Does Motor Coordination Predict Success in Young Cyclists?
Can you “Coordinate” youth cycling development?
Youth talent identification has long been established in soccer, and the conquering of the road scene by young pros the past few years places an even greater priority for teams to identify and develop riders from an early age. What role does motor coordination play in youth development?
Van der Poel and the next generation
Every off-season sees a wave of retirements, and sentiments of a new generation taking over. That’s not a new idea, but the past couple of years has seen seemingly evergreen riders like Sagan, Nibali and Valverde, hang up the road cleats – coupled with young riders like Pogačar and Bernal winning Le Tour. Throw in the immediate impact upon turning pro at a young age by van der Poel, van Aert, Pidcock, Ayuso, Evenepoel, et al., and the sentiment seems stronger than ever.
One response to this trend is seeing teams take an ever more aggressive approach to identifying and developing talent at an early age. Ineos in the past few years have recruited 18 year olds like August & Leonard, and before them Bernal, directly into the World Tour team. Others, notably the French teams like Groupama and AG2R, have very long-standing development teams.
If you’ve read David Epstein’s terrific book “Range” about whether to specialize or to maintain a wide focus is the better path to elite performance, you’ll know that unicorn athletes developed through a single sport like Tiger Woods are extremely rare, contrasted with legends like Roger Federer only specializing in tennis late in his teens after a youth playing many sports.
So the question is, for youth cyclists, does cycling performance predict future performance, or might it be predicted by other athletic qualities? Specifically, what role might motor coordination and the ability to physically pick up skills play in development?
Mostaert et al. 2022
A Belgian research group sought to test whether a general athletic test battery, performed on a group of U15 cyclists, predicted future performance 2-3 years later as U17 (Mostaert et al. 2022). They did the same with U17 cyclists to predict U19 performance. Here’s the basic setup:
- 111 U15 and 67 U17 male road cyclists were recruited, and their national/provincial competition results were analyzed 2-3 years later as U17 and U19, respectively.
- The “KTK3” test battery was used with 3 specific tests. These involved moving and jumping forwards/sideways, along with backwards walking along a balance beam of different widths. Several physical performance tests were also done to test power, flexibility, and endurance.
- Cycling tests included both a maximal cadence test and also a timed agility/skills tests with a BMX bike on an obstacle circuit.
- Competition results were recorded from provincial and national events based on placings, with national events weighted double due to their being more selective.
- Predictions were done in 4 stages: 1) with the factors of maturation, relative age, and existing competition results, 2) adding in motor coordination, 3) adding physical performance, and 4) adding cycling-specific tests.
After regression analyses, the key finding was that, in the U15 to U17 group, stage 1 had very little predictive value, but that this was greatly improved when the motor coordination results were added in stage 2. Further adding the physical and cycling tests did little in improving the model.
Things changed quite a bit in the U17 to U19 group. There, essentially none of the regressions provided any meaningful prediction to performance.
What clues might we gain about optimal youth cycling development from this study? The authors suggest that there might indeed be a streaming and specialization that is required for higher performance, but that this doesn’t need to happen early through mid-teens, and might only come into play after an athlete reaches 17 or later. Notably, this is similar to the path taken by Federer in tennis.
Also, this suggests that simply picking riders with the highest cycling test scores (e.g., VO2max, max wattage, etc.) to develop further may not be the best path. That is, an ergometer test may tell you that you have an engine, but not that you can or know how to use it. This can be seen in the minimal ability to predict U19 performance from any measure taken during U17 years. Rather, a holistic approach may be required, encompassing intangibles such as personality and family support in addition to raw physical potential.
Finally, with cyclocross season in full swing, another intriguing idea is that cycling disciplines like CX, MTB, gravel, and track, may be a great path for youth development due to their emphasis on motor coordination from bike handling in tricky situations.
Have fun and ride fast!
A young Greg Lemond
Mostaert M, Vansteenkiste P, Laureys F, et al (2022) Is Motor Coordination the Key to Success in Youth Cycling? International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 17:1489–1498. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2021-0539