When I’m out in the world away from cycling and get asked what I do for work, sometimes I lie and say I’m in sales. That probably sounds stupid, but when I’m honest and announce that I’m a professional cyclist, that inevitably leads to questions. “Wow, how cool!” people say. “What’s that like? Do you love it?”
Lindsay Bayer / Images: Justin Weeks
The last time somebody asked this, it was less than a week after my crash and collarbone surgery, when I was in pain, concussed, drugged, constipated, bruised, and not sleeping. YES, I thought, I AM LIVING THE FREAKING DREAM. “It can be great…at times,” I replied tactfully.
While I actually do love my job and feel proud to be a professional cyclist, sometimes I just don’t feel like answering the usual questions. When my dental hygienist is elbow-deep in my mouth, explaining the concept of a crit feels tiring. When I’m getting my iPhone serviced, I’m unmotivated to explain that I train based on time, not miles. This makes me sound cranky and antisocial (designations that may not be inaccurate according to several close friends and exes), but really I’m just lazy. I’m truly grateful that people are interested in professional cycling, but it would be easier to hand over a list of FAQ that would clear up the basics.
So here’s that list. Since you’re reading PELOTON, chances are you’re already familiar with cycling and racing. I don’t need to explain that, no, I don’t know Lance Armstrong and, no, I don’t race the Tour de France. You probably also already know that I’m not getting rich and famous off this sport. But maybe there are things you’re still curious about, like what it’s really like to be a professional cyclist.
How many miles do you ride?
The short answer is that I have no idea. The long answer is that mileage totally depends on the time of year and what I’m trying to accomplish. My coach provides training based on time – go ride for 4 hours at zone 2, go do 2 hours with these specific intervals, etc. Throughout the year, my training will be higher or lower in volume and intensity based on the point in the season and what I need physically. During the race season, I train less and focus on resting between events. In the off season, I spend a lot more time training.
Do you train with your team?
Typically, no. I’ll ride with the team at training camp and while on the road, but we don’t get together to train otherwise. This is different for each team based on budget; more money generally means the ability to hold more team camps. I do believe teammates benefit from training together but I also think it’s beneficial to have money in the budget for racing, so I make tough choices as a manager.
Do all of your teammates have the same coach?
No, every rider is responsible for their own training. Each person needs a different type of training plan and a different coaching relationship to fit their needs. The expectation on a pro team is the same with any employer – you are hired to do a job and expected to show up prepared to do it. If you’re not prepared, it’s not your boss’ problem; they’ll just replace you with somebody who is.
Do you spend all of your time training?
Not unless you consider eating to be training. In an average week, I ride for 12-22 hours, spend another 5-7 hours on corework and stretching/rolling, and probably 1-2 hours on massage and/or bodywork. The rest of my time is spent living a normal life, which includes working a job outside of cycling. And food. Dear god, I spend a lot of time gathering, preparing, eating, and thinking about food. Based on time invested, I’m actually a professional eater and everything else is a side gig.
You must eat really well./Do you not drink at all?/Do you never have cake?
Dude, I’m a professional cyclist, not a monk. I eat well, but will never turn down a good beer or cake. Life is too short to eat nothing but kale and I truly think I’m a better athlete when I’m balanced between being healthy and happy. I’m sure there are some pros out there who don’t drink or allow themselves to scarf down a bag of chips, but to each their own. No podium is worth giving up the small pleasures in life as far as I’m concerned.
Do you travel a lot?
Yes; how much depends on the race schedule and team plans. Races are spread all over the country and world, so that inherently means a lot of moving around to get from event to event. Each team has a different way of moving riders, staff, and equipment – some keep the whole show on the road between events and others bring people in and out. It depends on the budget and each riders’ schedule; sometimes it’s cheaper to keep everybody moving around in the team vehicles if multiple riders are doing the same events, while other times it’s cheaper to send people home or necessary to swap riders in and out. Tight budgets force decisions based on efficiency and economy. Regardless of a team’s specific policies, there’s a lot of travel involved and pro cyclists keep a suitcase at least halfway packed all season long. My skills in air travel have increased in step with my skills in bike racing; I can QOM most major airports.
What’s it like to live on the road?
Challenging but easier with practice. It took me a while to settle into living out of a suitcase in strange places. The key is to maintain a few routines that feel like home (for me that’s daily corework, morning coffee, and long showers) and be willing to let go of everything else. Sometimes we live out of hotels, which means improvising meals with a mini fridge and microwave, gathering quarters for laundry, and always asking for more towels. Sometimes we live in host housing, which means the comforts of home (a kitchen! laundry!) while trying to be as friendly and unobtrusive to our host families as possible. No matter the housing situation, we all seem to stick to a few rules: find the nearest Whole Foods/Trader Joe’s, always have snacks handy, and make sure to pack your foam roller and preferred method of brewing coffee.
Does your team have staff that do everything for you?
Hagens Berman | Supermint has a streamlined staff but you wouldn’t know it by how much they take on. Jono Coulter (Sports Director) and AJ Morrison (Head Mechanic) do the work of 10 people and are incredible. But we’re a smaller team with a lean budget, and that means riders have more responsibility to manage themselves. On some pro teams, riders hand over their dirty laundry each day, somebody makes post-race snacks and meals, and there’s a massage after every stage. That would be nice. But many teams don’t have the budget for that, so riders and staff improvise along with help from kind and generous supporters of cycling. My team is lucky enough to have a network of awesome people who make it feel like we have twice the budget. We get massages, medical care, rides to the grocery store, and perfectly cleaned and tuned bikes. Also, nobody but me should have to wash my gross post-race chamois.
Does your team provide benefits?
No, unfortunately that’s not a thing in domestic pro cycling. There’s no paid time off, sick days, or medical insurance. I can’t speak to the WorldTour level teams and I’m actually curious as to whether or not teams like UHC and Rally offer health coverage (because DUH), but it’s not something riders discuss. For some reason these conversations are even more taboo than in regular jobs. When I’m talking to riders about signing with the team for the year, they hesitantly and apologetically bring up salary, like they’re admitting to being serial killers. This is weird. It’s a job and should be treated as such, meaning talking about salary and/or benefits should be a normal, natural conversation. You wouldn’t wonder if maybe Starbucks wants you to make lattes for free, or feel bad asking Microsoft to compensate you for writing code. But I digress. No benefits. We get health coverage through families/spouses, other jobs, Medicare, or Healthcare.gov.
Do you have a sponsor?
Yes, a number of them. Hagens Berman is the biggest one and covers nearly all of our expenses. Our other sponsors provide products and some additional cash. It’s team policy for us (and every other team) that riders are required to use sponsor products or at least appear to; that might mean covering “improper” shoes with shoe covers, hiding “improper” drink mix/food in unlabeled packages, or blacking out brands on bike parts. My team chose to skip having saddle and pedal sponsors so riders can use what works best for them; nothing good comes from forcing a rider onto a saddle that doesn’t suit their parts. Fortunately, our sponsor products are pretty universally likable so nobody is pretending to eat Honey Stinger Waffles…we really are packing them away like squirrels in November.
What happens when you get sick or injured?
Cry and panic.
Kidding aside (although that’s actually what happens), I immediately start calculating the impact. How long will I be out, how soon can I come back, what races will I miss, how should I adjust my schedule. I tell my director, team doctor, and coach immediately so they can adjust plans and make the call on whether I stop racing. If I’m sick and traveling with the team, we discuss the best quarantine strategy for keeping everybody healthy. Teams breed illness like feral rabbits.
Then I struggle nonstop with the urge to get back to training and racing too soon. I don’t know many pros who handle illness or injury much better. It’s tough when something stops you from doing the thing you love, and scary to consider the impact of missed workouts or races. I’ve known riders on other teams who missed races due to injury and then lost spots on later rosters because they hadn’t been at the earlier races to earn their place. Fortunately I’ve been lucky to be on supportive teams and the biggest problems I’ve faced with physical setbacks come from my own internal pressure.
How long are you going to do this?
I feel like the subtext of this question is BECAUSE AREN’T YOU OLD?!? But I get why people wonder; professional athletes in their thirties are less common than spry teenagers and twentysomethings. Women peak in cycling a lot later than in other sports, and some of the best female cyclists in the world are in their thirties and forties. Amber Neben just doubled up on wins at the US Pro National Championships and she’s 42; Kristin Armstrong won her third Olympic gold medal last year at the age of 42. On the men’s side, professional cyclists tend to be younger. But for every pro cyclist, the length of their career is a personal decision based on a few factors: available job opportunities, current degree of personal satisfaction with the sport, physical ability to continue, and willingness to accept the risks of the sport and the cost of constant training/racing/travel. For me, I’ll keep racing for as long as I feel the fire to compete and a true love of riding.