Why cycling is so much more than an endurance sport

Tour de France
Riders tackle a monster climb during training for the Tour de France in Marseilles.

Crossing the Line has been working with the Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team for the past year, delivering our personal development programme to the riders and staff. Michael Drapac has been a staunch supporter and thought leader in athlete welfare for many years. As a lifelong observer of cycling, I was excited to start working with the team.

Michael witnessed first-hand the carnage and personal suffering of many riders who dedicated themselves solely to their sports, only to be left on the scrapheap at the end of their cycling careers. When he got involved in cycling and began developing his own team, he made sure the riders who wore his colours would be prepared for the end, so that they could enjoy healthy, happy lives after they hung up their wheels.

Michael also owns racehorses and he is of the firm belief that racehorses are treated better than many athletes when it comes to personal wellbeing and transition out of sport.

When he joined forces with Slipstream Sports to create the Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team, Michael insisted that a rider wellbeing and personal development programme be put in place. The guys at Slipstream were totally agreeable to the concept. Many of them are ex-riders who know what awaits a lot of riders when they retire.

In the past 12 months, I’ve been with the Cannondale-Drapac team to the Giro d’Italia, Tour Down Under and the Ardennes Classics. Apart from working 1:1 with the riders and staff, I needed to get a real sense of the riders’ world and what they go through on the World Tour circuit. I also wanted to get to know all the staff and have a glimpse into their environment – packed with pressure, deadlines and long hours on the road.

Which brings us to this year’s Tour de France, where I got to witness the culmination of the team’s hard work and see the fantastic Rigoberto Uran take second place overall

Tour de France Alps
Waiting to refuel riders at the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer in the Alps.

Without stating the obvious, cycling is an endurance sport that requires incredible willpower. Backing-up day after day is an energy-store balancing act. Each day, the riders’ reserves get lower and lower, along with their immune systems. It becomes a battle not to fall ill. A hard task with the thousands of fans and media around them all the time.

But cycling is not just an endurance sport. It is an extreme sport.

This has been brought home to me during this World Tour. I have seen far less dangerous activities that are classified as ‘extreme’ and ‘adrenaline’ sports.

Cyclists must descend alpine passes at breakneck speeds. They have to navigate ‘road furniture’ (the fixtures and fittings on the roads) and potholes during high-speed sprints. They make their way through convoys of speeding cars, all the time aware what might happen if they have a puncture, or a crash. Even taking a ‘nature break’ or getting sustenance from the team cars requires foresight and precision. So many maneuvers feel sketchy, to say the least. A career or (in some cases) life-ending crash never seems that far away.

This all means that it takes a unique personality to be a cyclist. Within cycling there is a diverse internal structure of climbers, rouleurs (good all-rounders), sprinters and domestiques (whose mission is to support leaders). Each role brings different personalities to the team. Equally, similar structures exist within the staff. The staff ride the emotional wave with the cyclists non-stop for the three weeks of a grand tour.

The work the staff put in at a race is titanic.

Cycling is a sport that is addictive and brutal at the same time. As Taylor Phinney recently said in an interview about time trialing: “One minute you are saying, ‘I got this’ and the next minute you are thinking ‘Maybe I should retire!'” It is a continuous mental juxtaposition, and an exhausting one.

Cyclists are warriors. There is no doubt. And the insights I’ve gained from being on tour will really inform our work. It is good for us to understand deeply who we are working with, what they experience and how best we can support them. Thanks to Slipstream Sports and Drapac for having the vision to care deeply for their riders and be the only World Tour team with a personal development programme.

Caring for their riders on and off the bike. How can a team with that outlook not be successful?

The famous red devil of the Tour de France
The famous red devil of the Tour de France.