It’s the end of July and while the calendar year is just past half over, for professional cyclists around the world, thoughts have already turned to next season. While there’s still racing left in 2017, it’s contract time, the joyous period in which riders evaluate their worth as cyclists and humans through whether a team is willing to give them some free clothes, gear, and a small salary.
Professional cycling is already a challenge with its risk of injury, low pay, absence of employee benefits, and constant travel. On top of that, pro cyclists also face a lack of job security. From season to season, teams launch and fold, sponsors come and go, and riders are picked up and dropped from rosters. It’s not common for a rider – especially in the US – to sign a multi-year contract, which means there comes a time annually when riders have to turn their focus from the current year to the next.
That time is now. It may feel premature, but the big teams are already thinking and talking about next year and if you’re a current or aspiring professional cyclist, you should be too. Gather your palmares and flattering race photos, put them into a resume that doesn’t make you look narcissistic, desperate, or insane, and start emailing directors yesterday.
Problematically, if it takes putting your resume in front of a director for them to know who you are, you’re already behind. So much of cycling is about connections and relationships, supported by a rider’s reputation and results. This sport is a small world, so it’s unlikely a director is going to open the resume of a complete unknown and be blown away by stellar results. Nobody secretly podiums at Nationals or inconspicuously dons a yellow jersey.
The real job search for riders starts when they first show up a top-level event; directors and pros in the peloton are constantly looking at how people perform in and out of races. We notice the riders we’d want on our team; they’re the ones riding hard and smart, racing the hell out of their bikes while not being a danger to the field, and acting like somebody we’d want to have a beer with after the finish. I failed miserably at most of those – I rode hard but stupid and wore my desperation on my sleeve (picture me at the finish line of a national-level crit, sobbing because I finished 4th and wouldn’t have a podium photo for my resume). It took a fortuitous personal connection to even open the door to my first team opportunity.
One of the best things about these past two seasons was no longer constantly worrying about signing my next pro contract. When you run your own team, you worry about everything except whether or not you’ll have a job. After five years of stressing all season about getting a job the following year, it was a relief to let go of that anxiety and race my bike without thinking about a result for a resume. I also didn’t have to spend July through October obsessively checking my email waiting for my dreams to come true (or not).
Now I’m on the receiving end of those resumes. Sometimes this forces me to confront harsh realities about my own past mistakes; for example, I genuinely believed after winning a few local races as a category 3 racer that pro teams would want to hire me and sent out my resume accordingly. (That was a definitive no.) I deeply wish somebody had saved me from myself back then and still feel the urge to blush when I cross paths with a director I aggressively and unsuccessfully attempted to woo.
It’s with those memories in mind that I try to respond to each resume honestly and kindly, although that can be challenging when wading through five pages of photos and narrative from a rider waxing poetic about how her objective is “To find a team that can help me accomplish X, Y, and Z.” Dude. No. 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 describing specifically how you will be an asset.
[This advice can also be applied to resumes in professional careers 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.]
I can sympathize with the burning, all-consuming desire to get on a professional team because I felt it for years. Getting hired seemed like the only way to validate my success as a rider. And yes, it is great to be able to call myself a professional cyclist, to have things paid for and given to me, 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 a rider’s season and motivation. A pro contract is not a golden ticket; it’s an opportunity but also a job, and one that comes with obligations that aren’t always a joy to fulfill.
The best lesson I’ve learned is to ride and race because you want to and that’s it. Not because you’re trying to get or keep a contract, not because you have to, and not because you’re trying to impress anybody. Teams come and go, results are fleeting, bad luck can steal your best race ever. I’d rather eat my chamois than say something like “it’s about the journey, not the destination” but there’s actually some wisdom in that. There are a thousand finish lines and you will probably not arrive at most of them first. Better to at least have a good time getting there.
But the cache of being a professional cyclist and the opportunities that come with being part of an established team are hard to pass up. I still get excited to have a team car and matching kits and race radios. It still feels cool to tell people at happy hours that I’m a professional cyclist (and then tell them that, no, I do not race in the Tour de France and, no, I do not know Lance Armstrong). Having a job on a team still matters as much as it did a decade ago when I first wanted one and if I wasn’t running a team, I’d be biting my nails now and wishing desperately for a chance to be part of one yet again. Like riding the trainer or breaking a collarbone, contract season is a necessary evil that is as much as part of this sport as bidons and finish lines.