At some point somewhere in the vast world of the Internet someone said "Anyone could be a Cat 1 if they had the time and energy to train right."
Or stated in a different way - "You can train yourself to be a great rider". If you're not a Cat 1 you're just training wrong. You need to train better, commit more time, etc etc etc.
I would disagree. In fact, the evidence I see seems to refute that quite clearly. If it were true, all these extremely dedicated amateur racers would be lining up at the Tour. Or perhaps a smaller race - the Philly race. There's no questioning the serious attitude hundreds or thousands of racers use to approach their racing. In a world that rewards effort, they should all be Cat 1s.
But this is not the case.
It's because genetics is the only way you have a chance of being a pro. Genetics decides whether or not you have the potential. It's up to you to decide what to do with it. Who knows, maybe my genetic make up ideally suits me for Judo or barrel rolling or eating hotdogs. I don't know how well I'd do in those other things but I know that as a bike racer, well, I'm not ideally suited for what I would consider to be "normal racing".
C'mon, you say, this can't be right.
Let's use a little more illustrative method of explaining what I mean. It's pretty simple.
Have you ever ridden with a Cat 1?
It's incredible how hard they can go, for how long, and not consider it a "big" effort. In my better days I'd test in the mid 60s to low 70s in primitive (but run by medical students) VO2 max tests. My hematocrit has been as high as 49.x% naturally. In leadout situations (group sprint rides at SUNY Purchase NY) I'd regularly hit 46 mph (along with one or two other guys). I managed a 7 mile time trial at 25.5 mph but that was the best I could do. My high school afternoons were spent riding, my college schedule (for four years) and my job (at a shop) for 7 years was based around my racing.
And the closest I came to being a Category 1 racer was when I declined an offer to upgrade to Cat 2. At the time I felt that my second place that day in a Cat 2-3 race wasn't worth it because the field consisted of about 15 racers due to terrible weather. If I could place in a bigger race, I'd be worthy.
I struggled to try and peak higher and raced pretty consistently for the next three or four years, placing regularly but never really making a big impression required to upgrade.
The best I could hope for in a Cat 1-3 race was perhaps a place. I got 6th or something once, and another time crashed while sitting perhaps 5th or 6th with 3 turns to go, but that's about it. I'd be turning myself inside out to maintain my position and my friend (a Pro at the time) would glide by, mouth closed, 53x12, and just roll away from me.
That particular memory is particularly striking. He rolled to the front of the field and right past it, soloing off on his own and winning by a couple minutes. He had no teammates to block for him, no break companions to share the work. He single handedly held off a Pro-3 field for some insane amount of time, 30 or 40 minutes. I didn't even know he'd gone off the front so I didn't help, and there were a lot of guys really anxious to catch him.
He's a supremely talented rider who started about when I did - at about age 12 or 13. He went to a Junior training camp in Colorado around that age (which I never did - because I never stood out like he did). One of his "camp mates" may ring a bell for you racing fans out there - Christian Vandevelde, the CSC racer going to Slipstream.
And as a pro? Well, let's put it this way - Vandevelde's gotten a lot more press than my friend.
I'm not dissing him. In fact, I've always been a great fan of his racing, crossing my fingers for him when he went to Europe, going to Philly when he raced there to cheer for him. But when it came down to crunch time, when the contracts were handed out, there were other racers out there who were better.
Genetically I'm perfect to be a Cat 3 flat or slightly rolling course racer - hills that you can power over but don't require to actually settle into a climbing rhythm. This means I can use my power to get over the hill, force others to eat wind (and therefore keep the pace down), and my aerobic system is never taxed to failure. Then I can use my sprint to place.
On the other hand I've never finished a road race with the main field, even when I weighed 112 lbs. Yet at that weight I could still outsprint most anyone at the SUNY Purchase sprints - and that included a whole lot of Cat 2s and even Cat 1s. Genetically, it seems, I was built to sprint on bikes.
There's talent and there's talent. When I was a Junior there was this kid George who raced a lot of the races I did. He was from NY, tall, lanky, who attacked at the gun and rode away from the field, usually with his brother Richard. They'd cross the line hand in hand after lapping the field or something. No one could touch him, no one. It was incredibly demoralizing to see him warming up before a race. I would start hoping they get away early so the field would ease up quickly - if they didn't get away early, the pace was totally insane until they finally got away.
I suppose that at the same time it couldn't have been very exciting for him to win so easily. It didn't surprise me to learn he'd gotten chosen for the National team in his late teens. I was thrilled to see him on TV in the Tour du Pont. And now, in the eve of his career, he's recently signed for the entity now know as High Road Sports. He moved further south at some point but his name is still recognizable.
The fact that most racers are 3s and 4s is no coincidence. With luck, some talent, you can get to 2s. But to get to a 1? That's no easy matter. In fact, it used to be that you had to have someone at USA Cycling's headquarters to approve your upgrade to Category 1.
So what makes a good racer a good racer? Can you measure something and see if you have it? Maybe your kid, or little sister, or someone else still growing?
There are a lot of things you can measure out relating to cycling performace. Heart rate, for example. But a low resting rate or a high max has no correlation to how you'll do as a racer.
Maybe hematocrit, or hemoglobin levels. If all you needed was a 49% hematocrit or a 16 hemoglobin, I'd be a pro. So that's out.
How about VO2 max, the amount of oxygen you can consume over a given amount of time? Using up x amount of oxygen will correlate to y amount of energy released. It seems pretty accurate for seeing how hard someone can work but it doesn't take into account weight. Close but no cigar.
Power? Crank the wattage and you'll be a pro, right? Well, not really. My high wattage sprint is barely able to break into the top 10 of a Cat 3 race. It ignores weight. But power is related to your potential as a cyclist though - it's one of two factors. So put that one down in your notebook.
The missing factor - weight.
Ultimately it all comes down to sustainable power and rider weight.
If you can sustain 400 watts indefinitely, you'll be a very good time trialer, a good workhorse, maybe a teammate that can drag the field along and keep a break in check.
If you can do that and weigh less than 150 pounds, well now. You are pro material.
Hit those mountainous climbs hard and you'll be at the front of a very, very elite field. No matter what the big guys try to do, if you're a 400w rider who weighs less than 150 pounds, you can dictate the pace on the big climbs. You could be anyone, no license, just out for a Sunday ride, but if ride at 400 watts and aren't very heavy, the simple fact is that there are very few people in the world that can keep up with you. Performance doesn't listen to your category, your VO2 max, your blood make up. High wattage in a lightweight package equals "strong rider".
That, unfortunately, takes a genetic foundation. Your building is limited to the strength of the foundation. You can't build the Empire State Building on top of a foundation designed for a 2500 square foot colonial. You need floors and floors of pillars and stuff below the ground to support the immense weight above it. Without the proper foundation, you won't be able to build a large structure.
Without genetics on your side, a racer will not be able to progress into the Pro ranks. It simply will not happen.
Therefore genetics > effort.