'I had thoughts of just packing it all in': Gabriel Cullaigh's lonely experience and rejection with Movistar

The Yorkshireman explains why he was unable to deliver on the promise he showed at U23 level

Gabriel Cullaigh
(Image credit: Getty)

“A lot of people have told me not to burn my bridges, but what I’ve said is fair. I’ve definitely felt very lost at points.”

Gabriel Cullaigh has a lot to say. The Briton has not had his contract with Movistar renewed after a difficult two years where he raced just a paltry 48 days. He admits he didn’t get results to warrant an extension, but neither does he feel his side of the story is out there.

And it’s crucial for the 25-year-old that he gets a chance to explain himself because “if you go on any results database and look at my past two years, it’s hard to back up my belief that I belong in the WorldTour.”

So here is the story of how a Classics rider from Huddersfield with so much promise and potential has found himself battling to remain a professional.

"2020 was a write off," he begins telling Cycling Weekly. "There was Covid and then I got shingles but I recovered from that. At the start of this year, the team had brought in Iván Cortina which I was excited about.

“I want to be someone that helps the Classics leader - I see myself in that role and as the last man in a lead-out. I was excited to work for Iván and everything he wanted me to do, I would do to the best of my ability.”

Their first race together was Clasica de Almeria, where Cullaigh sprinted for a respectable seventh place after Cortina was caught up in a crash. 

“After the race, the whole Almeria team stayed down there for a mini training camp, and the team said it would be us seven who would be going to Omloop [two weeks later]. 

“Just before Omloop we got a team-wide email and my name wasn’t on the Omloop startlist. I was instantly confused, questioning what was going on. The camp was hard, but I had held my own, had finished seventh in my first race, so I didn’t even think for a second I wouldn’t be going to Omloop.

“So I rang Patxi [Vila, the team’s head of performance] and he said that they had put Imanol Erviti in the team. He said he should have rung me, but he explained that Imanol had incredible experience as a Classics rider so I thought ‘Ok, it’s a contract year, I don’t want to flip out and say I’m not having it.’ 

"I couldn’t argue with Imanol’s experience, so I bit my lip, and Patxi told me not to worry because they’d be using me in many upcoming races. ‘There’s loads of other Classics races you can do,’ he said.”

Except, there wasn’t to be. Cullaigh would ride the Trofeo Laigueglia race in Italy, and then Brugge-De Panne, E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Ghent-Wevelgem. His Classics season ended in just three races.

Cortina, appreciative of Cullaigh’s sacrifice, “kicked up a fuss when I didn’t get selected for Flanders," the Yorkshireman recounts. "He would say I was one of only a few trying to help him, keep him out of the wind, and he wanted me in the Flanders team. 

"He rang Patxi and a few other people pushing for my inclusion, but they didn’t budge. It was tough to take because I turned pro with aspirations to do well in those races. 

"I never raced a Grand Tour or went on any Grand Tour training camps so I can’t say what that environment is like, but the big races I did, the stuff with the Classics, it was all just messy.

“Every time I blew up after helping Cortina, I’d find my way among the Quick-Step guys who’d be buzzing because they’d done their job, they'd given 120 per cent, but it felt like my work wasn’t recognised which was a shame.

“The team would say that the best way to the finish was to go with them [in the car], and I’d um and ah and say that I needed to finish. But they weren’t happy with that.”

By now, Cullaigh had noticed something. “After three-and-a-half hours I’d go from holding the pace, suffering, and then to my legs being completely flat," he says.

"At the time I thought that was just me, that I didn’t have the legs to be at this level, but then I took a step back and knew that it was my training that wasn’t working for me.”

In the previous winter, the team told Cullaigh that former Italian rider Leonardo Piepoli would be his new coach, the five-time Grand Tour stage winner having coached Cortina for a number of years and Sonny Colbrelli in the past.

“Patxi said he’d be a good guy for me so I was happy,” Cullaigh adds. “He couldn’t speak any English, though, and neither can I speak Italian so we only communicated by texting in Spanish.

“Because of my background in track, polarised training works for me - steady riding and then intensity. But Piepoli was all about long rides, long intervals, working the diesel engine. I found I was strong but couldn’t lift it when I needed to in races. I felt pretty f**ked most of the time. 

“He was telling me to do protein-only rides where I’d have to ride five hours having only eaten protein. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone."

Cualligh, however, carried on with Piepoli, although he wasn’t selected for another race for six more weeks. He returned to action racing two races in Majorca, finishing fifth at the Trofeo Alcudia.

“Those Majorca races are so easy,” he adds, “but once again I found that I was so flat. I found myself behind [Alexander] Kristoff’s wheel and tried to go early but I didn’t have the legs to sustain it.

“I was low, knowing this was not who I once was. I didn’t feel like I did when I was turning pro with Wiggins, that aggressive style of racing in the UK, winning sprints in Europe, getting involved in racing. I knew Leo wasn’t working for me.”

Gabriel Cullaigh

(Image credit: Getty)

Dejected, Cullaigh rang Vila and informed him of his desire to find his own coach. He continues: “Patxi was reluctant but agreed, asking me to keep it quiet because he didn’t want everyone else jumping ship to find their own coach, but for me it was a good thing.

“Looking back, and I may be overthinking this, but I think the team maybe thought they wouldn’t be resigning me, they’d be letting me go anyway, so just let me do my own thing.”

Gary Sadler, a former British pro, became Cullaigh’s new coach and “things turned around,” he says. “British Cycling let me train on the track with the Academy lads a few times a week in Manchester, my training was more polarised and when I came back to racing I felt myself again.”

After racing just seven days before July, Cullaigh returned at the Settimana Italiana, before riding the Tour of Poland and the Tour of Britain. Working as a domestique, his best results were two 10th-placed finishes.

He adds: “I don’t want to be pointing the finger because I think they tried, and they thought that Leo would be a good match for me, but they didn’t give me enough opportunities and the amount of racing I need. I know that I need a good bit of racing in my legs.

“By the end of the Tour of Britain, after a good few months of racing, I felt like a completely different bike rider to how I felt at the Classics at the start of the year.”

Cullaigh admits that the frustration and disappointment of the past year left him in a lonely place at times and after racing Paris-Roubaix, where a fall forced him to abandon, “I had thoughts of just packing it all in.

“I just didn’t ever feel like I found my feet at Movistar. I know my attributes lend themselves to being one of the last lead-out riders and setting up Classic riders, but that’s hard at a team like Movistar because they don’t focus on the Classics. 

"To only have five race days between January and May when that period for a rider like me should be the biggest of the year… it was very scarce. I’ve just been on the tough receiving end of things.

“I’ve had my angry and bitter moments, I’ve been upset about it all, but it's professional sport and I can’t get too down about it. Life goes on.”

And so too will his cycling career, although his next destination has yet to be announced. He’s back training in preparation for the 2022 season, and is steadfast in his conviction that his face fits in the upper echelons of the sport.

“I know that the level of the competition at the moment is through the roof, but I believe I belong there," he insists. "Although it’s becoming a sport for younger riders, it’s very numbers-focused, and I’m lucky that I’m a powerful rider. 

“I owe it to myself to keep working to make it work. The main thing is I have to enjoy my racing, enjoy competing and the results will come.”

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