Some of the most frequent inquiries coaches get center on how much riding is enough or too much for Junior (under 18 years old) cyclists. Juniors and their parents also ask about when and how it’s appropriate to incorporate structured training, hard group rides, and races. CTS Coaches have worked with Junior and U23 cyclists throughout the company’s history. As a sponsor of the LUX Cycling Development Team, we decided to create resources to help Juniors, their parents, and U23 riders accomplish their cycling goals.
CTS signed on as a sponsor of the LUX Cycling Development Team in 2022 and CTS Coaches are working with Junior and U23 riders on the team. Coach Jim Lehman is also working as a Director Sportif at some events throughout the year. The team is run by Roy Knickman, one of my teammates from the 1984 Olympic Team who also worked with me at US Cycling. Under Roy’s direction, the LUX Development team has grown to be one of the most successful development squads in North America. LUX alumni include Luke Lamperti (2021 US Pro Criterium Champion, Trinity Racing), Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo), Brandon McNulty (UAE Emirates), and Kevin Vermaerke (Team DSM). Knickman’s talent for rider development is undeniable, so I asked him how he approaches training for junior cyclists.
For updates on LUX Cycling Development team riders and accomplishments, follow the team on Instagram. So far, at the 2022 US Pro Road National Championships, @zoetaperez finished 3rd in the Pro Women National Time Trial Championships. In the U23 category, Zoe won with @_olivia.cummins, @aubreyydrummond and @cassie._.hickey 2nd, 4th and 5th.
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Training Volume for Junior Cyclists
As much as creating systems and formulas would be helpful, Roy resists recommending set weekly or monthly training hour ranges based on age. There is a lot of personal variability related to the training hours and resulting training stress athletes can handle. That said, he says many of the juniors who join LUX started out riding 10-12 hours per week at the height of the season during their early teen years (13-15 years old). This means they weren’t necessarily riding 10-12 hrs/wk year-round. Rather, during their early teen years, they may have sustained 10-12 hrs/wk for 1-3 months of the year, with lower hours during the rest of the year.
Progression is more important than the absolute number of weekly or monthly training hours. Physiologically and psychologically, 10-12hrs/wk is a sustainable training load for most riders in their early teens. However, as racing age advances to 16, 17, and 18, riding volume and training workload need to progressively increase.
“Junior races in Europe are comparable to domestic pro races in the United States,” says Knickman. “To prepare LUX riders to be competitive in Europe, 10-12 hrs/wk isn’t enough. By the last Junior year, they need the resilience to handle 18- to 20-hour training weeks during big training or racing blocks.”
The 5-stage 2022 Redlands Bicycle Classic offers a case in point. The men’s and women’s squads of LUX Cycling Development Team competed with professional and elite amateur teams. The women finished third and the men finished fourth in the team classification. Olivia Cummins won the Sprinter’s competition. Viggo Moore finished 2nd in the King of the Mountains competition (with Junior gear restrictions!). And LUX riders claimed 11 top-10 finishes on individual stages, including stage podium results for Cummins and Jesse Maris.
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The team’s results at Redlands were better than during any UCI race in LUX’s subsequent block of European racing. By Knickman’s own assessment, performances at Redlands indicated the team had riders ready to compete in Europe. However, the racing level of international Junior and U23 races meant podium and top-10 results were more of a stretch goal.
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Prioritize Durability and Resilience
The development pipeline for Junior and U23 cyclists is long and arduous. Mental and emotional burnout are bigger concerns for athletes’ longevity in the sport than physical overtraining or overuse injuries. Progressively increasing training volume and workload are essential for creating the physical durability to sustain the high volume and intensity of a U23 and Elite racing schedule. However, Knickman places a high priority on teaching athletes how to train sustainably.
Discipline and precision are important for success. However, they can also lead to obsessive behaviors and strip away the enjoyment of training and racing. For Knickman, sustainable training behaviors include riding various bikes in different places with a rotating cast of training partners. There are times when financial, geographical and time constraints mean cyclists must push through periods of solo training. Even then, Knickman encourages creativity in training, whether it’s with different bikes or with off-bike training. And he puts training camps and race trips on athletes’ schedules so they have events to look forward to.
Interval Training for Juniors
When should Junior cyclists start incorporating intervals into training? What kind, how many, and how frequently? Again, there’s no set formula that works for every Junior cyclist. Some of it also comes down to athlete personality; some teens love the technical nature of structured training, others reject it.
In the early teenage years, performance improvements mostly stem from gradually increasing training volume and physiological changes that occur naturally through puberty. Structured workouts for this age group (13-15yrs) are more about learning how to train and developing good habits. In the later Junior years (16-18), interval workouts should be more purposeful and targeted to competition goals.
There are no interval types that are off-limits for Junior cyclists. They can do long aerobic intervals or short, high-intensity sprints, and everything in between. It’s the volume and frequency of interval work that must be age adjusted. This is specifically true for the 13-15 age group and Juniors with 1-2 years of training experience. For this reason, Juniors are encouraged to train with Junior-specific cycling teams or high school MTB leagues. It can become an issue when Juniors train with adult cycling clubs and teams. Junior-oriented clubs and teams also provide valuable social/emotional development for teens.
Get International Experience Early
Junior cyclists with ambitions for racing at the Elite and Professional level should travel, train, and race internationally as early as possible. During early trips with Juniors, race results are de-emphasized, and greater focus is placed on gaining a cultural education. A teenage cyclist’s experience should not be restricted to racing and recovering from one small village in Belgium.
Knickman incorporates sightseeing excursions into Junior trips. Not only do the excursions introduce young men and women to historical and cultural sites in Europe (and other continents, ideally), but athletes learn how to travel internationally. It’s important to get comfortable navigating different transit systems, and to learn about foreign languages and customs. This makes returning and spending extended time abroad less isolating and intimidating later.
Knickman points to another reason to race internationally early on: the competition and skill level. The training and racing infrastructure for Juniors in Europe is more developed than in the US. This means the skill and performance gaps between European and American riders widen significantly between age 13 and 18. Although it’s not impossible, it is extraordinarily hard for an uninitiated 17-year-old to have a positive experience jumping into a UCI Junior race as their first European experience.
Focus on Execution Over Outcomes
Winning races and contributing to the team’s success are still important for cyclists looking to progress from the Junior ranks to U23 Development Teams and on to UCI Professional Teams. However, cycling is a sport where even the best champions lose far more races than they win. Knickman creates an environment that encourages young riders to race aggressively and creatively, even if efforts don’t succeed. He wants riders to follow team directions and execute on team strategies. At the same time, they should also to learn to think on their feet and react to opportunities.
Junior cycling is the best place to learn how to race. Often, the results at the Junior level are influenced by lopsided physical maturity. However, riders at all levels of physical development can still learn the fundamentals of racing, pack dynamics, drafting, attacking, chasing, and working together as a team. Then, once their physical maturity catches up, they have the skills to match their strength and speed.
Knickman boils his successful philosophy down to, “Discipline creates success, and flexibility and creativity lead to longevity.” A cyclist’s Junior years are an opportunity to progressively build capacity for sustaining workload. This is essential because the competitive level is so high in the U23 and Professional pelotons that ramping up gets more difficult the later you start. On top of that, the highest priorities for Juniors should be developing sustainable training behaviors and learning how to race. Results matter. Winning races still matters more than social media followers for earning a spot on a UCI World Tour team. But Knickman’s advice to Juniors is to learn to train and race now so you have the skill and savvy to win when your body matures.