A Year in the Life of a Pro Cyclist
Author: Colleen Gulick, Ph.D (ExPhys), MS, BS (BioE), EIT (ME), CSCS
As 2022 begins plans are in full swing for pro cyclists.
Contracts have, hopefully, already been negotiated, race schedules are being pulled together as race dates are being released, and training hasn’t stopped.
I am fortunate enough to be embarking upon my 20th racing season in 2022 (yikes!). In those 20 years I’ve risen up the ranks from a junior to a professional racer.
I’ve represented Team USA at World Cups, earned a Pan American Championship silver medal, raced in 8 different countries, earned 8 national titles and 50 national medals.
While I am certainly proud of these accomplishments, the sport of cycling is interesting in that it demands consistent, steady growth along with racing volume in order to be profitable.
If I have a good season with plenty of races, then it can provide enough money to live modestly. On the other hand, an off year or one plagued with injuries can easily result in little to no income. Thus, I have been a student and worked throughout my entire cycling career.
I am very fortunate to have a family that prioritizes education and emphasizes the importance of a career after retirement from sport. I have been able to combine my passion for cycling into my educational path by earning degrees in bioengineering (BS), mechanical engineering (EIT) and exercise physiology (MS and PhD).
My academic success has allowed me to work full time remotely while pursuing my cycling goals in the disciplines of criterium and track racing. .
What is criterium racing and track racing?
I specialize in the disciplines of criterium and track cycling. These are not the typical Tour de France type of events that most people imagine when they picture the sport of cycling. Criterium racing (crit for short) takes place on the road and involves multiple laps around a course less than 1 mile in length.
One race is usually 60-70 minutes in duration and involves high speeds (25- 36 mph) with exciting sprint finishes. Crits include multiple high paced intervals so a successful crit racer is fit, strong, and has a high work capacity. The races usually take place downtown in the evenings, which leads to my favorite feature of criteriums… the ability to race in front of a new crowd and see new cities each time.
Track racing, on the other hand, is a discipline that occurs on a velodrome. Velodromes are ovals with an official distance of 250 meters per lap. The surfaces are made of either wood or concrete and the turns are banked. If you think riding a bike on banked turns is a bit crazy then wait until you hear that track racing requires specialized bikes that don’t have brakes.
As you can imagine, the lack of brakes means that track bikes don’t stop very easily. In order to slow down you have to apply resistance backwards on the pedals and you will slowly come to a stop.
There are multiple different events that take place within the track cycling discipline. Just like how swimming has multiple different distances and strokes, cycling has multiple different distances and styles of racing within the sport. Events range in distance from 200m to approximately 15 miles. For this reason, the races are extremely fast and there are multiple events in a day (like a track and field meet).
What does a typical season look like for a pro cyclist?
Now that you know a bit about my background and the type of racing in which I compete, let’s get into the actual cycling plan.
I usually categorize the year into five parts:
- Hard training
- High volume track and crit racing
- A reset
- Block of crit racing
- Block of international track racing
Each part has its own balance of training, racing, and recovery.
"One thing that makes my calendar unique is that I race a lot…
and I mean a lot."
Most racers will pick a handful of larger races and travel to them or peak for certain events. I don’t do that. I work best in a high-volume environment where I peak not for a certain event, but rather to reach a high level and hold that level for multiple weeks at a time in order to encapsulate multiple high value events.
...Plus, the more events I race, the more opportunities there are to make money.
Part one of the season lasts from January through mid-May.
The goal of this part of the season is hard training and preparation for some high value races later in the year. I’ll be logging plenty of miles on the road and in the gym focusing on areas I identified as my weaknesses from previous years. I am fortunate enough to live in southern California and the good weather allows for plenty of local racing opportunities (about a dozen during this part of the season). These are great early season openers that can be used to test my legs and try some new strategies before the larger prize money races in the summer.
Mid-May kicks off part two of the season… the crazy traveling and bigger races. This is the part of the season where I’ll really have to be on my A-game. I will be racing at least once a week with flights or long drives during the week.
Between mid-May through the first week of August I’ll race about 28 races in at least 6 different states. During this block in 2022 I will also have the opportunity to defend my status as national champion in three different events at the USA Cycling Elite National Track Championships.
Most of the week during this block is spent preparing for a hard weekend of racing because the races during this part of the season have the larger prize purses (so more money is up for grabs for the top placings). It’s all about maintaining top form, staying healthy, and keeping on top of equipment maintenance.
In addition, during this time I promote two downtown Criteriums in Pennsylvania (Royersford Bike Race & Pottstown Bike Race) to give back to the sport and local charitable organizations from the area in which I started cycling. So, this requires a bit of a shift in focus to the organizing side of cycling for a few days.
Part three of the season is in mid-August and involves a welcomed break from travel and racing. There is a natural break in the calendar during this time so I head home, recharge, continue to train (of course), but give myself the opportunity to take a quick breather. The best part about this time is the ability to sleep in my own house, ride my normal training routes, and relax.
Part four of the year is back on the road for the month of September. This is the final push of big money criterium races and involves going back into race mode and making sure that I am ready to perform at my best every weekend.
From October through the end of year is the final block of the season.
For me, this is an exciting part of the year. The criteriums are winding down and any races I do during this time are usually for training or local races so I don’t have to target any of these events. However, even though the crits are winding down, this is when the international track season really starts to pick up.
This means opportunities to race 6-days in Europe or chances to race for Team USA at Pan American events or World Cups all happen during this time.
Previously I’ve been granted the honor of racing in the Revolution All-Star Series (London and Manchester in the UK), a 6-Day in Rotterdam, Pan American Championships, a World Cup, and carnivals in Tasmania during this block. It is my hope that a great start to the 2022 season will earn me the opportunity to be invited back to these events at the end of the season.
For this reason, part five of the year is a mix of heavy track training at home to be on top form and racing international events.
When it’s all said and done, my year will include over 65 races and about 360 days on the bike.
There are tons of small decisions that go into a year of cycling and in the past my business partner and I have controlled the training, logistics, travel, nutrition… every single aspect of my cycling.
This year it will be a little different. We’ve chosen to hire a coach to manage my training, Champion Factory Coaching. He is a former coach of Olympians and World Champions, and we are confident that his expertise will help get me that extra few percent better to make the difference between top 5 placings and wins.
In addition, time is a luxury, so having a coach take over my training program means that I have more time to work. While I am fortunate enough to work remotely and schedule my work around racing and training, I still have plenty of things to accomplish each day after my training is done.
I’ll dive more into these other training decisions and how my support team and I organize my training in the next article. Thanks for reading and see you at the races!
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