However good genetic testing gets, there will always be plenty of space for you to make a total mess of things entirely of your own free will

A DNA test could determine if you have the genetics to win the Tour. The Doc ponders, even so, if all the training might be a bit of a faff

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Michael Hutchinson

Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. His Dr Hutch columns appears in every issue of Cycling Weekly magazine. 

My colleague Anita Bean wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago about genetic testing, and how it might help one become a better athlete. She sent a sample of her DNA to a test lab, and got a report back that laid out some of her genetic traits and how they might relate to her ability and potential.

Anita discovered that she’s better suited to strength sports than endurance. (With the caveat that while endurance ability was not her strong suit, she would still respond quite well to endurance training.) She would be expected to build muscle mass relatively easily, and the report noted that she metabolises caffeine faster than average, meaning it would probably help produce better performances.

Right now, this sort of testing is in its infancy. There was little in the report that a coach wouldn’t have worked out, and almost nothing Anita hadn’t figured out for herself.

Like everything else in this area, though, it will get better. Currently being an athlete, at any level, consists of a series of inter-connected doubts. How good could you be? Are you doing the right training? The right events? Are you even doing the right sport in the first place?

Clearly genetics could take some of the mystery out of the journey. “Mum, do you think that if I trained really hard I could win the Tour de France one day?”

“Hang on, let me get the spreadsheet up…. No. You couldn’t.”

That would be pretty crushing. But there are other unpleasant possibilities. Imagine, if you will, being a middle-aged bike rider, enjoying your weekend trundle round the lanes with your mates. Then one day you do a DNA test and get a report that says you could have been Tom Pidcock, but you’ve been doing the wrong training for twenty years.

I think the scenario I’d hate the most would be being told I could be a great athlete, but just not wanting to bother with it all. It would be all the best excuses snatched away. “I don’t think I’ve got the right muscle fibres.”

“Yes, you do. Look at the chart, here, and here, and here.…”

I’m exaggerating a bit. However good a genetics test might get, it’s still going to be dealing in probabilities and trends, not in certainties, because that’s the nature of genetics. There’s always going to be plenty of space for you to make a total mess of things entirely of your own free will.

And the upsides will outweigh the down. Used judiciously, it will actually upgrade the quality of your excuses. Where once you might have had to mumble something about muscle fibres, now you will almost certainly be able to find a way to blame your parents and back it up with a report written by a scientist.

Don’t feel guilty – they will be able to blame their parents, and so on. Think of it not as a family tree, but as a liability tree. Chances are it will all boil down to Eleanor of Castile or someone – genetic testing and genealogy are not all that far apart, so you will probably be able to get a package deal.

Even better than shifting the blame, it might help you find the event you’ve got the most potential for and give you a starting point at optimising your training. It might give you the confidence to stick with a long-term training programme, where the benefits might not be very obvious for a season or two. It could even help you find your true calling in sport.

I’d envy anyone starting a cycling career and not looking forward to fifteen years of guessing, hoping, and confirmation bias. And I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have been Tom Pidcock anyway.

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