6 things I’ve learned as a pro cyclist (so far)
The past few seasons have been a whirlwind for Aussie racer Brodie Chapman. She’s gone from barely racing in Australia’s National Road Series (NRS) to being competitive in the Women’s WorldTour (WWT) — the highest level in the sport — and representing Australia at the Road World Championships in her first two seasons as a pro. Along the way she’s taken seven victories, including the inaugural Women’s Herald Sun Tour in 2018 and this year’s Tour of the Gila.
On Tuesday Chapman revealed that she’ll join French outfit FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope in 2020, after two seasons with American team Tibco-SVB. As she prepares for the next step in her career, Chapman took the time to share some of the lessons she’s learned in her rapid rise through the ranks. And while her lessons relate directly to life as a pro cyclist, Chapman’s lessons are ones that all of us riders can learn from on some level.
For anyone who knows me, you’ll know that my introduction to WWT racing was a rough and rapid lesson.
I went from doing nothing but one NRS race in 2017, to a handful of Australian UCI races in early 2018, to a rainy, wet WWT race in Italy about one month later where I was ecstatic to even finish.
I had never raced outside Australia before that, and the bunch skills and tactics I had were thanks to a steady diet of men’s B-grade crits and navigating Melbourne’s peak-hour traffic. So what I am about to write here may seem like no-brainers for the seasoned pro, but for me these are the most stand-out things I’ve had to learn on the job so far.
1. It’s not who rides fastest, it’s who distributes their energy the wisest.
You have a packet of matches, and you need to figure out the best time to burn them. Those at the pointy end of a race have learned exactly when to strike and how to make the packet last the whole race. To manage this, it is important to know the requirements of your role.
Are you the super domestique, who has to be firing from kilometre zero? Make sure you warm up and get to the start line first so you have the upper hand in position after the flag drops and the race is on. Your job might be to use your matches early in the race, which means you will have very few by the end, where your protected leader can take over.
If you are the protected leader you are expected to be at your best in the closing kilometres, so make sure you don’t even get a sniff of the wind before this point. Save energy by asking your loyal teammates to do mid-race errands for you. They can move you up, keep you in position, collect bidons for you and take your jacket back to the car and make you a sandwich and call your mother so you can save all your energy for when the hammer drops.
I am told it takes years of learning and refinement to know your own packet of matches. Even if I wanted to make them last the whole race early in my WorldTour career, I would likely have burned all of them in the first 20km just fighting for position. Which brings me to my next point.
2. If you are not moving up, you are moving back.
This may be the biggest skill I have had to learn and boy am I still learning it. I recall at the aforementioned Italian race, my teammate screaming at me “Get to the front!” I distinctly remember thinking “The front? Where is that? I can’t even see the front of the race let alone get there!”
Watching pro cycling from the couch it appears everyone in the peloton is just riding cohesively until there is an obvious reason to be at the front of the race (e.g. the finish line, crosswinds, a GPM or sprint.) No, dear reader, it is a constant battle to position yourself within striking distance of the race favourites and crucial points on the course.
You are tirelessly looking to fill gaps, hold the wheel, and be in a position that doesn’t leave you scrambling at the back when the strongest riders are cresting the hill before you have even reached the bottom. That’s what makes cycling so hard. The strongest climbers usually get a head start on the hill, so if climbing isn’t your forte and you are at the back, good luck getting back amongst the action.
Now, this isn’t easy to execute as a rookie rider. The first step is to relax, which feels incredibly counterintuitive given its extremely scary to be bumping shoulders and touching wheels with 150 other riders who have the same objective: to move forward. My teammate and I like to tell ourselves to “be like sardines”. Keep swimming, slip into the gaps, be smooth, be calm. When you are new to this skill, you can spend a good 10 kilometres working your way up, only to lose all the spots you just gained through one technical corner or if someone bullied you off the wheel you were on.
So how do you do it? Use your body, elbows out, bars in front of the next person — then you have control. I have very sharp elbows and I have been practising putting them to good use. Use your voice, learn some Italian cuss words if you can. It’s amazing how many times I have automatically given up a spot because someone has literally told me to move and I have just done it. I am learning to be stubborn, be a bit aggressive and make myself bigger.
Use your team. The strongest teams are usually always riding around each other, which makes it very hard to infiltrate. I tried to push in on the Sunweb lead-out train once. I learned almost immediately that this was not the way to slide into position and expect to hold it. The big teams have such a commanding presence in the peloton and are very skilled and experienced at riding as a unit.
It is a lot of mental work at first, and to be honest it still is. To stay that focused and vigilant for the better part of four hours can only be refined through racing. You simply cannot practice this skill in training, so it’s about setting a goal to work on this aspect each race. I still look forward to the day that it becomes second nature, but for now, positioning is still a chore.
3. Once you have pinned your number on, you are 100% committed to the race.
Speaking of being uncomfortable, one of my favourite lessons came from none other than the formidable cycling legend Brad McGee. It was before the Road World Championships in Innsbruck in 2018, and during a discussion about the chaos and risk that is a bike race, he said something to the tone of “once you pin your number on, you are 100% committed to the race.” If you are really feeling you are not able to give your full energy to the race, don’t lie to yourself, or more importantly, don’t lie to your team — be honest with where you are at.
I took this on board and remind myself every time I am pinning that number that during the race, nothing else matters. I must be all-in on the reality of the race, what’s important in each moment, and I must execute my role with a fierce purpose.
Sometimes I get very emotional after races, win or lose, because I have just been so involved mentally and physically. A lot of planning and resources and training and travelling happens around a race, and sometimes the racing feels like just another step to endure. But we do all this for the race. We train to be the best racers, not the best at training.
This is what it is all for, make it count, all in, enjoy! I have a little reminder written next to my alarm for race day that says “the race is the reward.”
4. Everyone has off days.
You might be “all-in” and your prep may have been perfect, but sometimes, on the day, you just don’t have it. We are humans, we have life that affects us outside of racing, we have health obstacles and mental distractions like everyone else, and we sometimes lack a bit of self-belief or simply a good feeling in the legs.
I remember being in a grupetto one day (I was stoked to be there because it meant I might actually cross the line and not get a DNF — I finished outside the time limit) and a world champion was in the group too. I saw the rainbow bands on her sleeves and was shocked that she had also been dropped. I was also impressed with myself that I was riding next to her, albeit at a conversational and cruisy pace.
Bike racing is full of uncontrollable and unpredictable circumstances, and your finishing position can sometimes reflect that. Sometimes you are just keeping your head above water and you are on the start line with a will to survive. As per my previous tip, regardless of the circumstances leading into the race, make sure you are still 100% in, because you just never know what you might be capable of or how the race may unfold.
One of my most satisfying wins came when I raced off the back of a bad cough. I crashed in the first 3km, chased for 20km, crashed again, went the wrong direction on course, but managed to win. On paper this should not have been possible! Good legs can come on unexpected days and bad legs can come when you think the race should play into your strengths perfectly.
I used to scoff when I heard pros say things like “I had bad legs that day” but now I understand — it’s a real thing.
5. Fueling properly is a non-negotiable.
When I say that racing is unpredictable, I mean that there are a myriad of things you cannot control. The weather, the other teams’ tactics, someone else’s fitness, the nature of the course, and the occurrence of crashes. There are so many things that can affect the process and the outcome of a race, but most of the time there is one exception. Fueling.
There are very few occasions where you should find yourself ‘hunger bonking’. Sure, it still happens in particularly chaotic races where reaching for food can be a challenge, but the majority of the time, you should be able to take on the required amount of carbohydrate (CHO) and fluid needed for the race.
I often get called out on how many gels I am taking or how much I can eat – but I am simply following a formula of 60-90g of CHO every hour and I never ‘hit the wall’. If I sense the race will be hard from start to finish or very technical, I take an extra-strong CHO formula like SiS BetaFuel in my bidon, I eat a bar or gel on the start line or in neutral, and I ensure I have kept a high-carbohydrate diet in the week leading into a race rather than just the night before. Of all the unpreventable setbacks you can experience in a race, fueling shouldn’t be one of them.
It’s better to overpack an extra gel rather than come up short. You can lose a race on one gel but you won’t lose it from having one left in your pocket when you finish. Sports nutrition products take the guesswork out and allow you to time your refueling correctly. Excuses like ‘I forgot’ are easily addressed when you have technology on your bike computer that can give you a calorie alert, or map out points in the race where you can chew a bar.
For all the ‘pursuit of leanness’ discourse that floats around cycling, there is much more to be gained from fueling wisely and actually fueling for the incredible energy output cycling requires. Normal portion sizes rarely cut it and diet culture has no place in professional sports. Eat to perform, recover optimally, and don’t let yourself down.
Don’t wait until you ‘feel like a gel’ because then it is already too late. You probably won’t feel ‘hungry’ so you need to follow a formula that works. The same goes for training. Train with the correct amount of fuel so you can get the most out of your session. I used to fuel fine in races but underfuel in training, and then be battling through the last interval and absolutely creeping home ready to inhale the fridge!
One time I was out for about three hours longer than I planned, and I was so delusional I stopped at a supermarket about 20km from home, bought all the things, and just sat on the floor near the checkout, in my kit, munching away until I stopped seeing stars and felt life creep back into my muscles. I have since learned that it doesn’t have to be this way if you keep yourself topped up. Don’t wait until the fuel light comes on!
6. Take a proper off-season.
It’s with a bit of embarrassment that I admit I used to smugly scroll through other athletes’ Instagram posts in which they’re chinking beers on the beach or eating triple-decker Gelatos and think “I can keep riding while they de-train”. My painfully naive former self believed I was immune to the need for an off-season and, truth be told, if I wanted to chug along at 70% of my athletic potential all year, I could probably just keep pedalling through the down time.
It’s particularly hard for me to switch off because when I return home to Australia the cycling season is just kicking off, and I don’t want to miss out! The off-season for me this year is a few weeks totally bike free, performance-based-choices free, and an excellent time to let go of the constant focus and ambition I have when training and racing all year.
As a cyclist you don’t get happy hour on Friday or leave the office for the weekend — you are on the job, always. I have learned that to be peaking, firing and honestly motivated for a race at 100%, you need to have those times in your season where you are maybe at 60%, really resting, not analysing yourself or tracking your sleep, and just taking a big step back, and a big breath out.
If you want your career to be sustainable and not just a one-or-two-season wonder, you need to take time to come down so you can slingshot right back up. All the things I am too darn tired to do during the season suddenly get their chance during this time. Hiking with your non-cyclist friends, going on cafe tours and not sitting at them in Lycra for hours, literally laying around all day with not an ounce of guilt … Once you actually crave the bike again, it’s a good time to return to the grind!
Where did I learn all this stuff? Not only from racing, but from following others, asking questions, talking with teammates, watching copious amounts of men’s racing, and YouTubing things like “how to echelon”. If you want to improve, ask, be open to learning, make mistakes, and then try again next race. In the words of Boston Marathon winner Des Linden, “just keep showing up”.