One of the best things about this past racing season was no longer constantly worrying about signing my next professional contract. When you run your own cycling team, you worry about everything except whether or not you’ll have a job.
Jono and I did have a conversation about this few months ago.
“You’re hiring me as a rider again,” I said. “You don’t have a choice.”
“I could say no, but then you could fire me. And we haven’t talked about whether or not you’re hiring me back as the director.”
And so that was settled.
After five years of stressing all season about getting a job the following year, it was a relief to let go of that concern and race my bike without thinking about a result on a resume. [Instead I worried constantly about the team getting results to keep the sponsors happy and the team in existence. No pressure.]
I also didn’t have to spend July through October desperately checking my email for good or bad news. Rachel Heal and Linda Jackson are likely still relieved that my emails have stopped coming, while Jono would probably give his right arm to go back to the sweet old days when my emails to him began with “Dear Mr. Coulter…”
Now I’m on the other side and would like to offer some advice to every rider hoping to sign a professional contract. I’ve been you, I feel your pain, I know that hunger. There were times where I would have traded a major organ for a contract. But here are some things to consider:
1. Just race your bike. Results do matter, but if you spend all season chasing results just for the sake of getting hired, you are asking to be unhappy. I remember dragging my burned-out, weary butt all over the country because I was desperate to get that stand-out result that was going to make all the team directors swoon. At one point, I paid $900 for a plane ticket to do a single crit in Aspen, took a 5am flight to Virginia the morning after, had 36 hours to rest/recover/attend a bachelorette party, then drove 6 hours to race another crit the next day. When I finished 4th in that race, I cried hysterically and felt like a crushing failure because it wasn’t a podium and I wasn’t going to get noticed by directors and was probably going to die alone in a cave. That is the definition of doing it wrong. You should race because you love the challenge and want to be the best — that’s the only way to keep it rewarding enough to be worth doing.
2. But no, seriously, race your bike. Please do not spend your entire season racing locally and then send your resume to national/international pro teams telling them about your great results. You need to learn how to race at national-level events and show directors that you can be competitive in those races. Yes, it is expensive and challenging to do as a solo rider. Life is not fair but that’s the price of climbing the ladder in this sport. True story: I genuinely believed after winning my first few local races as a category 3 rider that pro teams would want to hire me and sent out my resume accordingly. Please do not be me. I am still embarrassed enough for us both.
3. Being hired to a team is not going to make or break your life. Yes, it is great to be able to call yourself a professional cyclist, to have things paid for and given to you, and to be part of a collective organization in matching clothes working together towards a single goal. Some of my best moments in cycling have come from traveling and racing with a team. But some of my worst moments in cycling have also come from the drama and politics and budget struggles inherent in so many teams. The wrong environment can wreck your season and motivation. Before you structure your whole season and personal sense of worth around getting a contract, make sure you figure out what you want from the sport and THEN decide the best way to get there. A pro contract on a team where you are not a good fit isn’t going to get you anywhere you want to be.
4. Be sure you’re ready to be on a team. Unless you are a very special snowflake, you are probably going to spend your first few seasons on a team as a domestique. It is hard to go from being a hometown hero with brilliant results to finishing 58th consistently because you are part of the leadout train. My ego struggled with that because I worried that people back home would think I suddenly sucked. My own parents spent most of my first pro season asking why I kept doing so poorly in races where I’d gotten top-10 results the previous year. Figuring out how to be truly happy that you got somebody else on the podium doesn’t happen overnight. If you’re not ready to take orders and be a cog in the machine and give up being an independent agent, that’s fine, but don’t join a team. Go into a team ready to learn, willing to listen, and happy to cooperate.
5. Prepare a strong resume and introductory email. Your resume should be succinct, current, and easy to process. Directors do not want to wade through five pages of lovely photos and touching narrative. When you write your introductory email, focus on what you can do for the team, not what the team can do for you. If your objective is “To find a team that can help me accomplish X, Y, and Z,” you are doing it wrong. Your parents, friends, coach, therapist, significant other, and pet all care about your hopes and dreams. Directors care about the team’s hopes and dreams, so you should focus on telling them how you will be an asset. Make an effort to show that you want to be part of their team for a specific reason so it seems like you’ve done more than just cut and paste the same message to a dozen directors. If you email me and mention that you were so impressed when the team set Scotti up to win at Stage 1 of Redlands or that you have a fetish for polka dotted bottles, I am going to be impressed enough to at least open your resume. If you want a director to care about you, start by showing that you care about their team.
Note: This advice can also be applied to your resume/cover letter in your professional career outside of cycling. In my non-cycling career, I review a lot of resumes where people seem oddly convinced that corporations care about their personal career goals.
6. Ask the right questions. Ask directors what their race program goals are for the following season. If your heart is set on going to Europe, be honest about that so you and the director can determine if the team is a good fit. Ask about the team’s views on riders having outside employment, if significant others or family members can be accommodated on travel plans, whether the team prefers to keep riders on the road or send them home between races, and what expenses are covered or not. It’s okay to ask these questions and if the director won’t answer them, then it’s probably not a team you want to spend a year with anyway. As for the salary conversation, people seem very uncomfortable about this all around. That is stupid: cycling is a business and this is a job. Even if the salary on offer is low or non-existent, let’s all agree to have the same professional discussion one would expect in any hiring dialogue.
7. Rejection is not the end of the world. I have received a lot of rejections in cycling. Jono himself has rejected me multiple times in past seasons. (NOW WHO’S LAUGHING??) There are a lot of great riders and not a lot of teams. There is not a lot of money to go around in the sport, and there are tons of politics and weird relationships that make navigating the world of teams even more challenging. If you get rejected, just keep riding and racing your bike. If you were only doing it to get on a team in the first place, please go reread point #1. Don’t give up because you never know what could happen. Teams often bring on guest riders throughout the season that end up getting hired. Teams also make final hiring decisions at the end of the year or the start of the new year to round out their rosters. If you always focus on racing your bike hard and being a generally decent person, your time will come.