Pro cyclists grow up really quickly – they have to. Whilst most of us spend the early part of our twenties wondering around in a daze of indecision, debating important topics such as ‘does pesto go with basically all foods?’ and 'how shall I cut my hair next?', for a budding World Champion those are the most critical years of their career.
The focus and dedication required to be a pro cyclist was evident when we spoke to nine time American National Champion, Alexis Ryan. Signed to UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling through 2014 and 2015, she's joined Canyon//SRAM’s pro team for 2016 and we caught up with her at the team training camp.
Aside from her tiny frame and petite features, what's most striking about the 21-year-old from California is that she's as quick witted as she is speedy on a bike, despite having to share her attention between school and cycling in a battle which is usually won by the bike.
Chilling out in her room after a training ride whilst on camp in Majorca, Ryan tells me that she's graduated high school but now balances further education with cycling: “I still struggle to balance school and riding. I go to school in the fall, but it’s so broken up - I take one semester of classes then have months off and have to reset my brain every August."
"Personally I know I can only do one thing well at a time. The minute I start stretching myself [in too many directions] I get stressed out and I don’t perform well at anything. I know cycling is what I want to do so I’m going to focus on this."
Despite the claimed disarray, Ryan strikes me as one of the most intelligent, well balanced 21-year-olds I’ve ever met. We chat for some time about the issues in women’s cycling – equal pay, the progression from junior to senior – and it’s clear she’s internally debated every one, either coming to a conclusion or accepting that in some cases there is no clear cut answer.
In terms of her cycling career vs academia, she’s made her choice as to which takes priority: “Knowing myself, personally I know I can only do one thing well at a time. The minute I start stretching myself [in too many directions] I get stressed out and I don’t perform well at anything. I know cycling is what I want to do so I’m going to focus on this, accomplish the things I want to accomplish and then move on and [think about going back] to school full time."
Ryan doesn't want to make any statements that she might go back on and her plans for the future aren't set in stone - only time will tell. She says: “I don’t have a time limit - I might be in cycling all my life - but I’m giving myself until the 2020 Olympics then I’ll reassess my life and see what I want to do after that."
Ryan stepped up to the senior ranks fairly recently – but few of her junior racing buddies made the leap with her. She explains: “From my junior days I’m one of the only girls still racing. I think the reason few have continued is because there wasn’t really much beyond. The jump was too great between being a junior and being an elite."
"There wasn’t a foundation to look towards. There is no minimum wage - I have a friend who used to call herself a volunteer professional cyclist. Because she didn’t get paid anything."
Joining her first pro team in 2013, Ryan had the chance to race in Europe, where start lists are bigger and more competitive, before becoming a senior – she says: “I was fortunate enough to have these opportunities… so I knew what I was getting into. Some of the girls didn’t have that chance. There isn’t really an under 23 level in women’s cycling – you go from the junior ranks directly to professional. And, rightly or wrongly, there is no minimum wage - I have a friend who used to call herself a 'volunteer professional cyclist'. Because she didn’t get paid anything.
“It’s kind of sad when a girl is faced with a decision ‘do I go professional and live with my parents for a while’ or ‘do I go and get an education and start a career’. I think that’s why most of the girls I raced with go to school now, because they can have a life after that. They can make a living for themselves and be independent. The men’s side is still hard, but you can reach that ‘famous level’ where you can make a lot of money – there aren’t many women at that level."
"Whatever you want to do in life, if you want to be successful it’s going to be hard."
Part of the reason that some of Ryan’s youth racing friends didn’t make it to the professional ranks of course is that it’s really hard – but rather modestly she counters my point by arguing that perseverance is something that applies to more than just cycling: “Whatever you want to do in life, if you want to be successful it’s going to be hard. If you want to go to school and get an education and win a Nobel prize in chemistry, that’s going to be hard! Whatever you choose to do, if you want to get to the top level it’s going to be difficult."
Training in Majorca with her new team mates, the camp is just as much about getting to know each other as it is about putting in the kilometres. Having come from an American team, I expect that joining a multinational squad might be difficult. Apparently not.
“Not all having English as a first language helps us bond more. We really have to listen to each other and try to understand another person."
The Californian raised rider says: “Not all having English as a first language helps us bond more. We really have to listen to each other and try to understand another person. When you all speak the same language sometimes you bounce things off each other and don’t really focus. Everyone is from a different background, we’re all from different cultures and have a different perspective on the world. We can all learn from one another."
Inter-team dynamics are crucial – she explains: “When you’re out racing on the bike in stressful conditions, you need to have trust in one another and be really close knit. You need to get to the point where you can communicate without communicating. If that makes sense." It does.
Communication is important in other areas – too. The Canyon//SRAM team are working closely with sponsors to help develop better products for female cyclists – all brands involved hope to use rider feedback to better their offering.
Discussing availability of kit for female cyclists, Ryan says: “I think the major products that need to be improved are saddles and chamois. They’re very important aspects of the bike. It’s a part of the bike that can become uncomfortable and it’s basically your foundation. I feel like most of the research in the cycling industry has been done with male models, creating a male template. I know Canyon will be working a lot with us on the bikes and they really want to develop the best women’s bike out there."
She adds: “No one person is the same. So whatever product brands develop, it needs to come in a wide range. The industry is moving in the right direction, but these things take time. When you get people demanding something happens ‘now’, most people just shut down. The term 'now' needs to be looked at in a matter of months or years, not this second."
Women's cycling is becoming more mainstream, which means the availability of product is growing. There's more to be done though, we agree- and the media play an important role, too (TWC puff our chests in a moment of pride). Ryan says: “Things like you talking to me now. That gets fans into the sport too. People want to know athletes. They don’t want to just look at it as us as being cold faces covered up by helmets and glasses. There are so many personalities and stories to be told. When the media gets in and starts really sharing those stories it gets people interested in the sport."
"There are so many personalities and stories to be told. When the media gets in and starts really sharing those stories it gets people interested in the sport."
We can't let this young rider go without asking what she loves most about the sport, and what her end goals are - she tells us: “I enjoy riding. I enjoy the adventure of riding. But the racing aspect of it – I just love everything, the speed, the strategy, the team aspect of it. Most people from the outside don’t see cycling as a team sport but it very much is."
And her goals in racing? At first she’s not keen to share a specific race title – but the truth comes out: “The 2020 Olympics and the road race in Tokyo are big goals. And I am really a fan of the spring classics… I do like the Tour of Flanders… if I were to win a spring classic… Ok, I guess I’d like to win Flanders at some point in my career. That would be a dream come true."
Read more about the Canyon//SRAM racing team here.