'I was never the best, I just kept striving': Oscar Onley on the determination that took him all the way to the WorldTour

The young Scot tells us how he broke through and what it meant to almost beat the Tour champ

For each article in this long-running WATT WORKS FOR ME series from Cycling Weekly's print edition, we ask a pro rider about their favourite things in training: what has helped them most in getting to where they are today. The aim is to get to the heart of the beliefs and preferences they hold dear when it comes to building form, maximising fitness and ultimately achieving results. For this edition, we speak to Oscar Onley...

You’ve just finished your off-season break – how was it? 

I had two weeks completely off the bike and did a bit of running but then injured my ankle, so that didn’t last very long! Since then, over the last week or so, I’ve been riding the mountain bike – nothing structured, just messing about. 

I read elsewhere that you never run. 

That was true, but after talking to some of my team-mates who do some running during the off-season, I decided to try it. I thought I was building up gradually but by my fourth run, my legs didn’t like it anymore! 

How did you first get started in cycling? 

My mum used to watch the Tour on TV every year, and my first memories are from the 2010 race, watching [Alberto] Contador battling with [Andy] Schleck. It was soon after that I started cycling, aged 10 or 11, with the Kelso Wheelers – there was a time trial that started almost outside my house. It progressed from there.

You signed for DSM’s development team at the end of 2020. What difference has that made to your training? [Onley has since stepped up to WorldTour level, signing a five-year contract with Team DSM.]

In my first year, I ended up reducing the intensity quite a lot. I had to get used to riding a bit easier most of the time, especially during winter. Before, when I was on the British Cycling programme, I would do quite a bit of training on the track over the winter. 

How will you train this winter? 

I think it will be quite similar to last winter: mostly low intensity but already I have started doing some 30-second sprints. Yesterday [9 November] was my first day back after the off-season and it was a bit of a shock to the system! I’m told that doing these once a week will get my body used to that intensity again, ready for building into harder efforts, but I won’t be doing any track this winter. 

How important is the role of the coach? 

I think it’s really important to have a good relationship, and you need to have a lot of trust in them – because when they’re sending you out to do five hours in the rain, you have to have faith that it’s going to make you better. Also for me, at this time of year, a coach really needs to hold me back a little bit – it’s three or four months yet until we’re racing again.

How do you stay motivated for those long, hard rides? 

I just really enjoy the process of training, sometimes even more than racing. Having a clear plan and seeing the progression through the weeks, that’s something I’m quite interested in. It’s not so much the numbers, just that feeling in the legs after getting in from a hard session, that’s what I enjoy. 

Finishing just behind the Tour champion at the Cro Race must have been a big boost? 

Yeah, though at the time I didn’t realise how big a deal it was – when you’re in the race, it’s just another rider. But the reaction from people afterwards, then you realise, OK, it was actually quite a big result and a big deal. It’s good for my confidence.

Rider profile: Oscar Onley

Age: 20

Height: 5ft 9in

FTP: 365W (estimated)

Lives: Kelso, Scottish Borders

Rides for: Team DSM

Best results: 3rd – GC, Cro Race (2022); 7th – GC, Sazka Tour (2022); 3rd – GB National U23 TT Champs (2021)

Twitter: @OscarOnley

Instagram: oscaronley

Oscar Onley on the podium

(Image credit: Getty)

What's your favourite type of training?

I really enjoy rides at the upper end of Zone 2. It’s an uncomfortable pace but you can hold it for quite a long time. After four or five hours, you can really feel it in the legs by the end. At the end of doing that regularly over a few weeks, you’re in good shape.

Top piece of advice for aspiring amateur racers? 

You’ve just got to persist with it. I was never the best rider [as a junior], I just enjoyed cycling, so I kept striving. When you enjoy it, that’s where the progress comes from. It’s too hard a sport to do if you’re not enjoying it!

The full version of this article was published in the 24 November 2022 print edition of Cycling Weekly magazine. Subscribe online and get the magazine delivered to your door every week. (opens in new tab)

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David Bradford
Fitness Editor

David Bradford is fitness editor of Cycling Weekly (print edition). He has been writing and editing professionally for more than 15 years, and has published work in national newspapers and magazines including the Independent, the Guardian, the Times, the Irish Times, Vice.com and Runner’s World. Alongside his love of cycling, David is a long-distance runner with a marathon PB of two hours 28 minutes. Having been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) in 2006, he also writes about sight loss, equality and social affairs.