In this post, I’ll describe the process for turning pro as a cyclist, and why despite my good (but not great) results, it would be difficult for me to do so. Like every successful cyclist out there, I have always had a dream of being a pro. This year with my upcoming job change, I even sent out a few requests but not surprisingly all I have received so far are rejection letters.
This is the generic career path for a racer: After getting a racing license, a young cyclist wins a few races. They upgrade past the early categories quickly, taking a season or two to become Category 2. A regional elite amateur team takes notice and they’re now racing for a team at larger events and learning ‘race craft’. After a few good results at national level events (i.e. top placed amateur at major or National Racing Calendar races), pro teams start to notice. The results, combined with networking while traveling to these national level events will lead to contacts that will eventually yield a neo-pro contract.
Sounds easy enough right? Personally I have a few barriers regarding the above. I only traveled to one National Racing Calendar race last year, and finished a decent 22nd, but the top amateur (Colorado local Jesse Goodrich) was 7th. Also, notice I said “young cyclist”; I’ll get to this in a moment. First, I’ll go into some details of the neo-pro lifestyle for the lowest (UCI Continental) ranked pro teams.
It is good to know how much a pro cyclist makes. Cycling Tips Blog has a detailed post on this topic across all levels of the sport, but I’ll stick to the lower levels. Basically for a first year pro on a low level team (where almost all start), the teams do not want to part with cash. They will likely pay for all racing related expenses (travel, equipment, food, etc), and bikes/equipment. The salary itself is likely to be $0/year.
Imagine yourself as a 22 year old. While becoming rich, famous, and racing the Tour de France may be the big dream, the low level pro team lifestyle is actually a dream in itself. Traveling the country for free to race your bike. You don’t make any money, so you’ve got an easy part time job back home to pay for the $400/mo room you rent, but hardly ever stay there due to so much time on the road. For someone like myself with family, this is obviously not as attractive.
Next, and most importantly for me, I’ll get to the age issue. USA Cycling has a dual mission to support amateur racing while also promoting the elite (professional and olympic) level of the sport. There is a rule stipulating that the majority of the riders on a low level pro team must be under the age of 28. This may seem strange, but I’ll explain.
Imagine your a team director with a small budget. Would you rather hire an unknown 22 year old coming up through the ranks (you may get lucky, but also might not), or a 33 year old pro in the twilight of their career (with tons of foreign racing experience and an established reputation). They will probably both race as fast, but there are advantages to hiring older riders. If this were to occur, the young talent would have difficulty finding an entry into the sport, thus hindering development at the elite level.
Since I’m 30 now, I would have to be exceptional to find myself in one of the ‘over 28′ slots on a pro team. The requirement is only on the lowest level pro teams, but it is very uncommon for a rider to bypass the lowest ranks of the sport.
Finally, I’ll mention contacts within the sport. Like many things in life, it is who you know that matters most. Pez Cycling News has a interview with a team director describing what he is looking for in a rider, and it makes for great reading if you’d like to go pro. Of course, he mentions he would like to know who you are, or have a referral from someone he knows.
Fortunately, team race directors aren’t too hard to find. USA Cycling has a page dedicated to the lowest ranking ‘Continental’ teams. The UCI Continental Teams and Women’s Teams page has a link to a spreadsheet with contacts for all the team directors, along with the documents governing the teams. These are the contacts I used to ‘cold call’ the team directors but as you can see from what I described above, I’m not too shocked that I’ll still need a real job next year.