How to Become a Professional Cyclist - A Theoretical Roadmap

Competitive cyclists have an insatiable will to be better. Better than they've been before, better than the other guys, better than anybody else in the race. It's what drives them to make the sacrifices necessary to execute a serious programme of training and to suffer through the more uncomfortable moments of training and racing. It is entirely natural that this will to be better extends far beyond one individual race. Most would rather win a season long race league than a single event, they would also rather a high ranking within their category or better still move up to the next one. You can see where we're headed here... given the potential and the opportunities there are few competitive cyclists who wouldn't rather race at the highest level and boast the awesome speed and power to match. Nobody should be afraid to harbour the goal of becoming an elite level or professional cyclist, even if few can achieve this goal - it's the very essence of being a competitor, the fire in the belly that should never go extinguished.

Success in any endeavour is as much about using the head as it is the heart. In a pursuit as hard as bike racing a good dose of realism is essential because it keeps us focussed on specific, measurable, achievable & time based goals - SMART goals - that satisfy our need for manageable chunks of progress. Few riders can set a goal of becoming a professioanal cyclist within one year, on the other hand there are many who after several years of realistic goal setting will come to realise that for a multitude of reasons they probably dont have what it takes to become an elite level cyclist. Either they lack the raw potential, the ability to improve, the willpower to execute a hard and never-ending training programme, or they simply come to prioritise their time for other things that take on a greater significance in their lives.

The objective of this article is to quantify what it may take to become an elite level cyclist in scientific terms posed as power to weight ratios and training principles. This way the reader who aspires to the ultimate goal may have some idea, from a very early stage, about the theoretical road ahead.

Power is everything

Competing at the highest level requires a certain power to weight ratio, this is a mathematical certainty. It is often quoted that a rider capable of winning the Tour de France requires the ability to deliver an average 6.7 watts per kilo on the final climb (say 30 minutes) of a key mountain stage such as Alpe d Huez . Scaling this number by a divisor of 1.05 (a rule of thumb conversion between power output at 20-30 minutes and 60 minutes) we can say that they may be able to average 6.4 watts per kilo for an hour. On the other hand a less than world class rider, but a professional none-the-less, may be able to average 5.5 watts per kilo for an hour. We beleive that the aspiring professioanl cyclist could do far worse than think in terms of this number as a measure of the end goal. Superior power is what puts you in the game, it's the prerequisite to the process of winning serious races and vying for consideration as a pro, without it the process simply cannot happen. Accordingly the aspiring elite level cyclist would be very smart to invest in a power meter and at an early stage and to pay serious attention to the messages in the numbers.

Elite cyclists are born, or made, but the very best are probably both

Cyclists create power by mixing food energy with oxygen at a certain rate, just as cars create power by mixing fuel (petrol, gasoline) energy with oxygen. In both cases the speed with which oxygen can be mixed with energy is the limiting factor in power output, not the supply of food or fuel which is almost limitless. Ultimately what limits a cyclists power output is his maximum rate of oxygen conmsumption or "VO2max" which is analgous to fitness. Everybody varies in terms of their genetically determined, baseline VO2max in an untrained state and their potential to improve VO2max. Good cyclists can be born with a high baseline VO2max, they can be made due to a strong propensity to improve VO2max, or the very best may exhibit both characteristics. To give an example, Lance Armstrong has been reported (see for example this  article) to exhibit a VO2max of 6.1 litres per minute in a highly trained state, with a lower baseline recorded in a detrained state of nearer 5.3 litres per minute. In other words his baseline VO2max (and therefore power output) could be higher than that of a highly trained but less physiologically gifted cyclist, while the ability to achive an improvement of at least 0.8 litres (15%) when trained is a helpful attribute. Aspring elite level cyclists would be advised to take one or more VO2max tests in order to understrand their baseline potential and the rate of improvement they are achiveing, alternatively to be mindful of the relationship between these numbers and power output which is estimated in our HR-VO2-Power Relationship Model .

Baseline potential and potential to improve are related to core training principles

Let us recap some of the core principles employed in the process of training athletes:
  • Overreaching & Progressive Overload - "By training with greater duration, intensity or frequency than before the body can be encouraged to better equip itself for these challenges in the future".
  • Overcompensation & Adaptation - "Overreaching and progressive overload cause the body to overcompensate for the damage we do. We are adapted to become stronger/fitter/faster/more powerful".
  • Reversal - "If training stimulus is removed the body will not only cease to adapt, it will eventually revert to the state present before training began".
It follows that our potential to improve is closely related to our bodies propensity to overcompenate and to adapt - how well do we lap up and benefit from high training loads? Meanwhile the level of our baseline fitness affects how quickly or how far we fall when training is ceased, such as during a winter break  - we all take a step back when not training hard, but some unfortunately take greater and faster steps. It also follows that, in order to maximise the growth of our fitness, we need to pay serious attention to a structured training programme with apropriate duration/intensity/frequency linked with apropriate recovery in order to maximise the amount and pace of our forward progress, but minimise the steps backward. In this regard cyclists can either educate themselves in the princples of training, or hire a coach, however the aspiring elite level cyclists probably owes it to himself to do both.

Management of body mass is as important as power

5.5 watts per kilo from a 70 kilogram rider is 385 watts, meanwhile 5.5 watts per kilo from a 100 kilogram rider is 550 watts. "Bigger" - but not "fatter" - riders tend to generate more power but it's logical that the elite level "bar" is significantly lower (or in this case only becomes realistic) for riders who are lean. The aspiring elite level rider would be advised to focus on minimising body fat both at an early stage and consistently - this way potential is far more readily visible. In fact the loss of a few kilos has consistently shown to be transformational in riders of all levels. Carrying excess weight comes with a huge physical cost, dragging out the process of losing it also plays havok with the nutritional strategies recommended for optimal management of training load. Additionally a riders ability to become sufficiently lean in the first place is something that ought to be known sooner rather than later. A riders body mass is related in significant ways to his aerodynamic drag  - less weight, less drag, more speed, greater clarity around potential.


Specificity is another of the core training principles. It implies that the best way to train for riding a bike is to ride a bike, the best way to train for riding one fast is to ride one fast, and the best way to train for road racing is to road race. But the necessary adaptations, on the scale with which an elite cyclist probably needs to see them, take time. We would suggest that the process of achieving elite status, if it is indeed possible for a particular individual, may require the design and execution of a 4 year plan. Less than 4 years and a rider may never know how much potential he had, while after 4 years of truly serious training a rider probably doesn't have a lot more to give or to improve. Such a plan might be loosely structured as:
  • Year 1 - Training to race. Racing frequently in the lower categories.
  • Year 2 - Good, consistent results from racing. Achieve category 3 or 2.
  • Year 3 - A transformational year. Achive category 1. Begin to survive with and learn from the best riders.
  • Year 4 - Working towards elite status.

The path to an elite level power to weight ratio

We have mentioned above that an important prerequisite marking an elite level rider is a certain minimum power-weight ratio and that there are a varied ways to achieve this: a high baseline, a good propensity to improve, disciplined and consistent training. Finally we provide a simple charting tool to let the reader experiment with some of these concepts in numerical terms across an imaginary multi-year training plan. Good luck with your training!

Target Power/Weight Ratio (Watts:Kilo)
Baseline Power (Watts)
Baseline Weight (KG)
Average Seasonal Power Improvement (%)
Average Seasonal Weight Loss (KG)
Average Off-Season Power Loss (%)
Average Off Season Weight Gain (KG)
Project Training Over Years

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