What's Cool In Road Cycling

ToolBox: Progressing From Junior to Pro

If you’re like most Pez readers, you’re a bit beyond the realm of a pro life being a realistic career choice. But that shouldn’t stop us from wondering just how life might have been different if we were a top-level junior. Would the Pro Tour teams be banging down your door? Is high-level performance as a youngster a strong predictor of professional success?

Child Prodigies
Cycling, like any professional sport or indeed any high-level accomplishment, is rife with child prodigies. Mozart was writing symphonies before he was ten, and Doogie Howser was curing patients (thankfully only on TV) as a teen. Similarly, some riders seem to be destined from an early age to become a top-level rider, breezing through the junior ranks and then bursting right onto the professional scene. Ullrich and Basso both won the U23 Worlds, as did Basso’s CSC teammate Kurt Asle-Arvesen. Thomas Dekker has been marked for stardom since he was in the junior ranks. And Janez Brajkovic from Slovenia topped Dekker in the 2004 U23 Worlds TT and parlayed that into the Disco-train and the leader’s jersey at La Vuelta 2006. And let’s not forget Lance, who was a triathlete star in his teens, and a Tour stage winner and Professional World Champion at the tender age of 21.

But those are the high-profile success stories that we all remember. However, cycling history is also littered with the stories of junior stars who either never made it into the pro ranks or else had brief and unremarkable careers. Equally, lots of today’s and yesterday’s top stars, including Paolo Bettini and Miguel Indurain, did not exactly set the world on fire as a junior or U23.

Tell Me About Your Childhood
In the business world, one of the best predictors of future success is your track record of prior success. Does this apply to predicting cycling success? Do standout results while young or early in your career provide a strong predictor for ultimate success down the road? A new study by a German research group and published in the upcoming November 2006 issue of the Journal of Sport Sciences addresses this exact question (1).

Specifically, what Schumacher et al. (1) analyzed was the competitive results of cyclists who participated in major junior (age < 18 y) and elite (> 18 y) cycling races from 1980 to 2004. It was quite the data set they analyzed, as this encompassed 27,454 results of 8004 athletes from 108 countries! What they ultimately looked at was whether junior riders who experienced success, defined as participation in the junior World Championships, had different careers (including both length of elite career and also results in elite competition) than athletes who became professionals without junior “success.”

Official results were pulled from the archives of the German Cycling Federation for male riders in both road and track races for both “junior” and “elite” age groups. This included results at the three Grand Tours and the Worlds. Results were then broken down into: “Winner,” “Podium (Rank 2-3),” “Top Ten (Rank 4-10),” and “participant.

Specifically, the results were analyzed prospectively “How many athletes who had participated in junior World Championships later in their career started at elite competitions of the same level?” and also retrospectively “How many participants at elite top-cycling events had previously participated in junior World Championships?

So this meant two groups were defined: 1) Junior Elite had results in both junior and elite races, while 2) Elite Only had results in the Elite ages but no junior race results. Furthermore, age effects and career length, defined as the time span between the first and last result recorded, were calculated.

Several other bits of data defining and massaging occurred. Because of the defining of success, the authors could analyze whether or not junior success (e.g., Top Ten or higher) translated to significantly better results in elite races. Finally, the authors analyzed six of the big cycling powers (France, Spain, Russia, Australia, Germany, and Italy) to see which riders in major elite competitions were drawn from the ranks of Junior Worlds participants.

Junior Jump-Up?
So did success as a junior give a strong prediction for future elite/professional success? First off, one important finding was that only a very small percentage (29.4%) of the elite athletes ever participated in the junior Worlds. In other words, 70.6% of the elite riders had never ridden at the Worlds as a junior! This is an incredibly low percentage, suggesting that it didn’t matter really a hill of beans whether you were a junior wunder-kid or not. This is quite strongly supported by the finding that only 34% of riders who were in the Junior Worlds ultimately even made it to the major results sheets as an elite or professional rider. Again, this means that 66% of the riders at the Junior Worlds never made any impact in the elite/pro ranks! From my perspective, the results are fairly robust when you consider the size of the data set.

That’s not to say that junior success didn’t mean anything, however. High-level success as a junior (Top Ten or higher) was a significant predictor of achievement in the elite class in track cycling. This same trend was not found in road racing though. It’s interesting speculate on why there were these discipline-specific differences. It might be argued that tactics and team politics play a much bigger role in road cycling, such that pure physical qualities were not given as much primacy as on the track.

So Is It Too Late For Me?
The good news from a study like this is that it’s not just a sport for child prodigies. Long-term perseverance and dedication will almost always pay off when you see how few top-level riders were successful as juniors. It can be argued that the data set is somewhat skewed by the fact that each nation is only given a small number of starting spots at the Junior Worlds (6 for top-ranked countries), possibly artificially restricting the Junior data. I would actually argue the reverse, in that this restriction amplifies the fact that you end up with many riders, especially in big cycling nations like Italy, who did not have the red carpet rolled out for them while young, but persevered and blossomed as they physically matured.

The other good news is how, unlike track cycling, junior high-level success in road events had no significant predictive power on elite high-level success. Again, I interpret this to mean that road racing is a physical and mental sport, where it’s not always the biggest engine that wins, but a combination of engine and psychology.

So keep on training and see how your abilities continue to grow and expand year after year!

1. Schumacher, Y.O., R. Mroz, P. Mueller, A. Schmid, and G. Ruecker. Success in elite cycling: a prospective and retrospective analysis of race results. J Sport Sci 24: 1149-1156, 2006.

About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University, with a research specialization in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He can be reached for comments at [email protected].

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