What the highest-ever VO2max tells us about genetics and cycling success
Some riders have long and illustrious careers, competing at the highest level for two decades. Others burn bright over a much shorter period, seemingly disappearing from the spotlight in just a few short years. Norway’s Oskar Svendsen is an example of the latter.
From 2012 through to 2014 Svendsen was one of the promising riders on the world stage, and with good reason. In August 2012, at 18 years old, he recorded the highest VO2max in history. His score of 96.7 put Svendsen in a league of his own, well beyond what had ever been seen in cycling before.
Within two years, Svendsen would be gone from the sport. But now, nearly five years since Svendsen hung up his wheels, his name is being mentioned in cycling circles again. Not because he’s making a comeback to the sport — although Team Sky was reportedly interested as recently as 2017 — but because of a research paper published this month in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
At the core of the paper is a series of tests that Svendsen did during his journey through the sport. They show what happens to aerobic capacity before, during, and after a stint as an elite athlete, while highlighting the importance of “good genetics”. They also chart the amazing progress of a young man who, in the space of less than five years, went from a largely untrained cyclist, to junior world champion, to having quit the sport entirely.
Oskar Svendsen grew up playing soccer and skiing and it was only in high school that he started cycling. Not particularly seriously to begin with — he was riding only two or three times a week and certainly without the structure or focus that would define the years ahead. But then, in March 2010, at just 15, Svendsen did a VO2max for the first time.
That test formed part of the selection process for a high school that had a cycling program. From that initial test, it was clear Svendsen had something very special — without any specific training, the 15-year-old recorded a staggering VO2max of 74.6 mL/(min·kg).
A quick primer on VO2max. Put simply, it’s a measure of how quickly the body is able to process oxygen. We can think of it as a measure of an athlete’s fitness and endurance capacity — the size of their “engine”. The VO2max of professional male cyclists tends to range from the mid 70s through to the high 80s. A select few, such as Greg LeMond, have reportedly broken the 90 mL/(min·kg) barrier.
Svendsen’s score of 74, without any meaningful training, is extraordinary. And as we now know, he had plenty of room for improvement, too.
Svendsen started riding more and training more seriously after that 2010 test. In the year prior, he’d spent roughly 350 hours on the bike. The year after the test he spent 496 hours training, increasing to 694 hours the following year and 759 hours the year after that.
As his training volume increased, so too did his VO2max. After that initial test of 74.6 in March 2010, Svendsen recorded the following:
September 2010: 83.4
February 2011: 86.8
September 2011: 85.1
August 2012: 96.7
Just three weeks after his record-breaking test, in the Dutch town of Valkenburg, the then-18-year-old Svendsen won the junior time trial at the Road World Championships, beating future WorldTour pros Matej Mohoric and Max Schachmann.
Svendsen would go on to race for another two seasons, both with Norwegian Continental team Joker. In 2013 he notched up a few promising results, chiefly a fifth overall at the 2013 Tour de l’Avenir as a 19-year-old. But the following season was less positive — after battling illness and injury, and after struggling under the significant weight of expectation, Svendsen’s heart was no longer in it.
By the end of 2014 he’d left the sport behind and turned his attention to full-time study. But while Svendsen had said goodbye to cycling, his time in the lab wasn’t over. Some 15 months after quitting the sport, he returned to the Lillehammer lab for one final test.
He hadn’t been riding in those 15 months, besides for transportation. And while he had been running, that had been a few times a week at most. So it was no surprise to see that, by October 2015, Svendsen’s VO2max had dropped to a relatively lowly (but still impressive) 77 mL/(min·kg).
Interestingly, his absolute VO2max (before scaling to account for his weight) was still 11% higher than it had been in that initial test back in 2010. Meanwhile his weight had increased by nearly 6kg in those 5.5 years, and by 4.1kg since his record-breaking test in 2012. As the researchers wrote in their Journal of Applied Physiology paper, “the larger reduction in relative values than absolute values … indicates that cessation of cycling training is associated with larger changes in body mass than VO2.”
That’s in line with what a Spanish researcher found in 2012 when he tested five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain 14 years post retirement — the Spaniard’s body composition had changed more than his “aerobic characteristics”.
Making sense of the science
So what does all this mean? First of all, if it wasn’t already clear, Oskar Svendsen was a remarkable athlete. In just three years he went from an untrained 15-year-old to recording the highest VO2max of any athlete, in any sport, ever. Of course, we now know he was coming from a very impressive base — even as a relatively untrained novice, Svendsen’s VO2max of 74 would have put him on par with your average domestic pro.
But the magnitude of Svendsen’s rise is significant — a 30% increase to VO2max in three years. To highlight this, the researchers point to the example of another rider in Svendsen’s riding group who had something of a similar journey. Like Svendsen, the unnamed cyclist was a soccer player in a past life too, and like Svendsen, his progress was tracked from ages 16 to 18. In that period, the rider increased his VO2max from 68 to 74 — an improvement of roughly 8%.
The comparison isn’t perfect — the two riders’ training regimes won’t have been the same, for a start — but still it’s obvious that Svendsen and his peer improved to varying degrees. As the researchers write, Svendsen’s meteoric rise points to “the importance of intrinsic biology in training adaptations.” That is, our genetic make-up doesn’t just determine how big our engine is to start with, but also how well we’ll adapt to subsequent training and what our limits are.
It’s a gross understatement to say that Svendsen’s genes make him particularly well suited to endurance sport. Interestingly though, science still can’t tell us which genes define an individual’s endurance capabilities. And to extrapolate from that idea, as the researchers write, the ability “to spot an emerging world champion based on genetic analysis seems distant.”
This study of Svendsen’s tests is significant for another reason too — for the weight it throws behind claims of “the highest ever VO2max”. For years, Svendsen’s record has been the subject of much scepticism, both from the world of academia and beyond. So much so that, in the Journal of Applied Physiology paper, the researchers themselves pose the question: “are the data reliable?”
Pointing towards comparable results across the testing period — “a stable and repeatedly extreme high level VO2max’ — plus a similar result from a different testing facility, the researchers conclude that Svendsen’s result of 96.7 was, indeed, reliable.
Plus, the day after that record test, the researchers, presumably convinced of an error, had their equipment fully checked to ensure it was properly calibrated. “Everything was in order,” they report in their paper.
In some ways it’s a shame that Oskar Svendsen quit cycling when he did — it’s clear he had the makings of a champion. He’d already shown some flashes of brilliance on the bike and many more were sure to come.
But if there’s one thing Svendsen’s story can teach us, it’s that a high VO2max is only part of the story when it comes to cycling success. You also need racecraft, experience, motivation, resilience and, ultimately, you need to want it.
By Svendsen’s own admission, he “struggled most with the tactics and patterns” of racing, and also with his descending. He also “never wanted the monotonous lifestyle of a pro” — he was more at home “doing other things, like studying and skiing in the mountains”.
We might not have seen all that Oskar Svendsen was capable of on the bike, but it would seem that everything has worked out well for the now-25-year-old.
“I’m absolutely happier now,” he told Deadspin in 2018. “I feel like I got the best out of the five years I spent in the sport. I don’t regret leaving.”