Sean Dunlea – progression through the Youth years
24 November 2013
Sean Dunlea is a seventeen-year-old cyclocross and MTB specialist who has already been racing for half of his lifetime. Every year he has steadily improved his performance to the point that he is now winning national-level Junior cyclocross events and, for the first time, has just represented Great Britain internationally. Here he tells us how he progressed through the youth ranks, and he passes on the lessons that he has learned along the way.
Please tell us about your progression from an Under 8 through to your current Junior category.
Sean: If I’m honest, I’d have to say that until I hit the Junior category I was never what I or others would consider “good”! I’ve had a slow development as a rider, but it wasn’t because I’ve never had the ability I think. Until I left Secondary School at 15 (going on 16), my focus was 99% on education and 1% on riding a bike. My parents have always made sure that my homework was done before training. My dad enforced a very easy rule; no grades-no race!
As I’ve developed through the categories, I have been getting consistently better though. I’d put this down to growth as well I think. A lot of riders dominate Under 16 and younger categories, but once the growth of everybody has levelled out a lot at my age it’s common to find that the riders who were always underestimated come to the front.
What were the key events that helped you develop and improve?
Sean: The races where I’ve learned the most are the ones on the other side of the Channel. The truth is that unless you race the best, you can’t be the best yourself. In Britain we have some really talented riders coming through, but unless they commit to racing in places like Belgium and Holland, they won’t learn the intricate habits and skills that are required to take yourself to the next level. If you get the real die-hard fighting racing style that they have on the continent, without getting physically stronger you will actually race better. It’s a different league out there!
What were the key lessons that you learned regarding training, race preparation and executing your races?
Sean: Training-wise, I think the best thing I’ve learned is that there’s nothing better than replicating the things you do in a race, but broken down into individual pieces. In a typical week of training I will have focused efforts, running sessions, technical sessions, and then at least one session where I put everything together, get the race wheels on, and race myself around the woods for 45 minutes! My coach Mark Walker specialises in cyclocross and so he really helps me with every aspect of living the life of a ‘cross rider, physically and psychologically.
For race preparation, I think it’s a great idea to have a dedicated time schedule by working back from the race start time and having a time for every little thing to take place. This helps a great deal mentally as you know what you’re doing and it takes some of the hectic nature of the sport away. Also, keeping hydrated is so important. I can tell when I haven’t had enough to drink during a race and it’s normally because I’m overheating and suffering! Apart from those things, eating sensibly is a good idea. I don’t have a diet plan. I eat cakes, and I drink full-fat coke, but as they say; “everything in moderation!”
As for racing itself, I think having a good mindset can help a lot. Watch some videos of people like Sven Nys racing, you’ll see he never gives up, and he always has that racing attitude that gets him that extra position, and normally a win! There’s also a lot to be said for saving a bit of energy in order to ride smoother and more fluently. This is something I learned from racing abroad. If you can ride a section of a course one second faster than your competitors by being smooth, over a 7 lap race, that’s 7 seconds you’ve gained, which is a lot when it’s fast racing.
What did you think was important at the time, but subsequently learned wasn’t actually quite so important?
Sean: Easy – having the best bike and kit. I used to want to have all the latest bits and bobs, but now I’d rather just have stronger legs. It’s easy to get hung up on having great stuff, but at the end of the day it’s being stronger than other riders which makes the biggest different.
What are the key skills you have worked on which you believe have been essential to your development?
Sean: Without a doubt I would say that my technical skills are the ones which have been most essential to my development. As I was growing up, my dad always put such a huge emphasis on things like dismounting and remounting, cornering, start practice… When I started physical training, I already had that confident and fluent riding style so the amount I improved shocked me.
What were your ambitions as you developed as a rider? Have you ever had to overcome doubts about whether you could succeed?
Sean: I’ve definitely overcome a few doubts, there have been times when I’ve never wanted to see a bike again in my life, but it’s that will to reach my ambitions that’s kept me going. I have a competitive nature, so no matter how much I want to give up on something, I can’t bring myself to do that. I have ultimate ambitions, and then goals which are on the way to that ambition – this is something which my coach advised me to do. I’ve had smaller ambitions like to get a National top 3… a National Win… to Ride for GB… These have all now been achieved, and with each one I achieve, I can see myself getting closer to my ultimate ambition of being a professional cyclist.
What kind of support have you had, and how has this helped you develop?
Sean: I am extremely lucky to have the support I have. I have Ciclos Uno (my title sponsor) who have been with me since I was an Under 10, and other sponsors who are all so generous and have helped me incredible amounts.
There’s my faithful pitman Ivan Burch who for the last 3 seasons has travelled over Britain and Europe with me to keep me going during races.
There’s my coach Mark Walker who gives up so much of his time to plan how I’ll be spending mine.
There’s my family who have never given up hope in me even when I had given up hope in myself, and there’s my friends who are understanding and supportive, and who bring back my social life every February.
Having people around you who are not just sponsors, but also friends, is so important. I’ve developed in an atmosphere where I know that even if I had a streak of awful rides, all the people who are with me would still support me. This is one HUGE thing I think all young riders should know; to get the best out of yourself, you need to surround yourself with the best people. This doesn’t mean the best coaches, the best sponsors, or the best team, it means the people who want you to succeed just as much as you want to.