The Trajectory of a Junior Cyclist

Young riders are the future of our sport. Whether or not a certain junior cyclist will go pro on the quick trajectory, or that rider will stop after college, take a break, come back as a Cat 3 and race through masters, every young rider entering the sport is someone that should be cultivated.  With that said, each rider is different and each rider will have a different path through the sport. I find the lives of cyclists fascinating, and every single time there’s way more going on than cycling. What we want as coaches is to push our athletes to reach up to and beyond their goals without burn out. Pushing them physically with the most efficient stimuli is the easier side. If you have background, physiological knowledge, and cycling experience, we know what workouts the rider will benefit from. The trick is how much, and gauging where the rider is at mentally.

My Path from Junior Cyclist to Pro

When I was a junior cyclist, I had a great coach in Susan Hefler. I’m sure I was a pain in the butt to work with. At 15-18 years old, I would do the workouts, I went from a cat 5-2 in a year and had my cat 1 upgrade as I left for college. I was pretty pleased with my own trajectory and just wanted to go to college and eventually go pro. I couldn’t be caught dead filling in Sue on how I felt, if I did the workouts, how I felt about my race. It was to my own detriment, but I was a typical teenager and just didn’t really want to talk about training, but completed it. My trajectory, and coaches and family, led me to collegiate racing instead of USA Cycling Talent ID Camps. It led me to going to Colorado State University instead of a scholarship to Marian or Fort Lewis. I have no regrets but this was the path I chose. Through college I raced bigger and bigger races and eventually getting professional contracts and being stable racing at the top level of the US calendar.

The All-In Junior Cyclist

The opposite example of rider trajectory is an athlete that’s a bit more focused in cycling as life, for better or worse. Athletes that want to fully commit to cycling can find a junior program, do some talent ID camps and really make their way from 15-18 yeas old traveling, racing, and seeking opportunity and support as early as possible. It’s a fine trajectory if you can pull it off but beware the burn out! Find a good coach, don’t rush things, and target races but don’t race everything. Make a long term plan to prevent losing the ability to have fun or burning out of the sport.
I’ll be the first to tell you, when you’re 21 and your birthday is in December and your years of being U23 and being a stagiaire on pro teams is coming to an end it seems like “time is running out.” If you really want to be a pro cyclist you’re going to have to consider longevity in the sport. There’s only a few dozen guys with pro on their license in any given year in the US. Most of them are over 23 years old. There are riders on the roster of 2018 pro teams who I raced with as a junior cyclist who were great riders, pushed too hard, left the sport, and made a comeback and are now ‘pro’ for the first time at 28 and are on the peak form of their life. Don’t push so hard you hate the sport.

The Overtrained Junior Cyclist

The overtrained junior cyclist: another example I’ve seen in friends that I hope to never be a coach through. Even if the rider is talented with  a great support net, there’s still many places for the rider to fall through the net and leave cycling. There are benefits for riders getting on larger junior programs. The support for equipment and travel is really helpful. The crossroad comes when the rider overtrains. Younger riders have an amazing ability to train and recover. The mental freshness and drive is usually very high. Most bike racers have experienced the junior that blasts through cat 5,4,3’s and so on. The blast off and success can lead to really good momentum for training overload. It’s hard to really reel that in and not overtrain. As the rider goes deeper into overtraining it will eventually catch up to them and it unfortunately usually ends in the rider getting sick or just not wanting to ride or race anymore. They lost the fun and the reality is it’s easier to not be an athlete.

Still having fun after a crash at 2007 JR nationals in 7 springs PA

As a junior cyclist you get into the sport, or talking to parents, your kid gets into the sport, to have fun. That’s it. After racing a bit and idolizing the professional riders, the athlete will have that pro contract in the back of their mind and they don’t even really know what what it’s like when you lose sight of it being fun. Then it’s really hard to stay in it. It’s also easy to make bad decisions. Nutritional bad calls are notorious in cycling. That can lead to huge negative effects in training, overload, and recovery.

A Coach’s Role for Junior Cyclists

As coaches we need to balance the athlete. Coaching is all about reaching goals for your athletes. There’s a huge difference between coaching a 35+ cat 1 with a day job, and a junior. The major differences in life situations and physiology allow for junior and U23 riders to be blown up much quicker and more easily. The terminology, blown up, burnt out, overtrained, over-reached, are nearly all synonymous here. In general junior cyclists are able to push themselves way further into the hole, have more time to ride, are less in tune with their body, and in some cases have a harder time communicating openly with their coach.
Balance means not pushing the rider past their physiological limit, balancing means a combination of the fun stuff with real workouts in a sustainable way, and pushing towards race goals in line with where the rider wants to go. I’ve heard and met some negative coaches in the past that think to be a good coach, you and the athlete have to be all in or not at all and I disagree with that method. For example, maybe a rider could be faster in their peak race if they lost 10 pounds, but that 10 pounds brings the rider from a healthy 142 pounds to an unhealthy 132 pounds. The ride may have gotten sick trying, the rider may have a negative relationship with food, the rider may even get pushed into a full on eating disorder to follow their coaches “feedback.” All these are steps well beyond the wheels falling off of the situation between coach and rider. That’s not to say there are no riders that can lose weight but as a coach we have to have balance and keep the health of the rider first, and lucky for us good coaches, usually the healthy rider performs more consistently then the unhealthy lighter rider.
We do have technologies that we did not have in the past that help aid the junior and coach relationship. Performance Manager Charts run by daily fatigue scores lets us see a deep insight into a rider that is overtraining. Then it’s up to the coach to somehow tell a 17 year old how to follow a plan to get to peak form.
I enjoy using my experience to coach juniors through the life of cycling and I hope to be able to continue to work with many junior cyclists and get as many new people into the sport as possible.
Zack Allison earned his bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science at Colorado State University. As part of his education, he participated in many hands on exercise science practicum and internships, coaching many types of athletes, specifically cyclists.
Zack’s affinity for cycling started at the early age of 14 racing on the east coast. He quickly moved up the amateur ranks to race on the elite national circuit. This level of competition sparked his interest in exercise science, taking him to Colorado State University. While racing for his alma-mater and on various amateur teams he saw many podiums at the Collegiate Championships and Pro/Am events. Zack is currently living in Fort Collins, Colorado and has raced for Elevate Pro Cycling and currently races for Clif Bar.
Growing up with great mentors and coaches, Zack has a goal of paying it forward. He hopes to use his education and racing experience to bring success to Source Endurance and his clients. Zack also owns and operated the Source Endurance Training Center of the Rockies, a training and bike fit studio in Fort Collins, CO.