Oskar Svendsen was the next big thing. The baby-faced Norwegian was just 18 years old when he was tabbed as cycling’s next great prodigy at the 2012 World Championships; maybe he’d follow in Thor Hushovd’s footsteps and win bushels of Tour de France stages for Norway, or, who knows, maybe even become his country’s first-ever Tour de France winner. Svendsen’s potential was limitless, and unlike hordes of other would-be prodigies, there was a legitimate mathematical case that he could become the greatest cyclist of all time.
It all came down to one number: 97.5. That’s Svendsen’s VO2 max, the highest ever measured in a human being. VO2 max is a measurement of how much oxygen a body can consume while exercising. It’s a very useful shorthand for how good an endurance athlete will perform outside of the lab because the ability to consume and process oxygen is nearly determinative in sports like cycling and distance running.
The average person probably has a VO2 max somewhere near 40-45, depending on how much they exercise and how old they are. Cycling is basically a strategic endurance contest, so those who tend to be elite racers tend to have corresponding VO2 max numbers. Lance Armstrong blew an 85. Three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond’s 92.5 is one of the best ever recorded, and Svendsen did five percent better than that.
Svendsen won the 2012 junior world time trial championships the same week he did his VO2 max test, and for a moment, it seemed like the arrival of cycling’s newest prodigy. It was not.
Svendsen moved up to the U-23 level after his big win, and even though he was a physiological marvel, he struggled to adapt, in part because he’d only been riding competitively for three years. As he told Norwegian site ProCycling in 2014, “It was a little scary too. Such an achievement builds very high expectations, and suddenly you are a completely different person. I became a little celebrity and this was what I became famous for.”
He struggled with illness, injuries, and a steep learning curve while riding for continental third-division squad Joker, and he later admitted that his motivation was waning. He walked away from the sport in 2014, just two years after shocking the world, and forever becoming a reminder that races can’t be won in the lab alone.
“That’s something we must respect. We know it’s not easy to be a pro. If anyone will think about whether this is what they really want to do, we understand. I think it’s better to take a step aside, than to continue if motivation is not there,” his coach said.
It’s been four years since Svendsen walked away from professional cycling, and he’s stayed more or less completely out of the public eye. Deadspin spoke to Svendsen this week, and he told us he’s been happier and more fulfilled since he left cycling. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Deadspin: What have you been up to since you left cycling?
A lot has happened since I officially left the sport. I made the final decision to take a break late in the summer of 2014. That summer/fall I moved from my parents home to the student city of Trondheim and started studying psychology. After being pretty demotivated the last two years after I won the world championship in 2012, I guess it was good for me to step aside from the sport and study the mind.
After half a year in Trondheim, I decided to quit cycling and study full time. I started studying ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and civil engineering in 2015, and I have done that since. This winter, I decided to live and study in Chamonix, France. The months in Chamonix were absolutely some of the best in my life. Being out in the Alps and enjoying them in a whole different way than I did some years ago in Tour de l’Avenir was a truly fantastic experience.
Ed. note: Svendsen finished fifth in the 2013 Tour de l’Avenir, which is more or less the Tour de France for junior cyclists.
Why did you step away from what looked like a very promising career?
To be honest, I never really imagined myself becoming a professional. Of course, I was thinking about it, and it would have been a very natural step after winning the junior world championships. But I never wanted the monotonous lifestyle of a pro. I wanted to spend more time doing other things, like studying and skiing in the mountains, etc.
Do you think you would ever want to race again?
Actually, I don’t think so, but let’s never say never. I do miss racing in the Alps and being in really good shape. The cycling world is so tough and passionate that you’ll always miss it when leaving.
Have any professional teams reached out to you over the past few years about riding for them?
At the end of my career I did get some interest, and I honestly think I would have became a pro back then if my mind was right. Now in later years I think it would be possible to go back and make it. I met (former Norwegian pro) Kurt Asle Arvesen in Bergen during the world championships this fall. We had an informal conversation about my junior career and he said they were interested in getting me to join Team Sky when he was directeur sportif [a coach] there.
He also said that if I came back to the sport, he would keep the door open. But you know, we were drinking beers, and he’s a really good guy, so nothing too serious.
The cycling world knows you not only as a former junior World Champion, but also as the person who recorded the highest-ever VO2 max level. Did you feel pressured to live up to the expectations that a record-breaking metric like that brings in?
At the time I recorded it, I was so sick of all the tests. The season had been good, but I knew I had a lot to work on. I hadn’t won so many races so I didn’t think I quite deserved the high VO2 max according to my results.
So yeah, I felt some kind of pressure, but that was mainly from myself and I tried to focus on what I could improve. When you record something like that, you get a lot of focus from people from all sports. I felt like people suddenly saw me as one of the best cyclists in Norway, senior included, when the reality was that I was just a junior cyclist who had been in the sport for three years and was waaay back on delivering results like the best pros in the country. So, yes, haha, kind of confusing times.
How important do you think VO2 max is in cycling? Was it tricky to adjust to the tactics and patterns of pro road cycling?
Of course it’s important, but that’s mainly for general classification riders and climbers. Cycling is a monotonous sport, but yet so complex and driven by tactics that you won’t win races unless you deliver on all those qualities. I came into the sport with good physical qualities, but I struggled most with the tactics and patterns. I did learn a lot in my senior years on Team Joker though, even if I still had a long way to go. Descending down hills was also something I struggled a lot with, and it sapped much of my energy in races.
Do you still follow professional cycling?
Yes! Now maybe more than ever. When I was racing, I had too much of it on my mind, so I wasn’t really interested in how everyone else were doing. But now I enjoy watching it and I’m really digging seeing my old teammates rocking the WorldTour!
Are you happier now, and do you regret walking away when you did? Is there anything you miss about racing?
Yes! I’m absolutely happier now. I feel like I got the best out of the five years I spent in the sport. I don’t regret leaving, or most of the things I’ve done in my life. But, yeah, I miss the passion, the racing, and the tough brotherhood and mentality that I developed with my teammates and trainers. That really meant a lot to me.