What It Takes: The Life of a Pro Cyclist

Chris Froome in action at the Tour de France
Chris Froome in action at the Tour de France
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It's rest day in this year's Tour de France, so in the latest of our 'What It Takes' series, cycling enthusiast Richard Towey tells us about the dedication and mentality needed to become a professional cyclist...

According to Jim Capra, head coach at Tyler Hamilton Training and colleague of the ex-US Postal rider whose name fronts the group, preparation is a "24-hour job" requiring non-stop discipline and focus.

For an idea of the sheer effort someone must undertake to become a professional athlete in today's catalogue of high-octane sports, look no further than cycling.

From the breathtaking scenery that supplements everyone's viewing of races like the Tour de France, to the stories of professionals devoting their bodies, minds and some of the best years of their life to competing, there is an air of romanticism which pulses through the veins of its core elements.

Cycling is unique, to say the least, and few things capture this better than the riders whose mind-boggling commitment never ceases to amaze.


"Obsessively driven"


Everything from a cyclist's figure to their diet and lifestyle is fine-tuned to ensure peak physical and mental performance when the time arises - not that every day doesn't count in their line of work.

Few know these athletes better than Jeremy Whittle, cycling correspondent to 'The Times' and author of 'Ventoux', an homage to the 'killer' French mountain that claimed the life of world champion Tom Simpson during the 1967 tour.

Whittle has spent much of his career covering the exploits of Lance Armstrong, Greg LeMond and Britain's David Millar among others, making him a strong point of reference for this particular study of character.

"To get to the level they're at, I think you have to be obsessively driven. You train for five to six nights a week as a teenager and that means forgoing some of the social aspects of life.

"It's not like football where you can train for an hour a day, practice a few free kicks and the work is done... They're constantly on it and phenomenally thin; they have the body fat of long-distance runners, down to around 4-5%. They're very tightly wound both physically and mentally which leaves them on a constant tightrope when it comes to being undertrained or overtrained, too thin or too fat."

For some, that struggle to the top sounds relatively straightforward. Wesley Sulzberger recounts the short space of time it took him to go from fan to professional after first making the grade at French team FDJ in 2009.

"It was really quite simple for me. I played a lot of sports as a kid. I found cycling at 11-years-old - I watched the TDF and thought yup, I'm going to do that. It's crazy to think that after 11 years of hard work I was racing it."

At 23, Sulzberger made cycling his vocation. By 29 he was out of the professional circuit, back at home in Australia and ready to focus on a second life which now involves cycling tours around Tasmania and coaching programmes as part of En Route Cycling.

That bit in the middle, however, would have been far from a breeze.


Digging deeper and deeper


Asking a cyclist about their training programme is a moot exercise. Each regime is crafted to suit every aspect of the immediate present and future; i.e. the race they're riding and the condition they're in. A better view of the physical commitment is told by the numbers that make events like Le Tour and the Giro d'Italia what they are.

In this year's Tour de France, nearly 200 riders earned the shot at riding 21 stages, 10 of which are billed as ether 'mountain' or 'medium mountain'. Embrun - stage 19 - is the longest at 222.5km, which chips away at a total distance of 3,540km. The aforementioned period of peak mental and physical state will last over three weeks for a key rider and all-rounder like reigning champion Chris Froome.

According to Jim Capra, head coach at Tyler Hamilton Training and colleague of the ex-US Postal rider whose name fronts the group, preparation is a "24-hour job" requiring non-stop discipline and focus. Nevertheless, there are several technical elements that must supplement the hard work.

"Form and technique play an extensive role as successful cycling at all levels is all about efficiency, which is maximised through proper training built on technique. However, pros need the ability to dig incredibly deep. You must be willing to dig deeper than humanly possible, and then get up and do it day after day. Again, an absolute refusal to give up or quit can be that x-factor which leads to success."

After the training comes the next layer of the job: the recovery. On stage five of the tour, Whittle noted race leader Froome entering a press conference with a bowl of food.

"They'll then have a recovery drink and a snack to tide them over ready for an evening meal. You then might have an hour or so in the car down a mountain to the next hotel on a luxury bus where they can shower, get a massage or grab some sleep. It really is relentless for the entire race."

It might not be for everyone, but the life of a cyclist can be humorous and daunting in equal measure. Sleep is one in a long line of idiosyncratic practices that equate to the 'marginal gains' that make a champion.

In his landmark book 'The Secret Race', the first-person account of life on Lance Armstrong's US Postal team, Hamilton recalls being taught "how to be lazy" by fellow rider George Hincapie. The rules of conserving energy involved standing for as little as possible and getting as much sleep as you could. Hamilton recounts whole days going by where the only time they were vertical was for eating and training. Again, so absurd that onlookers can't help but appreciate the lengths that cyclists will go for that extra 1%.

Sleep forms part of the recovery element which Capra believes is paramount to success in cycling, given what each pro will put their body through.

"When off the bike, one needs to be focusing on proper rest, nutrition, recovery and hydration. The life of most pro cyclists is not glamorous and it's the daily details that for most, make the difference between success and failure."


The leaner, the better


The off season can vary for a cyclist, depending on the schedule they keep and whether they're signed up to a team. October is generally when the events draw to a close, but diet is critical during this period.

"Some athletes struggle with the diet," Sulzberger admits. "Me personally, I've always enjoyed eating healthy and living a healthy lifestyle, so if anything the diet was among the least of my worries. The same can't be said for all of us, though. Some pros can put on 6-10kg in an off season and it can become hard to shift all of that weight in the lead up to competing. Thankfully I was that annoying guy that only put 2kg, so I could focus on other things."

Nutrition is another crucial aspect of cycling which is tailored to the athlete. Whittle has spent enough time with seasoned pros to know about their go-to sources of energy when game time arrives.

"One of David Millar's favourite breakfasts was a bowl of rice pudding. This was high in carbohydrates and sugar as well as being relatively easy to digest and fast acting. But don't forget that when they're riding five stages which amass to 1,000km a week at incredible speeds, a lot of the eating is done on the road. That means an awful lot of the nutrition is about 'in-race' snacks which are made up by their chefs and stored in the jerseys or handed up during the race."

When digging into aspects like the diet you get a feel for the making of a modern cyclist. The sport, in a similar vein to football and rugby, is certainly one that has upped its game in terms of nutrition and training over the last 20 years. Much like Eden Hazard wouldn't dare think about the McDonalds-laden diet favoured by Matt le Tissier in the mid-1990s, today's riders will likely eschew the cheese, ham and steaks that were on the menu for cyclists in the 1970s.

In 2017, cyclists are racing against their power-to-weight ratio: the metric that has 6ft 1" Froome positively emaciated and 5ft 8" Richie Porte with plenty of lean muscle. But despite its tightening of rules on what is and is not permitted, Whittle believes cycling has always commanded high expectations among its athletes.

"There was quite a big drinking culture in the sport, particularly in the 60s and 70s where drinking competitions would go on between Eddy Merckx and his rivals. Lance Armstrong was another professional that liked a beer or a glass of wine.

"For the really successful athletes now, like Chris Froome, we're talking about people that weigh their food, travelling with chefs that will take over the kitchen of whatever hotel they're staying at. Something like drinking probably isn't high on the agenda."

According to Sulzberger, one thing that few people mention about pro cyclists is the time they're actually home; the "suitcase-style living" which creates long periods in airports and occasional trips from one gruelling race to the next. This adds up to an incredible mental strain which can almost prove tougher than the physical aspect.

For a small lift, professionals point to everyday remedies like caffeinated drinks or a glass of champagne after a victory - the impact of which is minimal when you're burning thousands of calories a day. Meditation is favoured by some, while sleep and massages are available on the pro teams' state-of-the-art buses, which aim to make life in transit a little easier to manage.

Whether a can of Coca-Cola or eight hours' sleep on a moving vehicle can alleviate the stress that comes with riding hundreds of kilometres a day at rapid speeds is up for question. The more likely conclusion is that pro cyclists are a product of their training; incredibly rugged and willing to go every distance just to take part.

Whittle speaks at length about the sacrifices each cyclist must go through, and not only in physical terms.

"Beyond that [the training], you have to think about the domestiques; the professionals who sacrifice their own personal achievements to aid the success of a member of their team. They might get rewarded financially but not to the extent of the winner, who also gets the good press and their name in the headlines."


Dying to compete


That gladiatorial spirit has also taken cycling to some dark places. The death of British rider Simpson in a battle against Mont Ventoux in the 1967 tour serves as an unsettling reminder of the sport's physical requirement. With an Olympic medal, yellow jerseys and a world title to his name, Simpson was already one of his nation's most successful cyclists before succumbing to exhaustion, brought on by amphetamine impairing his judgement of physical state.

Over 30 years later, when the door was blown open on cycling's doping culture and Armstrong's mass deception, it was hard to know what to think.

On one hand, there was the obvious wrongdoing of the peloton's strongest competitors in the late 90s and early 2000s. On the other, Whittle highlights the voyeuristic element which caused some to appreciate what the cyclists had to go through, just to compete.

"It's almost like a mafia-esque story in the sense that people on the outside think what they were doing was bad, but once they understand the pressures and the intensity they're under, you start to realise how they make bad calls and mistakes."

Even considering everything we know about the profession, if there's one thing to glean from the tales of glory, the strange yet necessary habits and the preaching among experts that hard work equals success, it's that in cycling, to dream is to do.

We ask Capra straight up if at the age of 25, with a clean injury record, it would be possible for an amatuer to make the pro circuit with the right training.

"Honestly it's been our experience that having relatively 'young' body, one which hasn't seen years of racing and crashes, can actually be an advantage, so yes - and we've seen this to be the case on several occasions."

Cycling, it seems, will always make room for a few more devotees.


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