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Racing in Europe: weighing up the pros & cons

North Londoner James McKay reflects on his experiences of living and racing abroad in pursuit of his cycling dream...

22-year-old North Londoner James McKay currently rides in France for the amateur ASPTT Nancy team. Having experienced racing and living in France and Belgium, he reflects on the pros and cons of moving abroad in pursuit of the pro cycling dream…

There is a decision that a very niche group of young aspiring professional cyclists have to make. Whether to move to mainland Europe (usually Belgium, France, Spain or Italy) and race for a foreign team or stay in the UK. They say nothing worth doing is easy, but is moving country worth it?

After spending one season in France, here are my thoughts which may provide some help to others making that choice, or else may make interesting reading to others.

Moving abroad to race can be a good move. It is an adventure and … you will certainly pick up some valuable life experience. But is it worth the hassle?

James McKay in race acton for his team ASPTT Nancy. Photo: Charly Vélo Photos

Advantages

The racing

There tend to be more races of better quality, compared with the UK. In France, there are multiple ‘Elite Nationale’ races (similar standard to National Road Series in the UK) on every weekend, plus full distance road races midweek. In Belgium, there are usually a handful of races every day of the week.

There is a greater variety of racing – point to point races, stage races, etc. This can be useful to figure out where your strengths lie, and also bring on aspects of your racing that need (painfully) improving. Also, if you are a pure climber, Europe can offer mountainous racing for you to really exhibit your speciality.

Arguably it is a better route to the top of the sport. Certainly, it is a more well-trodden path to the World Tour, but as the level has increased in the UK so much in the past 10 years, I wouldn’t say it is worth doing for this reason alone.

Money (potentially)

Assuming you have a passport, you will need to factor in the costs of:

  • Moving (e.g. plane ticket or Channel crossing + fuel)
  • VISA (after Brexit)
  • Healthcare/health insurance
  • and if you are taking your car to Europe you have two options: (1) have it insured at home with a European policy (I had a good experience with Aviva), or (2) buying foreign plates and getting it insured and taxed in your country of residence.

All of these things are additional costs, so why is moving to Europe as a bike racer potentially a good move for your wallet?

  • Living Costs. I was given free accommodation in a fully furnished apartment, plus a monthly living wage by the team (€300)
  • Racing costs. All my racing costs were covered by the team. This includes entries, travel, a bike and kit. These things can really add up if you’re doing a lot of race days per year. This is especially true in the UK where the entries are laughably expensive. So even if you find yourself riding without a team abroad, you can save yourself a packet
  • Prize money. Generally, the prize money is better, and goes deeper into the field (e.g. prize money for the top 30 in a race as opposed to the top 10).

Foreign culture

You will have the opportunity to experience life immersed in a new country. You can learn valuable language skills, see some different sights and get a better understanding of the culture in a different place.

Photo: James McKay

Better training environment

The road surface tends to be better, and there is more respect shown towards cyclists from other road users. Combined with a more favourable climate, this can mean training is easier and more enjoyable. There are also fewer distractions (e.g. pubs, friends’ parties or English speaking girls) so that may help you focus and crack on with training consistently.

I really enjoyed the emptiness of the French countryside, particularly as I was moving from London (not the destination to base your next training camp). But do your homework about where potential teams are based; your training experience could be very different riding for a team in the Dolomites compared to one based in a big city.

Disadvantages

Isolation and general boredom

You’ll kiss goodbye to any pre-existing social groups. If training in a group is important to you, do your homework to check if other riders from the team will be close by. I have trained a handful of times with my Bulgarian housemate, but otherwise have ridden alone. Although I’m looking forward to some “club-runs” when I get back home, I enjoy my own company on rides so this hasn’t been a big problem. But if you struggle for motivation on your own, moving abroad might not work out too well.

Moreover, it turns out those “distractions” I mentioned can be more of a blessing than a hindrance. Although going out every Friday night probably won’t help your race results, having some mates around is probably a good thing for your cycling. I seriously underestimated how having effectively no meaningful social interaction would affect my psychology. This can be exacerbated if you live in a rural or industrial area and have limited foreign language skills (see below).

Photo: James McKay

Also, you can end up very bored if you have few hobbies or interests outside of cycling. Because it demands so much time, money and energy, cycling can easily end up as your sole interest whilst being a student or holding down a job in the UK.

Most young people are addicted to/can happily spend hours of each day looking at screens. But you may have no TV (or only foreign channels) or Wifi (this applies to me and a number of other foreign riders on my team). I tried to get a phone contract sim-card for internet access but the law in France requires you to have a French bank account for this. You may run into other unexpected laws or arrangements in a new country. Personally, I also think there are better ways to spend your time…

If you take the leap of going full-time in Europe, I’d definitely recommend looking into some other things to keep you busy. Art, music and distance-learning are all great options. I read an average of three books per week in France and was still pretty bored at times.

No home comforts

This is fairly self-explanatory. For me it meant no BBC, Branston Pickle, good coffee beans and musclefoods.com. Be sure to import as much cheddar cheese and Yorkshire Tea as possible when going home or family are visiting.

Photo: James McKay

Foreign culture

Being in a country which speaks a different language can be challenging. If you have a basic understanding of the lingo you will probably get by day-to-day, but in an unexpected situation (e.g. in hospital, or if your car breaks down) it can be tough. Communicating with team mates, breakaway companions and race commissaires is certainly useful too. Plus, other foreign riders on your team may speak neither your language nor the native language.

‘Old skool’ attitude

Although it is a stereotype that European riders take a less scientific approach to cycling, it is not unfounded. A common theme from Brits abroad is their amazement at some of the dogmas still in place at some teams. This can range from training without power meters or heart rate monitors, to focusing on riding a certain (large) number of kilometres per week, paying no attention to aerodynamics, or race weight.

Sports nutrition seems to be especially poor. Milk will be deemed bad, whilst yoghurt is good. Riders may take out the inside of bread rolls for similarly health conscious reasons. In races they may eat only fruit compotes (pre-packaged pureed fruit), or simply nothing at all. It may be worth considering when you go abroad, things that may be normal for you – eating a nourishing, balanced diet and wearing aerodynamic socks – may be laughed at or criticised.

Cycling is a sport in which unhealthy eating habits can easily develop, and personally I feel like certain European teams create an especially dangerous environment. Stories of Directeur Sportifs eyeballing riders over every meal or even actively starving riders are all too common. So, if you feel like this is something you could struggle with or if you have a history of disordered eating, moving to a European team may not be a good fit.

No NHS

Not ideal if you have any kind of illness, or a bad crash whilst riding. A EHIC card may help you get emergency treatment but after that it will need to be paid for either by yourself or private healthcare insurance.

Brexit (from 2019?)

Who knows how this will change things? However, it is a safe bet that it can only make moving to and living in Europe more complicated.

Photo: James McKay

Conclusion

Moving abroad to race can be a good move. It is an adventure and, if you decide to go, you will certainly pick up some valuable life experience. But is it worth the hassle? It’s not easy to give a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer, because the situation of every rider and team is different. But you definitely should not feel like you’re missing out by racing domestically, or feel vastly superior if you choose to race abroad.

A good medium may be to race for a UK team and travel over to Belgium or France for some target races, or to supplement the domestic calendar. Or alternatively look to guest for a foreign team for a shorter period. It may be a good way to find out if riding abroad is for you.

Read James McKay’s blog here.