet a set of vague, subjective and comically misapplied guidelines. (That last sentence was my subtle reference to the Global Relay Bridge the Gap fund, in case you missed it.) Regardless of the reason, the outcome is the same: by one criteria or another I was lacking. Whatever it takes to win races and be successful at cycling’s highest level, whatever I thought I had in 2013…these folks didn’t think I had “it”.
Thankfully, I don’t agree with all of the advisory boards and selection committees. If I were a crude person, and I am most definitely not a crude person, I imagine that perhaps in certain cases, the words “kiss my ass” might come to mind. I do think that I have “it”. I win races, I am going to win more and I have lots of areas to improve and unexploited opportunities. These selection committees and development programs have just missed me on their collective radar. “Oh well” you say,” “Such is life…sometimes the breaks don’t go your way”. But I don’t think this was an accident and I don’t think I am the only talented athlete being missed. I think the radar is broken.
Talent Identification is Difficult…
I sympathize with the difficulty facing selectors when it comes to identifying talent and predicting potential in such an abstractly quantified sport. Trying to accurately weight any rider’s result from any race on the calendar verges on a fool’s errand. One rider’s single podium at a UCI event may indicate more talent than another rider’s 10 regional wins. Any system designed to rank riders universally across a huge variety of races likely fall victim its own complexity.
Instead, decisions are often based on key “criteria races” that ultimately decide which athletes are supported. While perhaps necessary, this objective “selection-event” approach is far from ideal in the unpredictable world of single-day bike racing. Flat tires, team tactics, course variations, crashes, injury and illness can all drastically effect an athlete’s results.
A perfect example of this problem came at this year’s National Championships. Thanks to Quebec’s medieval-era road surfaces, almost half of the field flatted out of the race in the first 20km. A podium result at Nationals almost certainly means selection for multiple funding sources and in this case the first 50% of that selection was based on dumb luck and crater-avoidance. The cream usually does rise to the top in challenging selection races, but it is certainly not an ideal or reliable way to identify top talent.
But Canadian Cycling is 30 Years Behind:
When I think of identifying cycling talent, my first impulse to request physiological test results. Power meters are cheap, plentiful and easy to use and there is nothing standing in the way between athletes and determining their maximum output for a given duration. In rising cycling powers like Great Britain, Australia and the U.S., physiological testing is a crucial part of early talent identification and data is carefully tracked over years of development. The United States in particular, many rising starts like Giant-Shimano’s Lawson Craddock were first spotted at Regional Talent Identification Camps in which dozens of young hopefuls are tested in each region of the country. All over the cycling world, national federations and teams are using simple power testing to pick out potential, identify strengths and weaknesses and confirm the efficacy of their training and development programs. Cycling’s most successful nations, physiological testing and identification is not the way of the future; it is just how things are done.
All of this said, you might be surprised to learn that over 5 years as an identified Junior and U23 I was tested exactly one time by Ontario Cycling and never by the National team or any development project. And I am not the exception; there is simply no significant standardized performance-testing program in Canadian cycling. In this area, we are embarrassingly far behind any credible cycling nation. Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and the U.S.-they all started tracking physiological capacity in aerobic sports decades ago and we aren’t even talking about it.
I would never claim that watts translate directly into wins in bike racing. It takes more than a gifted physiology to be a world-class bike racer, without a doubt. But the strongest argument for using power data in athlete development is in that statement itself. It takes more than a gifted physiology, yes, but at the core a gifted physiology is still necessary. In a way, making to the World Tour level is a little like applying to Harvard. You may get in based on special qualities and achievements that go beyond measured intelligence but statistically over 95% of accepted applicants have 4.0 GPA’s and SAT scores above 2300. With few exceptions, the world’s very best students have tremendous measured intellect just as very few of the world’s best cyclists succeed without a tremendous measurable physiological talent.
With all of the racing and training data available online today via sources like Strava, Training Peaks and SRM you (and by you, I mean me and guys like Andrew Coggan) can make a pretty decent guess at where the barriers of entry are set in today’s professional peloton. I would wager that 90% of 2013’s Tour de France riders had a fresh threshold power of 5.5 watts per kg of body weight or more. The same would go for anyone contending for a stage win in a UCI stage race. Any rider capable of winning an National Racing Calendar Crit probably packs a 5 second sprint north of 20 watts/kg or a 1 minute power of 10 watts/kg. These are just paper napkin estimates but I would call them conservative. You could argue some exceptional cases but I would argue that they prove the rule (very original I know). If a carded athlete can’t make at least 1 of those numbers happen in a test, the National Development program is playing some very long odds. It makes intuitive sense that Canada should track development pool athletes along these physiological parameters if it is going to put together many winning hands.
But How Would a Physiological Testing Program Work?
It seems really simple because it is. Test the athletes, figure out who looks like they have raw potential and use this data as the foundation or complement to further criteria. Small differences in power data should never be the deciding factor in selecting one athlete over another, just as small differences in physiological capacity don’t usually decide bike races. But big differences do. Talent identification decisions could easily account for this with fairly generous minimum thresholds for funding and perhaps a second set of very high thresholds that could count as a result in consideration.
Once a pool of riders is established, cycling Canada could request semi-regular testing updates to track physical progress along with progress in results. If an athlete is consistently underperforming to his/her physiological potential(s), specific coaching and psychological training could be offered. An athlete’s power profile could also be used to guide him/her towards compatible provincial and national team projects that would best suit his/her capabilities. Far from being a tool meant to exclude athletes from selection, power data could be also used to guide riders towards new opportunities in the sport’s different disciplines based on unexploited talents.
Finally, it has been suggested that power data analysis could be a part of an effective anti-doping tracking program. This is a contentious idea but it could be a valuable one. If an athlete suddenly produces a spectacular leap in form after a long history of lower test results, this may suggest foul play. Suggest is the key word here. Inconsistent power data is circumstantial evidence of doping at best-just ask any accused Grand Tour contender. Blood and urine tests are expensive however and power data could eventually be used to better target athletes producing eyebrow-raising results. Testers already pick out “hot” riders based on results. For example, Chris Horner was tested over 12 times in the last quarter of 2013 during and after his miraculous Vuelta win. With longitudinal power data for selected athletes and a refined algorithm; training, testing and racing outputs could be compared to separate the impressive from the suspicious and justify focused testing.
It Takes Watts to Win:
In summary I think that this entire thorny issue can be distilled down into several fairly obvious points. First, it takes a certain, quantifiable physiological talent to become a world cyclist and we have mountains of data to prove it. Second, the world’s most successful cycling nations are using power testing to identify, develop and track the progression of this kind of talent but Canada is not. And finally, it would not be prohibitively difficult or expensive to start a power-testing database since power meters are now ubiquitous in elite cycling and testing services are widely available. There is a need for advancement and we have tools and the resources to address it, so what are we waiting for? Let’s find out who actually has what it takes to be the next Canadian to race down the Champs Elysees and into cycling’s world class.
Canadian Svein Tuft leads his team to a TDF stage win.