Words of Wisdom: Peloton's veterans share their advice with the next generation

Don't stress, adjust your expectations, socialise, have some respect, and enjoy it... some of the counsel from the likes of Thomas De Gendt, Robert Gesink and Wout Poels

ClockUpdated 18:00, Tuesday 24th October 2023. Published 17:30, Tuesday 24th October 2023
Thomas De Gendt looking suitably wise and contemplative

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Thomas De Gendt looking suitably wise and contemplative

Professional cycling is a young man’s game. That wasn’t the case even as recently as five years ago, but the sport has changed dramatically in the space of just half a decade, to the point where, as Wordsworth would put it, the children are fathers to the men.

It used to be that the first two or three years of a career would serve as an apprenticeship, a rite of passage in learning the ropes, developing physically, and finding one’s place in the natural order of the peloton. Nowadays, neo pros are coming onto the scene as something approaching the finished article.

That’s why, when GCN went round the veterans at the recent Vuelta a España and asked them what one piece of advice they’d give to the youngsters, most of them laughed. “They’re the ones who should be giving us the advice!” said Luis León Sánchez.

But can the young bucks still learn a thing or two from the wise old owls? When you consider that three of the over 35s we spoke to for this piece won stages at the Vuelta, perhaps so.

In any case, here is, in their own words, the counsel they’d offer to someone just making their first steps in the sport. Roll Baz Lurhmann's Sunscreen.

Read more: One day at a time, getting through the mundane, and lots of luck - how to survive a Grand Tour

Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Dstny)

  • Age: 36
  • Years pro: 15

It’s important that they know they can have some downtime. It’s necessary to have some periods where you really disconnect from cycling, like I did with my bikepacking trip from Belgium to Spain – it frees the mind and takes you away from the training and the racing. You need those moments to get the focus back.

When it comes to racing itself, it's difficult because they all know much more than I ever did. When they talk to the dieticians and the coaches, they talk in terms as if they did the studies themselves. Most of them know everything about nutrition, training, what altitude does to your body… It’s difficult to give advice there.

Maybe not to panic when things go wrong – sometimes you see them panicking if there are splits in the bunch after a downhill or something, and there’s no real need for panic. Stress less, I would say.

Luis León Sánchez (Astana Qazaqstan)

  • Age: 39
  • Years pro: 20

They’re the ones who should be giving us the advice! We come from a completely different cycling.

What they should remember is that the professional life of an athlete is short. Make the most of it, take each day as it comes, and, most importantly, enjoy it.

Rein Taaramäe (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty)

  • Age: 36
  • Years pro: 16

When you’re young, you look for the goals, you want to win the Tour, you want to win this and that, and what I would say is ‘dream big, and no shame’. Work for your goals, give it 100%, but don’t be ashamed if you do not achieve them. There is no shame if you try. When you get older, you calm down because you get to know your place, your level. But when you’re young, go for it 100%.

The other thing I would say is ‘trust people’. Nowadays, there are a lot of people who can help you. When I was young, I was quite alone. There was nothing about nutrition, for example. The doping [period] was finished and it was the time when there were no systems, for training even, and it was really hard because I was quite alone. But now you have a lot of experts who can help. Trust them.

Rui Costa (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty)

  • Age: 37
  • Years pro: 16

The young guys are coming through now with a lot of strength and a lot of motivation, but I believe we are losing the respect – that’s really notable.

The only thing I’d ask is that they have a little more conscience. When I was younger like them, I had respect for the veterans. It always gave me a thrill to see them up close.

I looked up to them with a degree of respect, but that’s been lost now - completely.

Robert Gesink (Jumbo-Visma)

  • Age: 37
  • Years pro: 17

What would I say to a neo pro? Just stay away from all this madness!

No, just enjoy it, I guess. It seems like they know exactly what to do, because they’re getting better and better younger and younger.

In terms of helping them out along the road, we can still be helpful because we’ve seen a lot. In terms of stress, and dealing with that, maybe that's the biggest point. With experience, you learn how to be calm in certain situations. Nowadays there's more stress than ever among the young guys. That's why it's still important to have someone older to talk them through those moments as they are happening.

Larry Warbasse (AG2R Citroën Team)

  • Age: 33
  • Years pro: 11

Number one would be to make sure you keep enjoying it. We all got into this because it was something we had fun doing, and the minute you lose that fun aspect, it’s not easy, it becomes a job. Always try to keep it fun so it doesn’t become too much of a job.

For example, one thing I’ve seen a lot is guys thinking ‘ah I’ve got all these specific efforts, this and that, I should just ride alone every day’. There’s always someone else around, someone who has similar training to you, so make an effort to stay social and not just isolate yourself, because that’s easy to do.

Your efforts may be ‘easier’ done alone, but you don’t lose anything by riding with a buddy, another pro, and you gain a lot from the social aspect of it. Keep that in mind that you don’t always have to ride alone.

Mikaël Cherel (AG2R Citroën Team)

  • Age: 37
  • Years pro: 16

I’d advise them to avoid nurturing complexes, especially when it comes to the level of the peloton. On the one hand, they’re already well on their way with that.

When I turned pro 17 years ago, I looked up at the stars of the peloton with a mixture of fear and apprehension, and I definitely had some complexes around where I would fit in. Now, I see the kids coming straight out the U23s without any fear. The level of the amateur and U23 categories has shot up, and is very close to the top level.

That's a good thing, because it creates a mixture of generations in the classifications. But it can lead to other complexes if you aren't finding success as early as your peers. You have to try to not get distracted about what others are doing and that way you can find your place in the sport.

Geoffrey Soupe (TotalEnergies)

  • Age: 35
  • Years pro: 13

I would say 'keep your head up', because I see they are harder and harder on themselves, more and more demanding of themselves. They can't show weakness anymore, and if they're not winning, they're panicking.

Try and find your place in a team as quickly as possible, even if that's becoming harder and harder. That might mean adjusting your expectations. It could be a supporting role, but try and find a role and find satisfaction in that post. It's hard to be a big leader, it takes a lot. Think about focusing on something more achievable.

Finally, focus on the enjoyment aspect. Don't forget that you do this through passion, even if it remains a profession. I see young guys more and more assiduous in all aspects, but I also think it’s important for us older ones to encourage them to find a good balance. That means, from time to time, letting some things slide. But balance is what makes a career last longer. The way we're going, careers will become shorter – more intense, but shorter.

Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious)

  • Age: 36
  • Years pro: 15

I don’t want to give them any advice, they’re way too good already! They don’t need it! Just enjoy riding your bike, enjoy bike racing. It’s the best profession in the world.

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