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Cycling Wed: Nature vs Nurture…Lessons from down-under

Hey cyclists,

You are fit bunch.  Near perfect.  You eat right, exercise bunches and surely do not smoke.  The “side effects” of such a focused lifestyle is good blood pressure, low cholesterol and smooth arteries. Congratulations.

Unfortunately, there is one component of health you cannot control–your parents, your DNA. In heart disease and many cancers your parents’ health is of paramount importance to your health.

The power of genetics is a hot topic in medicine these days.  You may have heard the human genome has been sequenced.  Every day, it seems, new disease-causing genes are identified.  One’s susceptibility to heart disease, cancer and even sensitivity to common medicines can (and will soon) be known with a cheek swab.  Knowing your parents’ health, objectively, through your genes is a new frontier in medicine.

But athletes are skeptical.  They are an overachieving lot. They believe in Tiger’s story: start early, work hard, no, really hard, and success and wellness will be yours.

Sadly, this week’s cycling news brings bad news to these “nurture” thinkers.

His name is Taylor Phinney. He is America’s next hope to succeed Greg and Lance. Yesterday, at the road cycling World Championships in Australia, Mr Phinney won the under-23 time trial. This means he is the fastest young man on a bike–in the world. Cyclists know the time trial as the “race of truth;” the purest race, devoid of any significant strategy—just man, machine and time.

He is fast. Really fast. Remember his name?

How did this happen?  Did Mr Phinney start riding a bike in diapers, like Tiger?

No, on the contrary, young Taylor had to catch-up.  He was a “normal,” a non-cyclist regular athlete until the advanced age of 15.

So how did he become so fast?  How did he catch-up so quickly?  Is it the hard work that he surely puts in, his elite-level coaching, or perhaps all his sponsorship and fancy equipment?

No.  It’s not that stuff.  Well…maybe only a small bit.

It’s the fruit flies.  Remember Bio 101?

Mr Phinney chose his parents well.   His dad, Davis Phinney was a highly acclaimed professional cyclist, and his mom, Connie Carpenter-Phinney, was an olympic gold-medalist in cycling.

Such pedigree is not uncommon in sports and life.  Examples in more commonly followed sports are numerous: Bobby and Barry Bonds in baseball, Bill and Luke Walton in basketball, and of course, Archie and Peyton/Eli Manning in football, just to name a few. Genetics is also obvious in real-life. Look no further than the similar parent-child phenotypes of the top five finishers at a local cross-country race, or the parents of offensive linemen on Friday nights, and in the non-athletic arena, check out the parent-child likenesses at a chess tournament or a spelling bee.

What’s the point?

Soon we will carry a card in our wallet—perhaps, adjacent to our cycling license—that will hold our DNA. Our susceptibilities to disease will be increasingly known. We will know how often to get colonoscopy, or stress-tests or which drugs will not work. Yet, despite all this knowledge, that card will not ever tell us how much to hang on which pegs. That we will have to figure out ourselves. And looking at our parents may be an important clue.

Mr Phinney was smart enough to choose cycling over football.  Good for him. We sports fans need another Lance or Tiger to cheer.

Hopefully, other young (and not-so-young) athletes will also choose wisely as well. Maybe they will choose athletics for fun, health and balance, rather than self-worth or a livelihood. This will be a good thing.

In school we studied science with vigor.  However, much of what we once considered factual is subsequently proven wrong by new discoveries.  This is not the case for old-fashioned genetics.  By discovering DNA, my college-aged heros, Indiana University-guy, Dr James Watson and his British bud, Frances Crick, gave us the scaffold of one of medicine’s new frontiers.

They also gave us a window to making wise choices in life.  If only we care to look around at holiday gatherings.

In cycling, nature trumps nurture, always.


One reply on “Cycling Wed: Nature vs Nurture…Lessons from down-under”

Dr. J, interesting, but taking the other side of the nature/nurture topic, how do doctors decide how much of the parents' poor health and early heart disease is the result of their own bad DNA, and how much of it is the result of their poor choices, such as smoking two packs a day for 40+ years, getting zero aerobic exercise and eating a high saturated fat diet? If a fit cyclist has parents who made all the wrong choices, can it be said that his or her unexpected cardiovascular problems are due to "family history", without having controlled that history for the parents' bad habits?

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