Once a promising amateur from Colorado, 26-year old Nate Wilson ended his own career early to concentrate on coaching. Now the head coach and program director for USA Cycling’s under-23 development team, Wilson spends much of his time at the federation’s European base at Sittard in the Netherlands, just outside Maasticht. There, he welcomes dozens of aspiring U.S. cyclists, sharing his knowledge to help them reach their own goals. Peloton caught up with Wilson at the Tour de l’Avenir this week.
Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton
Peloton Magazine: Nate, you are the head coach of the under-23 development team here in Europe. How did you get into a role like that? You look like you could still be a rider!
Nate Wilson: Yeah, well, I was a full-time rider and benefited from USA Cycling’s support in all of my years as a U23 rider. My last year racing was [the former under-23 coach] Mike Sayer’s first year directing the program. I had some injuries that year however that pulled me out of the sport as a rider. But I had been working on a degree in physiology concurrently at the University of Colorado, so I wrapped that up. And after that I reached out to Mike because I still really liked the program and wanted to be involved in it. As a result, I was able to come on and do some physiology and sports science stuff and then got into the coaching and racing side.
Peloton: How many riders make it over to Europe and get a chance to race in your program each year?
Wilson: We try to get about 20 to 30 kids over each year.
Peloton: And what would you say is the biggest challenge when you are working with these kids in Europe?
Wilson: I think for me the biggest challenge is just keeping the big picture. It’s important to keep it fun. Sure, a lot of the time we are doing races that are near the professional level with riders that are looking at moving to the professional level. But at the same time, they are kids that are like 18, 19 and 20. They are kids that ought to have a real life in mind as well. So for me, beyond all of the nutrition, the tactics and the race numbers, it’s really important to show them that living in Europe can be fun. It is important for them to take advantage of their time here so that it is an enjoyable experience overall.
Peloton: And how many of the kids actually make it to the professional ranks?
Wilson: Well, we tend to advance about five riders a year into ProContinental or WorldTour teams. And if you add Continental teams the number goes up. Of course, the guys that are here at the Tour de l’Avenir are all pretty much pro level. These are our best riders and they are riding against every country’s best riders. Pretty much everyone in this race could ride at the professional level.
Peloton: It must get tricky some times since most of these guys are on trade teams with a full racing calendar. There must be a lot of juggling….
Wilson: For sure, but at the end of the day we, along with the trade teams, are trying to develop the best American U23 riders. Where it gets tricky is when I have one idea for the best path for one rider’s development and they have another. Sometimes you have to make compromises. But for me the main goal is to develop the best American riders. Sometimes the best races come in a trade team jersey and sometimes they come in a national team jersey. A lot of it is looking at all of the possibilities.
Peloton: Your leader in this year’s Tour de l’Avenir is Neilson Powless, who will almost certainly turn professional next year. What would be a good schedule, for example?
Wilson: Well, we had him do some classics and the Tour de Bretagne with us and then he did the U23 Giro and the Tour of Utah with his Axeon Hagens Berman trade team, and now he is back at the Tour de l’Avenir with us. It’s been a really good combination. It was important for him to do some classics with us for example. Those are not in his natural wheelhouse, but if he is going to be on a WorldTour team next year, he needs to continue to develop those skills. Then he went to the Giro with his trade team and practiced being a leader, and he went to Utah because it was at altitude, which was perfect preparation for coming here. The Tour de l’Avenir has been one of his big objectives since the beginning of the year. And so far it looks as though things are working out.
Peloton: What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
Wilson: Well, a lot of it is just interacting with the guys. But, also, I know that I made a lot of mistakes as a rider not very long ago. And no matter how dialed some of these guys are, I see them make some of the same mistakes, be it with nutrition, be it training, being homesick or whatever. And any time I can make good on one of my mistakes and help someone else, well, that’s satisfying. It might be a little selfish, but I feel a little redemption.
Peloton: And what is the hardest thing?
Wilson: Oh, I would say mostly just the time away from home.