The Science of Mapei
We are very fortunate to talk with Dr. Aldo Sassi, director of the prestigious Mapei Training Center in Milan, who has worked with thousands of younger athletes through his career. Italians have a different approach to developing cyclists with a strong emphasis on working with younger riders. Dr. Sassi has been at the forefront of training these athletes since 1982.
We also spoke with retired professional Roy Knickman, whose impressive resume includes multiple junior and senior national championships, a successful domestic and European professional career, and a former US National Road Coach for both Juniors and Seniors.
Pez: What do you think are the most important areas a young rider should work on as he or she is developing?
Dr. Sassi: My training methods were developed working on junior athletes, and are the same I use with the professional cyclists, with the primary difference being volume and mixture of workouts. For example, over time, a junior (16-18 years old) will build up to 550-650 km/week consisting of two endurance rides; two anaerobic threshold (40 min total amount) workouts; two climbing sessions (1200-1500m total elevation gain in each ride); one on-bike strength session (8 x 5’ at 35-40 rpm; 2’ recovery); and some limited anaerobic/highly lactic type efforts. The focus and mixture is related to age and goals, with volumes being lower in younger athletes. Specific training methods (i.e. strengthening and anaerobic threshold efforts) are gradually introduced only from 14-15 years or when we deem they are ready.
Roy: Cadence is critical as junior races are gear limited all the way up to the world championships. In addition, high cadence pedaling is also a key aspect to producing high power. Keeping training fun and enjoyable is also important. Developing their aerobic engine is a primary goal. Most important though is being coachable and consistent with training; the rider doing what he is told, not going harder, and not skipping workouts.
Pez: What physical and mental characteristics do you see as the most important in achieving cycling success?
Dr. Sassi: In my opinion, VO2 max and peak power output (PPO) in an incremental test are the most important parameters. As an example, Dario Cioni was chosen for his combined high VO2max (~80 ml/kg/min when he was young) and PPO. When VO2max is above 75 ml/kg/min in a 16-18 years old boy, you can be confident they have potential for a successful cycling career. When VO2max is not optimal, you must be sure that the athlete is very fast (sprinter) or possess a very high lactic feature (i.e. Pozzato). In my experience, VO2max no less than 70 ml/kg/min is needed for future success in young athletes that are not pure sprinters. For those athletes (sprinters), 60 ml/kg/min might be enough.
The mental features of the athlete are not always foreseeable in young cyclists. But both their mental attitude and an athlete’s skills can be improved when the athlete matures (i.e. Moser and Rominger started to practice cycling when they were already 18, which back in that day was considered late.)
Roy: Work ethic, mental toughness and being coachable are key characteristics to success. I worked with riders who had very average physiology who became national champions. Being a European professional requires better-than-average physiology and a lot of mental toughness. Domestically, with enough years of training and racing, someone with average physiology can become a successful domestic pro.
The take home message here is that without the work ethic and mental toughness, the super gifted individual will ultimately be less successful and have a shorter career than the average rider with work ethic and mental toughness. I have seen this time and time again.
Pez: Finally, what advice you would give to a young athlete who wants to become a professional rider?
Dr. Sassi: I have been training many young cyclists since 1982, and some have gone on to become top professionals (e.g., I started to train Zanini when he was 15 years old, and Cioni when was 16 years old.) There are three key points I would offer:
1) To believe in the importance of serious training, and in the consequent proper lifestyle which is more demanding for cycling than for other sports. When I introduced my training methods with Zanini, a lot of people told me that with those training systems he couldn’t become professional, due to the hardness of the work.
2) To keep themselves far from any kind of drugs teach them good habits. When you are a young cyclist, you have one main goal: to be sure that the performance level you reach is only due to training, your natural talent and desire to be the best athlete you can be.
3) To be very careful with the choice of people they receive advice from. This can be a challenge.
Roy: My one major piece of advice is to show patience. If you want it all tomorrow you will be disappointed. Have a long-range plan. Train consistently with increasingly difficult training and racing goals.
• Hard work, more hard work, and then some more hard work. Need I say more? Dr. Sassi makes an interesting point in that he uses the same approach with young riders as he does with professionals. It’s just the volume and amount of intensity varies depending on the athlete and their goals. Roy states that younger riders should increase both their training intensity and difficulty of races year after year. No matter how you slice it, being a successful cyclist at any level takes both hard and smart work, along with sacrifice.
• Patience. Different athletes progress at different rates. Some younger athletes just take longer to mature. Don’t be in a hurry to progress too fast. Be realistic with a young athlete’s physical and mental abilities. Be a student of the sport and learn along the way, not being too critical of yourself. Take the approach that it’s the journey and not the destination that is important.
• Training. Balanced training (work/recovery) with a focus on their aerobic component. As a young rider physically develops, this is the optimal time to develop their aerobic engine. A lot of climbing, a lot of work at both the medium endurance (89-95% of determined threshold) and anaerobic threshold (98-103%) intensities. And as Roy points out; cadences are very important and should be paid special attention to.
• Technical. When you are young it’s a great opportunity to learn bike-handling skills. There are many coaches that offer skills clinics. Look for one in your area. Both BMX and mountain biking also offer an opportunity to learn skills that can be utilized on the road.
• Sportsmanship. Healthy competition is a valuable environment for a young athlete. Remember that the primary purpose of competition is not only to have a goal to win, but to offer an environment for an athlete to improve. As part of that environment, true sportsmanship should be taught to the younger athletes. For me golf is the ultimate in teaching young athletes rules and respect. Cycling can take a lesson from the golf world.
• Variety in life and sport. As a young athlete, you’ve probably heard it a million times, but I will state it anyways. Participate in a lot of activities when you are young. Try not to enslave yourself to the bike at such a young age. When considering very young athletes, participating in a variety of physical activities allows their development to be more even or balanced in terms of muscle mass, joint development, and coordination.
• Love of the sport, a desire to succeed and a lot of tenacity. Let’s face it, cycling is not a lucrative career for the majority of bike racers. Not many cyclists will earn enough money to support themselves the rest of their careers. This requires a young athlete to have an incredible desire to succeed for themselves and not the financial “riches” that go with the sport.
As you begin your career in all those local bike races, remember, you are not doing it for the fame or fortune, but to gain valuable racing experience that will carry you later in your career. Enjoy and appreciate those prizes of water bottles and T-shirts while you can
• Advice from different sources. Dr. Sassi makes a very important point that younger athletes need to be very careful as to where they get their advice. Do your homework, ask around and find good information. Also be aware that it is common for young athletes to switch coaches or mentors as they develop. Different coaches have different expertise at different levels of the sport and it makes sense for young athletes to seek out the people that have the best advice as they develop. For example, your first coach may know and understand the local race scene, but if you progress to the national level, another coach may be a better guide since they have experience in that area.
Roy also offers good advice that younger athletes must be coachable. A lot of time, they may think they know everything they need to know, but we all know that’s not possible. Listen to your coaches and mentors and use all the information given to you to understand what can make you the best possible athlete.
Obviously, there is a lot of information presented in this article. I think it’s important to understand that there is no specific script to follow in regards to developing young athletes. Seek out good advice, be patient, offer variety, and most important, enjoy those junior years, as they are the building blocks to a successful cycling career.
Ride safe; ride strong,
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com and check out the AthletiCamps Blog.