Article Review: Aerobic fitness variables do not predict the professional career of young cyclists.

Menaspà P1, Sassi A, Impellizzeri FM. Aerobic fitness variables do not predict the professional career of young cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2010;42(4):805-12.

Article Summary:
In sport, organizations look to the junior ranks for new talent. Predicting who will become a successful professional athlete based on their performance in the junior ranks is difficult (e.g. In American football, Tom Brady was a 6th round draft pick and is now considered one of the all time greats). Individual aerobic capacity is thought to be more important in a sport such as cycling, The goal of this study was to determine if aerobic fitness variables derived from traditional VO2 max testing could predict future success as a pro cyclist.

The study used retrospective data (1996-2002) from metabolic testing performed on 309 cyclists ages 17 to 18. Seventy two of the juniors competed for their respective national cycling team. In December 2008, researchers looked at their cycling careers. Cyclists were considered to be a professional cyclist if they had been on a UCI team for at least three years. Further, professional cyclists were subdivided into further categories including lower ranked professionals versus ProTour cyclists and their cycling style (climber versus sprinter versus time trialist).

Overall, none of the six measurements derived from V02 max testing nor any of the anthropometric variables was predictive of either becoming a professional cyclist or success at the professional level. There were some trends noted for some variables that may increase or decrease the odds of success, especially for particular cycling styles. Other factors including economy, anaerobic characteristics, technical ability, tactical skills, mental fatigue, perception of effort and ability to recover are likely all other important variables for excelling at the professional level.

Questions for Discussion

1) I’m assuming this study was done only on male cyclists (it’s not clear in the paper but that’s my inference.). Would these same findings hold true for young female cyclists?

2) The role of doping and performance enhancing drugs is unclear. This paper was published in 2010. At the time, none of the cyclists who went on to pro careers had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Now that it’s 2015 and more facts have come out about doping at the professional level during this period, does the study still hold true? Was success as a professional based primarily on the athlete’s decision to use PEDs?

3) The average VO2 max of the juniors tested here was quite high (50th percentile VO2 max was 71.4 and the 10th percentile VO2 max as 62.4- still fairly high). How would this study look if the study was performed on a group of youth cyclists with a wider range of physiologic variables?

4) In light of athlete progression into the pro-tour who have previously tested below 62.4 VO2 max, FTP 60 and 20 mins average, how do we manage testing/quantifying young riders to ensure that ‘the numbers’ are developed alongside attributes such as tactical awareness, determination, ability to suffer and pure grit. More ‘purist’ European teams often quote these as key aspects of selection, often at the expense of watts and VO2 max etc.

Written by: Andy Pasternak, MD, MS

Reviewed by: Graham Theobald, BSc. (Hons), MSST