They said I didn’t know everything. They were right. Some of my perceptions have been correct over the years, some of them haven’t, but if I were to write some advice for all aspiring athletes of any level, especially those aiming to be professional cyclists, this would be it.
1 – Ask not what a team can do for you, but what you can do for the team
It’s very rare for athlete to be chased by professional cycling organisations. Your value as an athlete is a direct relationship between how much you cost and what the organisation will get from you in return.
If you offer your services to a team for free you may expect a team will happily accept your request for a contract but it’s not solely money determines your cost to the organisation. In my experience, the free or cheap rider that brings an exceptional amount of baggage will cost a lot more than someone who might be getting paid twice as much but has their shit together. Make an assumption, if you will, as to what having your shit together means but things like, is it your desire to be part of a successful team or is it more important to be able to tell your family and friends you're a pro? Is your level of motivation to race is unwavering regardless of what races your contemporaries might be racing in? All are very good indicators as to whether you’re going to be an asset to a team and, believe it or not, they are easily discernible from a team's perspective when it comes to assessing you.
2 – Win bike races or be strong enough that someone cannot win without you
‘Hi, I’d like to be afforded the opportunity to learn how to race in a team like yours’. That is the opening of many prospective riders hoping for a place in a team when they send their first email. If you are asking for someone to pay you to learn how to do the sport you’re aiming to be a professional in, you’re doing it wrong.
Focus on what you are good at. If you’re a sprinter, be the fastest. If you are a climber, make sure you are the best and you have a real grasp on the numbers (power) you need to produce to be competitive on a professional level. The last thing cycling needs is another strong all-rounder – I know that first hand - so focus and train your specialty. For the sake of back-to-back 5 hour training rides at 180 watts, don’t train away the one thing that can set you apart.
3 – The world of cycling is very small and insular
Let’s say you really like to use Twitter. One day you decide to air your negative views on professional cycling that stem from your sense of entitlement. You chose to target a team that you regularly send your resume to. Do you think it is a) unlikely or b) exceptionally unlikely, that you’ll get an amiable response from that team when you inevitably send your resume to them again? Pop Quiz: True story or cautionary tale?
Keep yourself to yourself and let your legs and actions do the talking. Word gets around. Bad words travel at the speed of light. The good travels like handwritten letter in 1940s war-stricken England – it gets there only if you’re very lucky.
4 – Mentoring
It’s not for everyone but if you decide to embark upon it by choice or happenstance it’s important to remember one thing: the goal is to elevate the mentee to above your level. It’s a very subtle process but if you love the sport and the people in it then trying to help someone get better is the only option and that won’t happen if you stifle another’s career or let your lack of knowledge have the same effect. It's important to know what you do not know and realize your power is a privilege granted by others.
5 – Listen, Learn, and Question
Being set in any one way is so incredibly maladaptive. I know that first hand, too. It’s very important to question your or someone else's success too, whether it’s in training or racing. Why am I doing this? What science supports this? Why is this person doing so well? The answers for future success are lessons learned from someone’s successful past. What route did they take? How did they forge their own path? Are you being innovative or just belligerent when deciding your approach to training?
Furthermore, the very worst thing that can happen to an ill prepared athlete is to experience a little success. That’s the kiss of death from a poorly prescribed training plan or a tactic that almost worked that one time back in ‘Nam and all you can say to yourself and your teammates is "I should have won".
6 - Simply getting an opportunity doesn't make you a better athlete
There are times when just making the start-line is a big opportunity in itself; however, just starting a particularly big race doesn't make you a better racer. Likewise, signing for a well-known team doesn't immediately make you better. It may be a big opportunity but it doesn't improve your physical ability. Improving your abilities as a cyclist is incredibly hard. Teams and races are only vehicles that get you to a stage where you can show what you can do - it’s training and hard work that allows you to achieve your goals.
7 - Shiny things don't make you go faster
I agree that equipment of a certain level is essential if you want to get your best results. Needless and costly componentry, clothing, and carbon doesn't add watts to your FTP or take KG's off your body. If you want to ride nice things, ride them but don't expect their presence in your life to make you better. The best season Astellas Pro Cycling (an American Pro Team I have raced for for 4 years) had was on aluminium frames and a second tier groupset. Eleven gears won’t make you faster than someone who has ten.
8 - Unless you're 1 of 400 athletes in the World Tour, you'll likely make a poverty wage
Really. You really will. There is a lot of free time and self-development and education are vital to keep your mind healthy, active, inquisitive, and engaged in life. Money isn't everything but, then again, neither is your performance as a professional cyclist.
Questions I use to guide a career...
Why did I do this?
How did they do this?
How should I do this?
What did I learn about this?
Am I being specific?
Where am I going?
Is this making me happy?