I was asked recently by a parent of a young cyclist, "What does it take to make a champion?"
I thought for a moment and then responded with three words: "Genes, motivation, and support." So let's explore these three essential components to cycling development and success.
Genes are the foundation of all cycling success. Cyclists can have all the motivation and support in the world, but if they lack the right body type, muscle fiber composition, or hard-wired cardiovascular capabilities, nothing else matters.
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That's not to say that someone with a huge work ethic, but without the incredible inborn physiology, can't find some success in cycling. But to be, say, a Tour de France rider, cyclists need to have it all (or at least 95 percent of it all). Though physical capabilities, such as strength, endurance, and pain tolerance can be developed to some degree through training, we are all limited by the genes we get from our parents. I'm sure, for example, that Taylor Phinney is deeply grateful to his parents, Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter-Phinney, for the remarkable genes he got from them.
Genes are also the X factor for two reasons. First, there's no way to tell whether young cyclists have good riding genes until they show those genes by growing up. Sure, you can look at their parents and see what kind of cyclists they are and what kind of body types they have, but if you look at the parents of a lot of professional cyclists, you'll wonder whether genes have anything to do with being great on a bike!
Second, good cycling genes aren't enough. I've seen many cyclists over the years who had tremendous natural physical ability, yet lacked the motivation to maximize the ability that those genes provided. These riders invariably never lived up to expectations and many I have spoken with regretted not having had the work ethic to match their physical capabilities.
Conversely, if you have kids who are incredibly motivated and well supported, but lack world-class genes, they may not win a Grand Tour or an Olympic medal, but that doesn't mean that they can't have a successful and rewarding experience as a cyclist. Not only that, but it's likely that these less naturally gifted riders will learn important life lessons that will help them to be successful later in some other area of life. Ultimately, as I see it, you can't control genes, so there's little point in even talking about them.