Quiz question: there are three male professional cyclists who wear a Red Bull helmet in the peloton. Name them all.
[Space to allow you to think, because we’re almost certain you’ll struggle to get one of them].
One point if you correctly said recently-crowned world cyclocross champion Tom Pidcock, and a further if you said the Belgian superstar Wout van Aert.
How many of you guessed Anton Palzer?
If you did, well done, we’re impressed. We assume that you’re a lover of vertiginous mountaineering challenges and skiing. If you didn’t, that’s OK, we understand, because within the cycling circles Palzer is relatively unknown, the 28-year-old German rider for Bora-Hansgrohe only making his cycling debut last April at the Tour of the Alps.
Not just his professional debut, but his actual first ever race on a bike. We’ll briefly delve into his engrossing, high-octane background, but first: the helmet and its logo which has come to signify sporting royalty. In Palzer’s 49 days of racing in 2021, it caused quite a stir among his new colleagues, Simon Yates even calling Palzer a “f**king legend” on their very first encounter.
“People ask me about what I did before, and still everyone’s talking to me about my ski life in the peloton,” he tells Cycling Weekly. "It’s because of the helmet. People ask, ‘why are you wearing a Red Bull Helmet? You’re not Van Aert or Pidcock.’
“And I’m like, I know I’m not them! It’s crazy. I take the time to explain what I’m doing here and everyone enjoys it. They are all good guys and it’s nice sometimes to take the time to ride slowly next to these rockets, to be super close to them, and feel part of them.”
Palzer’s late entrance into the sport was the idea of Bora-Hansgrohe’s general manager Ralph Denk who had followed with interest Palzer’s journey to being one of the best athletes in ski mountaineering (SkiMo), a form of skiing where one attaches 'skins' to the bottom of the skis and ascends up the mountain before removing the skins and descending.
Also a distinguished mountain runner and climber, Palzer’s previously reported V02 max of 92 (which in layman's terms is incredibly high) was also persuasive in Denk’s decision to bring a cycling novice but elite endurance athlete into the sport’s upper echelons.
It was - is - a risk but approaching one year into the sport - he only became a pro last April - Palzer has surprised himself at how well he has adapted. He even rode and completed the Vuelta a España.
“I didn’t know what the f**k I was doing," he says. "I am new to cycling, but everyone’s given me the feeling of being welcome. I have raced at the Vuelta, the highest level of cycling. It’s completely crazy. I’m new to the simple things like grabbing a bottle from the car, and I even had to have explained to me during a race how we ride in a convoy.
“I knew for sure that this new journey would be super tough, but it’s been great. It was exactly what I was looking for. I always hoped that I would feel comfortable in cycling and after a few races I felt better. I learned so much and that everything is possible."
Palzer’s life has changed in so many ways. Usually he would ride 6,000km on his road bike in the summer; last year he rode 24,000km. Typically, January would be spent training on snow and racing SkiMo; this time around he was pedalling for four weeks in Mallorca.
How he responds to an injury has also changed. “When I crashed in SkiMo, or if I was injured from running, I stopped training and stopped going to competitions,” he says. “But cycling is different: if you have pain, you still ride, you still do the basics. At the Vuelta I crashed pretty hard on one stage and I had so much pain. But for a cyclist it was normal - I just had to get on with it.”
Speak with Palzer and you immediately understand how committed to his new life he is, stating before that the transition of sports was to drive him on as an athlete. Skiing, however, understandably remains a part of what makes him happy, and he is still sponsored by some industry brands.
He got out the skis in the autumn, for three weeks in December and straight after his season debut at Challenge Mallorca. “Last year I rode my bike four times more than I ever have before, so my muscles were sore and tired,” he reveals. “It was so much for me.
"We decided to do my December training at home on the skis and I enjoyed that time a lot. I took out some heavier skis as well, which are better for the downhill, and it was great fun. Mostly it was my SkiMo skis, but also sometimes my cross-country skis. I think it was really good for me and for my performance as a cyclist.”
Palzer has impressed his team and his team-mates, but he doesn’t try to hide the difficulties he encountered at the beginning. “It was super-stressful for me,” he says. “The power needed on the climbs and also to stay in the peloton. Every time we began a climb or a downhill it was really stressful for me. Every evening I was brain-f**ked.
“The team said I would do the Vuelta in May and I said to the DS that it was way too early for me to do a Grand Tour. I didn’t think I'd ever do a Grand Tour in my cycling career!
“They said it was super important for my process in becoming a good cyclist, and I have to admit now that it was a super special experience for me and my shape grew so much that I felt really comfortable in the Vuelta.”
Before the race, he was conscious that he had taken the spot of a fellow rider. “I was saying to Felix Großschartner, the team leader, that I know I can’t help in the tough climbing stages, and that he should go to the team and say he needs a strong climber [instead of Palzer].
“But Felix was so nice and he was saying it was super important that I was there. F**k, he was the leader, but he supported me more than I supported him! He gave me so much during the race.”
Palzer is depreciating his own advancement - his team have been delighted with his progression and the plan is for him to compete at the Vuelta again. Personal ambitions, however, remain on ice.
He adds: “When you look at my race calendar, I am doing big races like the Tour de Suisse and the Tour of the Alps where all the big guys from the Grand Tours are. It’s super-tricky for me to race for results. The leaders are the other riders on the team, not me.
“Success is to grow more into a helper position, to support the big leaders by riding longer on the climbs. I now feel super confident. I am not afraid of falling or crashing; I am more in the flow. My numbers are good already and I’m positive.”
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