European cyclists are so lucky and most don’t even know it. They take it for granted. In fact, I would wager that they don’t even think about it -- They live in the epicentre of bike racing, and this has many, many benefits.
For starters, it is a place where cycling is (generally) accepted as a sport and bikes are (generally) given respect and room on the road. Fans get to stand on the side of the road and watch big names go past in races. People can travel to other countries with relative ease and ride some of the most infamous and legendary areas. Finally, the pathways for cyclists to compete and progress to the professional ranks are greater and more defined.
When you look at it through the lens of professional cycling, the benefits get even bigger. For starters, the European riders don’t have to spend huge amounts of time away from home. The longest they are away is essentially the length of the race and then it is a relatively short flight to get back home. They can stay with their family and get to train from home.
For Australians like me, the logistics of racing in Europe are far more complicated. For starters, it’s a heck of a long way away. It takes around two days of travel to get to Europe and a few more days on top of that until the body and brain start to feel normal from the time difference. For those who are trying to carve their path through smaller continental or amateur teams, the cost of the flight alone is enough to put a sizeable dent in your savings. Add onto that the ridiculous price of an Australian international license & insurance (up to AU$4000), and this world is already out of reach for most.
Once (or if) you make it to Europe, there are the logistics of finding and organizing accommodations in a country where you probably don’t speak the language. Many go with the cheaper option of staying in a team house and sleep on a couch in a room with six other guys. Others find refuge in known pro-cyclist hangouts such as Lucca, Andorra or Southern Spain where the weather is slightly warmer. In these places, they have the benefit of training with other pros and can usually live in an English bubble, so there is less need to be fluent in the local language.
For myself, I live in Girona, in Northern Spain. There are a lot of other pro cyclists here, so I am never short of a training partner. I can get away with only knowing a few basic sentences of Spanish and sometimes forget that I’m in a non-English speaking country. Despite these ‘benefits’ of Girona, like the other riders from Australia here, I can’t escape the fact that I am on the other side of the planet from my home, family and friends. From what I have seen, there are two ways to approach this predicament…
Option 1: Set up a home away from home. Many pros make Girona their ‘home’ with all of the comforts that they would have back in Australia… an apartment, a car, and any other luxuries they may desire. This option has many benefits: They have a familiar and comfortable place to return to between races and can live a fairly relaxed life. They are more likely to try to learn the local language and customs because their living situation seems a bit more long-term. After living out of a suitcase at races, it is a relief to come ‘home’ and feel like you have unpacked rather than just relocated your suitcase.
Setting up a home away from home can also have its negatives. Unfortunately, professional cycling is a very uncertain career choice where you get almost no job security. This means it could all come to an end at any time and then you are stuck with a heap of stuff you can’t take with you. At the end of the day, for an Australian living in Europe, it’s all temporary. Setting up a home can also mean that you end up missing Australia even more as there isn’t a light at the end or a ‘return date’. This can also make it harder to stay focused on your training and easier to lose motivation.
Option 2: The alternative is what I choose to do and that is to treat the entire time in Europe as one big training camp. It is just one big trip away from home rather than a heap of smaller trips.
The benefits of doing it this way are that I don’t accumulate a lot of stuff. I generally make do with what I have. It’s easier to justify and deal with being away from home for so long because I know it’s only temporary, and I know my ‘return date’. Being on one big training camp also makes it easier to stay focused and remember what I am here for.
However, this also has several cons. In three years, I haven’t made any real effort to learn Spanish or involve myself in the culture or local events. I also feel like I live half of the year out of a suitcase going from race to race, hotel to hotel. By the end of the racing season, I quite often forget about what clothes and belongings I have back in Australia. The worst part of being on one big training camp is that I always feel like I am sitting around waiting. I am just trying to kill time before I have to go to the next thing.
Waiting for the next race. Waiting for the next training session. Waiting for the next flight. Waiting for the next hotel. Waiting to go home.