Going Pro - Advice for Aspiring Amateurs
Going pro. Most every young cyclist has at least dreamed of the possibility.
Like any pro sport there are no guarantees, but there are definitely ways to make the path easier. To offer a little guidance we spoke with SHO-AIR TWENTY20 neo-pros Jennifer Valente, Holly Breck, Steph Roorda, as well as the team’s Sports Director, Mari Holden. They shared insights, experiences, and advice for those aimed at making going fast on two wheels their profession.
SRAM: Mari, let’s start at the beginning, describe for us your role with SHO-AIR TWENTY20.
Mari: Well, I’m the Director of SHO-AIR TWENTY20 and we’re a Women’s UCI team. We are mainly, primarily based in the U.S., although we do go out of the country for maybe one or two races a year. Basically, being the director of a team, you have to wear a few different hats in women’s cycling. I help choose the athletes that we have on our team, I work with the athletes to make a schedule that benefits their career, and I take care of the logistics for travel.
SRAM: How and where do you recruit riders?
Mari: Well, first, we get a lot of resumes from younger riders wanting to be a part of our team. We also hear through the grapevine. We have a network of people that know their area and when they see a special athlete they’ll let us know about them and we start to keep an eye on them, Jen Valente is a great example of that.
SRAM: What gets your attention?
Mari: We look to see who’s standing out, separating themselves from the other athletes, and we keep an eye on their results and how they’re doing when they enter a bigger race. Then you have the other athletes who come over from different sports and start into cycling. In their first year they have a really big engine but no understanding of race tactics. So, we’ll see those people early season and if they have a standout result at an early race we’ll start paying attention to them or approach them, start a dialogue.
SRAM: So, there is no singular path to becoming a professional cyclist? Your team is also part of the National and Olympic development programs, tell us more about that connection.
Mari: Yes, and we are really focused on helping our athletes achieve the goals of USA Cycling or the Canadian National Team. We want to see them develop into the best athletes they can. We understand we can’t provide everything with our budget, so we try to work as closely as possible with the national federations to come up with a program that will help them achieve their goals.
SRAM: Are state, collegiate, and national titles important?
Mari: If somebody who hadn’t been on a team suddenly won a national championship, of course, but they’re also going to be identified right away by USA cycling or their national federation. Where we’re looking is kind of in the more regional level races where there’s maybe not a completely international field, but athletes separate themselves from the rest of the field. In women’s cycling if you are strong you’re going to separate yourself fairly quickly. It’ll be obvious.
SRAM: How do you know if an athlete can make it?
Mari: You have to be able to deal with the stress and have that desire to push yourself further than others, which is what separates them, and I think is one of the signs of the people who end up being great in sports. They (professionals) have something that normal people just don’t. It doesn’t make sense to most people.
SRAM: Jen, did you dream of racing bikes professionally? Tell us about how you ended up on this team.
Jennifer V: I dreamed of going to the Olympics from before I had even picked a sport. The goal was always to go the Olympics. I played water polo in high school and that was always kind of in the back of my mind. I grew up riding. My dad raced professionally and during the middle of high school I started riding more, that kind of took over, and it seemed like I was good at it and that was the way to go. I hooked up with the junior program, actually with the same team, the SHO-AIR TWENTY20 junior program, and that kind of gave me a look at what professional racing was like. I ended up going the track route and solely focusing on just track cycling, which was a little bit removed, but it allowed me to see what else was out there and kind of gave me an idea of that earlier on. And so now after the Olympics, coming back and doing something different. For me that would be the road racing with SHO-AIR.
SRAM: Is being a professional what you expected?
Jennifer V: I don’t know if it’s exactly what I expected, but it’s probably a lot more than I expected. There’s so many other elements. You’re always learning. Constantly learning. You’re never actually at the top. You don’t actually ever know everything. And then there’s all the stuff that’s not bike racing. There’s interacting with sponsors. There’s being your own bike mechanic at home and knowing all the ins and outs of that. There’s navigating the politics of teams or the sport in general. Learning all your travel, you’re your own logistics and stuff. So I think that it’s a lot more than just bike racing and that’s what I didn’t realize in the beginning.
SRAM: Steph, what is the best thing about being a professional cyclist?
Steph R: All the traveling I get to do. The places I get to see. When you get to go to places to do bike races you get to see a part of that place that you probably wouldn’t see if you just traveled there and I think that’s pretty special. That’s a special thing to me.
SRAM: What’s the best thing about being a professional cyclist?
Holly B: Definitely travel. Where my bike takes me, where I get to ride my bike, the opportunities that it grants, the people that I meet.
SRAM: Is riding your bike still fun even though it’s your job?
Holly B: Yes, it’s still my getaway from normal life. It makes you feel like you’re a little kid. Whether you’re riding a bike to go get groceries at a store or you’re going on a four-hour training ride. It’s freedom.
SRAM: What’s the worst thing about being a professional?
Steph R: We talked a little bit about sacrifices. I think there is a lot of sacrifice when it comes to your friends and family and I think that sometimes it’s hard to explain to people who aren’t in the same world.
SRAM: What advice would you give to a cyclist who has national, or international, or Olympic dreams?
Steph R: I would say patience. Also that to remember that your journey in whatever sport you choose is going to be your own. I think it’s just important to remember that it’s your own path, your own journey, and you’re creating it as you go.
Holly B: There’s always opportunity to learn and so don’t just fix your mind on one thing. Never wear blinders, always look for new opportunities and just have an open mind on everything.
Jennifer V: Have your own identity away from cycling and keep that. As many sacrifices or choices that you choose to make in order to advance your career in the sport or any sport, you still have to be true to yourself and your personality, your morals, whatever it is that makes you you. Keep that with you and sometimes that means balancing it with other hobbies. I think it’s really important to remember who you are off the bike.
We want to thank the riders, as well as Mari, for their time. Best of luck to them through the rest of their season.