British neo-pro Gabriel Cullaigh has described the frustration of his first year as a professional, having been curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic and a serious bout of shingles.
The Movistar rider, 24, raced 12 times before lockdowns across the world called a halt to racing in March. When the season restarted, he raced on four occasions, but after the European Championships at the end of August was diagnosed with shingles, a viral infection of the skin and nearby nerves that causes a rash. It typically takes a month to recover from.
Cullaigh is now back riding his bike with regularity and intensity, but hopes that he doesn’t have to race before 2021, fearing an earlier-than-appropriate return will set him back once more. Fortunately for the former Team Wiggins rider, he signed a two-year contract with the Spanish WorldTour outfit.
“It’s been pretty tough going, really," Cullaigh told Cycling Weekly. "A week before the European Championships and the Bretagne Classic, I knew I wasn’t well so it was daft of me to race. But I did and it had a knock on effect that ended up with me needing to have a month off the bike.
“I waited for the rash to clear, but once that calmed down I realised how much it had taken out of me. I was knackered. The rash was gone, but it felt like the infection was still there and it was really running me down.
“The team doctors told me to limit intensity, not to exercise at all, until I started to feel normal. I erred towards the side of taking it easy, and sleeping as much as I could.
“After two weeks, I rode 45 minutes and after two days I felt alright. But on the third day I woke up and I was so rough. It was like I had a really bad hangover. It really set me back.
“I knew something wasn’t right, so I took it easy again. Everyone who has had it has said that the worst thing you can do is rush it - you have to listen to your body. I had a month off and now I am starting to feel normal and am healthy again."
It’s not the first time that the Huddersfield rider has had health concerns. During the 2017 season, he was diagnosed with Exercise Induced Laryngeal Obstruction and required surgery to help improve his breathing.
“I was an amateur then and that was more serious,” he reflects. “Being at WorldTour level now, I just want to get stuck in, so I’ve been pretty down and it’s been testing.
“Waking up and feeling bad, your mood not improving all day, it’s hard to accept. I have had to keep my head high, not panic, not do anything to distract from it. It’s been important to air my worries to those that I can. But it’s part of being an athlete and I think people need to know what goes on when you’re not seeing what is going on. It’s part of cycling.”
He acknowledges than an illness-enforced stoppage does not constitute as a mental break, but at least he has had something worthwhile to concentrate on - improving his Spanish. “It’s not perfect or amazing, but I can understand all the meetings and it’s only when the conversations turns faster and heated at the dinner table that I lose track.
“It’s been a nice thing to focus on. I’m not one to sit down with books and translate, but there’s so much digital content out there, especially on Netflix. I enjoy it and can hold my own speaking it.”
Because of team shortages, there is a chance that he may have to race once or twice in Belgium before the extended season comes to an end. “There’d be no pressure, it would be to have some fun, but really I need to get through these weeks and then reset.”
He will now not break from training as previously planned and instead continue to “build it up nice and steady. My coach has said that if I wake up and am not feeling it, I have to go with the flow, because I can’t go backwards again. The plan is to go into the off-season with something to work with.”
The Briton’s results both domestically and across the continent during his formative years have indicated towards a future as a Classics specialist, and he takes his heart from Wout van Aert, who recovered from a shocking crash at the 2019 Tour de France only to remerge as this season’s standout rider.
“Van Aert has been an inspiration for me. He’s an incredible talent, and we have a similar weight and attributes. He had all that time off racing – apart from a few cyclocross races – and to come back and have the season he has had is pretty inspirational.
"It’s easy to think it’s all doom and gloom, but I look at him and I know things will turn out to be all well and good.”
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