Here are a few observations we have gathered while working with the next generation of bike racers:
It all starts with giving them opportunity to learn, grow, and compete. Cycling is not only a challenging sport, but presents a healthy lifestyle and one that can be sustained throughout an athlete’s entire life regardless of age. After all, you don’t see many Master’s running clubs and even fewer Master’s football clubs.
The introduction of young people to this sport and their continued development should be a priority for all clubs and teams. Young people have a plethora of healthy and not so healthy activities competing for their time and although cycling is growing as a sport, it does not begin to compete in the US with the well-established mainstream sports such as football, basketball, baseball, soccer, etc.
Not only should there be more races (which there are), there should be more physical locations for them to develop their talents. That’s why we have created our program, as it allows our training center to be the “weight room” of cycling.
Just like high schools have training facilities (e.g. weight rooms), young cyclists need a place to go where they can learn about racing tactics and strategy, physiology, bike fitting, and most importantly, “hang out” and talk training and racing. There is nothing better than seeing a group of them stop at the end of their ride, just to say hello and talk about how the ride went.
If you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, one of the first chapters talks about Canadian hockey, specifically the development leagues. He points out how so many players within those leagues all had birthdays within the first three months of the year (Jan-March.) The difference in development between kids with birthdays 6-12 months apart was substantial. It was such a “head start” for these more physically developed kids, that they were able to carry that development though many levels of the sport, all the way up to the NHL.
Hockey development in Canada is different than cycling development in the US, specifically in sheer numbers. The main point being that the difference in development between a 15 and 16 year old can be rather large. We stress to the younger athletes about this difference, how it affects the races they are in, and how they should not give up so early because of this discrepancy. Everyone develops at a different rate. Some are gifted early, and others develop later. Each young athlete should be looked at and approached differently, as each is their own unique case.
As another data point in relation to rider development rates, the late and great Dr. Aldo Sassi did a study (or review) on 304 Junior athletes to see how traditional physiological measures of aerobic fitness measured in the laboratory such as VO2PEAK, VO2 at RCP, VO2 at VT and the anthropometric characteristics predict whether those young riders will become professionals.
Simple answer is no. It helped predict whether a rider was good at that age, but didn’t help predict whether they could carry that “talent” through the many steps to becoming a professional, which is a very important point for young athletes to understand. It takes a lot of things to become a professional, more than just your physiology and wattage readings when you are young.
Joe Dombrowski has managed to turn early talent into a WorldTour ride and is a young man who really knows how to push himself to the limit.
Keep it Fun
Keeping it fun is easier said than done. If you ask pretty much anyone who works with development in any sport, they say the #1 priority is to “keep it fun” and not put too much pressure on these young athletes. There is a delicate balance between teaching competition and having fun. On one hand, you want to teach the benefits of competition and how it can benefit them during their lives, but at the same time you are preaching to have fun. There is no easy answer, but good solid communication and a well-balanced life and cycling program will help meet this important goal.
In this athletic world of showboating, trash talking, and fist pumping, developing young riders with a sense of sportsmanship is a priority. Heck, in baseball, if you stare down a pitcher after hitting a home run, he will pluck you the next time you come to the plate! It’s just not tolerated.
Of course, we shouldn’t try to change young riders personalities, as they need to express themselves, but there is a big difference between enthusiasm in winning a bike race and trash talking, swearing, or showing up another athlete who just gave it their all.
Take a lesson from the First Tee’s mission statement, “To impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf.” Just substitute “sport of cycling” for “game of golf.”
In the summer of 2012, Team Donate Life sponsored a junior team to compete in RAAM. Jared Ellison, whose daughter Savannah and son Connor, competed on the team, trained 8 riders, ages 13-17, with a goal of developing mental toughness for one of the more difficult challenges any young rider can attempt. “Of course you know how mentally tough this sport is and that each cyclist needs to have mental toughness to reach personal goals or a certain racing level. I don’t think there is enough focus in this area.
“We will spend tons of time training, doing intervals, holding heart rates, tracking power, cross training with yoga, pilates, weights etc., and then learn about nutrition and look for all the great vitamins and supplements. But how often do we do things that will increase our mental toughness?
“Our brain is the natural biggest limiting factor that we have. No matter how well we do all those other things if our brain and subconscious tell us we do not have any more to push or it is time to quit then no other training matters. I am a HUGE believer in mixing in creative ways to test the mental toughness and pushing beyond it. Every time a person pushes past the moment when your brain is telling you ‘it hurts’ or ‘you can’t’ they grow with confidence of what they are really capable of.
“While training the junior team for RAAM last year I knew this was my number one focus of training. Teenagers are naturally strong and recover fast so getting their bodies conditioned for cycling was the easy part. What I was not sure of is what type of mentality or beliefs they are taught in their homes growing up. As I got to know each junior better I would listen to them carefully and find areas that they may struggle in. As I learned these things I would implement something new into their training”
There are obviously many areas of development that are important and we have just highlighted a few. The main point is that we have a great opportunity to teach young riders many life improving skills and we should take advantage of this time to do so. Not only is it satisfying as coaches, it’s just fun for us to watch and be part of the process.
Ride safe, ride strong,
Bruce Hendler is a USA Cycling Coach and owner of AthletiCamps in Northern California. For the past 11 years, he and his experienced team have helped athletes of all levels achieve their goals in the great sport of bike racing thru cycling training camps, cycling coaching and performance testing. To contact AthletiCamps, visit their website at www.athleticamps.com or follow them on Twitter.