Two wheels good, two skis better – the parallels between skiing and cycling

The winter sport fell out of favour with risk-averse cycling teams as a training tool in recent decades, but is now back in vogue, thanks to the likes of Jack Haig, Tom Pidcock, Sepp Kuss and, of course, Primoz Roglic. Chris Marshall-Bell looks at the racers making tracks in the snow and gains in the mountains

Mention cycling and winter in the same breath, and cold, wet memories populate your mind. Thank God for the turbo trainer, you might even remark. We’ve all longed for a lengthy Alpine or Pyrenean ascent when the temperature outside is in double digits, the sky is blue and the daylight hours can be counted on both hands. But, hope as we might, we cannot advance the seasons.

However, dozens of professional cyclists are changing how they tackle such mountain terrain when winter rolls around. When they usually ride up from the bottom of the valley, they’re now the ones skiing from the peaks, carving elegant lines in the white blank canvas. Same place, different sports.

Parallels between cycling and skiing have existed for decades, far from just being limited to races taking advantage of ski stations for summit finishes. Some of the best bike racers had backgrounds in skiing: three-time French university downhill ski champion Jeannie Longo went on to win 13 road and track world championships after switching to cycling, while teenage downhill and freestyle skier Greg LeMond won three editions of the Tour de France. 

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The world of two wheels also owes several key tech advancements to winter sports. Revolutionary Look pedals, Lycra shorts, the concept behind aero handlebars and the current fashion of wide and large cycling glasses – all borrowed or copied from skiing.  

In the Eighties and Nineties, some teams held winter training camps on the snow, using the pistes for exercise and team bonding. This became increasingly rare: fearing injury, the sport’s top riders were told to just ride their bikes. Maybe slip on a pair of running shoes a handful of times in the autumn, but that was it. Skis? Just high-quality carbon fibre wasted on a dangerous sport.

However, over the last decade, attitudes have changed. Inspired by wanting to break the monotony of winter training and the major fitness advantages, the number of pro cyclists skiing is, if you will allow the pun, snowballing.

Tom Pidcock skis, snowboards and goes on family holidays to the Alps and Pyrenees most winters. His rival Mathieu van der Poel also takes ski holidays to Switzerland after the cyclo-cross season. But most cyclists are turning to the endurance disciplines, such as cross-country and ski touring, where the skier does all the work.

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Marcus Burghardt, Bora-hansgrohe’s veteran domestique, first tried ski touring in 2007. “It was Christmas and we went up a local mountain, me using borrowed equipment,” he fondly recalls. “My boots were way too big, my skis old, I was slipping, but I knew there were beers at the top and traditional Bavarian food. It was amazing. I loved being in real nature and it was so quiet. I knew I wanted to do it more.” 

He now owns seven pairs of skis: “When I started, there were only a few doing it in the peloton, maybe four or five. Now, for sure, you will find 40 or 50 in the WorldTour peloton who go ski touring. At Bora, I know of ten of us.” 

Image: Getty

Meanwhile, in their ranks, Jumbo-Visma alone count ex-slalom competitor Anna Henderson, former cross-country skier Sepp Kuss, and, of course, Primož Roglič, once a ski jumper and current Vuelta a España winner. Then there’s Trek-Segafredo’s Quinn Simmons, who finished third in the 2017 World Youth Ski-Mountaineering Championships.

Several prominent development outfits across Europe and North America are actively looking at skiers, with the view of encouraging the most talented ones to instead commit to a career on two wheels. “To be successful in cycling, you have to have good values in endurance, such as VO2 max, huge efficiency and a big engine,” says Dan Lorang, head coach at Bora-hansgrohe. “You also need technical skills in the peloton and the ability to go downhill confidently. If you find a cross-country skier who brings all that, it makes sense to put them on a bike and see how they perform.”

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All forms of skiing are being used as a trusted and reliable form of talent identification, not just endurance disciplines. “Alpine skiers don’t have the same endurance, but they bring coordination, fast reaction time, that feeling for speed, many of the relevant technical aspects,” says Lorang. “You can use these skills and train them too. We have to be looking around and keeping the door open for talents from different sports.”

Rally Cycling’s teenage pro, Magnus Sheffield, who broke the junior individual pursuit world record in 2020, competed in Alpine skiing before cycling. “Alpine taught me a lot about preparation and memorising courses,” he says. “Now when I ride a time-trial, I remember each and every turn. I know very early on where everything is and that mental preparation gives you so much headspace. It’s a big advantage.

“I don’t know any cyclists who have switched to skiing, but I have many friends who have done it the other way round,” he adds. “You can see the correlation.”

A past coach to both Sheffield and fellow American hope Quinn Simmons at junior team LAX in the United States, ex-pro cyclist Roy Knickman is acutely aware of the crossover potential: “What we’re seeing is kids who are ski racers using cycling for their dry land, non-skiing training and they’re proving to be exceptional on a bike,” he said. “The trend is of a lot of outstanding talents coming from ski racing: downhill, slalom, mogul. When there is an athlete catching our eye, or recommended to us, and they have a background in skiing, it’s a yes from us because we’ve yet to see someone from that background who wasn’t special.”

The next wave of skiers-cum-cyclists is approaching. Just four weeks after finishing second in the ski mountaineering vertical race world championships in March, cycling rookie Anton Palzer joined Bora-hansgrohe, with the German team’s manager Ralph Denk citing his exceptional VO2 max figures. Elsewhere, Norwegian cross-country star Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, winner of three Olympic gold medals and a six-time world champion, is to join the Norwegian second-tier team Uno-X in 2022 and Italian team Androni Giocattoli Sidermec have signed Spain’s cross-country Winter Olympian Martí Vigo del Arco.

Svein Tuft (Image: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Few athletes are better-placed to draw on their experiences of the two sports than Canadian Svein Tuft. Before spending more than a decade in the pro peloton, he grew up on two skis. “There’s no doubt in my mind that teams should be looking at this form of talent identification,” he says. “As much as cycling at a certain level is fucking hard, what could be a harder sport? Cross-country skiing and ski touring at altitude. You’re incorporating every muscle, every part of the cardiac system, and I don’t think that you can build an engine in a better way than the cross-country skiers have.”

In spite of skiing largely being prohibited by teams in the Noughties, the former Orica-GreenEdge rider was able to convince his employers of the benefits. “One of the best seasons I ever had was 2008 and that winter I barely touched my bike,” he says. “I cross-country and backcountry skied for three months. My time trialling that year was some of my best ever and it was no surprise why.”

There didn’t always used to be such acceptance, and even encouragement, of going skiing in the wild. When Marcus Burghardt turned professional with T-Mobile [in 2004], he wasn’t allowed. “It was written in the contract and there was no way of changing their mind,” he says. “But then attitudes changed a little and teams became more open-minded about it, realising there is room for different activities.”

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Teams have also been appeased by a greater awareness of risk in the snowy terrain from their charges. Pro cyclists, including Burghardt, have undertaken avalanche safety courses at their own cost. Many cyclists ski tour on pistes or in-bound terrain, where the danger is lower.

Of course, two weeks on the bike in Mallorca or Gran Canaria in January is more beneficial for a professional cyclist, but if a rider lives near the mountains – and it’s rare to find one who doesn’t – incorporating skiing into their winter programme makes as much sense as an amateur buying a winter bike; it’s not a prerequisite, but it’s just so much better to do so. There’s also the added bonus that skiing can provide riders with altitude training. 

Andorra-based Bahrain-Victorious racer Jack Haig says: “I went skiing for four days in the week before my first race of 2020, the Volta a Valenciana. I’ll go at least three or four days a week in the deep winter months. There’s less daylight and it’s cold, so I’ll do two hours on the turbo in the morning and three ski mountaineering afterwards. I’ll be recruiting the same muscles as I do on the bike, so it makes sense.”

Haig enjoys skiing and it gives him another option when it’s raining hard. Burghardt concurs: “It’s about the relaxation for me. It’s the perfect way to be outside, there’s no traffic, it’s quiet, and you can enjoy the nature. It does train my body, but it helps to manage a full and stressful schedule.” 

So, what does the future hold for cycling’s flirtation with skiing? The big difference is opening up the minds of coaches, managers and racers alike; that skiing is accepted as a mine of potential cycling talent in the traditional cycling world, rather than the odd skier here and there happening to make the switch to cycling and excel. 

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that almost all professional cyclists make their way to the WorldTour through traditional routes of actually racing bikes and not much else. But cycling will continue to scout winter sports, recruit from them and no doubt become ever more closely intertwined. 

Now, whenever it’s difficult or undesirable for the cyclist to reach a ski resort on their bike due to the conditions outside, they’ve got a solution that’s even better than a virtual map on Zwift.

Two wheels good, two skis better is from Rouleur Issue 105, available to purchase here

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