It was Mark Stewart who suggested we have a word with this young man, Gabriel Cullaigh; he’s been riding strongly for the GB U23 Academy in Italy but recently decided to make his own way in the tough world of continental bike racing, joining strong Dutch Continental outfit, SEG Racing Academy.
Here’s what Gabriel had to say to us just the other day…
‘Gabriel Cullaigh’ the continental race announcers and start sheet framers must have fun with that?
“To be fair to them, they get it correct more often than British announcers do!
“‘Gabriel’ varies across countries which I don’t mind at all, but they normally get ‘Cullaigh’ correct, give or take different accents.
“The correct pronunciation is ‘Gay-Brie-l Cull-A-g’.”
You were a mountain biker originally – how did you get into the road?
“Apparently so! I’ve been waiting for a chance to clear this up.
“According to my British Cycling ‘rider bio’ (which I had no part in writing) I started as a mountain biker then turned to the road.
“The truth is that from a young age, I used to mess around on mountain bikes with my friends. I didn’t actually get my own mountain bike until I was 11, before then I took turns on my friends bikes. So when I got my own I was free to go wherever I liked, whenever I liked, and not worry too much about damaging my bike. My Dad had a ‘hybrid’ bike at the time, and I struggled to keep up with him when we went on rides on the road.
“I then saw a stage of the Tour of Britain, I didn’t know that bike racing existed – I was completely taken by it.
“After seeing that, my Dad bought me a Yellow and Black Bianchi from the local newspaper sales adds, it was too big for me but with the saddle slammed it did the job.
“So my road career took off from there I guess.”
Then a strong junior track rider – three Euro podiums, why not go in that direction?
“I really enjoy the track, and I am very proud of those Junior European medals especially because in that year I had a bad spell of luck crashing five times in the space of a month, it took a long time to recover from that and I bounced back in time for the European Champs.
“I learnt a lot about myself in that period.
“However, personally I’ve always seen the track as a way to complement the road as that is where my love for the sport and ambition lies.
“So joining British Cycling’s academy gave me access to a World Class track programme, but also have opportunities in a great road programme where I could find my feet in the U23 ranks.”
And you’ve left the GB Academy – why?
“There are a few reasons that I made the decision to leave the Academy, but it comes down to the race programme.
“This year was the first year of the ‘senior academy’ having a base out in Italy, running mainly an Italian race calendar alongside U23 Nations Cups.
“I think the Italian style of racing is brilliant, its aggressive all day, the strength and depth of the bunch over there means the race is very tactical which means you have to be switched on all day.
“However the races on our calendar do not suit a heavy classics rider like me when guys half my size are sprinting up climbs, it has been a year of learning to hang on to the race till the finish, rather than making the race.
“Obviously to be successful, you have to be able to hang on in some races, however going into my third year U23 I want to give myself the best chance to make the next step up to the professional ranks.
“So I needed somewhere that had plenty of opportunity in races that suit me, unfortunately the GB academy could not offer me that.”
SEG Racing Academy is your new team – tell us about them and how you got the ride.
“I am really excited for 2017 with SEG Racing Academy, they are one of the best development teams in the world, who are genuinely interested in developing individual riders into a ‘complete package’ ready to pass them into the pro ranks.
“This doesn’t mean it’s a team full of individuals, they really push the team sport aspect, which I think is one of the most important things in our sport. I went to Amsterdam after the Olympias Tour to have a small gathering with most of my teammates for next year. It was great to meet them all and get to know each other a little better.
“I think it was a good time to do this, rather than on the first team camp of the winter, so we’ve past the awkward stage already!
“I had been speaking with the SEG Academy Manager Bart Van Haaren since near the end of last season, I had the opportunity to join SEG for 2016 but I wanted to try living in Italy with the GB Academy.
“Over the past 12 months I’ve built a great relationship with Bart and the Berkhout brothers Martijn and Eelco who are founders of the SEG agency.
“After a lot of thought and conversations with my mentors Chris Walker and Keith Lambert, and those close to me, it was decided that the SEG Racing Academy was best place for me for 2017.”
I believe you’ve been working with their ex-World Points race Champion, Peter Schep on your position?
“Indeed, after Olympias Tour, I travelled to Eindhoven with Peter and SEG’s performance manager Michiel Elijzen, along with one of my 2017 teammates, Lukas Eriksson.
“We got the ‘angles’ right on my road bike, then we got my saddle height correct on my TT bike so we could then play around with my TT position.
“This is where Peter specialises, we played around with the height, length and space between my tri bars until we found an aerodynamic position that I could realistically hold for 20 minutes plus.
“It was a great experience, and I’m excited to see if there’s a positive difference or not when I get it on out the road.”
Was Doha your last race of the year – tell us about it and do you have a break now?
“Doha was a great experience, we had a very strong team and we knew it was very likely to be a bunch sprint.
“I think we can hold our heads high in that we committed to helping to be a big part of the race throughout. We were working for Jon Dibben, so it was all about getting him into the best position for the finish as possible.
“On the day, I felt OK and coped with the heat well. It was my job to be active all day really, by making sure we didn’t miss dangerous moves and keeping a GB presence up at the front.
“Once the break had gone, James Shaw did a great job of helping the Norwegians control the gap.
“I tried to be of service in the last lap, but unfortunately I didn’t have the legs on the day to do much more.
“Jon finished ninth in the end, he had aimed for higher, but at the end of the day a top ten at a World Road Race Champs is not to be sniffed at!
“I’m having a month off the bike now to recharge for next year.”
When’s your first training camp with the new squad?
“We are heading to Greece in January, a bit of an unusual location but my coach is Greek and he coaches a lot of the guys on the team so that’s the connection with going there.
“I’m told it has great roads, and good weather at that time of the year so I’m looking forward to it.”
Has the team told you what they’d like you to have done before the camp?
“At the moment, they have just said to get my bike out of sight, completely relax and enjoy time with friends and family.
“I’ve started my gym programme already which I really enjoy doing.
“I’m sure I’ll receive a training programme to get started with after the next few weeks.”
Where will you be based for 2017?
“Between Girona and Eindhoven. I’ll be in Girona through this winter at the team’s apartment there, along with a few of my teammates.
“Then through the season between races I’ll stay in Eindhoven between races that are up in northern Europe, again in team housing.”
What’s the equipment story with them?
“They’re sponsored by Koga for the bikes, equipped with Shimano drive train and wheels.
“Clothing is provided by Vermarc, and helmets provided by Bell.”
What were the biggest lessons you learned from the GB Academy?
“Where do I start!?
“It’s obvious that I learnt a lot of lessons on the bike so I’m not going to list all of them.
“Off the bike, I learnt to balance all my responsibilities that come with being a full time athlete – little things like staying on top of Training Peaks, emails, social media, etc., then big things to break out of the controlled environment by having a life away from cycling, so spending time with family, loved ones and friends which is very important to me.”
Which result(s) in 2016 gave you most satisfaction?
“Early in the season I finished third at the U23 Gent-Wevelgem; I had a great day there in a classics race which I want to specialise in through my career.
“Initially I was disappointed with this result, as I messed up the finish, but a week later the guy who won, the Dane Mads Pedersen, went and finished fourth in a tough stage of the Three Days of De Panne, so that gave me a little perspective.
“Not long ago I finished fifth in the U23 European Road Race Champs in Plumelec, I was pleased with this result after a tough race.”
Do you have a professional rider who you’d say was a role model?
“I look up to a lot of riders, past and present.
“Along with many others I really admire Peter Sagan.
“No need to justify that one I know, but I love that he’s a proper bike racer, and backs himself on any terrain.”
2017 is all about …
“Quality and consistency throughout the year.”
And if you could win just one race?
“The Tour of Flanders.”