Like father, like son?

I’ve covered the subject of father and son riders before (here and here) but last weekend Italian newspaper La Gazzetta Dello Sport had a feature on Miguel Indurain and his son Miguel. The five times Tour de France winner is enjoying watching his son progress on the bike and after some promising results in the cadetes category he moves up to the juniors (U-18) with CC Villavés , the club that brought his father in to the sport, as well as Team Sky’s Xavier Zandio.

These pairings are common and there are more, listed below. But can a child inherit their father’s champion abilities or not?

The Gazzetta points out the more obvious father-son combo of Stephen Roche and Nicolas Roche and Davis Phinney and Taylor Phinney.

He inherited the big hair

But the one that stood out for me was Alessio Bugno. Gianni Bugno won the 1990 Giro d’Italia, taking the lead on the prologue and keeping the maglia rosa all the way to the finish three weeks later in Milan before finishing second in the Tour de France in the same year. He won back to back World Championships in 1991 and 1992 and took the Tour of Flanders in 1994. Son Alessio is not cycling, but instead plays football for AC Monza Brianza 1912, near the Bugnos’ home in Lombardy. Monza are in the Prima Divisione, the third tier of Italian soccer and Alessio plays as a defender.

Father Gianni stopped cycling and took up his passion of helicopter flight where he works today as a charter and rescue pilot. When you watch the Giro d’Italia many of the helicopter shots come from an aircraft piloted by Bugno senior. Bugno has also had a stalled run at politics and is also working as a rider representative for the CPA, a sort of rider union, making representations to the teams and UCI.

One father-son pro cycling pair missed by La Gazzetta was that of Dietrich Thurau and his son Björn. Before Erik Zabel and Jan Ullrich appeared  “Didi” Thurau stood for a long time as Germany’s greatest cyclist, winner of Liège–Bastogne–Liège and a wearer of the yellow jersey. Son Björn has ridden for several continental teams and with Team NSP he won the best young riders competition in the Paris-Corrèze two day race last August and this was enough to land a contract with French team Europcar for 2012.

Like Mother Like Son
Acquiring the right DNA makes all the difference but it turns out the maternal inheritance from the X chromosome makes a greater difference. In plain English, your mother determines your athletic talent more than your father. Energy for endurance exercise comes from oxidation of fuel and the maximal capacity to consume oxygen is therefore one of the important factors limiting endurance performance and this is inherited from your mother. Your VO2 Max score is quite dependent on your grandmother.

Was your great grandmother a sports champ?

That said you can inherit other things from your father. Long limbs, big lungs and heart volume can be influenced by the father’s DNA. The barrel chest of Miguel Indurain junior could be a paternal legacy.

Broad inheritance
The child inherits more than DNA. It is common to find many a pro coming from a family of cyclists, for example FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot has a father who raced at weekends but only with a local licence. It is common for children to seek inspiration from their parents and “inherit” a love of the sport before they rise to the top.

For those with famous fathers they grow up in a household where elite sport is the norm and get access to support and coaching from their parents and their name can open more doors.

Rare gift
Father-son pro cyclist combos are remarkable but there are not many. I would have imagined more given how common it is for children to follow their parents in the professional world. But cycling and other sports are different, there are skills to be learned but genetic inheritance matters. It’s also common to read of pros saying they’d rather their children didn’t turn pro, they’ve seen up front the insecurity of employment and danger of the job.

One champion alone is a freakish genetic product, in the sense of near-perfect abilities. Genetically the only way to mimic the champion do this would be to clone a Tour de France winner rather than mix DNA and even then we’d have the basic ingredients before we consider aptitude, determination and other characteristics.

Gender bias
I’m concious of the male aspect here. Maybe father-son combos stand out because few women cyclists could make a name for themselves in the past so we don’t have the comparison with champions from the past. Taylor Phinney is the son of Connie Carpenter and perhaps his prodigious abilities come from here. Only bias in our society means it is common to label him as the son of Davis Phinney.

Don’t blame your parents
If you had a slow ride over the weekend try not to put it all down to your parents. Nature vs nurture is a common debate. The body and mind are adaptive. Train right, eat well, rest up and you can make big leaps, put your mind to the task and improvement will follow. You can be constrained by some aspects of your inheritance but you can evaluate your strengths and weaknesses and pick whether you are a sprinter, a climber or another role.

And finally if you have only the most meagre of abilities to oxidise fuel you can still go for a ride. The ability to enjoy your cycling is not DNA-dependent.

30 thoughts on “Like father, like son?”

  1. Also, I think that they miss out on Bjarne Riis and his son Thomas Riis, who this year rode the Tour of Denmark, and is widely regarded – at least in Denmark – to be a great talent

  2. As a scientist and an athlete I have to comment here.

    Mitochondrial DNA is not X chromosome inherited. If that were the case daughters would inherit from both mother and father. It is a distinct genome that is maternally inherited.

    Mitochondrial genetics is probably the smallest drop in the bucket of inherited athleticism. As you say, non-genetic sport enthusiasm is probably the most important component. Further to this, there is growing evidence of “non-genetic” effects that are indeed inherited from both mothers and fathers. Something called DNA methylation influences which genes are expressed, and in humans DNA methylation appears to be largely inherited from your father (and then is altered throughout your life by your actual experiences). This means that you can certainly inherit different aspects of athleticism from both your parents. And good news to those of us that don’t have athlete parents, your enthusiasm for sport can actually improve your heritable athleticism through creating the right environment for your kids, and even through a number of modifiable “non-genetic” inherited effects.

  3. There’s an even longer list of successful fathers/sons, and brothers, within motorcycle racing. About half the field in MotoGP have fathers who successfully raced at top level, and a lot of them also have highly successful brothers. I’d imagine this has more to do with ebing put on a bike before they could walk in most cases, but surely fitness and mental ability has also been passed down genetically.

  4. Kasper: thanks, I’d remember hearing about him too.

    Bri: thanks for the precision. I’m out of my depth doing genetics.

    Simon: yes, I’ve seen pictures of the 4 year old on a motorbike provided by their father’s “stable”. Same for many tennis and golf players, starting early is common. They learn the skills and gain an advantage on others, success builds on success.

  5. Back in the old days there was also Klaus Ampler, who won Peace Race ( “Tour de France” of communist countries) in 1963 and his son Uve Ampler, who won Peace Race 3 times in eighties. After Berlin Wall fall he rode for Telekom and Mroz

  6. We can add more:
    Jean-Paul Van Poppel and his son Boy Van Poppel
    Jean-René Bernaudeau and his son Gianni Bernaudeau
    Adrie Van der Poel and his son David.

    The Van der Poel link is interesting because Adrie married the daughter of Raymond Poulidor, one of the best riders in the 1960s/70s. Perhaps the DNA inheritance is unknown but David is sort of a cycling aristocrat with names like this. He’s been the top junior cyclo-cross rider in Europe this winter.

  7. and how about like mother like daughter, Beryl Burton who won 7 world titles competed at the 1972 world championships with her daughter Denise, who herself went on to win a bronze at the 1975 world championships.

  8. John Tomac raced on the road (7-Eleven and Motorola) while racing in the dirt (both the cross country and downhill), and now his son Eli is a professional motorcycle racer. Tomes the elder is also coaching Trek Racing’s downhill ace Aaron Gwin.

  9. Isn’t the Phinney comparison less comparable as Taylor’s mother was also an accomplished athlete herself. That to me is the more interesting phenomenon. I mean, Taylor really was born with two cards stacked in his favor.

  10. “The ability to enjoy your cycling is not DNA-dependent” was the best line in the story! I’m lucky as my ability to enjoy Italian wine and food are also not dependent on DNA.

  11. Slightly different, but there are currently 3 siblings from the Sulzberger family riding professionally. Wes for GreenEDGE (formally FdJ), Bernard, who’s just signed for Raleigh (and if a few breaks finally go his way should step up next year) and Grace (riding for Jayco-AIS…not sure how ‘professional’ that is given the recent female professional cyclist uproar).

    Not sure about their parents sporting heritage, but whatever they were doing, it must have worked.

  12. I think the Meyer brother’s father was a pretty handy racer back in the day; not sure if he raced beyond the domestic track scene though.

    My parents were not terribly interested in sport when I was a kid so I fell into whatever sports every other kid was playing at the time; tennis in the summer, cricket in the schoolyard, aussie rules football in the winter and then basketball in high school. I rode my bike everywhere but it never occurred to me that I could do that as a sport. I came across competitive cycling via a friend and five seasons of triathlon in my 20s. If either of my boys show any interest or aptitude on the bike I will whisk them down the velodrome quick smart.

  13. Dan Martin was a good mention, Birillo, given that his father, Neil was a decent British domestic pro, while his mother is the sister of Stephen Roche. So he has all the advantages, in terms of parentage and, presumably, in the circumstances in which he grew up.

  14. I had the pleasure of riding with the Van der Poel clan this summer for a couple of days in France and I can say both young David and Mathieu have certainly picked up both the nature and nurture of their surroundings. They have an infectious joy for riding regardless of their undeniably thoroughbred lineage.

    And another one for you, the young Zabel ain’t looking to shabby either!

  15. Interesting article, learnt about Darwins evolution theory last year but in a context of social sciences (evolutionary psychology). As a rider myself on Belgian roads, I see a lot of promising riders having a father who raced too in his young years and is able to help his son with good advice, I find advice from an experienced father way more important than from a sports director (young Yannick Peeters has both with his father Wilfried ‘Fitte’ Peeters as OPQS-SD.

    I’ve raced with Riis’ son in Tour de Liège and I did not remark him but as he was only first year U23 he gained a lot of experience riding abroad and high ranked UCI-races, such as Tour of Denmark.

    And about not blaming your parents, last week I still said to my dad regretting my (grand)parents weren’t sporting or sport-minded, lost a lot of time find through the peloton.

  16. i was sent a link to the 97 Cx worlds in Milan.

    It amused me to see that Van der Poel and Frischneckt were all vying for podium places and this year each of them had their sons racing in the World Champs (Frischneckt against Van Der Poel as well). So an even closer example (even if the results were switched and the gap larger this year).

    I also think that Mariusz Gil’s dad (Dariusz) was racing that year and finished 13th.

  17. I’m surprised that nobody’s mentioned the Schlecks yet.
    Father Johnny was a pro in the 70s, then fathered Fränk and Andy (already in his fourties). Now his sons are big stars – and he himself was a bus driver/assistant DS for some years at CSC/Saxo Bank.

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