Felix Barker – Life as a professional cyclist
10 pieces of advice to cyclists trying to make it in Italy
For the 2017 season I took a year out of my engineering degree to ride for the Elite/U23 development team Cycling Team Friuli based in Udine, Italy. It was the most amazing experience. Cycling Team Friuli was the most friendly, supportive “family” I could have possibly have found and I’m incredibly grateful to every single member of the team as well as everyone in the Cambridge cycling scene who helped to get me there. It certain I wouldn’t have made it without their help.
Here are my suggestions to any aspiring cyclist to making a year racing abroad successful.
- Make it happen.
It’ll be virtually impossible for a foreign team to find you unless you, yourself contact them. In Italy Elite/U23 teams are only allowed to take one foreign rider a year. This means finding a spot isn’t going to be easy and to manage it you’re going have to be organized, resourceful and persistent. Don’t be shy in promoting yourself as you can be sure that everyone else will be. Also try and find someone who might have relevant experience, knowledge and contacts. Their help might well be invaluable.
- Really try to learn the local language.
Even if everyone around the team can speak English try hard to learn their language. If everyone has to translate everything for you then it’s going to be hard to really become part of the group. From personal experience if you have to think about every word when trying to say something you’re much less likely to bother saying it at all. Therefore make sure those around you don’t have to and do the hard work for them. Every Italian I ever met was delighted to hear me butchering their language. It seemed that just trying was the most important bit so even if you’re sure it’s not grammatically correct give it a go anyway. Being able to share a joke with your teammates will make such a difference to your integration into the squad. Also whatever the result of the bike racing you’ll have learnt a foreign language, that’s worth a year abroad all on its own.
- Don’t be afraid to make suggestions and put forward your own ideas.
One reason that teams like having foreign riders is that it introduces the squad to a rider who is the product of a very different culture. You will probably want to do some things very differently to the way that the team does. In many cases both parties probably never even thought for a moment that there was another approach. It was just the way that was done. HTC-highroad always made sure that its staff and riders were a very multicultural bunch. Brian Holme, the team owner, saw the resulting cross-pollination of ideas as critical to the team’s incredible success. So do something you’re uniquely qualified for and disrupt their methods. As long as you’re friendly and respectful when proposing your notions you could be extremely valuable to the team.
- Have another interest or passion away from the bike.
You won’t always have time to do it and often you’ll be too knackered to give it any proper attention. However when you’ve bothered to move countries for the sole purpose of cycling it’s all too easy to get obsessed with training and racing to an extent that starts to become unhelpful & unhealthy. This is especially noticeable when things on the bike aren’t quite going as well as you would like. Having another separate activity that you can completely lose yourself in for an afternoon or evening can be very nice. I really enjoyed and got great satisfaction and a sense achievement from something else other than my power numbers or latest race performance.
- Embrace the full time athlete lifestyle.
Your year abroad might well be the first time you’ve been a full time athlete. Even if it isn’t, entering the new environment can be a great time to get into new habits. Therefore try and add elements to your training and daily routine that you didn’t have time for before or just weren’t maybe a priority. This could be doing twenty minutes of stretching a day, doing a core workout twice a week or making time for a half hour nap after training.
- Stay near the front of the bunch and don’t do too much work.
Probably the two most important things to do when racing. I was never very good at either of them.
- Learn to race as part of a team.
In UK racing there are very rarely big teams. However teams of up to twelve riders are part and parcel of continental style racing and to your DS, performing your assigned role as part of the teams overall strategy is essential. If your job was to attack in the first 50km of the race then finishing is a failure. Similarly if you’re not the designated sprinter then fighting for a top fifteen placing in the big bunch kick means you didn’t empty yourself at the right time and exposed yourself and your equipment to an unacceptable risk. So DON’T do it.
Changes in approach like this are important to becoming a valued member of the team. The quicker you learn to ride for others the quicker the whole team will ride for you.
- Try and develop your independence.
Whether you’re staying with a family or in a team house you’ll probably need to start fending for yourself more than you did at home. Obviously learning to cook, clean and generally look after yourself and your home are inevitable parts of growing up. However doing these things well are probably just as important as everything you do on the bike. It’s also a nice way of showing your DS just how professional, dedicated and reliable you are. They will notice these things and it will colour their impression of you.
- Set realistic, specific goals and when you achieve them make sure to take a moment to enjoy it.
Not everyone can win the Tour de France and even the best riders only win fraction of the races they start so choosing alternative achievable goals along the way is probably a good idea. It’ll give you sense of purpose, progress and achievement when it’s all too easy to feel stuck. The goals work best when they’re specific and measurable. For example rather than aiming to get in the breakaway or help your team leader to achieve a result try instead to attack on the third ascent of the climb or make sure you find and stay with your team’s train from 40km to 5km to go. A more exact plan will focus the mind and makes it less likely you’ll float through the race without leaving your mark.
Furthermore when you finally get that top five result make sure you actually enjoy making it to the objective before refocusing on what’s next. I think it’s important to value achieving a self-selected goal when you’ve worked hard for it. Your goals are essentially how you’ve chosen to define yourself, so being proud of them seems important.
- Full time cycling involves a lot of travelling so remember to take a book and charge your phone.
Often race days will involve a lot of hours in the team van or car. As a full time rider you’re probably going to be racing two or maybe even three times a week and its’s not great for morale if these days start to seem like a chore. Make sure you have something good to read with you.