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  Last updated: 3/28/2012

Physical Characteristics of Elite Cyclist
"Genetic Potential"

I recently received the following question:

Q.I am new to road cycling, looking to go competitive and really need some expert advice on the advantages (or disadvantages) that some of my physical attributes may confer. I'm male, 23yrs, 5ft 10in tall, 55kg, with a recorded low resting HR of 58. I know this isn't much to go by, but is it possible to hazard a guess based on these. I reckon my mass is too low (low BMI). Should I bulk up first or specialize in climbing? Is it possible for someone of my features to also be a good time trialist? Thanks a lot in advance.

A.There are 3 factors that define an elite cyclist - genetics (inheritance), training, and attitude. Although genetic factors (inherited physical characteristics and physiologic potential) are a factor at the highest levels of competition, most cyclists are so far from their physiologic limits that blaming failure on their inherited potential is more of an excuse than reality.

The biggest single factor in achieving elite performance is ATTITUDE with TRAINING a close second. That leaves PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS in third place. Benefits of good genetics are more relevant to sprinters and much less so for events requiring endurance. The fact that there are multiple event options combining sprint ability with endurance in various combinations is a major reason that cycling is a sport in which riders of all sizes and builds can participate and be competitive.

But if two athletes have equivalently good attitudes and training, there are certain physiologic characteristics that will define the better rider.

This article by Ana B. Peinado et al Discriminant analysis of the speciality of elite cyclist is one of the few that addresses the question directly. I am going to excerpt a few sections that I think answer the question. (The full article can be read on line.)

To quote (I'll add any of my comments in parentheses):

"Twenty male, elite amateur cyclists were classified by their trainers as either flat terrain riders, hill climbers, or all-terrain riders. Anthropometric and cardiorespiratory studies were then undertaken....Most differences between the speciality groups were of an anthropometric nature. The only cardiorespiratory variable that differed significantly (p<0.05) was maximum oxygen consumption with respect to body weight (VO2max/kg). The first discriminant test classified 100% of the cyclists within their true speciality; the second, which took into account only anthropometric variables, correctly classified 75%.

The main differences between different specialists are anthropometric. Hill climbers tend to be shorter and lighter, flat terrain and time trialists are usually taller and heavier, and hill climbers show the highest maximum load attained (Wmax) and maximum oxygen consumption (VO2max) values.

It is important to know to what degree different variables are able to discriminate between different cycling specialities in order to better detect talented athletes and to orientate training of elite cyclists towards specific goals. Discriminant analysis has commonly been used for this purpose in other sports. It has also been used to classify children and adolescents as apt for different sports according to their characteristics,and as part of models for identifying and selecting sport talents.

The aim of the present work was to determine the physiological and anthropometric differences between different types of cycling specialist, and to develop a multivariate model that can classify and predict the speciality to which emerging cyclists might be best suited.

Anthropometric and cardiorespiratory variables were recorded for each subject ..... The anthropometric measures were: body weight, height, six skin fold thickness (triceps, subscapular, abdominal, suprailiac, thigh and calf), three diameters (femur bicondylar, radius biepicondylar, and radius bistyloid), and three circumferences (contracted arm, thigh and calf). The data recorded were used to calculate some of the anthropometric variables: muscular mass, bone mass, residual mass, percentage fat, relative weight, and body mass index (BMI).

The cardiorepiratory variables measured were...VO2max, maximum carbon dioxide production (VCO2max), maximum ventilation (VEmax), maximum heart rate (HRmax) and Wmax.

The body weight, muscular mass, residual mass and BMI of the flat terrain and all-terrain riders were significantly greater than those of the hill climbers (see Table 1 in original paper). The only cardiorespiratory variable to differ significantly was the maximum oxygen consumption relative to body weight (VO2max/kg), which was significantly greater among the hill climbers."


Now I will chime back in. What is amazing is that using a fairly complex formula that incorporates these many variables, both physical and physiologic, the authors were able to clearly separate the 3 groups - all terrain, flat terrain, and hill climbers.

The anthropometric variables (physical characteristics) were those that showed most differences. For example,

The only physiologic (cardiorespiratory) variable to show any significant differences was VO2max/kg, which was greatest among the hill climbers.

Using physical characteristics (weight, height, etc.) the predictive value for "specialty" was about 75%, and then if one added in the physiologic differences (cardiorepsiratory variables) the predictive value rose to 100%.

If you are interested in how you compare, this study provides the numbers - and a multivariate analysis equation to see how you stack up.

Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

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