Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Small country

We just got back from Junior National Championships in Bend, Oregon. It is events like these that make you realize that when it comes to cycling, the US is a very small country. I believe a grand total of some 750 riders showed up for the event. That covers all age groups 10-23 yrs of age, both genders, and quite possibly a number of Cat 1's as well since the Elite Criterium championships were held concurrently. To say nothing of the Paralympic Championships.

In essence, the event is like a provincial championship in Belgium. For those of you unfamiliar with Belgium, it is a small country in Northern Europe, about the size of the State of Maryland, with about 10.5 million inhabitants. It has 9 provinces. Which means there are nine provincial championships each year.

Nationals, as it is called, is the most competition one can get in the US. As National Team Coach Ben Sharp pointed out in his presentation about European Cycling, one can often find more junior men (17-18s) racing within 50 miles of another on any one given day in Belgium.

That does not mean Americans don't have talent. Although we have a small sample, it is clearly an enriched sample. It is also remarkable how many have parents who are first generation citizens, dual citizens, or with otherwise very strong ties to Europe or Latin America.

There is good talent but there are also serious holes in the competition. When someone wins consistently and with a large gap, like Craddock did in the junior men category, you can be sure it is a sign of strength. However, the same cannot be said about many other medalists and runner-ups. Did they end up first, second or third because they are first, second or third, or are they there because the real first, second or third is not?

Clearly a lot of potentially promising American juniors do not ride bikes. They are running track, cross country skiing, or maybe even playing baseball. While we have an impressive line-up of pro riders (yes there are good American riders besides Lance), a country this size should completely dominate the sport of cycling. With 300 million inhabitants, America has a larger pool to choose from than Europe does (not all European countries are fond of cycling).

Yes we have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Kids and sponsors

I am not so sure it is a good idea for kids to be sponsored by companies. Even though it is all well-meaning, and supportive, there is a constant pressure that cannot be ignored. Of course there are some who will say, it is a good way to get kids ready for adulthood and for them to learn that all things come at a price. It teaches them good behavior. Good means adult approved in this context.

Books like Outliers also seem to favor heavy handed parental "support." They point out that successful people were exposed very early and spent numerous hours, 10,000 or more to be exact honing their skills. The book even makes an explicit pitch for parents who drive their kids from one activity to the next and have their kid's calendars booked tighter than a those of a chief executive.

Surely the documentaries made around the Spelling Bee, show successful kids surrounded by hard-driving, even tyrannical maniacal parents. It teaches the kids a good work ethic so the saying goes. But is that what success is really all about? Does anyone ever wonder about the victims lying by the wayside?

Does it really make a difference? Surely those who are gifted will do well regardless -note that Outliers would not agree-, and the same applies to those who are not so gifted. I am not so worried about the first group, or whether they achieve their goals through being gifted or through hard work.

While you could argue that that is the key question, I beg to differ. It is not that important. In general when people are good at something, they work hard at it. It is always fun to work on things one is good at and people will do so every chance they get. So the whole question of how they get there is rather academic.

The problem is not there. The problem lies with those who are not the very best. They are the ones between a rock and hard place. Their parents, their coaches, their peers, their sponsors, everyone is pushing them constantly. Add sponsors to the mix and the pressure goes up a few notches. Now the team has to deliver, the coach has to succeed. And there is no easy way out.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Loss of perspective

Last week I heard about a 13 year old bike racer who sleeps in a low oxygen tent in the garage to prepare for important races. The same kid rides a $5,000+ bike and has an assortment of wheels and components that would make a small US pro team jealous. Every weekend his parents and team mates push him to race as much as possible "so he will get stronger." Email messages from the team coach read, "second and third place is not acceptable." It is all perpetrated by well-meaning adults who have their heart in the right place.

Although I was somewhat shocked when I heard about it, it really is not that unexpected. It is totally in line with parents getting their preschoolers ready for college or teaching their two-year olds to play the violin. Unfortunately it is equally unproductive, if not more destructive. Promising young riders burn out before they get a chance at real competition.

Something is amiss with junior racing, or should we say with children's sports programs in general? Parents, eager to produce the next (put in your favorite cycling hero here), push their kids way past what is healthy for them. Coaches and team directors, eagerly oblige, often edged on by sponsors who want to see results week after week. All of it leads to exhausted, overreached and burned-out teens. Fortunately serious overuse injuries are rather rare in cycling. Not so in many other sports.

Cycling is somewhat of an odd endeavor in the US. The pool of racers is rather small, much smaller than that of Belgium, a country the size of Maryland with a population the size of NY City. More than half the licensed racers in the US are masters and many are over 45. An inordinate number of them "train to train." So much so that one famous blogger called "training to train" the very essence of amateur competitive cycling.

Unfortunately, it is these experienced masters who are guiding much of junior cycling. With their obsession with long distance, and a slight aversion towards intensity, these guys, who overwhelmingly picked up cycling in their adult years, are the blind guiding the not-yet-seeing. Unlike Europe, where distances for younger age groups are limited by law, American parents and coaches seem to think: the longer the better. Young riders are forced to race in Category events, where they are matched up against adults instead of their peers.

Category racing is a US-specific phenomenon. It mixes racers of all ages that have acquired a certain number of points to upgrade to the next category. Category 1 represents the top amateur group. Higher rankings in general mean longer races. But because most US cyclists are masters, these longer races are relatively low intensity events interspersed with bursts of higher intensity sprinting. Juniors tend to be good at speed -better than the older adults- and so they have a fair chance of winning such events if they do not drop out from exhaustion before the end. Winning is seen as a sign of progress by their coaches. What is not so easily seen is that these youngsters are now routinely riding 90-100 mile events, something that would be illegal in Europe. Ironically enough they do so to prepare for racing in Europe!

Long races are but one issue. The second is an obsession with material possessions and a focus on high end gear. Because their American parents are well off, junior offspring are riding the latest carbon concoctions with all the bells and whistles. They ride the same bikes the pros ride. That also means their focus is entirely on equipment and away from fitness and health.

It is something the bike manufacturers wholeheartedly endorse. With a limited (quasi-stationary) pool of customers, revenue has to come from second, third and fourth ultra-high-end bikes, as a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out. Or low-oxygen tents, never mind the developing brain!

A summary of recent workouts:
Wednesday, May 26, I ran 7 miles in the hills.
Thursday I rode on rollers for an hour.
Friday I rode 28 miles, about 20 with Alistair and the rest alone.
Saturday I drove Alistair to Livermore and rode 15 miles on Patterson Pass Rd, Tesla Rd, and Vasco.
Sunday I rode 35 miles through Orinda and Moraga.
Monday I ran the 10.5 mile Shepherd loop. It had been a while since I did that. I did not run up the BMX hill, but I did run fast on Skyline, catching some bikers.
Tuesday I ran 7 miles in the hills.
Today I ran 9 miles in the hills.