Tom Portsmouth is one of nine riders keeping a journal for The British Continental in 2021. A second-year under-23 rider, Tom is supported by the Rayner Foundation and rides for the new Carbonbike Discar Academy team in Belgium this season. In his second installment, Tom talks shares his insecurities about weight and body image, and argues a focus on power over weight is important for developing riders…
Weight and ‘watts per kilogram’ are two terms that crop up regularly in cycling discussions, from club runs to the biggest cycling media publications. They are regarded as key metrics in cycling performance and are often a common talking point when assessing a rider. They are also concepts that riders themselves obsess about. I know I certainly do, having been told on multiple occasions ‘you need to lose weight’ by people who have only just met me. As a result, I frequently compare myself to other riders, thinking ‘how much does he weigh, could I make that weight and still be as powerful?’
The biggest insecurity I have is with my arms and shoulders
Let’s start with some context about my experience. Every rider, male or female, has their own battle with weight in one way or another. For me, though, my hang-up has been about losing weight. I am a person who has an athletic body shape, with muscle – and therefore weight – spread evenly throughout my body (as opposed to predominantly in my legs, as is the case with ‘stereotypical’ cyclists). The biggest insecurity I have is with my arms and shoulders. No matter what I seem to do, they always appear big to me; in photos, in videos, everywhere. It seems like I can’t lose that final bit of muscle or shape from my upper body. The upper body shape comes from years of swimming to a regional level – from ages two to thirteen – alongside rugby, for nearly the same time period.
Performance-wise, the additional muscle and weight aren’t holding me back – just yet in any case. Maybe they have restricted my opportunities slightly, but I’m not here to make excuses. I’ve done well in races I didn’t think I could or would do well in. As a second-year junior, for example, I did two stage races in France with significant elevation gain. One of those races was the well-known Ronde des Vallées, in the North of France, around the region of the Mûr de Bretagne. In this race, I was 80 kilograms and matched the finishing position of riders in previous editions who later went on to become professional. That year, in 2019, the Lux Cycling DS said it was the ‘hardest edition’ he’d seen.
I’ve not done a race in over a year now. In my last race, I put in a promising ride despite being ‘overweight’. I’ve performed in places I shouldn’t have done and haven’t yet seen an instance where my weight has held me back. The question I ask myself now, though, is whether I’m coming close to that crossover point when weight will become a bigger factor in determining my racing success. Because it’s constantly spoken about, I know there will be a point in time when it will need to be addressed.
That said, as I head into my second year as an under-23, I am still waiting to find a reason to believe I weigh too much. Indeed, I’m more confident than ever in my climbing and training.
Another positive to being a bigger rider: you are forever capable of proving people and their beliefs wrong
As a heavier rider, you will always surprise someone, occasionally yourself. Others may see your results as exceeding what they expected you to achieve because they had already labelled you as a rider who was ‘a bit too big’ to be able to be successful. I’ve often had people come up to me after a race I’ve done rather well in, and be like ‘I didn’t expect that from you, well done’, or ‘wow you can climb well, I wasn’t expecting that’. They all have the same preconceived ideas of what a cyclist should look like. So when they see someone who doesn’t fit their ‘ideal cyclist’ image they pre-judge what sort of performance they expect from that rider. It is a good feeling when you surpass their expectations because inside you are thinking, ‘well, I knew I was going to do that today, it was just a matter of piecing it all together’. This is arguably another positive to being a bigger rider: you are forever capable of proving people and their beliefs wrong – surprising them – which I find so incredibly fun.
At the end of the day, it is power that matters during development rather than weight. Keep progressing the power, have fun, let weight fluctuate naturally. Focus on getting your power output as high as possible by the age of around 21. This is when most men will peak physically. If you can get your power potential to a high level by then, and at a reasonable weight, then you’re likely in a better position than that of a rider who tried to drop the weight when younger. It’s far harder to gain 25 watts than it is to lose 5 kilos to get the w/kg to the same number.
If by the end of your junior years you’re already skinny and obsessed with your weight figures, it can be difficult to gain enough muscle and power to push the bigger gears required through the next ranks
Some younger riders see losing weight as an easier way to gain performance against their rivals, to get noticed, and to earn themselves that pro contract. But is it sustainable? Because if by the end of your junior years you’re already skinny and obsessed with your weight figures, it can be difficult to gain enough muscle and power to push the bigger gears required through the next ranks. It’s a tough sport that favours the early bloomers, especially in Great Britain. Even the ‘Remco singularity’ is encouraging riders to become ‘professional’ long before they’re developed enough to restrict their diet. It might have worked for the junior American-European team Lux Cycling but they’ve got professionals overseeing everything.
The key message, from my point of view, is that it is very much about when you are physically and mentally ready to lose those kilos. As many sports nutritionists will tell you, it’s very hard to do this effectively without help. If you get it wrong then it can go downhill very fast. If you lose muscle mass as a result, it is difficult to gain that back. It’s very much a catch-22 situation because you need to perform well enough as a junior and under-23 to get that professional contract, but in the long run, it’s preferable to just be a bit patient with weight loss.
For up-and-coming ‘bigger’ riders like me, it’s very positive to see the ‘skinny’ trend is changing. The stigma is diminishing slightly with each race that riders like Wout Van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Filippo Ganna, Peter Sagan, David Dekker, Jordi Meeus and Cees Bol do. It’s changing the mould of what to expect with weightier riders, not just the typical ‘sprinter’. It’s encouraging and inspiring to see that it is possible to be weightier in this sport and to remain successful. It just takes hard work and commitment to get the balance right and be able to prove yourself.
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