I’m often asked by young riders about what they should do to become a pro. It’s certainly a tough question to answer and there are lots of attributes that a pro needs to have, some of which are purely based on innate character and others which can be trained and learned.
I always start my answer with the premise that first and foremost, bike racing is a team sport. Yes, you have to be able to hold your own, especially as an up-and-coming Junior and even U23 rider. However, as the racing gets harder there and more riders at the same level and it’s not as easy to ride away from a group as it may have been if you were the best Junior in your local area – read “big fish in a small pond”. That said, being one of the best riders in your ‘pond’ is not a bad thing – it shows that you have potential.
Next, and equally as important as being a strong rider is that you need to get along with the guys. Pros spend over half of the year on the road on long van rides (now buses!), innumerable plane trips and you always share a hotel room with a teammate. Everyone on the team was one of the best riders in their local pond and usually accustomed to winning their share of races – read “A-type personality”! Now, you’re sharing a room with a total stranger and you’re expected to ‘get along’. What I found that there was a large discrepancy of character traits among a team of 15 or so ‘players’. On TV, they may all look similar but underneath the helmet and glasses there are some pretty unique individuals.
Some riders, like Eric Heiden and Tom Schuler were ‘gentle giants’, never saying a lot but you can always count on them to be there when the chips are down. Others like Bob Roll showed their colours outwardly – Bobke would write his own poetry with a Sharpie on the sidewalls of his Vittoria silk tubulars, extolling the gods to keep him upright. When we had Styrofoam helmets with lycra covers, he’d write the poems on the white styro and then put the lycra over top!
We got to know each other so well that there was never a question of planning strategy for the end of a race. Harvey Nitz and I would take turns taking flyers off the front in the last 10km and if that didn’t work, Ron Kiefel was there to scorch the earth with a screaming fast lead out for Davis Phinney to kick the last 200m.
All of this synergy took years to develop as we traveled, ate, slept and raced together. We became a sort of ‘band of brothers’ that would do anything for each other – a true team bond. To this day we continue to get together every 5 years for scheduled reunions. Nowadays, when we meet up at race sites, we can fall back into conversation like it was yesterday.
So, back to youth development. Where do you start on this journey? Since I moved to Edmonton 18 years ago, I’ve been a part of an incredible racing club here in Edmonton, Juventus CC. We run a mountain bike skills program for 8-10 year olds, modeled after Doug Dewiller’s SprocKids curriculum. Once they’ve graduated from SprocKids, they take the next step, what we call the Lori-Ann Munzer Program or LAMP, named after our resident Olympic champion and recent Canadian Hall of Famer, Lori-Ann Munzer. We’ve modeled it after the Nancy Greene downhill ski program where we teach 11-14 year olds the skills needed to be a racer once they graduate to junior age.
Most importantly, we start with track cycling, twice a week for 5 weeks. We are fortunate to still have a velodrome here in Edmonton, left over as a legacy from the 1978 Commonwealth Games. Side note – I would not have become a pro had not been for the success I experienced on the outdoor track we had in Vancouver, China Creek, a legacy from the 1954 Empire Games (which became the Commonwealth Games).
On the track, we take the kids through a range of skill exercises and mini-races which allow them to test the physical strength but also learn how to strategize and use their energy wisely. We keep it fun but at the same time feed a bit off of their competitive nature. All the while they are pedaling a fixed gear which means that to go faster, they have to pedal a higher cadence. Nothing could be better for an all round development to becoming a racing cyclist. I’m sure that Steve Bauer has some similar plans for the youth development program at the Milton track, something that can only benefit Canadian cycling as a whole.
Throughout the Summer, our LAMP riders transition to road and mountain bike skills in much the same way. Our Juventus club is very proud to have 3 LAMP graduates and now Junior National team members attending the Junior Worlds in Kazakhstan this August. Evan Burtnik, Anna Talman and Stefan Ritter have all spent at least 3 years in our LAMP program. Juventus riders makes up half of the Junior Worlds team this year! A testament to the hard work of a dedicated group of Juventus volunteers here in Edmonton – Chapeau everyone and good luck to the riders!