Some recent reading has given your author some pause on the issue of riding (and climbing) better.
Firstly, if one is to believe Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, “personal explanations of success don’t work” and that those who achieve success in their field “are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” Gladwell, in his analysis of success, stresses the opportunities that allow the beneficiaries to dedicate themselves to their profession (the often-cited 10,000 hours of practice), which leads to that success. There is not too much room for natural talent in Gladwell’s scheme.
Secondly, a recent training article in a cycling magazine looked at the impact of talent on how riders will respond to training. Those with low potential face a rapidly-flattening performance curve. Training will yield initial gains but the rider will struggle to get beyond, in the example, the capabilities of a cat.4 racer. Those with high potential have a performance curve that leads all the way to the top of the sport. Most riders, of course, fall somewhere in between to varying degrees.
In cycling, we take this idea of low and high potential as a given. There are certain unalterable physical characteristics that we as individuals have, based on our physiological makeup with muscle composition and aerobic capacity and so on. Improvements can be made, for sure, and the tools can certainly be sharpened, but we’ve all only got the toolbox we were born with.
In his book A Dog in a Hat (perfectly subtitled as: An American bike racer’s story of mud, drugs, blood, betrayal, and beauty in Belgium), Joe Parkin describes how when he first arrived in Belgium he was thoroughly tested physically by a local sports doctor to see if his ‘numbers were good’. Parkin’s numbers were quite good and he was well over the dividing line from amateur to “Beroepsrenner” or professional. He was placed solidly as a Classics rider. But according to Parkin, he had dreams of becoming a King of the Mountains and fastidiously watched his weight when he should probably have learned how to sprint.
Testing is more advanced these days, with VO2 Max and other parameters readily accessible and profiles of the sort of rider one might become, with dedication, are available. Ultimately, there really is no way of overcoming certain limitations – no matter how much training one does.
Whether those with physical gifts make it to the top is a difference question, and training and motivation are obviously central to this equation. Hidden advantages will, of course come into play, and perhaps even cultural legacies as well. These are useful self-evident conclusions to consider on the issue of training. If one is a high potential rider, the only limitations to performance may well be how hard one is prepared to work to maximise that potential.
For those with low potential, it can actually be reassuring to know training oneself into the road is not going to produce a miracle result. Some humility in the face of nature is important.
Still, as Parkin recounts, if he had accepted his apparent predestination as a solid Classic rider he might not have tried as hard to achieve something else, to push himself towards a goal that ultimately, perhaps not surprising, proved to be elusive. “If I had understood and accepted the verdict of the numbers, I might not have given it the shot I gave it. Who knows?”
We might accept some humility, but to add a piece of fortune-cookie wisdom, perhaps the point of the journey is not to arrive. Which is why many of us, despite limited potential, will still be out there on the roads trying to to push ourselves a little bit more, all for the sake of the journey.