'Curiosity is fundamental' - Daniel Oss on sustaining his WorldTour career

Finding balance to be a better racer

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When it comes to self care, and the importance of having passions in life, Daniel Oss has clear ideas. Now in his 13th year as a professional cyclist, the 35-year-old is also a music lover and an enthusiastic bass player. He lives in Torbole, a small town in Trentino, Italy, on the shores of Lake Garda, and rides for Team TotalEnergies alongside his great friend Peter Sagan.

This year he rode his 10th Tour de France, but had to abandon the race on stage five, following a crash that fractured his cervical vertebrae. He uses his side project, Just Ride, to improve on his own terms and to balance out the stress of life as a professional athlete.

But we’ll get to that later. Let’s start at the beginning. 

Daniel, what’s the hardest part of being a pro cyclist? 

When you start out, it’s beautiful. There are so many expectations, but also a lot of unknowns. You’re kind of shitting it, it keeps you straight. When I think back to those early years, the main thing was just getting used to the lifestyle. 

The first difficulty is physical: You go from racing 100 kilometres to races that are 200km or even 300km, like Milano-Sanremo. Stage races go from three or four days to Grand Tours lasting three weeks. And the amount of racing intensifies too, maybe from 40 days a season to almost 100. 

It’s a different life, you need to find the time to train, but it’s also important to find some balance so that you can live the rest of your life, too. 

Aside from that, you need to manage things like jetlag throughout the season. It’s not something most people think about, but it’s significant. Travelling is no longer about adventure, or discovering the world, it becomes a real stress and something that has to be carefully managed. You need to understand how and when to sleep so that you don’t arrive shattered; you have to be careful about what and when you eat in the airport or on the plane. 

In short, there are a lot of things you need to learn just to do the job, and then, you hope, you can think about improving. A neo-pro is expected to deliver the maximum sporting performance, but also to grow and develop over time, so you need to give it absolutely everything. 

Does it put a strain on relationships? 

That’s another element of it. Everyone is expecting something from you. You’ve got team-mates, sports directors and managers, sponsors with their own requests and expectations, fans and journalists; it’s a big part of the job that you have to learn, and that no one teaches you about. You need to be able to answer questions in an interview and not look like a totally illiterate idiot. You get there little by little.

Of course, there are difficulties in every kind of job or profession in the world, but if the only thing you know is racing, it’s not easy to understand that professionalism is the starting point, not the arrival. What about family and friends, people who are usually at home and have the idea that you’re constantly on some kind of holiday? 

This is always an issue. For me, the travelling has never been an issue, I’ve always seen it as a huge opportunity to see the world, and I love meeting new people. After a few years though, you realise that only the most important relationships survive. The people who you’re closest with, those who believe in you, will always be there but it’s undeniable that many more just get tired of waiting for you and drift away. They learn to get on without you.

If you’re away from home for 200 days a year and you add that up over the course of a 10 or 15-year career, you come to realise that in your life, the idea that you have of home is very different to the one you started out with. A rider’s life is more complex than most people imagine. Your family can see that you’re happy, and that makes them happy. With friends and girlfriends, things are a bit more complicated. 

How long have you been cycling? 

I’ve been a pro since 2009, but I started when I was seven, in 1993. It’s a whole life, you could say that for the whole of my existence I’ve never done anything else. 

What is your recipe for improvement? 

For me, curiosity is fundamental. Schedules and routines are reassuring, but I’m a curious person who likes to try new things, to understand and to learn. Staying still, whether in terms of ideas or how you do things, is never good. The desire to explore and to experiment, for me, is the key to progress, not just as a cyclist but as a person. 

Do you have any sources of inspiration? 

Lots of them. I always try to read and educate myself. At the moment I’m deep into Umberto Galimberti, an Italian philosopher who says that technology and innovation have become totally incomprehensible to people, that it’s almost an end in itself, and that we’re doing things now without understanding where they might lead us and the effect they could have on the future. 

If you just take cycling, with all of the innovation we have in terms of technology, data, nutritional science, the whole lot, everything has been pushed to the extreme, but none of the riders in the bunch, or even the coaches if you ask me, really know what the future might bring. I don’t see a direction any more, I see a lot of speed in the races, a lot of beautiful new bikes, lots of new tech, but I don’t know where it’s taking us. 

The extreme pursuit of performance is a part of cycling and that drives the sport to evolve, but from a certain point of view, this constant evolution has become self-perpetuating. 

How do you engage with that, or protect yourself from it? What is Just Ride?

Just Ride is a way for me to go off and rediscover everything I love about cycling. At a certain point in the season, I take my bike for a few days and just go on a trip, every time to a different place, to meet some new people and see new things. Where did you go this year?

I rode the coast between San Francisco and San Diego back in May. It was great because I’ve always seen California as a race location because of the Tour of California. After the northern classics, I usually have a training camp somewhere at altitude, usually in the US around Lake Tahoe. This year I only had a week before going to a camp in Utah to train with Peter [Sagan].

It was great being back in California, every time I go as a tourist to somewhere I’ve raced, it’s a revelation. Everything in the US is so large, very oversized. In some ways Europe is more rewarding when you travel by bike because your surroundings are more changeable. 

And in other years, where have you been?

Before California I was in Sardinia. One year I rode from Milan to Rome, and the very first time I did it, I started right from my home in Torbole and rode fairly aimlessly, eventually finishing up in Tuscany. That first trip was enlightening, it felt like I’d discovered something.

Why do you feel the need? 

These days, riders are just like workers and our roles are divided up into many small steps that have become our sole focus. The joy of racing used to be about sprints, changes of pace, going from high speed to slower moments spent at the back of the group, it’s not like that any more on race day.

Now, everyone has a specific job to do. Each rider is told to sustain a certain pace at a certain number of watts for a certain period of time at a specific phase of the race. Then they stop. The style of racing now is to be on at all times. It’s a bit sad, but that’s the way it’s gone. Just Ride was a way for me to rediscover the pleasure of simply riding a bike. 

Do you think it helps you improve? 

If you want to make it in the peloton now, you need to hit targets, power values, watts per kilo. You’re constantly watching your weight. In short, you have to live up to expectations and live to certain standards. That’s what separates the support riders from the captains. And that’s okay, it’s normal, but there are some riders who find it hard to take and who are unable to go on with it, and for them, perhaps the best way to succeed – or simply to resist – is to escape entirely. Look at Tom Dumoulin or Lennard Kämna, for example, who quit for a while and refocused their goals and expectations. 

Once upon a time, we had more time for ourselves to think, or to talk to our team-mates. You might sit down with someone for an hour and chat after lunch or dinner, and in a sense, those were the moments that gave meaning to everything else. Now, there’s no longer that kind of personal space, and everything is strictly programmed. It’s like performance improvements and marginal gains are the only things that matter. 

And cycling on your own is a way to escape?

No, it’s not. For me, Just Ride is a way of thinking about cycling without running away from anything. I’ve never felt the need to escape cycling. It’s more about experiencing it from a different point of view, remembering that pedalling a bike for the joy of it, rather than looking at watts, can actually help you race better. The idea is to go by feel, listening more, which I think is also a form of training. It’s a way to reconnect with one’s motivation.

Despite everything that athletes and teams do these days for the sake of winning, a rider – or this rider, at least – isn’t a car. I need to dream, to find inspiration, to do other things. 

Can you see attitudes changing? 

At first, what frustrated me the most was having to explain the idea to people, like I had to justify myself, as if I wanted to go on vacation. That’s changed. I see a lot of other riders doing something similar now. Bikepacking has exploded, so too has gravel. A lot of riders want to try new things. 

Just Ride is appreciated by the brands now, they get the idea and understand its value. This year, for example, was the first time I was allowed to wear some neutral kit rather than the usual team outfit, and that was a big thing for me mentally.

I hope it can continue and develop into a different way to think about racing, both for the fans and the athletes, because every one of us are people in our own right, with interests and motivations outside of just cycling. It’s about bringing more normality and more life to racing, not trying to escape it. 

Can you explain Just Ride in one anecdote? 

This year, in San Diego, I met a skateboarding legend, Steve Caballero. I remember him from the X-Games, and there he was in front of me, just hanging out in this skate park. This is a 57-year-old man who skates and trains with kids who are 15 or 20, but his passion for the sport is still intact, he’s been able to preserve and protect it, nurture it and make it last, instead of wearing it out. 

For me, he’s a legend of the 1990s, a rock star. He used to hang out with the likes of Tony Hawk, and he’s still there in the park, having fun. We talked for a while, he doesn’t know anything about cycling, not even the Tour de France, but we talked about music because he’s a fan too, and he plays the bass, just like me.

Maybe that’s the secret: Just follow your passions, don’t think too much about getting better.