Feature Interview: Gabz Cullaigh (Saint Piran)

Winner of a stage of the Peace Race as an under 23 and twice on the podium at the CiCLE Classic including victory in 2018, Gabz Cullaigh has signed for Saint Piran after two seasons with Movistar

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Feature Interview: Gabz Cullaigh (Saint Piran)

Winner of a stage of the Peace Race as an under 23 and twice on the podium at the CiCLE Classic including victory in 2018, Gabz Cullaigh has signed for Saint Piran after two seasons with Movistar. The rider known for his sprint, has also won a round of the Tour Series and had two top 10s in Europe in 2021.

‘Gabz’ is from Yorkshire and continues to live there which provides him with some tough training roads as he prepares to come back from two stressful years in the World Tour and tackles a domestic and European based race programme with his Cornish UCI Continental team, Saint Piran.

Like a lot of British riders who trot off to mainland Europe to ride at WorldTour/Pro Conti level, Gabz disappeared into the ether there and with the media only ever giving publicity to the winners, the journey that Gabz was undertaking there was a story that was remaining with him and his team.

When his name came to the fore as a rider without a contract, there were many a fan wishing him well and crossing fingers he would get picked up by a team. Gabz had done just that before a lot of the stories of him out of contract became public but like so many signings, he had to keep it to himself until the team were ready to go public.

His story, and that of so many like Alex Richardson and Harry Tanfield and many others, is of riders whose journey in the big peloton goes on well away from the view of the fans of the sport who only ever see the front of races. “You can feel lost in the world of the World tour” Gabz says. “You know a lot of people are wondering where you have disappeared to while you are getting your head down on the bike trying to please people in your team.”

“Doing the big races, you are told to do your job and in my position, you have to toe the line because you want to stay at that level and hoping, if you do as your told, and do it well, it will be a case of being re-signed.”

His time in Europe could not have come at a worse time. There was the pandemic for one and a coach who was unable to get the best out of Gabz. “It wasn’t the best time to be a neo pro and with Movistar, there wasn’t that much opportunity for my type of racing. By the end of this year when I finally got some racing, I was finally getting my head around the bunch kicks and making the right decisions to get myself in the right place but it was too little too late by then.”

For a rider we in Britain have seen getting his hands in the air, Gabz then reveals something quite surprising. “If I was too go back to the WorldTour, in all honesty, I think I’d be a lot better as a lead out rider than the actual sprinter. I feel I have the nous to navigate the bunch sprints and my physical attributes lend themselves for me to hold high power for lengthy periods instead of having a massive peak for the sprint.”

“I’m more like riders such as Morkov (Cav’s leadout rider) and guys who can sit at high power for a minute or two and then drop the sprinter off in the right position. I felt that was what I was good at. I found I can stay there and stay there but was unable to lift it that bit more that I needed to in order to win sprints”.

“I definitely found where I belong I just didn’t have the right opportunities to display that”.

“The way the sport is going, the sport is so competitive so even the GC guys want to be well positioned for the sprint as well so having the role as a lead out rider is a very important part of a team because it can count for so much so it’s not a bad forte to have.”

For two seasons, Gabz the sprinter has been racing for a team that many regard as a ‘climbers’ team. “I think when I signed for them, a lot of people thought it was a strange place for me to go to. The way I saw it though, it was my first WorldTour contract put in front of me and I didn’t hesitate to sign.”

“The way they put it to me, I would be on a ‘classics’ programme as they wanted to improve the way the team was performing in them so I was sold on that. The first year though everything was cancelled with Covid until the second half of the season. I did San Remo and then ended up getting shingles a few weeks later so that ruined the last part of that season. I recon I was coming into good form but I think I pushed myself too much trying to get that form in the lockdown which resulted me in getting shingles and missing out on the rescheduled classics”.

“At the start of this year, being contract year, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to turn up for the classics in really good form so I went to Spain for two months and got my head down to get myself into good form. I think I got it half right. I was being coached and it was quite intense that block in Spain right up until the Trofeo Laigueglia (March).”

“I did Clasica de Almeria before that where I was seventh and the legs were quite good. I then went home after Laigueglia and by the time I came back to the classics I was over cooked as I’d been doing a lot of hours and a lot of long intervals and I think I’d over done it”.

Winning CiCLE Classic 2018

“Looking back now, the training I was set with my background doing the track and stuff, it just wasn’t making me ping in the right way so for the second half of the season, I switched coaches and the head coach at the team kindly let me work with the coach of my choice. I decided to work with Gary Sadler (former pro).”

“I’d grown up racing with Jack Sadler so Gary was keen to meet up and have a chat and we kept in touch. When I asked if he wanted to take over my training, he jumped at the chance and he turned the form round for the last half of the year. It was nice mix of current training ideas and the old school training that Chris Walker had passed onto me.”

“I certainly gave my time in Europe my best. I thought I was giving it everything, training hard and doing everything right but at the classics I felt flat where I’d be alright for a few hours but then after the third hour when the pace went up, I was cooked and couldn’t go with it.”

“That was disappointing but I guess that is the way it goes and you learn. A couple of months of no racing during this year was a shame on one level as I wanted to race and prove myself, but at the same time, it let me reset and get a foundation block in with Gary before the last half of the season.”

Racing out in Europe is so different to here when you’re with a team of mates and have that support that you don’t have in a foreign team. “I think you have to enjoy it and go with the flow of it but there are so many little pressures here and there. The way the world is with social media, there is so much information out there about who is doing what, who is do this or that training, or who has just climbed such and such a mountain stupidly fast and it just adds to the pressure of how hard you are pushing yourself and I think I pushed myself too far but I seemed to get the balance right with Gary so I am hoping I can show that next year”.

Talking about his second half of 2021 which ended with Paris-Roubaix, Gabz explained it all started in July in Sardinia. “I then did a couple of races in northern Spain which were not for me, proper hilly ones but I did my bit and then I went to Poland which was my second World Tour stage race after having done the Tour Down Under the first year which was cool.”

Not so lucky in 2019 when he started his celebration a little early. A lesson for Gabz he’ll remember 

“Poland was eight days and after it, I felt the difference of having a couple of stage races in my legs which because I hadn’t had that much stage racing, I hadn’t experienced that feeling. Things then really started to come together. I had really good legs in Plouay which isn’t a race that suits me that much and if you look at the podium there, they are Ardennes riders. But I was going alright until 20k to go but with it having such a hard parcour, I was pretty pleased with the performance. I could really tell I was coming into form”.

“The Tour of Britain was a hard week with a tough parcour. I had big expectations for that race but the level was a lot higher than I had expected. I put a lot of pressure on myself the first few days with it being contract year and my first race in a World Tour team in front of a home crowd. I really g’d myself up for it but probably overly so. After the second day, the legs felt dead. After the fourth day, I just relaxed to see how it goes and I did have good legs which set me up nicely for Frankfurt helping Ivan Garcia (6th) and then Roubaix which was a cool experience.”

“Every sponsor was there and we were there from Wednesday doing all these recons. It was pretty special. All the fans were there even on the training days at the sectors and watching so that was cool. I didn’t have the best legs that day but I wanted to finish it. I crashed though on the sixth or seventh sector and my right knee took the weight of the crash on the crown of the cobbles. I have never had a knee injury or knocked it but for the life of me, I could not pedal properly.”

“I kept going for 30km and just before The Forest of Arenberg, a policeman came up and told me there was a broom wagon behind me with loads of people in it which goes to the finish. I thought it was the best option as the knee was still hurting and I was proper gutted and beating myself up and then I stepped into the broom wagon (a big bus) and there was a load of people in there. I saw Jake Stewart there and I sat with him and had a chat. It was nice to talk it over and whilst it didn’t go as we had hoped, it was an amazing experience to be there. Not the best way to finish the year but a cool experience.”

Asked what his favourite experiences were during his two years at WorldTour, he says the Tour Down Under was the best one. “The flights are all paid for and you’re getting a seat in business class and then being put up in the Hilton in Adelaide. That was a great race to get close to the guys I was racing with and Jurgen Roelandts was trying to help me out in the sprints there and his experience was amazing. He was such a good guy, I look back at the race in Australia as a highlight, the best experience. This year, in hindsight, the Tour of Britain may not have gone as well as I hoped but it was surreal to be racing for a World Tour team in front of a home crowd. That was cool for sure”.

Gabz story pre-Movistar is quite a different one and shows the difference between racing for a British team and then being put in a cauldron of pressure to perform at WorldTour races. So was racing for a team like Wiggins more relaxed then?

“Yes, definitely. I think one of the last races with them was the Tour of Britain and I remember the last few days thinking this is the last of the good banter I’ll have for a few years. They were a great set of guys at Movistar but it was just a different humour and experience. With a team like Wiggins, the pressure was for the guys to step up and find their place in the sport, so there was that type of pressure but at the same time, there wasn’t the same budget as World Tour and the sponsors were not dependent on our result so looking back, it was a lot more relaxed than I realised at the time.”

“The only pressure back then was what we were putting on ourselves because we wanted to step up a level and that was a cool time.”

Back to the beginning
Having Cero Wheels and Cycle Division as a sponsor of VeloUK, I got to see Gabz as a Youth rider winning senior races for the team sponsored by them and RST. “Back in 2011, I joined Chris Walker’s RST team with Joey (Walker) and that winter, also got put on the Talent Team (GB) but a lot my training was from Chris so looking back, it was all very relaxed.”

“I was still at school so on Mondays we used to go to Richard Dunne (kart type circuit) at Bradford and do some youth training up there. On Tues/Wed/Thur I would do what I could, probably turbo work to keep things ticking over and then Friday night, I’d go to the track league at Manchester. On Saturday, I’d do the Donny (Doncaster) chaingang and try and hang on as long as we could. Most weekends I’d stay over at the Walkers and there would always be a big group of us going out on the Sunday and doing a Derbyshire ride. That was winter training”.

On the attack as a youth rider racing for Cero Wheels/Cycle Division  – Gabz went on to win this race in a sprint

“During those times, I’d have these motivational chats with Chris (Walker) over dinner or on a ride, and he really got me believing in myself. In 2012 (youth racing), when I got to races, I’d want to be really aggressive and not just wait for the sprint so I’d race like that and when I’d get to the sprint, I was so frustrated that it had come down to a sprint, I’d rip the cranks off and won a lot of sprints that year. Chris definitely helped me realise my strength as a sprinter”.

“It was a lot of fun in the team and I was lucky because he really sorted us out with kit, bike and stuff. My family could not really afford to take me to races all the time and buy me a bike and all the kit so I was really lucky that Chris and Jonny (Towers) helped me out. It isn’t just about that but that definitely went a long way and to experience it with Joey, was a really nice vibe. I look back to the youth and junior years with great memories. It was special for sure …”

The CiCLE Classic
In the last two Editions of this unique and popular British race, the CiCLE Classic, Gabz has shown twice he has the talent to win it. He did just that in 2018. “That counts as my first UCI pro win and is one of my proudest moments. For me it’s quite special because Grace (Garner) is from Leicester and so I knew the roads really well and her family were at the finish. I wasn’t on the domestic scene that much that year but was going well (five victories) so to come back to the UK to display that form was nice.”

In 2019 at the CiCLE Classic, Gabz made the mistake so many do, even a world champion like Alaphilippe, and that is putting the hands up too soon which cost him a second win in the CiCLE Classic in 2019. “I am disappointed with that really. I knew I’d won it but messed up. I’ll have to put that right!”

Saint Piran
The opportunity to right the mistake in the CiCLE Classic will come with Gabz being part of the Saint Piran team and being one of their leading riders. So how well does Gabz know Steve Lampier who retired at the end of 2021 season and now looks after the Saint Piran team.

“I know Steve really well” says Gabz. “My first encounter with Steve was in the Tour of Yorkshire in its first year. I was an Under 23 on the GB Academy and I remember him shouting at me going over the top of the Rosedale Chimney in North Yorkshire and Team Sky started riding over the top. It was splitting in the cross winds and me and Steve were the last two in the front group, in the gutter, and I was all over the bike”

“I was absolutely swinging and he was shouting ‘hold your line, it’s not going that hard’ with a few expletives in there and then he came up to me a few minutes later and saw it had split and said ‘sorry mate, I didn’t realise it was going that hard’.” Since then we’ve been friends at races.

Winning the Redditch round of the Tour Series

“Steve was the first of the conti teams to send me a message to say they would love to have me if all else fails getting a World Tour/Pro Conti team and I decided to have a chat and saw that his project was quite exciting. They are not a big established conti team but I think they will be in due course with Steve’s motivation and the way they are approaching it. They will do the British stuff and but on going abroad, Steve was very honest in that he wants to do more and build it without over cooking it and over stretching the team.”

“From what he’s saying, it sounds like it will be the right balance of doing the British stuff which is important to Saint Piran along with one day races in France, Belgium and Netherlands which is ideal for me. It sounds like the perfect calendar to get stuck into”.

“It’s exciting definitely. The main thing about next year for me is I want to enjoy racing and I want to enjoy winning again. Within the team there are some strong riders so I think we’ll be able to share the racing and the rewards without ripping each other’s hair out. I can share my experiences from WorldTour where that racing is very different as the racing is so controlled.”

“I did some UCI races in Spain, ‘.1’ racing, where I was lucky enough to work with some really experienced DS’s and every time at meetings, I’d really listen to what they were saying. They are so good at reading races and I am hoping next year, I’ll be able to read the races and put that to good use for the team to make a good plan to get the best result and make the most of each opportunity we have.”

Ahead of Gabz and the rest of the British pros is British winter but with domestic racing not kicking off proper until April, it is quite different for British UCI team riders than it is for those in the WorldTour and ProConti. “The British programme doesn’t really start until April but we’ll probably be racing abroad before that and I want to show myself in them. I don’t want to come back though and be cooked for the British races so the winter right now is more relaxed. My coach Gary wants to build up the training in a steady ramp trying to constantly improve and recover and for the next month or so it will be relaxed and I’ll be ticking over before it gets intense when the racing approaches”.

“I just need to find what works for me…”

The final question then was to ask if signing early with Saint Piran was good for the motivation approaching winter training? “Once I had done Roubaix, and I knew I wasn’t going to get offered anything else, and my agent was telling me it wasn’t looking good, I had a lot of bitter moments, disappointing moments and the thought of packing it in crossed my mind more than few times. But once I had the chat with Lamps, it refreshed me and I realised it wasn’t over and that I owed it to myself to carry on as Saint Piran has a fantastic setup and are supporting me with what I need for me to give my best effort and hopefully, first of all I’ll enjoy it and hopefully with that will come the results. I realised I am in a lucky position and will take it with both hands and enjoy it”.

Thanks to Gabz for the chat, most insightful and enjoyable! Good luck in 2022.


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