Dan Pearson: a Welshman in Italy
British Cycling's Olympic Academy is now so well established that the idea of a young rider going abroad to further his career seems dated. Dan Pearson, however, is making it in Italy
British Cycling’s Olympic Academy is now so well established that the idea of a young rider going abroad to pursue a dream of one day racing professionally is increasingly dated.
For 21-year-old Dan Pearson, however, a former British junior champion, life with top Italian development team Zalf, an outfit that has propelled the likes of Ballan, Basso, Cunego, Salvodelli et al to the professional ranks, is working out well.
One of a formidable crop of developing Welsh talent that includes Scott Davies and Owain Doull, Pearson has followed a path closer to that of Roger Hammond and Charlie Wegelius, rather than ride the Academy-to-Team Sky conveyor belt of compatriots Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe.
He enjoys the support of the Dave Rayner Fund, and, in a synergy with the then-fledgling talents of Wiggins and Cavendish, has received kit from Prendas Ciclismo, the Dorset-based clothing specialists. Those who know the sport from the inside recognise Pearson's talent.
His relocation is not the result of any fixed idea to race in Italy; rather it is the result of happy accident. Having received no positive response from the handful of British teams registered as UCI Continentals, he joined Flavio Zappi’s outfit, and spent the next two years “running around Europe, having a bit of fun," though he is quick to acknowledge the hard work demanded both in training and racing.
“From what I’d done as a junior, it was quite a big jump. I spent my first year hanging on for dear life, just happy to get round in the first group and scrape a top 20. That taught me a lot. You’ve got to learn how to save every ounce of energy. I’m not the most powerful of riders, so it’s quite important for me. As the legs have come, I’ve been able to be more of a protagonist.”
The Italian connection
The move from Zappi to Zalf has been another significant step for Pearson, the greatest of which has been relocating to Italy and learning a new language. He lives in a team house, but is the only permanent resident. Other riders come and go, but there is a hard core of six or seven team-mates who live locally, and which provide him with a regular training group. Additionally, a restaurant owned by the team sponsor is just 200m away, offering a Welshman abroad lunch and dinner each day, as well as wi-fi: helfpul for Skype interviews with journalists in London, for example.
“They’re all a a bit mad, really,” Pearson laughs, when I ask him to describe his team-mates. “The thing about Zalf is that it’s a really fun team. We’re quite often just messing about. They’ll quite happily stay up until half-past-eleven at night drinking a few beers, or go go-karting or something like that. It was a bit of a shock to me. I was expecting something full on: quite strict rules. They’re very easy going.”
The description is a little surprising for a team on such intimate terms with victory. Doesn’t success result from cast iron discipline? For Pearson, enjoyment and results are not mutually exclusive; rather one is to some degree the consequence of the other. And the occasional beer and go-karting session is never enjoyed at the expense of training, only afterwards.
Pearson has worked on acquiring the lingo, but is still not sure, “...if language is my thing”. By his own modest estimation, he’s able to hold a conversation and to understand what’s being said around him. It’s a step from his initial encounters, where he depended upon his interlocutor to speak slowly and to avoid dialect.
Style meets substance
The most significant aspect of Pearson’s cycling education in Italy has been his duck-to-water adaptation to the style of racing. British races are full-gas, from-the-gun, miss-the-break-and-it’s-over affairs, he says, of little use to a climber able to dish it out late in the day when the race is hard and hilly.
Italian racing is more tactical, Pearson believes, and Zalf has strength in numbers. There are no permanent leaders. Instead, riders in form are given their chance. Topography is another factor in Italy’s favour for a rider like Pearson, and the comparative brevity - and consequent intensity - of the racing.
“Take a race I rode on Saturday. I think it was only 140km,” Pearson recalls. “The break had gone; they had like a minute or something, then we had a 5km climb. I attacked with a couple of other riders and rode across to the break and worked well in a break of about 14 riders. Then me and two other riders forged clear at the end before the peloton had a chance to catch us. Racing like that is not anything I’ve experienced in the UK.”
The Italian influence extends to training. Pearson describes a classic Italian training block: race on the Saturday or Sunday, rest on the Monday, ride four hours on Tuesday, five hours on Wednesday, rest Thursday, three hours with a climb or motor pacing on Friday, and repeat.
“Basically it’s sweet spot [training] and climbs: nothing particularly special, but just constant, consistent training, and because the racing is so hard it brings you on a lot.”
Ahh, the racing. Pearson talks in similar detail, referencing team-mate Gianni Moscon. In Pearson’s estimation, the Italian is one of the best under-23 riders in the world, one capable of winning in the hills of Italy and finishing second at the junior Tour of Flanders. Unsurprisingly, many of Zalf’s strategies revolve around him. This does not mean a passive or subservient role for his team-mates, however; on the contrary, they are deployed aggressively to harden up the race for Zalf’s rivals.
“Often we’ll send riders into the break, make the race hard, and he’ll just sit back and wait for the big push at the end. It depends who’s racing; who’s there. But yeah, we’ll have team leaders and then riders to go in the break. Or we might leave it a little bit, and then go on big-time attacks; the whole team attacks, and it breaks the race up.”
For those concerned that Pearson’s talent might be lost to the UK forever, the door to the Academy remains open. He is in regular contact with Keith Lambert, and rode for the Great Britain team last season at the Tour de l’Avenir and the Tour of Britain, though neither engagement saw him at his best. At the Tour of Britain, for example, he was forced to abandon within half-an-hour of the second stage with a virus that caused him to lose his voice.
“That was very, very disappointing. I went home. I didn’t see the light of day for about three days. I just sat in the house, moping,” Pearson chuckles at the memory. “I was pretty bummed out about that.” Was he not able to take the longer view? Surely a rider of his talent, and with a career on such an upward trajectory could expect to ride the race again? Pearson’s response is rational: when you commit 100 per cent to something and fail to achieve it, the outcome is disappointment. He clearly does not allow himself the consolation of considering further opportunities, though these will surely come.
A Welshman abroad
Wales has punched well above its weight in recent years in the matter of producing world class cycling talent and Pearson, Davies and Doull will hope to follow Thomas and Rowe into the UCI WorldTour.
Pearson believes he can do so from his position with Zalf, (a list of the team’s alumni supports his case), but not every British rider who tries to make a success in Italy enjoys the experience. Charlie Wegelius describes his own dispiriting experiences in his book Domestique, but he was forging new ground, to a certain extent: the ProTour had only a handful of British riders, and fewer champions. Have the achievements of Wiggins, Cavendish, Stannard etc. made Pearson's path to acceptance easier, even though he is the only non-Italian on the squad?
“There’s possibly an element of that. I think it’s just the way the team is run. It’s a pretty open team; just dead relaxed. Everyone is happy, and I think that makes a big difference. Not just happy, but everyone’s having a really good time. We’ve got a team of pretty strong riders. Obviously, there are a few riders who aren’t on form all the time - not everyone’s super strong - but we’ve generally got a team of good, strong riders. We’re always going to have numbers at the end of a race, and after hard parts of a race, and tactically we often play the game well, and it just makes it hard for other teams to win and easy for one of our own riders to win.”
If the course is hard and hilly, and a mixture of tenacity and panache is required for victory, then Pearson is in the frame. We will watch him with interest.