by Matt de Neef
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
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