Our man in the bunch 1: turning professional

Cycle Sport’s Our Man in the Bunch series ran through the 2012 season, to popular acclaim. An anonymous professional rider sent us a series of dispatches from the peloton, covering all subjects from money, through media to management and more. We reproduce the series here.

Words by Our Man in the Bunch

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Illustration by Simon Scarsbrook

Watching the Tour Down Under reminded me of when I started my professional career. It’s the first race of the season, but it’s also the first race of some riders’ careers. While Gerrans, GreenEdge and Greipel hogged the headlines, riders like Jack Bauer and Wilco Kelderman were experiencing their first races as WorldTour riders.

Turning professional should probably not be the goal in a sporting career. Really, it’s only the start. But it’s easy to think, as you sit there on the start-line of your first professional race, that you’ve made it.

In my experience, it was comparable to starting senior school. I’d been throwing my weight around in the amateurs like a big kid in junior high, then, suddenly, I was the new kid in school, getting my lunch money nicked by the professional big boys. As an amateur, I’d been somebody, respected by other riders and teams, with an abundance of knowledge on terrain, tactics and also my peers’ qualities and weaknesses. My team-mates would often ride for me, and my director would ask my thoughts on how we should play out a race.

After turning professional, I quickly found out at my first training camp that I was starting from scratch: I didn’t know anyone (even if I recognised most), I didn’t know how things were done, and I didn’t have any experience of the races listed on my new schedule.

But while I tried to look cool in front of the older pros, it was pretty difficult to maintain that when I arrived in my hotel room at camp, to find a personalised suitcase stuffed with all my new kit. It was like Christmas Day. There were more jerseys, shorts, socks, summer and winter kits inside than I had owned in my previous 11 years riding and racing bikes. I was later told that I would receive a fresh supply (of equal quantity) midway through the season. While I rummaged through it like a toddler in a sweet shop, I couldn’t help noticing that my room-mate, an old hand in the peloton, was far less enthused. I had de-tagged, named, and arranged all my kit in my wardrobe a good couple of days before he even opened his case.

I was one of three neo-pros on the team that year, all of us equally excited and eager to impress the management and our team-mates. Too eager by half, really, as the more experienced riders on the team told us to back off. There’d be plenty of suffering later on in the season without doing it unnecessarily in December.

For parts of the camp, the group was split between the stage racers and Classics group. One of the other neos (I’ll call him Sean) was seen as a potential future Classics star, and was included with the Classics riders. One day, perhaps heeding the ‘don’t go too hard in December’ advice too literally, Sean was caught whistling a tune at the back of the small group as they rode up a climb.

The other riders in the group didn’t take too kindly to Sean’s tuneful demonstration of how easy he was finding the pace, so for the remainder of the ride (a further four hours), four renowned professionals of that era proceeded to give Sean a lesson in riding. Sean didn’t look too good when I saw him that evening at dinner. He’d also missed the team’s photoshoot that afternoon, after falling asleep in his room for two hours, still in his riding kit.

Things didn’t improve much at my first event, an early-season stage race in southern Europe. For some reason, everything I had learned over previous years seemed to become irrelevant as I simply aped everything my more experienced team-mates did. Being somewhat nervous before my first professional race, I was in the toilet until close to the start, having already signed in (the first rider to do so) almost an hour previously.

Once I’d finished excreting a good amount of my pre-race nerves, there was only one other rider left on the bus, someone I really looked up to, and I noticed he was wearing legwarmers. Despite the forecast of 20 degrees for that day, I decided that if he was wearing legwarmers, then I too would need them for this ‘training’ race, and hurriedly put a set on.

Half an hour later, with the neutral zone finished and some furious attacking taking place at the front, I watched as my team-mate gracefully took off his legwarmers at 50kph, with two team-mates (including myself) pushing him so as not to lose contact with the peloton. He folded them up neatly, passed them to me, and told me to take them back to the car. I dutifully put them in my pocket, before attempting myself to copy this skilful de-robing.

Two problems followed. One, I didn’t have the luxury of any team-mates pushing me, and two, having never started a race with legwarmers on, I had no experience of taking them off whilst riding, so I quickly found myself back in the race convoy with one legwarmer tangled around my ankle. After a short while, I made the decision that it would be better to continue the race with my legwarmers on, than to get dropped whilst trying to take them off, so I handed my team-mate’s clothing to the team car and made my way back to the bunch. 168 kilometres later, under bright sunshine and temperatures even higher than forecast, I was the only rider to cross the line with legs still covered up, and a jersey unzipped all the way.

On the positive side, it broke the ice with my team-mates, who found it hilarious — whenever temperatures soared that season, there was always someone on hand to pass me a pair of legwarmers.

In the years since that first training camp and race, I’ve seen plenty of other neos come along with the same enthusiasm, eagerness, and naivety that I did. There does, however, seem to be a shift in the attitude of the older riders these days. We certainly give more encouragement and advice to the young riders, there is much more of a ‘team unit’ ethos, and less of the ‘flick or be flicked’ mentality of old. Last year, I even noticed Leopard-Trek giving full support to their stagiaire sprinter Rudiger Selig in September and October [2011], who paid them back with multiple top fives and even a win. It’s a far cry from riding your first race in summer temperatures wearing legwarmers.

This article first ran in Cycle Sport April 2012.

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