When the goal is to become a professional, any U23 rider needs to race a lot. Every race is an opportunity to get a result which may get you noticed. Races are also hard training sessions with chances to learn and improve. But just as important as racing, time needs to be set aside to train in order to be able to perform in races and continue your long-term development. More important still is rest, because, after all, the time you spend not riding is when you improve. The key is to find a balance between training, racing and resting. The amount you race in a year determines how much time you have left to train and rest making it an important factor in rider development.
To avoid confusion where stage races are concerned, cyclists count their races in terms of race days, or in Spain, días de competición. In Spain, riders compare their días de competición in the season so far or in years previous. How many días you have raced is also an important metric for teams to look at when signing riders. Teams look for riders who can cope well with a big calendar but still have margin for improvement.
Last week I spoke to my team director about my calendar. I wanted to know what he thought regarding my días de competición. He was a pro until last year and, despite only starting road racing when he was 25, has won almost every amateur vuelta in Spain, some more than once. It’s safe to say, when it comes to races, he knows his onions. He has recently taken over the team, and so was asking each rider for a list of the races they had done this year. I have been supplementing the team’s racing calendar with trips to the Basque Country to race on my own. I sent him my list and asked him what he thought.
I learned that I had raced more than anyone else on the team. I counted 20 race days with the team and a further 8 on my own. The advice I was given was to push on with the next few races but look at a race break in the next month or so. The team director was aware I am keen on doing cycling full time so in need of races, but he was also wary of me getting fatigued.
Last year I rode 46 race days, so in order to show progression, at the start of this year, I made 50 race days my target. Although I raced plenty last year, the races were shorter. I raced almost the entire Basque calendar, where races are generally between 110 and 130km long. This year I knew I’d be competing in the Copa España which are often 170-180km, so I thought aiming for 50 days was realistic.
My team director reminded me that although my 28 race days were 3 fewer than I had ridden at the same point of last season, the Copa España races are on average an hour longer. We also spoke about other small factors such as the amount of travelling on a Copa España weekend and how, last year, I often wasn’t finishing races. He made some good points. In races last year I would be asked to help chase a breakaway then not be able to make it over the climbs, meaning my race was over after an hour and a half. This year I rode 5 rounds of the Copa España, some of which were over 4 hours long. The travel for Copa España races also needs to be taken into account when assessing my condition. For a race on the Sunday, I would get a train to Madrid on the Friday and stay in Madrid overnight. Then I’d travel to the race with the team on Saturday. I would rarely find a train back on Sunday night so I was often having to travel back to Tudela on the Monday. This was 3 days travelling for one race, which isn’t the best for preparation or recovery.
If all goes well for the rest of the season and I race all I expect to, then I should reach my target of 50 race days. Taking into account the physical and psychological costs of racing, and keeping an eye on my training and resting, I will be happy to reach 50 this season.
Last season, while racing for the Caja Rural amateur team, I lived for a while in the team house with Hugh Carthy, who rode for the Pro Continental team. He is a rider who rode for a few years in Continental and Pro Continental teams and this year made the step up to the World Tour with Cannondale. Speaking to him, I got an idea of how much professionals race. Last year he rode 68 race days and the year before around 70. His ability to cope with a big calendar, the experience he gained, and the training benefit of the races would have helped with his move to Cannondale. In order to follow a similar path to Hugh, I need to build towards being able to handle 70 days of racing a season.
There is no doubt a rider’s días de competición is key to their long term development. But the main factor in making progress towards a professional contract is results. While races are good training sessions and are steps towards long term development, results are what matters. Each race is an opportunity to get a result and so should be treated as such. As Carthy used to say last year, “Hard work and results, that’s all that matters”.