The 2018 season will be the sixth year of my professional career. Writing that down on a piece of paper even seems crazy to me.
I swear it was just yesterday when the babyfaced, green me packed up his bags and moved across the ocean to the small Tuscan town of Quarrata, Italy, to begin the journey of a professional cyclist. I still view myself as young and a relatively “new” pro, even though each year, I just seem to get a little bit less so.
It’s especially noticeable on my team, Aqua Blue Sport. With a relatively young squad, somehow I’ve ended up being one of the older, most experienced riders on the team. It scares me a bit, but it’s a role I’m ready to grow into.
Growing up, I was always somewhat of a leader in most of the things I would do: organisations I was a part of, teams I was on, I was even the President of my high school class (yes, you can laugh). As a teen and going into University, I always took up a similar role, I was happy to speak up, take a stance, and manage things in nearly everything I did.
So it was a bit strange when I moved further up the cycling ladder and was pushed the exact opposite direction. I’ll never forget my first race as a stagiaire at the Tour of Utah in 2012. We had a team meeting the day before the race to go over the tactics and strategy for the week. When the director asked if anyone had any questions, I asked something regarding strategy for the race, and immediately one of the more experienced domestiques on the team glared at me.
“FUCKING STAIGAIRE!!!” he yelled. “DON’T FUCKING SPEAK!”
Silence… The whole room stared at me.
I can’t imagine what my face looked like at that moment, but I can still feel the blood rushing to my face. Never had I been spoken to like that in my life, even by my parents. Especially not by my parents.
I realised I was in for a long road, if that was the response I got for trying to say my part. It might have been the “American” in me. We tend to be a bit more outspoken than the traditional European, but I still felt such a reaction was a bit excessive. After the third or fourth time of similar interventions, I learned to… shut the fuck up.
When I started as a pro, cycling was still changing from its more old-school, hierarchical ways. And when you got your foot in the door, they made sure you knew you were on the bottom rung. Over the years, it’s slowly changed. I don’t regret the lessons I learned during those years, but I have to say, it’s taken some time to crawl back out of my shell. I’m happy that I’m getting the chance to do that on my current team, and to pass on some of the advice and guidance that I have learned over my few years being in the peloton. Maybe with just a little less “tough love”.
Seeing many of the young riders and neo-pros around me, I see them making so many of the mistakes I made those years before. I try to tell them. I try to help. Yet for some reason, most of them don’t seem to listen. Then I think back and realise: I wouldn’t have listened either.
So I thought, instead of giving advice to the unwilling neo, why not write some advice to my former self? Here’s a few nuggets of advice I wish I would have taken back then:
Don’t change the formula
You turned pro for a reason: what you were doing worked. There’s no need to flip the script, to train harder, more, different. It’s just a recipe for disaster. You’ll have so many more and such harder races that you’ll struggle to even train as much as you did before.
Recovery is key
I used to think a recovery day made me worse. I was so scared to take multiple recovery days because I would “lose fitness”. Once I even went to a pro team camp as an under-23 rider and asked to train on the rest day so I didn’t lose fitness. You can imagine the look I got from the director…
Over the years I realised proper recovery was the only way I got better. Some of my best race performances have been off the back of five days where I didn’t touch my bike.
Listen to your elders
Even if older riders use strange tactics to impart advice or are harsh on you, the fact that they are giving you advice means they care (I’m still good friends with the rider who yelled at me to this day). It’s when they say nothing that you should be worried.
Don’t forget to have fun
Too often I got so caught up in my training or racing, I forgot the reason I began riding my bike. A happy bike rider is a fast bike rider and this is something I think too many riders and teams often forget. When you are miserable, you will not perform. Make sure you ride with friends every so often, go out to dinner, leave the house and grab a coffee.
Millimetres don’t matter
I used to change my bike position every week. Higher saddle, lower bars, longer stem, saddle forward, saddle down. Bars up, hoods in. Cleats back? Cleats forward. No float? Full float? Middle? New shoes? Old ones.
Find a position that works for you and stick to it as best you can. Find a bike fitter you trust and see the same guy every year. If you adjust something and get injured, you are going to lose a lot more watts than the potential one you gained from the position adjustment.
Go with the flow
We live the most whirlwind life. Our schedule changes every year, every month, week, even day. You never know when you will be thrown into a race at the last minute, so just accept that it is a part of the job, and do your best no matter where you end up finding yourself. Even if that’s on the cobbles in Belgium.
You will find yourself in every corner of the world, in every type of accommodation, and see types of food you never knew existed. If you don’t have a genuine health problem or necessary dietary restriction, don’t avoid this or that. You will just make your life exponentially more difficult. Eat the damn pasta. Have a baguette. Don’t fret if your gel isn’t isotonic, or if there are two grams too much fibre in your energy bar. It will still do the job.
When in Australia last month, we had a camper without a functioning toilet. One of the riders on our team needed to go to the bathroom before the race, but refused to use the public ones. I don’t think he went to the bathroom until seven hours later at the race hotel.
At some races, you’re going to have to literally shit in a hole in the ground. Get used to it.
Chill the f*ck out.
This is all encompassing. At the end of the day, we are just pedalling our bikes in circles. It’s nothing crazy, so take a step back and recognise it. If you miss an interval it’s not going to ruin your performance. Or your life. If you stress out about it, however, it will. If you eat a gelato you’re not going to die. Just maybe don’t opt for the second cinque gusti.
Cycling is simple. Train hard, rest hard, have fun. Never forget to enjoy yourself. Your head controls your performance more than your legs. Once you understand that, your life will get easier and your bike will go so much faster.