Do you want to know how far you can go as a cyclist? It's easy:
The numbers will be confusing, but the scornful expression on the technician’s face will say it all:
You might feel misunderstood, like the machine maybe wasn’t calibrated, or you just had an ‘off’ day, but instead of engaging in self-delusion, I recommend you take your bike outside to the street, wait for a city bus to pass, and throw it into the grill.
Congratulations! You're free. I just saved you years of torment and self-loathing. You're welcome.
Don’t mope. It’s not like this is the first time your potential has disappointed you. Life serves up many of these harsh, definitive tests. If it’s too painful to think of, I get it. I’ll distract you with mine:
While harsh, once you test yourself, you can give up. You don’t need to struggle anymore to find your potential because the tests already showed you what it is. If your talent is mediocre, you can give up on the futile pursuit of excellence because you already know you weren’t born with the necessary combination of genes and circumstances to make your dreams worth chasing.
If these paragraphs sound depressing and make you want to walk straight out of your house into a blizzard in your underwear while Joni Mitchell plays in the background, I’m with you. The crazy thing is:
What is that exactly? Carol Dweck, the author of ‘Mindset,’ calls people with a ‘Fixed’ mindset. Athletes with a ‘Fixed’ mindset believe that their abilities and potential are ‘set’ and that their efforts cannot change them. Conversely, athletes with a ‘Growth’ mindset believe that their abilities and potential are fluid and that their actions can change them.
Not so fast. First, let's hear from Jeremy Powers on talent.
Is it me, or is Joni Mitchell playing again?
OK, Powers isn’t exactly citing any studies here. He’s just sharing an anecdote from his experience in the professional cycling scene. As much as part of me wants to scream that he’s wrong, most of that scream comes from that part of my ego shaped like a four that REALLY wishes it was a 10.
Talent is real thing, for sure. There are many freaks out there who, without trying that hard, are just...better.
What is talent exactly? Oh god, I’m going to pin myself down again, defining tricky topics and get yelled at. Here we go:
Everyone gets the first part, but the second part is trickier. Why do cyclists get different results from training? Because everyone can do roughly the same stimulus (the type of training), but they’ll get different results because not everyone has the same DNA.
I get that’s bleak, and you’re still standing outside in the frozen field in your underwear waiting to die because you’ll never amount to anything wondering when I’m going to counter myself and say something uplifting.
Well, start heading back toward the house because even if talent is real and you might not be the next Peter Sagan, there’s plenty of reason not to end it now.
First, no matter what tests say, you have no idea what your potential is.
If you adopt a growth mindset, chances are you could become so fast that that technician will start to wonder if they calibrated their instruments correctly. Don’t believe me? Let me pull a case file:
Meet the Great Dane.
We’ve worked together for three years now. At first, all the objective cycling testing criteria pointed to finishing fondos more than podiums:
The Great Dane's most significant asset by far was a nearly psychotic growth mindset.
It’s not something for which I claim responsibility. He just had it.
So what happened? He trained, improved a little, and then grew frustrated that his level fell short of his ambitions. Instead of accepting this as his natural ceiling, in the mists of Fall, somewhere in the dumb cold of the PNW, he resolved to change and find out how deep the rabbit hole went.
He cleaned up his diet. He cut out alcohol. He figured out how to sleep better. He redesigned his life to reduce stress. He trained more. He stopped fixating on the outcome and obsessed over the process.
What happened to his fitness?
Everyone likes to look at improvements in 20-minute power tests and call that progress, but the most impressive test for me was the 120-minute aerobic decoupling test. In two years, the Great Dane held 56 more watts over 2 hours aerobically( meaning sustainably) – that is freaking 🍌.
Maybe these numbers aren’t familiar to you. In short, the Great Dane added a bigger engine, cut weight off his chassis, and added a turbo – just because.
If the Great Dane lined up against himself three years ago, the race wouldn’t even be close. He’d ride himself off his wheel without even trying while talking to his wife. His former self would take a long bath that night, in his own tears.
The Great Dane’s improvement is inspiring but also incredibly ordinary. He made changes and committed to an extended timeline to improve. The formula is obvious, but the execution is hard.
That anecdote is neat, and I got fired up writing about it – I had to stop mid sentences and max out on pullups (I just did 6, if you’re wondering). Yet, the Great Dane’s example of working toward his potential despite the initial markers of talent misses a greater, deeper point:
To illustrate how we get this wrong, I will pick on someone cooler than me – Phil Gaimon.
2. The Way He runs his mouth.
The second reason, which is relevant to my point, is that I don’t like Phil Gaimon because of something he said in his book and on Twitter.
That was rough; this is worse:
As a prominent figure in the cycling world, I find this attitude inexcusable.
Gaimon pulls out this w/kg figure and waves it at you and aspiring riders alike. His basic schtick is, “I’m better than you ever will be, but I didn’t make it (even though he did), so there’s no point anyone should even bother trying. If you doubt this, come race me.”
and the only real conclusion I can draw from his statements is to quit.
Luckily, he’s lightyears off, in both how he measures potential and in life.
First, your sustainable w/kg is only one metric to assess performance. Maybe you’ve heard of Peter Sagan? Fabian Cancellara? Tom Boonen? Mathieu Van Der Poel?
Phil could beat any of them up a climb any day of the week. But if you line up their results next to each other, what do you see?
They’re drowning in wins, and Phil has…1 at that level?
That’s example applies to the world tour level, but even if you don’t have World Tour talent, there are many ways to build your life around the bike.
I know guys who don’t have an FTP within 1 watt per kilogram of Phil’s who race criteriums professionally, sometimes wins, and freaking loves it. I’ve worked with junior athletes who will never be the next Sagan, but cycling helped them finish school, make friends, work hard, and clean up their act. I know Masters racers who will never be within shouting distance of a podium whose lives are 1000% better because training balances out their work and family life.
In most of life, you can’t see the output from your inputs, especially long-term. Humans are bad at that. Training provides a framework where an athlete can notice progress, no matter how subtle. Once an athlete feels themself progress, their life changes.
You probably won’t ‘make it’ because talent is real, and it’s unlikely you possess the raw talent of a Phil Gaimon. Good thing it doesn’t matter. The real value is what you become when you commit to unlocking what you have.