Cyclist  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotCyclists are professional athletes. They ride bicycles to make money. Professional cyclists can compete in different types of events, including road racing, mountain bike racing, track, cyclocross and bicycle motocross (BMX).

Their main duty is to race bikes to win cash prizes and gain sponsorships. To do this, the cyclists have to be in tip-top shape and stay that way by doing lots of training.

Riders also do plenty of public relations. For example, they may attend bike shows on behalf of their sponsors or be featured in sponsor advertising.

"There is more to being a pro than racing fast around a track," explains pro BMX racer Matt Pohlkamp.

"Pros have sponsors that we represent. That means displaying a good image being the best person and role model that we can be. There are a lot of kids that look up to us and it's our job to set a good example for them."

dotThere are two main types of pro cyclists -- team racers and free agents. Team racers ride as part of a team, which is typically sponsored by several big companies. Most pro cyclists are on teams, be they club teams or national teams. Apprenticing riders typically race on club teams. Team riders earn a salary and also get a portion of any prize money, which is split between teammates.

Free agents, or "independents," pay their own way, relying on prize money to support their race careers. Riders often compete as free agents so they can attract offers from racing teams. Those on teams are paid salaries and receive benefit packages, such as medical and dental coverage.

dotProfessional cyclists train about 25 hours per week and ride more than 16,000 miles per year, depending on their type of event. They race 80 to 100 days a year, spending eight to 10 months on the race circuit.

Racing season is usually March through September, but racers can find races year-round if they try.

dotProfessional cycling is an international sport. So, traveling around the world to compete is a must for every pro cyclist. This means they can spend almost as much time on an airplane as on a bike.

"I've traveled all over the world because of BMX racing," says Matt Pohlkamp. "I usually race around 15 events a year. BMX has taken me to Japan, France, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Colombia just to name a few."

dotThis is an extremely difficult sport at which to make a living. Few riders actually sign contracts every year. As in any sport, however, there is always room for those with talent, ambition and a willingness to work. That's according to Pierre Hutsebaut, past race director for a cycling association.

dotProfessional racing is a full-time commitment, says Frank Sanders of the U.S. Cycling Federation. He says some racers also maintain jobs outside racing until they commit to the sport full time. But even then, training needs to be a priority.

Income depends on the calibre of team you are racing on and how well you perform individually and as a team. The money in racing is only great for a few top racers, so don't expect to retire from racing and never have to work again.

Pohlkamp currently makes his living BMX racing. But he also plans for the future.

"When I'm finished racing, I plan to put more energy into a family business that we have been working on getting going for a while. A lot of retired BMX racers have been known to stay within the industry in some capacity such as marketing for companies within our sport."

dotThe pro cycling world is a highly structured one. It is overseen by various authorities. In the U.S., there are a number of organizations that act as the governing bodies of amateur and professional racing, both road and off-road.

These include: the U.S. Cycling Federation (USCF), the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA), the National Collegiate Cycling Association (NCCA) and the U.S. Professional Racing Organization (USPRO).

dotRacers who choose to compete in Europe must first complete an unofficial apprenticeship. Europeans are only granted professional licenses if they are on a sponsored team. Teams are sponsored by large corporations such as banks, insurance companies and sports manufacturers. Getting on a team isn't easy.

"You have to prove yourself. You've got to have enough top three finishes and place consistently before you're going to get sponsorship," says former road racing pro Ron Hayman.

"I strongly recommend that riders don't try to skip a step. Work through the categories, spend some time in an apprenticeship. Make sure you have what it takes to become a professional racer.

"I've seen too many racers skip steps and then come back from Europe -- disillusioned after they don't do well -- and quit the sport altogether."

dotOne thing that's always changing in the cycling world is gear and the technology. The biggest recent changes have been in mountain biking equipment, says Kevin Eccles. Eccles works with a company that manages some of the professional road and mountain bike teams. New gear means a smoother ride and more capable bikes.

At a Glance

Race bikes in competitive events around the world

  • The mountain bike circuit is growing
  • Earnings range widely
  • No one educational pathway is required to become a pro cyclist