Are elite cy­clists born or bred?

Cyclist - - Cycle Science - Words JAMES WITTS Il­lus­tra­tions ROB MILTON

have to thank my par­ents for giv­ing me good genes, and also my fa­ther for teach­ing me what I call good in­ten­tions. He al­ways told me which­ever race you’re go­ing to do, race as well as you can, and you can say af­ter­wards, whether you won or not, you gave your best.’

So said Mar­cel Kit­tel when Cy­clist spoke to him in An­twerp last year. In one Ger­manic soundbite, the 26-year-old Gi­ant-alpecin rider en­cap­su­lated the cen­turies-old ‘na­ture ver­sus nur­ture’ de­bate. Is Kit­tel’s per­for­mance, and that of his elite brethren, pre­dom­i­nantly down to ge­net­ics, or en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors such as train­ing, nutri­tion and fam­ily set-up?

‘Ge­netic providence cre­ates op­por­tu­ni­ties to be­come an elite ath­lete and con­trib­utes as much as 90% of how good you can be,’ says Ken Mathe­son, for­mer coach at Bri­tish Cy­cling. ‘Sadly, you can’t be what­ever you want to be.’

Mathe­son’s thoughts are noth­ing new. Charles Dar­win’s cousin, Fran­cis Gal­ton, is re­garded as the orig­i­nal ge­neti­cist. In his 1869 book Hered­i­tary Ge­nius, Gal­ton pro­claimed, ‘There’s a def­i­nite limit to the mus­cu­lar pow­ers of ev­ery man, which he can­not by any ed­u­ca­tion or ex­er­tion over­pass.’

Geno­type meet phe­no­type

On a ba­sic level you can see where Gal­ton is com­ing from. Nairo Quin­tana stands only 1.67m tall and weighs 58kg. His feath­er­weight stature means he can float up moun­tains, but it also means he lacks the mus­cle mass to con­tend for sprints that re­quire a power out­put of 1,600 watts. Lotto-soudal’s An­dré Greipel, on the other hand, mea­sures 1.84m and weighs 80kg. That nat­u­ral load is detri­men­tal on the climbs but pays off hand­somely on the flats. So that’s it, then? It’s all down to your genes.

‘Not quite,’ says Ian Craig, lead­ing ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­o­gist at DNAFIT. ‘Genes – which lie in long strands of DNA called chro­mo­somes – lay the foun­da­tions for many char­ac­ter­is­tics, but your phe­no­type is who you are as a per­son. It’s where your genes in­ter­act with the en­vi­ron­ment. You might be the most ge­net­i­cally gifted per­son but be rub­bish at sport be­cause you grew up in a non-sporty fam­ily, “en­joyed” a bad diet and lacked sleep.’

In re­cent times, the na­ture-ver­sus-nur­ture de­bate has in­ten­si­fied be­cause of books such as David Ep­stein’s The Sports Gene and Mal­colm Glad­well’s Out­liers. The lat­ter pro­posed that the route to be­com­ing an ex­pert at al­most any­thing is to log 10,000 hours of prac­tice, start­ing when you’re young. Ep­stein’s book, by con­trast, sug­gests that not ev­ery­one can reach the top with suf­fi­cient prac­tice, and that sport­ing suc­cess is of­ten dic­tated by hered­i­tary fac­tors.

‘For each gene there are two letters [al­le­les] as­so­ci­ated with it,’ says Craig. ‘They’re called base pairs within the DNA he­lix, and they’re es­sen­tially one let­ter each from your mum and dad. These dic­tate your phys­i­cal, bi­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics. I’ll give you an ex­am­ple: the ACE gene [an­giotensin­con­vert­ing en­zyme] is in­volved in con­trol­ling blood pres­sure. For ACE, you in­herit ei­ther an I or a D al­lele so the po­ten­tial com­bi­na­tions are II, DD or ID. For ACE, II’S been strongly linked with en­durance ca­pa­bil­i­ties. DD’S been linked with power. DI is a mix of the two.’

So if both your par­ents’ ACE gene com­prised II al­le­les, your sole per­mu­ta­tion is II, mean­ing you’d ex­hibit en­durance ten­den­cies. It’s why thor­ough­breds go to stud – and why su­per­horse Frankel’s se­men is worth £125,000 a pop.

Some say per­for­mance on the bike is de­pen­dent on your genes. Oth­ers say it’s all about your up­bring­ing. Let’s ex­am­ine the science

Run­ners and riders

Yet still un­cer­tainty de­rives from a horse com­pris­ing 20-25,000 genes – a sim­i­lar num­ber to hu­mans. Ac­cord­ing to Yan­nis Pit­si­ladis, pro­fes­sor of sport and ex­er­cise science at Brighton Univer­sity, in a re­view of 133 stud­ies pub­lished dur­ing 1997-2012, only 59 ge­netic mark­ers were as­so­ci­ated with en­durance and 20 with strength.

‘Sport­ing per­for­mance is a com­plex phe­no­type,’ he says. ‘To be­come an elite ath­lete, a syn­ergy of phys­i­o­log­i­cal, be­havioural and en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors is re­quired.’

Pit­si­ladis is an ex­pert on the sub­ject. His work has taken him to Kenya in search of the

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.