Do Junior World Champions Succeed in the Pro Ranks?

Oskar Svendsen Merida

Norway’s Oskar Svendsen is the new junior time trial world champion. Who knows what the future holds for him now but it seems he could well become a force to be reckoned with in the senior ranks in the years to come.

Why? Because it turns out the time trial is a good measure of talent. This might seem obvious yet the road race is a very different story where past winners have flourished, proved mediocre or vanished into cycling obscurity despite the glory of a rainbow jersey.

Here’s a look at the correlation between junior performance and adult success in the time trial and road race. Plus what this means for today’s gold medallist Oskar Svendsen, who isn’t just the world time trial champion, apparently he has the world record for the highest VO2 Max ever recorded.

A junior is any rider aged 17 and 18.

History Repeating
Since the junior category was introduced for the world road cycling championships, only one junior road race world champion has ever gone on to win the rainbow jersey in the senior ranks: Greg LeMond won the junior title in 1979 and then the senior race twice in 1983 and 1989. Damiano Cunego came close with a senior silver medal in 2008 after his 1999 junior win.

Let’s scan the recent results. I’ve picked 1998 as an arbitrary cut-off because the contrasting of careers of Scanlon and Pozzato make a good start.

Looking through the most recent list of junior winners some names stand out. Damiano Cunego seems to have blossomed early, being a young world champion and winning the 2004 Giro but without the consistency of wins his early talent would suggest. Roman Kreuziger is similar, he dominated his rivals in the junior ranks but having turned pro he’s had some consistent high finishes in the Giro and Tour and wins in week-long stage races but he’s not become the leader that many predicted although he’s a good store of UCI points. A similar story for Diego Ulissi who was hailed as the next Paolo Bettini but so far the only similarity is the town they come from, Cecina.

Ireland’s Mark Scanlon surprised with his win in 1998 but quit the sport frustrated. Others like Arnaud Gérard make a good living, the Frenchman is today a useful part of FDJ’s sprint train for Arnaud Démare… the 2009 silver medallist who took gold the U23 worlds last year. Russia’s Rovny has bounced around several pro teams and is currently with RusVelo but has won nothing, the same for Oleksandr Kvachuk, now with Lampre-ISD but a virgin palmarès. Spare a thought for Kai Reus, the Dutchman was a promising rider with Rabobank and was training in the Alps one day in 2007 when he crashed on the descent of the giant Col de l’Iseran and went into a coma for ten days. He returned to racing but had to stop after getting mononucleosis and is now with United Healthcare.

But road racing is a random business. The junior race is short and intense and lacks tactical sophistication meaning riders can get lucky on the day. Of course nobody is there by chance, each country is selecting a competitive team and the race is probably the fiercest contest on the junior calendar. But it is still open.

Instead we can look at the time trial results from the same year. The time trial strips out much of the tactics needed for the road race and offers a purer test of ability.

Indeed the results seem to bear this out. Scan the list and every name should be familiar to you with the exception of Piotr Mazur. The Pole is a pro with CCC Polsat Polkowice and had two years with Saunier-Duval but isn’t known for much else. By contrast Cancellara’s double win stands out; he is a winner in the junior and senior ranks. Russia’s Mikhail Ignatiev has also won twice and if he’s not such an illustrious winner he is still a tough rider known for frequent attacks. We also have another double winner with Marcel Kittel who was a time trial specialist for a long time before he emerged as a sprinter once he turned pro… which suggests he could become a classics contender in the future too. And the more recent champions like Phinney, Kwiatkowski and Durbridge are impressive neo-pros whilst Bob Jungels has been an insatiable winner in the U23 ranks this year and will turn pro for 2013.

Today’s time trial was won by Norway’s Oskar Svendsen. Is he a name to remember? Yes, you would do well to reserve a few neurons for his name because he seems to be a real prospect. His background is as a mountain biker and he first hit the radar when he scored the highest recorded VO2 max ever seen in a human: 97.5ml/kg/min. This is huge, especially because it was set on a bike whilst cross-country skiers often score higher since they use their arms too, meaning even more effort. As the Norweigan story says they had to double-check the lab equipment but apparently all was well.

An Oskar winning performance

But as impressive as this high score is, it does not guarantee success in cycling where a wider range of factors determine the winner of a race although a high score is often well-correlated with power output. Svendsen can already look to a promising career in an event like the track pursuit but as today’s test showed, he can also hold a high pace for a longer distance suggesting he can enjoy a strong career.

Only Greg Lemond has done the double in the junior and senior road race. As a pure effort test rather than a more random outcome, the junior time trial appears to be a much better predictor of success. Many junior world champions from the time trial go on to great things. But of course there are many who don’t succeed at junior level who later come good too.

We’ll have to see with Svendsen. Who knows, maybe he’ll get bored or suffer injury? But for now he can enjoy his gold medal knowing it is a worthy achievement but confident that he’s already got a CV to open doors with any pro team.

55 thoughts on “Do Junior World Champions Succeed in the Pro Ranks?”

  1. Interesting to see that guys who are now sprinters (Kittel, Degenkolb, etc) had the aerobic foundation to time trial. I wouldn’t have ever guessed that.

    • Yes, it shows you need to engine to be there in the finish. Kittel especially is a “long” sprinter, he doesn’t pop off a wheel with 50 metres to go but can launch with 300m and keep going; Cipollini also had a background as a candidate for the 100km team time trial. André Greiplel was junior hill climb champion in Germany.

  2. regarding the VO2 result, the key quote from the article is “I always take these test results with some skepticism”. In my experience the results vary wildly from lab to lab, and surely he’d have won by more than a few seconds if he really had that kind of ability (he’d have won the Olympics for that matter…).

    • I agree. It is odd that the highest scores recorded are all Norwegian, the chances of this being valid are slim. But it is no doubt a high score when tested anywhere.

      But if you take two riders with the same score their riding can differ by quite a lot.

      • The experts were very skeptical about the result, so they’ve re-run the test, checked all the equipment and tested him in different labs. Same result every time. Kurt Asle Arvesen of Team Sky has attended too and confirms that the result is correct. Obviously Sky wants him for the future…

        VO2 max is far from everything though, so your logic doesn’t really make sense. There are a lot of riders with high VO2 max who hasn’t succeeded as pro’s. There are lots of other factors as well, such as mentality, recovery, bike-handling, aerodynamics, stamina/endurance for long races, and so on.

        The fact that the top results are from Norwegians is probably only due to the fact that we’re pretty much the only ones who publish the results. Guys like Wiggins, Contador, Froome, Schleck etc have never officially revealed their VO2 max.

        • I agree, VO2 Max isn’t everything, that was what I wanted to say above.

          As for publication, I meant across all sports from marathon to XC ski but yes, maybe it is a cultural thing to publish them in Norway.

          • I think that in Norway athletes have a culture to publish test results, because keping them secret would make people ask “What does he have to hide?”. A while ago Thomas Alsgaard (former Olympic winner i XC-skiing) criticised Petter Northug (maybe the worlds best XC-skiier) for not make all his training public, which Alsgaard does.

            An possible explanation to why all records are Norwegian might be that there is a lot XC-skiiers in Norway, Vo2max is maybe more important in skiing than in cycling, and because that skiers use their upper body as well they activate more muscles and therefore score higher.

      • One possible explanation could be that Norway is one of the few countries where XC-skiers can train and race professionally in a Team Sky “marginal gains”, costs be damned sort of way.

  3. The chances of Oskar Svendsen achieving success in the Pursuit or other track events are somewhere between slim and none: Norway’s only usable velodrome is a 297m outdoor track in Stjørdal, Norway.
    There are several more or less serious plans for making an indoor velodrome in Norway, but all these are, as far as I know, still on the drawing board stage.
    The Norwegian cycling federation arranges training camps for track cyclists abroad, including what looks to be the 2013 national championships in Poland

    Norway imports migrant workers from Poland, and sends back budding track cyclists 🙂

  4. Hey INRG,

    Thanks for the interesting post. The question you are dealing with has been investigated “scientifically” using a very large data set in this article:
    Schumacher YO, Mroz R, Mueller P, Schmid A, Ruecker G. Success in elite cycling: A prospective and retrospective analysis of race results. J Sports Sci. 2006, 24(11):1149–56.
    “… Altogether, 27454 results of 8004 athletes from 108 countries were collected. We found that 29.4% of the elite athletes had participated in junior World Championships, and that 34% of the participants in junior World Championships later participated in major elite competitions such as grand Tours or World championships” (from the abstract at PubMed).

    • and Junior World Track Champ in the IP over 2k the previous year. He really was a trackie for most of his career till he started being serious about the road

  5. When I first heard mention of the 97,5 VO2 max test (by vuelta commentators for TV2 Norway Mads Kaggestad and Ole K. Stoltenberg) I couldn’t believe my own ears. That is an insane result for someone 18 years old. And set on a bike? Sick! I know athletes generally test higher values in their sport but it is, as you mention, considered harder to achieve high numbers on a bike only using the muscles in your feet than e.g. cross-country skiing or even running. That someone would beat the values set by Bjørn Dæhlie (96ml/kg/min), a cross-country skier known to be a “physiological phenomenon” and an extremely dedicated athlete, is truly impressive. Remember he was at his peak in a time before the Norwegian ban on altitude chambers, and before there were tests for EPO and blood transfusion. (RELAX fellow Norwegians, I’m not implying that our national hero did any doping. If anything Svendsens results have made me more certain that he did not. Just saying it is results unheard of before young Svendsen came along.)

    Lets just hope that Oscar gets the backing that he needs to achieve something great. There is no question about his potential. And I think he will. His team Joker Merida seems to be a great team to be in for young talented guys. And you can’t argue that he is up himself and takes anything for granted. A statement to after the record breaking test – It is bike races that count. To be honest I don’t really care about the test results. I have no interest in being the best in the wold on bike rollers(?). I want to be a god road cyclist. (freely translated by me) And to after todays victory – The feeling is completely insane. I had not expected it at all. It was an amazing moment hearing the national anthem. It is without doubt the biggest thing I’ve ever experienced. (again me with the translations :s)
    To the future!

    • Mentioning the words “Bjørn Dæhli” and “EPO” in the same sentence to most Norwegians is akin to talking about doping and Lance to “yellow rubber band” set 😀

  6. There is a saying (at least i Denmark): ‘It is typical Norwegain to be best!’. That seems to be reflected in the article you have linked to as well. Norway are understably very proud of their succesful sports men and woman. Remember, it is a small contry with only 4,5 million citizens. That the previous record holder was Norwegian as well probably isn’t only because he is Norwegian. Bjorn Daehlie is one of the greatest and most winning cross country skiers ever, so I guess it is not so surprising that he would hold the VO2 record until now. That being said, it is probaly advisable to study the results of Svendsen with a fair amount of skepticism.

    • The saying is a quote from Gro Harlem Brundtland, who were the prime minister of Norway. Translated from “Det er typisk norsk å være god”. I believe it’s from the winter olympics in Lillehammer in 1994.

      • The quote is ‘It is typical Norwegian to be good’ and it was Gro Harlem Brundtland who said it, but she said it in her new years speech in 1992. It was however mentioned a hole lot by the national press following the Norwegian success in the winter olympics in Lillehammer.

    • He talks about his frustration in this 2007 interview in the Sunday Tribune:

      ‘There are two reasons for this [quitting the UCI Pro Tour]. Firstly, I am not enjoying it, and I haven’t enjoyed it for some time. Secondly, there are drugs in the sport and I’d had enough of being associated with this, although I must stress the first reason was far more influential.’

  7. And here is the conclusion of the article “Success in elite cycling: A prospective and retrospective analysis of race results”:

    About one-third of all participants in elite cycling World Championships have been successful junior athletes. Successful junior athletes have, in several cycling disciplines, significantly better results in the adult category. The data presented here emphasize the importance of long-term training programmes in the development of peak performance in elite cycling.

  8. AllI can say is, based on the first photo: good Lord, what I wouldn’t give for the flexibility to reach those bars at all, let alone to hold them for a time trial…

  9. Several comments above were variations on “x-country skiing uses more muscles so vO2max is higher …”

    vO2max is “highest rate at which oxygen can be taken up and utilized by the body during severe exercise.” It’s also believed that maximum cardiac output is the main limiting factor of vO2max (not lung capacity). reference:

    How much skeletal muscle is being used, doesn’t increase your vO2max. vO2max will depend mostly on your heart’s stroke volume and maximum beat rate.

    It’s more likely that people with very high vO2max, self-select to compete in x-country skiing.

    And strictly, it’s not vO2max that matters, but *power* at vO2 max, which is more trainable than vO2max, as is power @ threshhold.

    • X-country skiing is a good way to increase your heart’s stroke volume, because it is easier to reach the high intensity you need (90-95% of max heart rate)when you are using your whole body. And it is not so stress full on your other muscles than your heart. This means you can train more and harder and increase your VO2max further.

  10. I find it interesting that arguably two of the emerging dominant nations of cycling of the last five years, Australia and Great Britain, aren’t very well represented in the results above.

  11. “A junior is any rider aged 17 and 18” – is that the official UCI definition? I thought the definition as used by British Cycling was pretty international; i.e. that a rider is a junior from their 16th birthday to end of the year in which their 18th birthday occurs (or words to that effect).

    So I think you can be 16yrs and be a junior; and be 18yrs and be a senior/U23 (not at the same time though!).

      • It is however preceded by “1.1.034 For participation in events on the international calendar, riders’ categories are determined by the age of those competing as defined by the difference between the year of the event and the year of birth of the rider.”

        So when the UCI say (1.1.036) that “This category shall comprise riders aged 17 and 18.” they effectively mean riders in the year in which those birthdays occur.

        British Cycling say much the same thing (different wording) which is a bit of a change from when I were a lad (Dave stares sinto space…). The upshot is you only get 2years as a junior (instead of anything up to 3yrs), but at least is same for all.

  12. Great post inrng. Beyond the above remarks for reasons about champion juniors not making the transition to pro ranks and further europro and Grand Tour competitiveness, here are a few more observations.

    Many star juniors come from cycling families or have an adult cycling mentor. The child can take long rides without fears of safety with their cycling mom or dad in young years coming into their teens with a fitness base. Often these kids are “coached” on what to do in kids races and have better equipment i.e., real racing bikes versus the random kid at an event who shows up with the single-speed for the community kids race. The fields are mixed and early wins that build confidence are against girls and boys – all of whom develop at varying rates. This early confidence and spark takes them into the amateur racing ranks – now in gender-specific categories of beginner to elite. However, due to the age difference of a junior racer against a 40-year cat4 beginner, the junior is still experiencing a psychological lift because there is not the same pressure; any ability to stay in with these older riders is seen as success. These kids crush in their junior specific amateur races. Since national teams are starving for talent, these kids are picked up and go into the development system. The competition increases – like the jr world champs who cannot make the leap to sr world champ, some flounder here and don’t do well in national-level junior-specific races, and certainly do not make the selection for world events. Their early insider knowledge from the parent or cycling mentor did not translate to the next steps of knowledge of skill useful in those competitive arenas. The discouragement is too great since the kid has been dominating since a beginner and a false sense of superiority created. Rightly, the kid is ahead of most peers (and many older amateur riders) because of years of experience in basic tactics, a growing physiological base, and from experiencing star-type feedback. Being told of one’s greatness is not necessarily a service to these young winners. This phenomenon is better described in Anson Dorrance’s book, Vision of a Champion. Dorrance describes his selection strategy when scouting high school talent for his collegiate team. He chose, not the star players basking in accolades but the ones he observed working over-time on the sidelines not getting any attention because it was those players who would have what it takes to make the transition to a bigger league. Mia Hamm had this quality working relentlessly on off-days on the field with no one watching; she was not a high school star. Another example comes from the military known as The Stockdale Paradox as is mentioned in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, specifically the chapter entitled, “The Way You Confront the Brutal Facts Can Mean the Difference Between Good and Great.” Stockdale was a leader in charge of men as long-term prisoners of war. He motivated his fellow inmates through positive but brutal reality-facing; the optimists died, the pessimists died. The survivors, after years and years of abuse and imprisonment, were those who chose to think positively about the future while also facing the daily reality – not setting any time limit on their incarceration or rules about its fairness.

    I guess I said all that to say, the gap from junior to Grand Tour is a huge chasm requiring years of training body, mind, soul and creating opportunities for open doors to get there; and few there be who travel it. If this reality is not made clear during even the headiest days of success as a kid, it will hit one like a wall and the young champ will not be able to see the door through that wall and/or may not be willing to do what it takes to open it. Lemond was an exception coming from a family with cycling interest. But Lemond was also an exceptional goal-setter having written down in high school his goals of earning rainbow and yellow jerseys. His eyes were wide open and he was already under siege growing up in a country where few knew about cycling at all, let alone the lofty goals of world class cycling.

    I hope there is a brutal fact-facing coach in Norway to steward the exceptional young Oskar who will certainly not be emphasizing Oskar’s exceptionalness but rather the exceptional hardness of his task as a future pro cyclist. It is perhaps these time trialists who can better cope with the brutal reality since training and the discipline itself force this type of management of discomfort and willingness to embrace sustained suffering as part of the endeavor.

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