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The pivot to cycling: Pro racing’s new breed of rowers, runners and skiers

They've got the engine, but do they have the racing savvy? Insiders at the top of the pro peloton think there's no object to rowers, runners, and skiers becoming stars of the WorldTour.

First, there was a former runner winning grand tour stages, then there was a ski jumper taking overall victory at the Vuelta a España. Just last week, a rower won the esports world championships.

What’s next? An unknown ski mountaineer signing to the WorldTour?

Oh, wait, that already happened.

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And there could be a lot more athletes pivoting toward cycling from sports such as rowing, running, and skiing in the years to come.

“Cycling is a business in a competitive sport,” Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) told VeloNews. “Like any sport, you’re trying to gain competitive advantage. And you want to try and cast as wide of a net to capture the best talent.”

Former world-class middle-distance runner Woods and world junior champion ski jumper Primož Roglič were among the first of the current generation of WorldTour racers to prove you don’t need to be winning your local crit aged five to hit the big time in pro cycling.

This past month has seen Jason Osborne, a world champion rower, better a field full of pros to win the world championships on Zwift.

Out on the tarmac, two elite skiers with minimal cycling experience have shown so much physiological potential that they’ve been handed deals with Androni Giocattoli Sidermec and Bora-Hansgrohe. Former rowers Kristen Faulkner (Tibco-SVB) and Cameron Wurf (Ineos) have been cycling at the top for a number of years.

Could pro cycling be filled with riders with huge raw power but no racing background in the future?

It could be, and Bora-Hansgrohe’s move to sign Anton Palzer may be the first of many contracts that see athletes from across the endurance spectrum parachuting into the whirlwind of the WorldTour.

“It may look like a daring venture, and a certain risk is definitely involved, but we have been following Toni [Palzer] for quite a long time and are convinced of his physical abilities,” said Bora-Hansgrohe manager Ralph Denk when he signed the skier. “You can see from examples like Roglič or Woods that such an experiment can be successful, and we have always said that we would scout within different sports.”

Two-time Vuelta champ Primož Roglič began his athletic career on skis. Photo: Courtesy Johannes Mair/Alpsolut

Woods, who posted a sub-four-minute mile during his running heyday, came to cycling late in life when injuries saw him bin the running shoes and step into some cycling cleats. Those with backgrounds in elite rowing such as Faulkner, Osborne, and Kiwi Olympic boatman turned time trial specialist Hamish Bond have been in the saddle far longer.

Chris Bartley, a former Team GB Olympic rower turned rowing coach and amateur cycling time trial ace, explained that time in a boat and time in the saddle go hand in hand if you want to be the strongest with a set of oars.

“Riding is a big part of any high-level rowing program,” Bartley told VeloNews.

“Rowing training by its very nature is pretty hard on the body, so you can sort of only do maybe 90 minutes per session in a boat or on the rowing machine. Bike training is just a very easy way of getting low-impact, high-volume work to supplement the rowing and build a base. If you want to excel in rowing, you need to spend time on a bike too.”

With rowing such a physically uncomfortable and physiologically taxing sport, Bartley explained that sessions on Ergo or on the water are always relatively short, intense, and painful.

“There’s always some degree of suffering in a rowing session,” he said. “You’re not able to row for hours and hours on end so you can’t build up your training hours with junk.”

It’s that requirement to compartmentalize pain, much like Woods’ efforts on the running track, that adds a further string to the bow of rowers and runners looking to step into the world of road racing, where races play out over four hours but are won over four minutes.

Take German Zwift champ Osborne’s worlds winning 10w/kg move as a case in point. He said it himself – “I know how to hurt myself a lot.” And that’s what is needed to win in any sport.

https://twitter.com/UCI_cycling/status/1336708859235282946?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1336708859235282946%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.velomotion.de%2Fmagazin%2F2020%2F12%2Fradsport-jason-osborne-interview%2F

No matter what the duration of the races, one thing that does tie rowers, skiers, runners, and riders is their engines. The records for top recorded Vo2 max results – a measure of maximal oxygen uptake that defines physiological potential – are entirely filled by athletes from the sports.

No surprise then, that when both ski mountaineer Palzer signed for Bora and cross-country skier Marti Vigo del Arco signed for Androni, each of their respective coaches lauded their “exceptional values in physical tests,” a surefire indication that they have the motor to make a bike move very fast.

But it takes much more than having good physiology to win in the cutthroat racing of the WorldTour, and Palzer acknowledged that “developing a certain racing intelligence” is top of his list of priorities when he rides with Bora-Hansgrohe next year.

Woods similarly suggested that being able to match the racing savvy and technical proficiency of those that were in the saddle in their childhoods is something that has only recently come to him. Even after five years in the WorldTour, the 34-year-old said that catching up with the racecraft and bike handling that his rivals have spent up to 20 years developing is a constant work in progress.

“By far when I first started riding, the biggest things to master were the handling skills and fear factor,” Woods said. “They’re both things I’m still focusing on learning – I still work with a descending coach and I work on my technical skills quite a bit.”

Osborne is hoping to get a pro cycling contract in 2022 after seeing out his Olympic ambitions in Tokyo. Roglič, Faulkner, Woods, and Bond have proven the pivot onto the pedals is possible, and Palzer and Vigo del Arco will be next in the spotlight. Behind them, Woods feels there could be plenty more making the pivot into the pedals.

“It’s a smart move for teams to be looking outside the sport,” Woods said. “It’s important for them to think outside the box.”

“Cycling is a really tough sport to learn, but it’s still a sport, and if you have a strong sports background in something else, skills are very transferable. The training is so dialed in, the technology is so good, and the information is so accessible now, there’s a lot you can learn about the sport a lot faster than before.

“Just because you don’t start riding and racing a bike when you’re 10 years old, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a great cyclist.”