Motivation is critical to the professional sportsman. The sacrifices are great; the demands of competition unrelenting. Lose sight of the goal, begin to question the purpose in pursuing it, and desire ebbs away. A loss of perspective can be as debilitating as injury, and, as with physical complaint, a complete break is sometimes the only cure.
Australian rider Richard Lang found himself with more questions than answers as 2013 drew to a close, despite an impressive couple of seasons racing in the UK, firstly with Rapha Condor Sharp and latterly with Team Raleigh. Despite steady progression towards his ultimate goal of securing a berth within the Pro Continental or WorldTour ranks, Lang found himself his own harshest critic. His employers were happy with his performances; he wasn’t.
Richard Lang will resume his racing career with JLT Condor in 2015. pic: Angus Sung
“They [Raleigh] had a lot of racing in France, which suited me quite well, but for one reason or another, I was unable to make that next level. When you want something that badly, it’s almost like it works against you. I think the pressure that I put on myself was probably my downfall. I was overtraining and all that stuff – trying to be too lean, over-analysing everything, and then you lose the love for it. You lose perspective on what you’re trying to do.”
Finding himself in a cold country, training on debilitatingly heavy roads and racing in ferocious, city centre crit races, often in treacherous conditions that he believes would have prompted organisers to call a halt to proceedings had they been held back home, Lang suddenly found himself questioning his purpose in cycling. Returning to Australia didn’t appeal: his girlfriend Mel had travelled 12,000 miles to join him and support his dream and, while Lang struggled to regain his hunger, had made a comfortable life for herself. It was decision time.
“I just needed a change,” he reflects, having re-signed with John Herety’s squad for 2015 (to be known next season as JLT Condor). “I try to become top dog and strive to be the best in what I’m doing. In cycling, I couldn’t go any higher. I needed new goals. I sort of drew the line in the sand.”
“It’s quite frightening, you know, when you’re 25 and all you’ve been doing is cycling. I went to university, and deferred that, and I can’t go back to that now. You’re 25: what do you write on your CV in the real world? You’re like a big fish in a small pond and when you leave that you’re like, ‘Whoa!’ You don’t even have enough experience to work in a coffee shop.”
Lang will be returning to the squad managed by former British road race champion, John Herety. He made his UK debut with Herety’s team in 2012, then called Rapha Condor Sharp. pic: Tour Series
Lang picked himself up and started again, gaining a personal trainer’s qualification, working up to 50 hours a week in a gym. Cycling took a back seat as he dedicated his time to learning his new trade, reading up on fitness programmes for gym clients, trying the exercises for himself, and building a cycle coaching business. He bulked up as a consequence, moving from small sized shirts to “a nice medium”. The professional cyclist began to disappear.
Crucially, perhaps, even in the earliest days of his new career, Lang didn’t stop riding entirely, reducing time in the saddle to a couple of hours a week, or short, sharp sessions of about half-an-hour on a Wattbike. He began to ride again with friends and, as the weather improved, to enjoy the pleasures of cycling well-known to the amateur, but forbidden to the professional, including a post-ride pint on a summer’s day.
It was the work of his new career that rekindled his enthusiasm for the old. By trialling the programmes he had devised for his clients, Lang found himself back in the saddle and relying on ‘feel’ to judge his performance. Soon, Lang began to record his data, and to take an interest again in competitive cycling. Things quickly escalated.
“Riding without a heart rate strap or not, it didn’t matter what I did – I was just riding for the sake of riding,” Lang remembers. “I was still smashing up hills and things like that, but sort of like, let’s ride for five minutes at 180bpm and things like that. It was quite nice.
Lang joined Team Raleigh in 2013, but despite an international programme and support from the team management, felt he was not making the progress he had hoped for. He says now that he placed too much pressure on himself. pic: Tour Series
“I started watching a few races back home. I thought, that might be interesting – I might try and do a few local races here next year: no pressure – I’ll just try and have a bash around. Then I was talking to a couple of lads and one thing led to another, and soon I was talking to John [Herety] and the situation worked out quite well.”
Based in south Manchester, Lang has not lacked for training partners. The proximity of the national federation provides a ready supply, and several of his colleagues on Herety’s squad are based close by, among them the winners of the last two editions of the Tour de Korea, Mike Cuming and Richard Handley, as well as rising star,Felix English. It is perhaps significant too that the flame of Lang’s enthusiasm rekindled when he began to document his data – a phenomenon instantly recognisable to the thousands of amateur cyclists for whom Garmin and Strava have become such indispensable training partners.
The remainder of this year and the opening months of next are likely to pass in a blur. Lang will return home for his wedding, and while, by coincidence, his team will be based Down Under in January, he will be back in the UK for work with his coaching business. In the meantime, Lang will remain a regular competitor in the Tuesday night track league at the Manchester Velodrome, home to a “pretty heavy programme” of endurance races, including a 40-lap scratch race, a 50-lap points race, an elimination race and a 10-mile scratch race to round off the evening.
As he prepares to embark upon a second career, how will Lang attempt to balance the demands of running a coaching business with a self-confessed tendency to “strive for perfection” on the bike? How will he avoid the pitfall of again placing too much pressure on himself? “I just want to be more relaxed and go in with a more holistic approach – where cycling isn’t the be all and end all,” he says. “I’m not pinning my hopes and dreams on cycling. I’ll still have my side focus: my coaching, the business, things like that. It will take the pressure off cycling and hopefully I’ll end up going better.”
Lang will aim to pursue a ‘holistic’ approach in 2015, balancing his racing with his coaching business. pic: Angus Sung
Key to this holistic approach is Lang’s decision to focus on crits, specifically the city centre Tour Series, whose television contract is oxygen to the sponsors’ need for publicity. The hour-long format is one Lang believes will allow him to follow a training schedule compatible with his coaching commitments, and one in which he has previously proved himself a useful competitor, even if the demands of a Tour Series race – a format he refers to as “those crazy town crits” – in typically British weather, initially surprised him. “I swear back home those races would have been called off, the amount of grates and slippy tiles and things like that, but you just push on here,” Lang says. The British cyclist’s refusal to let heavy weather or grippy road surfaces act as a deterrent has impressed him too.
City centre crit races have increasingly become a specialist discipline, in the UK at least: witness the WorldTour competitors who move from star billing to anonymity once the flag falls at the London Nocturne each year. Lang knows the job well and believes its demand for high intensity can be met with a similarly focussed training programme, one he believes will peak at 12 hours a week. “I probably don’t need to go out and do a five-hour ride,” he explains. As his time in the gym reduces, he believes his bulk will too. Significantly, while his shirt size has increased, his waistline has remained unaltered.
Lang reserves the last word for his wife and family, without whose support, he says, he would not have made the transition to this second phase of his career. His return to Herety’s squad shows that his former manager has not lost faith in him either. When the flag falls at the first round of the 2015 Tour Series, Lang will find himself, if not where he had once hoped to be, then at least back among friends. Should he find himself on the podium, he will consider himself back where he belongs.