How to survive as a neo-pro: words of wisdom from Laurens ten Dam and Ted King
Retired pro King and Sunweb leader ten Dam share their advice on how to successfully negotiate the first two years in the peloton
A place in the peloton is an honour indeed, but for the young rider who finds himself with a professional contract, it can also be a tough school.
Riders in the first two years of their professional career are known in cycling parlance as ‘neo-pros’. It is period of promise and exhaustion; of opportunity and suffering. Some riders flourish, and settle into the rigours of life as a pro with little fuss, while others fall by the wayside. Either way, a guide is invaluable for a young rider to negotiate the first two years in the WorldTour peloton.
Who will be on hand to help the newest recruits, now that the 2017 campaign is well underway? And what advice can they offer the latest riders looking to make a name for themselves in one of the world’s toughest sports?
We spoke to two respected professionals of the recent and contemporary peloton: Ted King, who served a seven-year career in cycling’s top tier with Cervélo TestTeam and Cannondale, before retiring in 2015, and Laurens ten Dam, a top ten finisher at the Tour de France and La Vuelta España, who will race this year in the colours of Team Sunweb.
The retired pro: Ted King
Brave New World
King turned professional in 2006, moving to Europe in 2009 to join Cervélo Test Team after racing for three years as a salaried rider in the United States. The peloton he joined contained a host of commanding figures, rather than a single patron, as in the days of Merckx, Hinault and Armstrong.
“Guys like George Hincapie, Thor Hushovd, Fabian Cancellara and Roger Hammond were the patrons of the peloton then,” King recalls. “Hushovd was my team-mate and was well respected, a great name and a winner. He’s not super vocal among the peloton but when he spoke, people would listen.
“I would say the same thing about Cancellara. People know his name and respect what he says and does. Hammond was tremendously loud within in the team and nothing but a riot to listen to so he would bark orders. That was when Cervélo Test Team was just crushing it and Hammond won the Tour of Qatar that year.”
King’s description makes Hammond’s move to management seem like a natural progression. Having learned his trade as general manager at the UCI Continental squad Madison-Genesis, the Briton is again a face in the WorldTour, now as a sports director at Dimension Data.
Hincapie was a quieter presence, King remembers, but no less of an influence. For a young American rider, newly arrived in Girona, to find a friend and neighbour in the softly spoken, hard-riding New Yorker was quite a thing.
Hincapie, seeking redemption for the US Postal years by serving as road captain to HTC-Highroad’s bright young things, and latterly to Cadel Evans at BMC Racing, clearly made an impression on King, despite being “not a huge talker”.
A little help from my friends
King places the Australian Brett Lancaster in a similar category to Hincapie, and a rider who was “nothing but welcoming”. He describes him as the team-mate who offered him the most help, even if Hammond, one who would “bark orders”, was not to be ignored.
“You’d appreciate what he had to say, whether it’s benevolent or otherwise, just purely based on how much time he put into his career,” says King. “He rode on a lot of teams and saw it all. His results were more sporadic but his experience was a lot more than just looking at a piece of paper with results on them. The Cervélo TestTeam Classics squad was so good because guys like Hammond ran the meetings and the results speak for themselves.”
Train hard, rest easy
The greatest influences on King’s career seem to have been members of the peloton’s Anglophone constituency. It was a Canadian – Michael Barry, another Girona refugee – who gave King the best advice he received. “Train really hard and rest really, really easily.”
“There is the assumption that you always need to be training hard and riding hard, and the truth is resting is really important,” King says. “In the earlier levels when it’s easier, you’d go out and do an active recovery day and you might go and hit a high zone two all day, but in the pro ranks you really need to be resting easily.”
If Girona is now one of the most popular destinations for English-speaking professionals in Spain, King witnessed first hand the growth in its popularity. Placing himself among other top-level professionals was key to the development of a young rider, he says.
He describes an “evolution” from his first two-year stint in the Catalan town, when its constituency of professional cyclists was around 45, to around 75 when he returned from Italy two years later.
King left Girona at the end of his career in 2015. By the time he took his leave, the number of professionals resident there had grown to “well over 100.”
“You’d learn a lot and ride with these guys and learn what it took to ride in the peloton.”
Cycling is a simile for life in countless ways, as any rider will tell you. King is hip to the poetic nature of a professional’s career.
“Take pictures and soak it all in,” he advises. “Life’s and adventure and this is just one short chapter of it. It’s easy to let it all slip away and forget what’s happening. Your career is fleeting, so I was trying to soak it all in and make the most of it.”
Lessons learned in the peloton do not only apply to competition; indeed, King describes the racing almost as the easiest part of a professional’s broader education.
“In cycling you learn everything, you learn how to be a paramedic, a travel agent, a banker, a translator; how to be a co-worker. It’s not purely bike racing. Bike racing is almost the easy part, but how well you can adapt to everything else is important.”
A helping hand
King says he made a point of trying to help the young riders on an especially young Cannondale team in the final year of his career. With the lowest average age of any team in the WorldTour, King’s experience might have been invaluable to the young me in green.
“I recognised early in 2015 that was going to be the final year of my career,” he says. “I was with the Cannondale team and we had the youngest roster in the ProTour and so much young talent. Dombrowski, Formolo, Zepuntke – I want nothing more for them than to succeed and have a freakin’ blast while doing so.
Experience has given King what might be described as a global view of the peloton. He has seen eras change; riders come and go. The importance of the veteran rider, he believes, is essential to maintaining its balance of wise heads and young guns, especially in a data driven age of so-called marginal gains.
“The neo-pro success rate isn’t super high, it’s not surprising that guys will race a handful of years and you never see them again. You get some neo-pro racers who are already producing results but you have a wealth of experience in the veteran riders so it’s important to have that as everyone fits together.”
The established rider: Laurens Ten Dam
Just say no
Laurens ten Dam might serve as exhibit A for the case that professional cycling is a significantly cleaner sport than a decade ago. Despite his unblemished reputation, he felt stigmatised by his membership of the peloton when revelations of wrongdoing at Rabobank, his former team, became so damaging that the bank withdrew its sponsorship. Ten Dam’s response was admirable: he invited a journalist to follow him for a year and gave him unfettered access to his whereabouts and blood data.
Now he tells RCUK the biggest change in the peloton since he turned professional in 2005 is in the use of performance enhancing drugs. Their use had been so prevalent that when he was racing as a neo-pro, he had been warned not to expect any results until May.
“Back then I didn’t understand and then I got some perspective,” he says. “The big goals for the Classics were still for the big guys, so guys not using performance enhancing drugs had to just wait for the leftovers.
“For the neo pros now, they can perform within a few months of their careers and get results and that’s good to see. They never have to face those questions. In Abu Dhabi Tour this year we had two youngsters, Chris Hamilton and Lennard Hofstede, who could perform really well in the bunch, and it’s nice that that’s possible for them. They never have to face the choice to use performance enhancing drugs because it’s possible to become a big rider without them.”
There has been another cultural shift too since ten Dam was a neo-pro. Advances in monitoring performance – specifically, power meters and digital tracking tools like Training Peaks and Today’s Plan – mean that merely showing up at the training camp in good condition is no longer enough. Ten Dam describes the shift as “a totally different world.”
“I remember the first time I went to a training camp in December was in 2012,” he recalls. “Before that it was normal to only show up for a training camp sometime in January for a week. You had a lot less contact with the team before. Right now with the internet and training programs everyone can monitor you.”
The phrase ‘neo-pro’ is typically preferred in cycling to ‘rookie’. This is more than a matter of semantics. Not only does ‘neo-pro’ refer to a two-year period, but it is not so pejorative as the harsher Americanism.
Teasing the young guys was always part of the programme, ten Dam says, even if he rode on teams where neo-pros were respected. Now, he believes that while a hierarchy still exists, neo-pros receive more freedom to allow their legs to do the talking.
“More and more you’re seeing young guys get a leadership role early on. Again, in Abu Dhabi Tour, we made Lennard Hofstede the captain. He had to give orders as the team wants to develop young riders to become leaders so it’s interesting times and things change. I think that’s good.”
Watch and learn. And listen too…
Does giving responsibility to neo-pros reduce their willingness to listen? Are they still prepared to follow advice if, in the less prestigious races at least, they are now encouraged to call the shots? For ten Dam, it is a matter of personality.
“Every person is different,” he says. “Some guys you’re able to give advice to easily and others don’t listen, but some guys after the first year will be a completely different person and start listening to the older riders.
“I hope to lead by example and not say too much, because that’s how I learnt. I would ask a lot of questions but I would also just watch to see what everyone does. I try to be a good example and hope that I can add value.”
A neo-pro’s prior accomplishments do not alter ten Dam’s attitude towards his new colleagues. He admits to not following the younger ranks, so the arrival of a rider with a junior world championship on his palmares, or victory at the Tour de L’Avenir, will not register. His policy is simple: treat everyone equally. “I think that works out pretty well,” he says.
Advice to my younger self
Who among us would turn down the chance to advise our younger self? Ten Dam chuckles at the question and admits the best piece of advice he received was from a team-mate who told him to become a climber “because it pays a lot more than being a rouleur on the flats.”
By that point, ten Dam was already three years into his professional career, but he has made the advice pay, with a top ten finish at the Tour de France in 2014. “It turned out pretty well for me,” he says with a laugh.
More seriously, his advise to young riders in a data-driven era for the sport is not to focus too strongly on the numbers, and to remember that there is beauty in cycling, even when your livelihood depends upon in it.
“I’m 36 years old now and I still hop on my bike with a smile on my face and that means I am still enjoying my bike,” ten Dam says. “I fear that the guys are too focused won’t enjoy the bike after a few years.”
The neo-pro it seems has never had it so good, but the peloton must also guard against the prima donna instinct. Nothing is quite so unappealing as a stroppy 21-year-old with no victories on his palmares and an attitude that would be trying in a Grand Tour winner. Happily such cases are rare (and the Grand Tour winners I’ve interviewed have been pleasant and amenable without exception).
King is right to list the many and varied skills a pro rider finishes his career with, and it’s surprising that so few follow a structured pathway to a new career. Interesting too is the list of captains who guided him through his formative years in the peloton, and it’s hard to imagine a better influence than Hammond.
Britain has posted five neo-pros to the WorldTour ranks in 2017. Their success or otherwise may depend in some measure on the advice they receive from more experienced team-mates and retired riders, and their willingness to follow it. King and ten Dam would both prove excellent sources.
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