From Triathlon to Cycling: A Pro’s Journey from One Sport to the Other
By: Jen Luebke, Professional Cyclist
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to switch sports? Do you think you could be as successful at your second sport as your original?
Three years ago I put these questions to the test. After 10 years in triathlon, I quit racing professionally to give cycling a chance. When I switched, I would have never dreamed that within two years I would be racing on a professional team. At the time I was terrified of racing in a group. I’m now in my second season as a pro riding for Hagens Berman Supermint Pro Cycling. Read on to learn how I was able to go from beginner to professional cyclist in two years, along with some takeaways from my experience.
My Path to Professional Triathlon
It all started in math class. Really. I’m a total math nerd (double major in Mathematics and Spanish), and it’s quite possible that path to triathlon could be tied to the fact that my high school Calculus teacher was a triathlete.
My senior year of high school I decided to try out a local sprint. My young, rad math teacher helped me put skinny tires on my fully rigid mountain bike and just like that - I was off! Well, sort of.
The University of Montana Triathlon Team, circa 2008.
The next year, my freshman year of college, I joined the University of Montana triathlon club. I was the worst person on the team, and I later found out the team wagered bets on when I would quit. They all lost. I stuck with it and became faster than many of the boys by my junior year. We had a totally weird and awesome group where everyone pushed and supported each other and it made us all really fast. Something like 11 of us raced professionally after college, including myself as I raced as a pro from 2009 to 2015 in everything from Olympic to Iron distance.
In 2014 and 2015 I really struggled with a chronic low back and hamstring issue. It wasn’t so bad I had to stop training, so I trained through it (I’m not the only triathlete to do this.) Though soon I learned that this injury would not get better, and it was beyond frustrating. By the time 2015 rolled around, I had an entire triathlon season planned and in front of me. I did my first two races in April and May and didn’t really have fun.
Meanwhile, I had joined a cycling team to work on my bike leg of triathlon and was having fun. I then did one of the most impulsive things I’ve ever done: I switched sports.
My last iron distance race at Challenge Pentiction in August 2014, 4th place.
After the May race, without even thinking about this ahead of time, I stopped running and swimming - cold turkey. Up until that point I had been running and swimming every week for the last 12 years. Even more crazy than that, I think, is that I haven’t regretted it once!
My Path to Professional Cycling
The rest of 2015 was spent gaining as much experience as a cyclist as I could. I had dabbled in cycling races as a triathlete, so I was able to start as a category 3 (the lowest category for women is 4.) My 2015 goal was to gain enough points to upgrade to a category 2 so I could race the big race in my hometown, the Cascade Cycling Classic, a 5-day Tour de France style race.
A quick note on the cycling points system, something I had to learn as part of my transition from triathlon to cycling. Within this system you earn points by your placement in your category based on both the type of race and how many athletes are in the field, working your way up from a category 5 to 4 to 3 to 2 to 1 to pro.
Through my efforts in 2015, I upgraded in time to race the Cascade Cycling Classic as my first Pro/1/2 race, and did really well. By the end of 2015 I surprised myself and had enough points to be a category 1! This growth in category was a big deal, because to get onto a bigger cycling team you need to get noticed or make the teams notice you. With my new category, I started writing letters and emailing out my race resume to everyone in the cycling world, to no avail.
On top of Mont Ventoux: Tour de l'Ardeche, France – Visit Dallas DNA Pro Cycling – September 2016.
In 2016 I competed in more races on the national circuit in hopes of getting noticed. By the time Cascade Cycling Classic rolled around again, it worked. A director emailed me (responding to my emails from 2015) and within a week I had signed with a pro team and was going to France for a stage race.
The year following, in 2017, I had an amazing season with Visit Dallas DNA Cycling team gaining experience on the pro circuit, traveling way more than I ever have, and getting some good results along the way. And now this year, my second professional year, I signed with Hagens Berman Supermint Pro Cycling. So far I have had my best year in terms of results (and it’s only June) and I love, love, love my team.
It was a combination of hard work, dedication and luck that got me where I am today. For anyone considering switching sports, specifically from triathlon to cycling, here are some lessons I learned along the way.
Dana Point Grand Prix – 2018
Things I Wish I’d Known
I can’t believe how easy bike racing is sometimes.
Also, I can’t believe how HARD bike racing is sometimes.
Let me explain, there are times in bike races that the whole group is going 12 miles per hour on the flats, barely pedaling, and sometimes even chatting away while your heart rate is 95 bpm. I would never go this easy in training so when I first started bike racing, this part drove me crazy!
Why didn’t the group just want to pedal at tempo all day long?! Well, it’s because later on, in the exact same race, you might be going harder than you’ve ever gone before for 5 minutes straight, hitting your max heart rate wondering when the pace is going to let up because if it doesn’t you’re certainly going to pass out riding your bike, which leads me to my next point....
The pace will eventually back off.
If it’s hard for you, it’s probably hard for them and they will eventually let up. A lot of bike racing is not giving up the wheel. You want to stay in the draft; stay on another rider’s wheel.
When the pace gets hard, you have two choices: suffer on the wheel OR give up and go your own pace. I succeeded at bike racing early on because I hated getting dropped or losing contact to the wheel more than most people. I would ride outside myself to stay connected.
If you give up and go your own pace, in bike racing, there’s a very small chance you’ll ever catch those riders again; they’re gone until the end of the bike race. However, if you can stay connected to the leaders until the end of the bike race, you have a good chance of doing well.
Tucson Bicycle Classic - Tucson, AZ - February 2018 - I earned the yellow leader’s jersey during the stage 1 prologue and kept it with the help of my team through the stage 2 road race and the stage 3 circuit race.
Things that Surprised Me About the Switch
Not running is really good for cycling. Really.
Within 2 weeks of stopping running, my legs felt awesome and I was already seeing bigger power numbers. Running seems to ruin your legs for the bike and doesn’t allow you to tap into the really high cycling zones. Sprints and VO2 are especially affected.
The things you can't control in bike racing really stressed me out at first.
In triathlon, you can control almost everything about your race. I had to have a big mindset switch because there is so much you can’t control in a bike race.
For example, I stressed out a lot the first year I raced about being able to clip in and start off the line of a criterium quickly. Criteriums typically have really fast starts and if you can’t get clipped in you could get dropped right off the bat. Instead of continually stressing about it, I made it a game in my training.
Any time I had to stop and unclip at a stoplight or stop sign, I would pretend like it was the start of a crit and it was a race to get clipped in and pedal fast. Turns out, now I can clip in fast and I don’t stress about it anymore!
I get so much more sleep as a cyclist!
As a cyclist, I train the same number of hours each week that I did as a triathlete. Yet now, those hours aren’t broken up into multiple sessions a day – and there are no more 5:30am swim practices, which means I get to sleep more. I had no idea how tired I was all the time as a triathlete until I caught up on my sleep as a cyclist. My boyfriend tells me I’m less grumpy, at least.
I love the team aspect of cycling.
This certainly isn't for everyone. I truly believe that some people are team sports people and some belong in individual sports.
It's a crazy feeling sacrificing your race to benefit a teammate. You don't really know the feeling until it happens. You might not even finish the race but if you do something that helps your teammate win their race, it's an amazing feeling.
On the flip side, the pressure you have when your teammates are sacrificing their race makes you want to pull off whatever the goal is way more than any individual race desire ever could.
Crazy Things that Worked for Me
I ended up not doing any solo workouts my first year.
Instead, I worked on my weakness of pack riding and solely did fast group rides. That was a 2 for 1 - working on pack riding skills AND my intensity. This might not be the recipe for everyone, but it was for me.
I did not ride my time trial bike in training at all the first year I was a cyclist.
I had previously spent so much time riding a time trial bike (training for 112-mile time trials) that I needed to put my eggs in other baskets. I was comfortable showing up for time trials at stage races and just going for it.
Wildflower Olympic Distance Triathlon 2009, 1st place, earning my professional license.
Triathlon and Cycling Training Differences
- Triathletes spend a ton of time in tempo and LT zones. You'll see huge gains if you work high end, VO2 and anaerobic capacity.
- Similar to the above, train your weaknesses. As a triathlete you probably haven’t done 12-second sprints before. You can do away with some, if not all, of your threshold training (because you have years of that) and add in some sprints.
- I spend a lot more time just riding with no structure. When I did triathlon, it felt like almost every workout I did had structure. As a cyclist I do 1 or 2 key workouts every week, race, and the rest of my time is just spent exploring and riding with friends.
Some Tips to Help with the Transition Between Sports
- Learn how to ride in groups. Start small with people you trust. THEN progress to larger groups and group rides. You do need to put yourself in some uncomfortable situations, but you don't have to go from 0 to 100.
- Join a team! You can learn so much so quickly from a team. There are a lot of crazy intricacies of cycling that are hard to convey in this short blog. If you join a team that has experienced members, you will learn a lot about bike racing from your teammates.
To find a team near you, check in with your local bike shop, ask around at cycling events or see what Google has to say.
Jen Luebke grew up in Missoula, MT, and attended the University of Montana where she started her triathlon career on the club triathlon team. In 2013 she moved to Bend, OR, and shortly after hung up her running shoes and swim gear.
Since then Jen has worked her way up from novice cyclist to the professional ranks, traveling the country for races. When she's not on a bike she's coaching for The Endurance Collaborative (cyclists & triathletes) or teaching strength classes for Rebound Physical Therapy. You can stay in the loop by following along: @jenluebke on Twitter or Instagram, her Facebook page, or by following her team, Hagens Berman Supermint.