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How to turn pro: nine tips for aspiring young riders

Want to know how to climb the cycling ranks? We asked An Post-Chain Reaction's British contingent for their top tips

Young riders, pay attention! Anyone with a dream to ride professionally or take their road cycling to the next level had better listen up, because we’ve been chatting with the three of this season’s British recruits at the An Post-Chain Reaction team about how to do exactly that.

Jacob Scott, 22, Mark Stewart, 21, and Dan Gardner, 20, have all got designs on the big time, with dreams of riding in the WorldTour, winning races and even competing on the track and at the Olympics their long term goals.

– The development game: inside the An Post-Chain Reaction talent factory –

The An Post team is renowned as a breeding ground for young talent and Scott, Stewart and Gardner have all worked their way up the junior ranks to join they squad.

They sat down with us to share their advice to young riders hoping to follow in their wheeltracks, drawing on their relatively recent experiences to help guide you towards the top of your game. So whether you’re just looking to become a better rider and tear up your local scene, or genuinely have aspirations to turn pro, these guys are worth listening to.

British Cycling Academy graduate Mark Stewart is one of three young Brits in the An Post-Chain Reaction line-up (Pic: Sirotti)

Enjoy yourself

We start with a fundamental piece of advice, which all the riders in one way or another repeat as a mantra central to their success: “Enjoy yourself, is all I can say,” says Jacob Scott, now in his second year at An Post-Chain Reaction. “I remember riding a bike as a teenager, and it was always in junior races with your mates – you were always with your friends.

– How to improve your motivation when training –

“It was always about enjoyment. In the British development team, there was a bit of stress because you always want to perform, but looking back now I wonder why I was worried.

Cycling is too hard not to enjoy it, says Stewart (Pic: David Pintens Photography)

“Kurt (Bogaerts, An Post-Chain Reaction’s team manager) didn’t sign us because we were on a development team or Olympic programme, it was for my ability, which showed itself in the end.”

Mark Stewart agrees, pointing out that as a sport, cycling can be one of the most physically and mentally challenging: “It’s too hard to not enjoy it,” he laughs.  

Plan to do what you like

Somewhat linked to the enjoyment factor is the ability to choose what you want to do. As Stewart explains, he thinks you shouldn’t let others decide for you what your career path should be.

– Six essential skills to master before tackling your first race –

“Look at me: I was a late developer – I only got [British Cycling] podium funding when I was 19, so quite late on when you think about it,” he says.

Stewart has followed a career path based on the riding he enjoys: track and road (Pic: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)

“So, you never know how your career will pan out, or in what timeframe. I was never on a GB programme before that, and actually went to university in 2012, and deferred in 2014 to do the Commonwealths on the track for Scotland.

“You can see that that’s very linked to enjoyment; you need to follow what you want to do, whatever the discipline.

“You’ll find everyone’s an expert and has an opinion – some worth listening to – but actually fundamentally you need to do what you want to do, to do the races you want to race in.”

Be patient

Stewart is naturally a big proponent of being patient – and a great example of how it can pay off. He says: “Lots of people give themselves only 12 months to turn pro and then give up when it doesn’t happen – but that’s crazy, really. It’s going to take time, years, so have patience when you’re young!”

On the biggest stage, Stewart pulls out what was arguably the shock result of the 2016 as an example. “Look at Mathew Hayman last year, he won Roubaix right near the end of his career,” he points out. “It’s a high-level example [of course, Hayman had been in the professional ranks since the turn of the century], but it does demonstrate that success can just take time.”

Mat Hayman celebrates his first Paris-Roubaix title aged 37 – good things come to those who wait (Pic: Sirotti)

Scott concurs, warning youngsters against feeling that they need to achieve everything early on.

“You think that you’ve got no time when you’re a teenager and you live in the moment, but the fact is you do, so don’t worry about needing to achieve certain results in such and such a time. Just try hard each race and let the results come to you,” he says.

Don’t spend too much money on kit!

We’ve made this point countless times over the years with our bike reviews and kit buyer’s guides, but there are great deals to be had out there on equipment that will give more than enough performance for you to demonstrate your talent and ability on the road. Scott makes the point that, at the junior level, this is especially true.

Sure, it looks great, but do you really need trick kit as a young, upcoming rider?

“At a junior level you really don’t need the best race bikes to compete,” he says. “That especially rings true if your reasoning to buy the best stuff is just because someone else has got it. It’s genuinely not really that important. I had decent kit and everything I needed to go out and ride to my best, but talent and ability is the most important thing.

“At a pro level every little thing matters to get you an edge – even if that edge is psychological – but at junior level it’s not the case so much. If anything, beating people who have the best kit on a bike that isn’t as expensive can be a real confidence booster.”

Stay generally healthy

The world is awash with nutritional advice, from the ‘next big thing’ to following key rules like consuming carbohydrates and protein within the magic 30-minute post-exercise window when your body is the most able to absorb nutrients. However, Scott says that the key thing is to eat a healthy all round diet.

– Four sports nutrition myths busted –

“Instead of going mad over nutrition, just try to eat generally healthily. I know, when you’re in the junior categories you can get away with eating a pack of flapjacks – as an u16 I definitely did that,” he advises with a smile, recalling a time in his life when the ‘rules’ were more relaxed.

Don’t fret about nutrition and health tips, but do keep yourself in good shape and good habits (Pic: SWPix.com)

“You can get away with this to an extent because you’re growing, but having good general habits, like eating fruit and veg and not gorging on the treats is obviously going to be of some benefit in the long run.”

Scott later admits that it’s hard to appreciate that when you’re young – he remembers well, judging by his cheeky grin and recalling his trips to the supermarkets – but Dan Gardner, the other young British rider on the team, says if you make it to the big time, you’ll end up doing it anyway, so you may as well get into good habits early.

“My old teammates in America used to call me ‘The Sponge’, and even here at An Post I’m picking up on things like the way Sean Kelly still eats,” he says. “You think to yourself ‘there’s got to be a reason for that’, so you do it too.”

Get the right people around you

Following on from advising riders to stick to their own plan, Stewart also thinks you need to stick to your guns and have faith in your own convictions and choices.

– Could a cycling coach be your best investment? –

“If you really enjoy it, you should stick to your own plan, and believe in it too,” he says. “From my perspective, I really enjoyed the track and wanted to do the Commonwealths, but I had loads of people tell me ‘oh no, the road is where it’s at; that’s where you want to be’.

Get people behind you who believe in what you want to do (Pic: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)

“But look at where the track has got me: I’m on the [British Cycling] podium funding for the track, now on the An Post team with a chance to develop in that area too, and I’m only here because I enjoyed it and I wanted to pursue my goals.”

Intrinsically linked to this is being surrounded by people who also believe in your path, Stewart points out. He adds: “Have people around you who support you in what you want to achieve or aim at, and want you to succeed. Support like that is invaluable.”

Talk to people

With Classics legend Sean Kelly at the helm, An Post is one of the best-connected teams out there, and having relationships with the right people undoubtedly helps open doors for the UCI Continental squad. The team also uses this as a key way to identify the most talented riders, and it could serve you well too. Gardner explains.

“Look at it this way: you can be cooped up in a house in Belgium speaking to one person a week as you focus only on the races, but if you get out and about and speak to people involved in the sport, introduce yourself, then one of those conversations could lead somewhere,” he says.

Talk to people to get yourself known (Pic: Sirotti)

“It keeps things social too, as you can make friends along the way, then, if you race well or show yourself well, those people will be looking.”

Gardner also places value on being able to get by in a European language too.

“It’s definitely helpful to know a language, because one day that could open a door for you,” he believes. “It makes a difference when you can walk up to a Frenchman and say hello and hold a basic conversation with them in French; they really appreciate you trying. That can only be good for your relationships with people in the sport.”

Have no fear in races

Gardner also advises that you should ride aggressively whenever possible. For him, it speaks volumes of the way he likes to race, and explains why he targeted a spot on the An Post-Chain Reaction team, who tend to race aggressively and animate races. As he puts it, the one attacking move that lasts or comes off could change your life.

– How to prepare for your first road race: a beginner’s guide to racing –

“You’ve got nothing to lose by attacking, and one race can really change your life if the right people notice. Don’t be afraid to fail, either,” he urges.

Don’t be afraid to hit out – the one attack that succeeds could be the one that gets you noticed (Pic: Sirotti)

“You can hit out in every race you do, and you may fail nine times out of ten, but that one race when you do succeed, or fight valiantly, could change everything.

“Someone may notice, and that’s all you can do. How you race can be almost as important as the results at the end of the day.”

Embrace your journey

The last tip for young riders is left to Stewart, who ends on a philosophical note: you can be as talented and able as you like, but he says it’s important to maintain perspective.

“I think you need to be happy with who you are and how you do things,”he says. “We all have setbacks and problems along the way, but that’s part of your journey – learning about your body and yourself, and how you deal with it for the future.

Never lose your sense of perspective

“From my point of view, I think it helps that I have a positive outlook on life via my Christian beliefs and upbringing, so I think it’s good to stay positive in general when cycling.

“And perspective definitely comes into it. You can be consumed with cycling, but actually you’re just riding a bike, so just be happy you’re doing that.

“It’s not the be all and end all, especially when you’ve got people out there saving lives in their day-to-day jobs, for example. You’re lucky that you get to do what you do.”

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