Why Get on a Team?

What would happen if Speedy, a professional racing star with a palmares full of podium finishes in classic races, somehow slept through recruitment season and ended up on a local, amateur team instead of a ProTour team? Speedy would not be invited to the biggest races since those are team rather than individual invitations. Maybe Speedy would get bored and enter some smaller races to keep sharp. If Speedy entered local pro/am events, he or she would dominate, unless other pros showed up with teams. In races with pro teams, Speedy would not approach his or her normal race results. Partly that would be because cycling is a team sport where riders support each other and Speedy would no longer have a team hired specifically for protection from the wind, support in the hills or setting up a lead-out, but Speedy would also not perform to the usual standard in time trials, at least not after a few months without a professional support team.

The support of non-riding team members is crucial to success in higher-level bike racing. Top pros have the support not only of teammates but also of nutritionists, cooks, doctors, massage therapists, mechanics, feeders, coaches, travel coordinators and drivers, among others. Some even have physiologists and biomechanics. The same person may play several of these roles, but remove any one element of the support team and riders won’t perform. You can imagine an interview with a famous pro after a bad race. “We had a bit of a snafu with the… and I just couldn’t get back on top”. You could fill in the job of any of those non-riding support team folks and get a realistic quote.

There are at least two reasons that pros need pro-level support to perform. First is that each member of the support team brings crucial expertise. Yes, a rider can maintain his own bike, but a trained mechanic can probably do it better. A rider can study nutrition and dial in her own meals, but a nutritionist is more likely to spot errors the rider is unaware of so the rider can maintain energy, health and racing weight. A rider can study training theory, but a good coach knows at least as much, and gives the benefit of objective observation. A coach is more likely to see when a change is needed, or when to stay the course. A rider can self-massage, but a massage therapist knows tricks for special situations, and lets the rider relax during the rubdown.

That relaxation relates to the second reason that pros need pro-level support. There’s a lot of genetic luck in bike racing, but among the genetically gifted, the rider who can sustain the highest volume of quality training wins. (Quality training means making a good pace or good power for the effort, not riding hard all the time!) Among riders who have the freedom to train full time, the ability to recover determines how much training can be sustained without exhaustion or over-training. The rider who spends time on his feet, does the “team” management job for him or herself or has a stressful day job will not recover as well as one who’s only post-ride responsibilities are eating and relaxation. That’s where the support team comes in.

Like many riders without the support of a pro team, Speedy makes travel arrangements, wrenches, self-massages, studies power-charts, does his or her own shopping and orders bike parts from a catalog. Those may all be easy jobs that Speedy can do competently, but they are jobs that take away from relaxation time, limiting recovery. Speedy’s competitors from last year who got on teams are sleeping and hanging out while Speedy is busy taking care of all that stuff. Limiting recovery limits training, which limits performance. Not having an excellent support team detracts from performance. That’s why Speedy is going to be not so speedy after a few months without the off-bike support of a full team.

Cycling is NOT a Meritocracy

Many racers think that if they train hard and do well in some races they’ll get noticed and picked up by a good team. Dream on! Yes, a solo rider who wins a big pro race might get noticed and invited onto a team for the following season, but the chances of winning a race big enough to generate that sort of notice without already being on a team are slim. Most racers have been on several teams before they get on one that’s known outside their home district.

Most districts have at least one catchall team that will take any rider who is willing to pay for membership and a jersey. Some of those teams have decent support. Often there are one or a few well-organized teams that have excellent support and dominate the local scene. Getting on those teams is a ticket to racing success, but as often as not, those teams have fewer positions than people with decent results wanting to fill them.

Teams often have a specific number of riders they will accept. They generally fill those spots in the fall or winter and don’t take new members during the racing season. Riders do not get onto these teams by riding well and getting noticed. They get onto them by making and vigorously working connections, and by riding well. Riders who want to join strong teams have to talk to racers who are already on them so the rider will know when a space is opening up and team leaders will known that they would like to fill it. A rider won’t necessarily get on his or her first choice team, so it pays to talk to lots of others. Many (by no means all) really successful racers are happy, friendly people. That’s no surprise when you realize that being happy and friendly can help a lot in getting one on the sort of team that can launch a career. Even before that being happy and friendly makes people want to help a rider in whatever they are trying to do.

Cyclists that have the gift of gab, a willingness to glad-hand, and great legs and lungs should be able to get on a supportive team in time.

At the Other End of the Spectrum

If Speedy hasn’t managed to line up a spot on a strong team, Speedy is not going to rock the pro peloton, but what about local amateurs? Even if they do their homework and make their connections, they don’t get hired onto teams with massive support staffs. They don’t get massaged on the team bus on the way to the start line. They can’t show up at races knowing that the team will take care of filling bottles, pumping tires and preparing hand-up bags. Luckily the other riders in local amateur races are in just about the same boat, and that creates an opportunity.

The local amateur who can line up any support at all has an advantage over unsupported local riders. Getting a few teammates is good, but so is lining up parents, kids or spouses willing to pin numbers and do hand ups; a doctor who understands athletics; a friend who knows how to drive and wrench; or a coach to help review training and racing. These things are all necessities for top pros, but rare enough for local amateurs that getting one or a few of them can be a positive game changer. The local amateur who wants to perform well should invest some time in building his or her own support team, including paid service providers if needed and volunteers if one has a tight budget. On many amateur teams, one or a few of the spouses do a lot of feeding, driving, and number pinning. On better teams there is often a rider or supporter who keeps track of the racing calendar, sends entry fees and arranges car pools. Joining a team with that sort of support can make a big difference in an amateur’s racing as it gives him or her some of the advantages of a pro.

Hope for Soloists

Riders who are shyer or who have not yet proven their ability are not going to get on the dominant local team much less a top pro team. Still, they can get some of the advantages of team support, possibly creating the opportunity to get the results that will, along with social skills, get them onto a better team the following season.

One of the big benefits of having team support is being able to relax more so one can recover and train better. It’s not doing stuff so much as anxiety about it that interferes with relaxation and recovery. Minimizing stress while taking care of responsibilities goes a long way to giving one the “pro” advantage.

The closer to event day a particular stress occurs, the more it impacts performance. The earlier tasks get taken care of, the less stress they are likely to generate. Having a few spare tires and tubes sitting around takes planning, but is much less stressful than finding a tire the night before a race. Arranging carpools a few weeks in advance is a task to do, but should be stress-free compared to making those arrangements in the last few days when cars are already full. Having a few sets of jerseys and shorts means not having to stress over a last minute load of laundry Friday night when a rider should be hitting the hay early. Buying a month or two’s supply of energy bars and drinks means not having to scrounge them up at the last minute, and probably saves money as well.

Good teammates or racing buddies help reduce stress by sharing driving, helping with number pinning, saving places in line and sharing water, snacks and tools. A bad teammate can wreck races though. The unprepared car-pooler who causes others to arrive too late for a good warm up is an avoidable disaster. Smart riders dump buddies who are perpetually late or disorganized or whose car conversation detracts from calm.

An extra hour or two per night of sleep improves recovery as much or more than reducing stress, so anything one can do to be efficient during the day and leave more time for sleeping will do wonders for racing performance.

While it is unlikely that a local amateur is going to have the same sort of support as ProTour rider, with some effort to get organized and identify members for an informal support team, it should be possible eliminate most of the anxiety related to the tasks a support team would do. One error I would warn against though: Some riders mistakenly think they can create a well supported team to be on, and then get the benefits of being on the team. Organizing a team or riders is more stressful by far than training and racing solo, and the rider who sets out to create a cycling team ends up busy and stressed. Organizing a team is great fun and very satisfying for people with the right personality and motivation, but it is not a way to get onto a good team as a rider. Local amateur riders who want low stress and the performance benefits that come from that should get themselves organized and work to get onto an already established team.