"There's a lot of extra responsibility nowadays than there was only 10 years ago," said Jim van den Berg, renowned cycling coach and founder of JOIN Sports and the JOIN Cycling app.
The life of a modern-day pro cyclist is dramatically more complex than it ever has been before—and in many ways, that’s a good thing, says Jim. While pro cyclists are now constantly bombarded by emails, forms, and requests (just like everyone else), it’s now more difficult than ever before to get away with doping.
"10, 20 years ago, you just had a team, and they sent you somewhere for your January training camp, and they said, 'okay, this will be more or less your training calendar," but then every Monday, you'd hear like, 'okay, you will definitely race this race on Saturday.' You only knew what race you were going to do five days in advance and what you did in between those races—no one cared. You just needed to show up in your best shape.
“Out of that, a lot of shit happened because a lot of cyclists thought they needed to get into all kinds of performance-enhancing shit. They were able to do so because there wasn't any overview from the management, from coaches. [The racers] were just left out there by themselves.
"The only thing they were worried about was like, 'Hey, am I getting a new contract next year?' So, the whole system evoked it. I mean, you're still there making those choices, don't get me wrong. But the system in itself was pretty broken."
Today, with much more oversight from the coaches, the team, and even the UCI via its doping regulations and other requirements, it's much more difficult for rampant cheating to occur. Now, "there are a lot of eyes on the training plan," said Jim. As a result, "the constant communication between all those people in the team around you is way better. And that's a good thing. On the other hand, that also means that it's not only about getting out of bed, doing your ride, and lying on the couch the rest of the day. You are also asked to keep updating all those people around you as well, and uploading that data, and filling in that nutrition plan, and responding to the emails you get."
Answering emails, filling in forms, and communicating with people who have constant demands of you? The life of a modern-day professional cyclist is beginning to sound an awful lot like an office job.
But of course, it's even harder than the life of the average desk jockey.
"The life of a pro cyclist has become more complex, and it also requires a little bit different type of an athlete nowadays," said Jim. "I think in a lot of other sports, you kind of can get away with just showing up at your club at nine in the morning and following the program. But with a cyclist, a lot of days you are away from home or you're traveling. And once you are at home, you are responsible for having your shit together all the time. So you need to keep all those balls up in the air all the time. And that comes with a lot of responsibility. And if you're not able to do so, they will probably not extend your contract."
Above and beyond the increased complexity of day-to-day life, and the typical training requirements, every single World Tour cyclist now needs to have a specialty above and beyond just riding a bike really fast. "Everyone in a World Tour is actually a climber," said Jim. "They can ride up mountains really fast, but then on top of that, you can become a sprinter, or you may be into some long attacks. Or you are a GC kind of guy, or you are into the Classics. But the thing is, you need to be good at something really specific."
Jim shared that this is quite a significant change from, say, 20 years ago. As recently as 10 years ago, there were still professional cyclists retiring who had never won a race before. These cyclists served as domestiques for years, helping their teammates out and supporting the top-tier racers seeking a general classification placing. But that just doesn't cut it anymore.
"Nowadays, all World Tour cyclists are also able to win one or two races a year," said Jim.
In the desire to win races, some pros are tempted to compromise what made them specialized in the first place. For example, famous sprinters sometimes try to lose weight in order to place better in the general classification. "What Wout van Aert will probably be trying this year [to become] this really classic guy by trying to compete in a GC in a Giro," said Jim.
Those types of transformations are incredibly tricky. "The risk there is that in the transformation of doing so, he might lose what he is really good at. And then you get something in between worlds that is not winning any classics and is also still not there or really competing for the top spots in a GC. And that's a big risk." However, Jim acknowledges that Wout is a "unicorn," and that if anyone can pull it off, it's probably him.
With training trade-offs, hyper-specialization, overflowing inboxes, and the constant pressure of worrying about whether or not your contract will be renewed for next year—the life of a professional cyclist has only gotten much more complicated over the past 10 years. The stress is immense, and the athlete who can still show up on a global stage and perform their best in the incredible crucible of a World Tour is undoubtedly an athlete—nay, a human being—to be reckoned with.