A Conversation With Former US National Team Cyclist & Sports Scientist, Julie Young

We visit with Julie Young, a former professional and US National cycling team member who is currently based in Sacramento, California, where she works as a Sports Scientist and coaches endurance athletes. Julie shares her insight on training, mindset, power data, youth development and how we can get more young girls on bikes.  She offers some valuable guidance based on science and experience.

Your athletic career began as an all-league soccer player and alpine ski racer. After a knee injury, you made a hard pivot to pursue golf, eventually playing at UCLA, where you became an NCAA Academic All-American. When we met in the 90’s, you had just graduated from UCLA and had started cycling.  Can you tell us about how and when you became interested in cycling? 

For some reason, and I am not exactly sure where or how this came into my head, but I was always enamored with the Euro tradition of cycling. I wanted a celeste green Bianchi bike. As a kid I was always seeking out any and every kind of activity. I was always pestering my Pop for extra chores to earn money, which I eventually used to buy parts and build a bmx bike. It seems every Christmas I would always ask for some kind of new bike. So for whatever reason, biking caught my attention early in life. I became more acquainted with cycling as a mode of training when I was an alpine ski racer. 

When I was a UCLA, I became disillusioned with the golf team, as the coach would hold qualifying and I would qualify for the tournaments but she would take her new recruits, I guess to justify her recruiting decisions. I came to a crossroads as to whether I would transfer to a small liberal arts college in order to join a new golf program and pursue golf as a career, or stay at UCLA and forfeit my position on the golf team in order to pursue a degree from UCLA. I did some soul searching and realized that I did not love golf, and that I valued a degree from UCLA more than I valued the opportunity to continue pursuing golf. Once I hung up the clubs, I still wanted to have an athletic outlet, so I bought a road bike and started riding in the Malibu canyons and running 10ks. 

When I graduated, I returned to Sacramento and took a job in foreign investment and just rode the same 40-ish miles every day. Then one night, one of the local news stations did a human interest story on the McKinley brothers who lived in Sacramento, raced for 7-11 and were gunning for the Olympics. And I thought, “Bike racing? I want to do that!” Before hearing this story, I had no idea that bike racing even existed in the US. So the next day I immediately ran down to the local bike shop to figure how I could start bike racing.

1991 US National Cycling Team

We first connected at a U. S. National Team camp in Texas in 1991.  We were both relatively new to the sport, at least at that level.  But I could tell right away that you were an exceptionally gifted athlete who liked to work hard. I have great memories of riding, racing and exploring Europe together. Can you tell us what stands out to you as the highlight of your career? 

For me most of the highlights of my career took place in Europe. And honestly, the first things that come to mind for me, are racing and living (between races) in Europe with you. I think about the two of us stashed away between races staying in obscure places, like the little house in Germany where we had to fend for ourselves, kept ourselves entertained by poaching corn out of corn fields :). Obviously this was all pre- fancy Team US Service Course and European base camp. Not to speak for you, but I think we both loved and thrived in the European race scene and fully embraced everything that came with it, including the foreign-ness of it and tradition and culture. I think this can either make or break a North American rider who tries to compete in Europe. 

I personally thrived in the chaos and hecticness that characterizes European races because for me it created opportunity. I remember, the two of us, always fighting for position at the front, to capitalize on opportunities. Neither of us ever sat at the back. I loved the technical nature of the European roads – small, always twisting and turning and running through small towns. By constantly fighting for position at the front you can create opportunities out of this complexity. I remember so vividly, after one stage of the European Economic Community stage race, sitting on the curb with you, just feeling so fully and completely rung out. The mental and physical demands of these races, definitely made me feel like I was in a fight for my life, but for some strange reason, I loved it.  Because these races were so extremely challenging and complex in terms of courses, terrain, small roads, weather, and aggressive competitors, it was critical  to act swiftly on instinct and intuition in order to be successful. That’s what I really loved about it. 

Eve Stephenson, Dede (Demet) Barry, Julie Young and Ruthie Matthis at the 1991 European Economic Community Race in 1991.

Career highlights for me, probably – overall wins at the Tour de L’Aude and Tour d’Aquitaine; stage wins and podiums at Tour de L’Aude, European Economic Community and Molenheike; solo win at Oak Glen at Redlands; podiums at the women’s version of Core States Pro Championship; podiums at National Champs; and being named to six World Championship road teams.

Julie leading the charge up the Manyunk Hill at the Corestates U.S. Professional Cycling Championships in 1994.  

We were teammates on the US National Team and the Saturn Professional Cycling team for 10+ years and shared a lot of great adventures together.  In that program we both matured and learned a lot with regards to sports science and coaching. We were not only immersed in the sport but were also guinea pigs for all the different sports scientists and coaches at the training centre.  It seems like you’ve done a great job of synthesizing your experience as an athlete with your studies in Sports Science and now you are a really positive force in youth development in the US. The pressures and challenges athletes face have shifted since we were young aspiring cyclists.  What are some of the biggest hurdles that you feel like youth cyclists are facing today? 

I think in so many ways the North American youth today have more established avenues for development in the sport of cycling. For example in the U.S., the high school mountain bike league has become an absolute gift for USA Cycling and  its best mechanism for development. This has allowed the sport to develop a much larger pool, naturally and organically. Mountain biking is a perfect fit for kids, it’s playful, adventuresome, and obviously much safer in guarding against the car versus bike factor. Developing this broader and deeper pool of cyclists, is similar to what other European countries have been doing for centuries. Cycling is so deeply rooted in the European culture, it is a way of life and I think it is becoming much more a way of life for a certain segment of US society. Of course with more development comes more competition. But i think if we can help the youth flip the concept of competition it helps create a much more positive and healthy environment. Personally, I love racing and competition because my fellow racers help me learn and be so much better on every level. I would never have reached the level I did, by training and competing solo. I think we need to emphasize this with the youth, that it’s not us versus them, but we can all collectively push each other to ultimately help each other individually become our best athlete. 

Social media can be a hurdle and distraction and in order for youth (or anyone) to thrive it’s important that they truly enjoy and love what they are doing, and not simply doing it to post and get accolades on social media. I think social media has added a significant amount of noise to an already noisy environment. 

Also for good and/or bad we are in an age of a lot of information, but is it good information? It is hard at any level, but youth are still trying to find out who they are and as a result more easily swayed and influenced. I think it is important that the parents and coaches are on the same page in terms of the training methodology and objectives in order to be consistent in the message they deliver to the kids. I think there are a lot of well-meaning parents, who  are intelligent, successful and may read a lot, but do not have formal education nor have they been athletes. In this situation, there can be a lack of understanding of the emotional and mental demands of sport and the coach needs to help the parent understand that it is not simply about continuing to push the “go” button in order to succeed.

One of the things I liked about training with you, is that you always seemed motivated, no matter what weather or situation was thrown at us, which to me is a true sign of intrinsic motivation. We all know intrinsic motivation is closely linked to athletic success, but tell us how you work with your athletes and design the programs to ensure that they stay motivated and don’t burn out? 

I feel it is always important to continually help an athlete remind themselves as to why they do it. We are all going to have good and bad days, and days when we are not super motivated to get out there. Of course we all operate from varying degrees of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, but when you can find that thing that you truly and deeply love, work does not feel like work. For me this is central to success. 

Generally, you and I are in a unique position as we have a unique perspective on sport and what it takes to succeed. We know it’s not simply about just chasing numbers on a power meter. So for me it’s trying to help the athlete truly love the process, mentally and physically on a daily basis. It’s not just about grinding to reach a goal. For example, being excited about workouts for the challenge of it and seeing every workout as an opportunity to learn and improve are to me, ways to love the process. Also helping athletes connect the dots, as to why they are doing the workouts and how the workout helps them reach their goals is valuable. Generally, I guess helping athletes tap into their purpose, to make training more purposeful. 

I also never want training to isolate my athletes from their friends and community, which is a huge reason many of us do this. While there are certain workouts that are valuable for the athlete to do alone, I also want to integrate opportunities, like fast paced group rides or adventure endurance rides with friends into the plan. 

Also, while I think technology has been critical to improving performance, I am not tech-obsessed. While there are definitely workouts where the power meter and heart rate monitor are valuable, like interval sessions, I feel that there should be days where riders completely divorce themselves from data and just get back to the basics of why they love riding. For me, long endurance days exploring with friends are great days to ditch the data. 

Last couple thoughts here, one of the biggest benefits I provide to my athletes is helping them understand the value and importance of rest and recovery. This is obviously crucial to sustainability and avoiding burn out. I try to help them realize that there is pace to training if they want it to be long term, versus a short-term sprint. Finally, developing a good year-round program is also key to long-term success and avoiding burnout. I find it is important to help athletes understand that we don’t charge hard and do the exact same things all year round, and that in Fall, for example, it is super beneficial mentally and physically to pull back and seek variety. And that it is ok and expected, that the FTP and CTL drop in fall and early winter 🙂

Both of us came from multi-sport backgrounds and I felt like that really helped my development as a cyclist and provided me with a lot of balance and longevity during my pro career, as I did a lot of cross training.  I’d love to get your thoughts on how you think your multisport background impacted your career and also how you approach that with respect to designing programs for the athletes you are coaching? 

Definitely agree. For me training is never about just doing more of one thing. I feel strongly from my athletic background as well as education that a training program must be balanced and comprehensive, on a micro and macro level. I think off-season or what I guess we now refer to as transition season is mentally and physically so incredibly important. This is the time to pull back and mentally reboot, and become a more balanced and functionally fit athlete. As cyclists we are extremely limited in our movement demands and patterns, locked at the foot and hip, and making a linear movement. Not to mention, operating most of the time in nearly a fetal position. It’s important to capitalize on off-season for its opportunities for mental and physical variety.  While we typically talk about being very sport specific in our training, at a certain point these sport specific adaptations in cycling, can start impairing performance. It is valuable to use off-season and variety in the gym and with other endurance pursuits to force our bodies to move in different ways and undo some of these adaptations. 

Also, as endurance athletes, we only have a limited amount of load that we can place on our bodies, and as a result, the brain adapts to that and only recruits the number of muscle fibers required to overcome that load/resistance. Strength training allows endurance athletes to place more external load on the body, to train the brain to find and recruit more muscle fibers to overcome the load. As a result, the brain has more functional muscle fibers at its disposal to recruit. 

People seem to fixate on getting the best and lightest equipment to improve performance. But our body is our most critical piece of equipment and if we can train it to function more optimally, this is our greatest opportunity to improve performance. For example, I am not sure how many people realize how important the ability to hold good posture on the bike is to performance. As a bike fitter, this has become my soap box. And I do not necessarily think it is great to always look at the pro peloton for models of good posture. When a cyclist trains the ability to establish and maintain neutral stable posture, it creates a stable platform for the hips to efficiently drive power into the pedals. Conversely, when a cyclist rides with a curved spine and likely posteriorly tilted pelvis, it puts the spine at a weak end of range, resulting in energy leaks and likely overuse injuries/pain in the back. In addition, the posterior tilt turns off the big glute muscles, and the rider is trying to compensate and leverage the strength of muscles on either side of the glutes to generate power. So it’s a quadruple whammy. However, being able to hold stable posture through the rigors and duration of riding – road, mountain and gravel, takes a significant amount of consistent training. This is why I am a strong proponent of including consistent trunk and pelvic stabilization work throughout the year. 

Recently, I listened to a podcast that you recorded with Colby Pearce (a former U.S. National and Olympic teammate of ours) and what really resonated with me was your discussion about the problem with data worship in the current generation of cyclists.  I agree that this generation of cyclists seem to focus so deeply on the numbers and when you combine that with directors barking orders in their race radios, I often wonder if they lose sight of intuition.  Although we had power meters when we were racing and training, we did not have all the tools of analysis at our fingertips.  We left that to the sports scientists. Can you tell me a little bit about how you balance data and intuition with the athletes you coach?

I am sure you see this too, but everyone is different in terms of their love or hate of technology and data. I find that people new to the sport may be more tech and data obsessed, or those people that are tech inclined in other parts of their lives, like software engineers are super into the numbers. But then I have other clients who just want to go off of perceived exertion. For me it’s trying to find a middle ground in both of these situations, trying to help the tech and data obsessed athlete break away from the numbers on certain days (long adventure endurance days) and understand that performance is more than just hitting a number on the power meter. And trying to help the athlete who just wants to go on perceived exertion understand the value of incorporating data into some workouts so they have more objective targets. 

But I think generally it’s about maintaining perspective in the training. As I mentioned earlier, we are in a unique position as coaches with depth of experience at the world elite level over so many years in combination with science based knowledge. We know that there is never just one thing that produces a successful performance. But it becomes the art, based on our perspective, of integrating and balancing many different ingredients that leads to success. I get a little frustrated when people think that by just hitting a number on their power meter during training that this will guarantee results. For me this marginalizes what it takes to produce a successful performance. 

I think generally we do not give enough credit and respect to the importance of mindset in producing successful performance outcomes. In training we fixate almost entirely on physical conditioning, but often neglect to emphasize the importance of mental conditioning. I know we have discussed this at length, but all things being nearly equal, mindset separates the best from the rest.

I consistently remind my athletes that mental conditioning takes as much training as the physical, it does not just happen. I emphasize with athletes, to use their training to develop every aspect of performance, including mindset. I also help them understand that their workouts will be so much more effective if they are mentally engaged in the workout, versus simply trying to hit a number on their power meter, and get through the time to tick off the box. During intervals for example, I encourage them to place themselves in a race situation, and to be mentally and physically absorbed in that specific situation while doing intervals. I find when intensity heightens in a race, athletes mentally lean on these training sessions to provide them with confidence that they can do it. When athletes have this mental and physical confidence that they have developed by being more mentally engaged in training sessions, they are more calm and composed in a race situation. And when we are calm and composed, we are more in tune with intuition and instinct. 

For me personally as an athlete, I struggled with radios as I was such an instinctual racer. I always felt conflicted when we used radios in races, for example, wanting to make a move based on instinct, but not acting on it, and instead waiting for direction from the radio. For me radios really felt stifling. 

I also try to help athletes to have the ability to be more in tune with their intuition by managing their performance stress and anxiety. Just like a lake that only reflects when its surface is calm, an athlete needs to have some level of command over stress and anxiety to be calm, reflective and focused. I remind athletes that getting nervous before races is totally normal but there is a healthy threshold to nervousness and anxiety and that they have the ability to work on and become better at managing nerves and stress. As I mentioned earlier, I try to help them understand this takes practice and training just like physical fitness, but the more they can work at  it, the better they become. So we need to capitalize on and maximize every training session to train mental and physical conditioning.

When I think back on all the coaches we worked with, the different training plans we completed and all the challenging races and living situations we faced, the one thing ingrained in me is that in a sport like cycling, there is no straight path to the top.  I am not sure there is really any training program that can prepare you for the ups and downs of life of a professional cyclist.  Ultimately, mindset and adaptability plays a big role in success. Is this something that you work on, particularly with the young athletes you coach?

For sure! I think it goes back to what I have shared in terms of perspective and helping athletes love the process. I am not sure this is just an American thing, but I feel there is always such a sense of urgency and need for immediacy in what we do, and this makes it challenging to appreciate the process. As I mentioned earlier, I think it is interesting when you work with kids with parents who have been successful in the corporate world. These parents think achieving success in sports parallels that of the corporate world, and I do not. Success in sport is not always about pushing harder and more is better. In sport we really have to protect the kids emotional state and make sure they are emotionally thriving in order to physically thrive. 

Ultimately, the kids really need to love what they are doing for what it is and not just grinding to reach a distant destination or for results on a single day. When you really love doing something, you don’t even see barriers or challenges, you are just so focused on what you want, you just do it. I think when you don’t truly love something, everything can seem like a barrier or challenge. 

I try to emphasize with athletes that no single race can be their make or break, but every single race is an opportunity to learn and gain experience. I think we were both athletes who raced smart, but were also willing to try. I emphasize this with athletes to see every race as an opportunity to learn, and that they only learn by trying. I would much rather see an athlete, race smart and be willing to try things and leave everything out on the course, regardless of results, than play it safe.

No matter where kids take sport, it is the best place for them to learn about themselves. Sport is a healthy and safe place to learn about disappointment, discouragement and perceived failure, which we all encounter in life. I am always fascinated to see how people contend with these types of experiences, do they get demoralized and quit? Or do they use these experiences to motivate themselves to dig deeper, improve and get better. 

When I watch the men’s and women’s Pro Tour races now, I feel pretty removed from that level of the sport, as each year, I know fewer and fewer of the riders, but I am impressed with the level of  racing and particularly with some of the young talent.  One thing that saddens me though is the fact that the opportunities for women have not advanced much since our generation. In fact, on many levels it seems they have digressed since the 90’s. What are your thoughts on the state of women’s cycling? 

I am a bit removed too from the inner circle of elite women’s cycling, so I don’t know personally the inner workings of teams and salaries. But I do think it’s great and hopefully a first step in more support, that women’s cycling is getting more coverage. I think this is critical. I know when we were racing, people in the US did not have a clue as to what we were up against in our races. Most people just assumed we were racing local US type races in Europe, which could not have been further from the truth. The coverage really helps people understand how demanding womens’ races are and how talented and accomplished these athletes are. I also think the coverage helps the viewers become more acquainted with riders as people and as intriguing personalities on and off the bike. Social media has also helped with this. It is interesting to hear commentators say across all cycling disciplines, road, cyclo-cross and mountain biking that women’s racing is so much more unpredictable and exciting and as a result drawing more viewership. It also seems from the outside that strides are being made to create more professional opportunities for women riders, and viable incomes. But all of these opportunities hinge on sponsors, and when sponsors get more visibility that is the key to feeding their interests.

We have a youth club in Toronto, and there are few girls. Most of the club rides and races are male dominated as well. What more can we do to draw women, especially girls, to the sport? 

From my experience in the high school (HS) mountain biking league here in the US, I really think it is crucial to have more women role models, and also understand that boys and girls learn differently. I work with the Northern Nevada HS mountain bike league. This is a relatively new league and they have done a tremendous job bringing in many of the local women pros and elite athletes to lead rides and clinics. This league has one of the highest girls’ participation rates across the country. I believe that this is due to the fact that they have more women role models. In my experience, it is mostly dads that are leading and coaching these teams. I think we need to empower more moms with the skills and confidence to be ride leaders and coaches. Generally, I think we realize that cycling is intimidating for many women. In the Northern Nevada league we are holding clinics this summer for interested moms, to help them develop skills and confidence so they are equipped to come out and ride with the team. 

As I mentioned, we also have to understand that generally boys and girls learn differently.  Boys like to learn by trying, i.e. trial and error and girls seem to prefer to be instructed on how they should do something before trying it.

Since you retired from professional cycling, it seems like you have not slowed down at all, as you have continued to push yourself by competing and winning gravel, cyclocross, mountain bike, Xterra, Cross Country ski and trail running events.   What types of events motivate you most today and why?

I just love the opportunity to continue to challenge myself, and learn about myself.  I think I realized when I transitioned into the business world, post-athletic career, that I still loved to have that thing that I completely own, that other people’s decisions or actions can’t blur or influence the outcome. I also still love the structure that physical training provides to my daily life, and I think I operate at a higher level in all aspects of my life when I maintain a good balance of physical and mental pursuits. I have bounced around a bit since phasing out of competitive road cycling. Now I am mostly into dirt events during the summer, I just like the more low-key vibe, and the amazing places I get to see. So pre-covid I was doing a bunch of single speed MTB racing and cyclo-cross, with the occasional gravel event thrown in. 

Are there any current endurance athletes that particularly inspire you?

Jessica Diggins (cross-country skier) inspires me, I love that she absolutely leaves everything on the course when she races. I also appreciate that she is balanced and has other meaningful pursuits in her life, such as being a spokesperson for eating disorders. I think having these other focuses helps her maintain perspective and ultimately be a better athlete.

When we were racing, you always had a book in your bag. What’s the best book you have read lately?  

Endure, by Alex Hutchinson.

That’s a favorite of ours as well and he happens to live nearby us in Toronto, but I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting him. 

Thank you for your time and insight.  Hopefully COVID will be behind us soon and we can travel, connect and ride together again soon. 

Thank you Dede! I can’t wait to rendezvous with you for some riding:)

Follow Julie at julieyoungtraining.com

 


2 thoughts on “How To Become A Better Cyclist

  1. Two highly intelligent women as interviewer and interviewee! One of the best interviews of its type that I have had the pleasure of reading. Thanks Dede for a job well done. BTW, Mid Island Velo Association has about a 50-50 male female active membership. Our time trial series reflects this BUT we just can’t get more than a couple of women to ride the criteriums. Even when we run a ladies only crit., there are few takers. Any suggestions?

    Peter McCaffery

    1. Hi Peter, thank you for the feedback and your kind remarks. I think a lot of women that are new to the sport are intimidated by the pack events and especially high speed cornering in a group. What might help is having more experienced female criterium racers lead skills clinics where the newer riders can gain skills and confidence riding at high speeds through the corners and in a group in a non-race setting.

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