Nick Schultz | Playing The Long Game

 Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

If there’s one thing that Mitchelton-SCOTT have done for for Australian Cycling, it’s establishing a safe path into the big time for young Aussie Cyclists. Despite the current face of the team being two British twins, they have some pretty strong roots to the future of Australian cycling including the Mitchelton-Bike Exchange Continental Squad that underpins the top team and have ushered through a huge amount of talent including Jack Haig and Caleb Ewan, just to name a couple. 

But not everyone gets picked up on that path. Take Nick Schultz for example; after rising through the Continental and ProConti ranks via international teams, he’s moving into the World Tour with Mitchelton-SCOTT. 

Now 24, he’s spent time racing at various levels including the French amateur scene, the Continental level with SEG Racing Academy, and then the last two years with Caja Rural. The Caja Rural spell was preceded by a stint as a stagiaire at the very squad he’s moving to (then named ORICA-Bike Exchange). It didn’t lead to a spot with them the following year but laid the foundation for this move.

For all the nerves and jitters that moving into a new environment might bring, there’s a familiarity he’s coming back to as well, and not because he was there two months ago. It’s an Australian team. There’s no learning Dutch or Italian just to fit in, no facing a huge cultural shock, and that’s something that wasn’t an option when Dave Mackenzie or Brad McGee moved to Europe.

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Josh: Is there a buzz for you because it's an Australian team? Especially since you've floated around in Caja Rural, which is about as Spanish as it gets, and the French amateur scene. Is it a bit like coming home? Or is it just another team that happens to be Australian? 

Nick: No, there's certainly a bit of buzz around the fact that it's going into an Australian team. I think it'll be a big change actually. It’s almost nerve-wracking in a way because I haven't been a part of an Australian drill unit in quite a long time. So, yeah, it's gonna be really nice, and I think it's gonna be an easy transition to move there.

You've spent time not in the Australian system, whereas a lot of Aussie guys get to that level via the World Tour Academy or the Pro Conti team. What do you take out of taking that long way around? 

Probably just the general life experience; I think it's really valuable for that. Having spent time in France, I speak fluent French. I now speak a reasonable level of Spanish as well, having ridden for Caja for two years. Little things like that are invaluable to just general life. I live in Spain, so it's nice to be able to go to restaurants or cafes and at least have a small amount of dialogue in Spanish, just out of general respect to the people who are in their own country.

A bit of resilience is also required. It's not always easy to be a part of a foreign setup, especially in the beginning. And coming back to the move to Mitchelton, I think it's gonna be a lot easier to step back into an Australian drilled team than it is to step away from it. I think there's just a lot of cultural differences in the way different nations run their teams or drill their teams. And I think it can only be a good thing for any human to experience a cultural shock actually, because that's what it is, and it just broadens your horizons. It helps to be ready for the different challenges that just general life will throw at me I think. 

On The Cycling Podcast special they did on you, you talked about trying to jump into the World Tour, and that teams quite often can look at a mature rider riding Pro Conti and ask questions about why they hadn't made the jump up yet. Is that a pressure that you feel riding at the Pro Conti level? Does it feel like everyone's got the time running out over their heads? Or does it feel like it's been a situation where you've been allowed to develop really naturally? 

At this point, it's definitely been a situation where I've been given the perfect amount of time to develop naturally. But I guess the pressure would come back to a personal level. It depends, I think, where the athlete wants to take their career to. Caja Rural, it's a pro team, many guys, including myself, would be happy to ride for this team for many years. It's a brilliant team, it's a brilliant setup; you get a salary, you can live, and it's great. But I think it was just on a personal level, and purely sporting ambition, I wanted to try and experience the top level of the sport, the Premier League of cycling. And in that regard, I think I said to myself that this year, it would be a better year than say next year to try and move up because I do think that ... It's purely scepticism on my behalf, but I think the longer a younger guy out there is to stay in the Pro Continental ranks perhaps some team managers would question why they haven't already moved up as the years get on. 

 Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

Mitchelton-SCOTT is undergoing a change in 2019 too, one that Schultz will be a key cog in. The squad’s going to look a lot different next year as the goals change, (or rather zero in). Simon Yates’ win at La Vuelta was just the tip of the iceberg for what the squad’s looking to accomplish. Much of the sprint unit are in different colours next year, as the team goes all-in on fighting for GC at the biggest races.

It’s a goal that requires different personnel, and Schultz is a rider that fits those goals perfectly. His time with Caja Rural has seen him develop a fair set of climbing legs, and Mitchelton-SCOTT has gained a rider who will slot in nicely, with a strength for lumpy days and classics.

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Have you had those conversations with Matt White [from Mitchelton-SCOTT] about what they're looking to get out of you next year? 

I think the idea is that I'm going into the team to be a GC support rider. I think the team's really evolving into a team that's gonna be racing for ... well, they just won the Vuelta, so it's a real evolution for the team. they're evolving into a team that's gonna be fighting for General classification in almost every stage race that they go to. 

I think Matt White was saying that he'd like to see me develop in the Ardennes classics. Indurain is essentially like a Spanish Ardennes classic in a way, similar sort of parcours, up and down, not crazy long mountains but very similar to the Ardennes. 

Yeah, as you mentioned, that Vuelta win's pretty big for them and they've got probably one of the better young cores now. It's gonna be a pretty good atmosphere to head in to, you can really step in at a level where you're gonna be fighting in bigger races

Yeah, yeah, for sure. It's crazy to think actually. Just even on those last couple of stages of the Vuelta, watching them ride to defend the jersey was really impressive. And I thought to myself, "Wow, that's most likely gonna be something I'm gonna have to do and have to step up to." And it was quite clear that the team really did step up. Everyone knows how good GreenEDGE is, but the way they rode as a unit in those last few stages was, I think, a credit to a really good atmosphere in the team, and guys just wanting to go as deep as they possibly could for Simon and the team goal in the end. And it was really, really nice to watch, and pretty cool knowing that I'll be stepping into it next year.

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Of Course, Mitchelton-SCOTT is also getting a rider who’s shown an ability to get results himself. 3rd place at one of Spain’s biggest One-Day races, the GP Miguel Indurain, behind Alejandro Valverde and Carlos Verona was an eye-raising performance. That's just one result, but the style and quality of that race are indicative of what both the team and Schultz believe he can develop into, with the Ardennes on their respective horizons, and its representative of his improvement over the past few seasons.

Also handy is that resilience he’s learnt whilst battling through unfamiliarity over the last few years. It’s an asset that riders don’t always enter the big leagues with, and it’s one that Schultz has thanks to the hard path he’s taken. 

He’s also got two Grand Tours in the legs. The Vuelta this year was Schultz’ second crack at the La Vuelta. Making his debut last year, he finished 111th; this year he was up to 75th, improving greatly as better legs and a wiser head held him in good stead.

 Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

How did you find the Vuelta this year, your second crack at it? Do you take a bit more out of the experience when it's not so much about surviving day by day, and you feel strong enough to do a bit more than survive? Do you learn a bit more when, I guess, you're taking in the racing a bit more?

For sure. Like you say, last year was just survival. It was a battle. I also think that last year was a particularly hard Grand Tour. There was a lot of chat last year from senior guys that it was up there with one of the hardest Grand Tours they've ever done etc., etc. And I didn't hear any of that sort of chat this year.

And certainly, on a personal level, this year felt a lot easier than last year. Whether that's from having already done one or being in a better physical place I'm not sure, but it certainly felt more doable and actually like I was a part of the race. There were a lot of days where I'd just ride in the main GC group until the last climb and then just ride up the last climb, saving energy for the next day. Whereas last year I was in the groupetto probably more often than I wasn’t if you know what I mean. 

So it was nice to pretty much not be in any situation this year where you're calculating time cuts and stressing about potentially not being able to start the next day because you're gonna miss that. But you can certainly learn more because you are taking in, you're actually thinking about what you can do differently if you're in a position to potentially be a protagonist on a stage. Or if you're in the position where you've got the energy that you can save, not spending every bit of energy to make it to the end of the three weeks, then I think for sure you start analysing how you use your energy a bit better. 

Do you still feel a bit of that wow factor? Because obviously, it's still a Grand Tour, you're still looking across the Peloton and seeing guys like Valverde and Quintana and just going, "Geez, what's this?"

For sure. And I think this year a difference was ... An objective for our team, for example, is really focused on trying to make breakaways to get exposure. It's a Spanish race, we're a Spanish team, so television time and just general chatter about the team is formed when we're in a breakaway. So last year the only breakaways I could really make were essentially pointless breakaways, you could say. Ones that had no chance of going to the line, the breaks that just rolled off the front of the Peloton, that no one was interested in. 

Whereas this year I was fighting to try and be in breakaways that were significant, with guys with serious pedigree, like your Mollemas, your Kwiatkowskis, your George Bennetts. And that is certainly ... it's not wow factor, but sometimes you have to pinch yourself if you're attacking and then you flick your elbow and Kwiatkowski comes bombing through, to continue on with an attack. It's certainly a nicer situation to be in than hanging on in the last five wheels, looking ahead at the single-file Peloton that's 500 meters up the road. 

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The end of the season included one more surprise for Schultz as he was called up to the Australian National Squad for the recent World Championships in Innsbruck. Caja Rural’s participation in some end of season races gave him a reason to tick the legs over after La Vuelta, and they were put to use in Austria.

A replacement for Richie Porte on the hardest World Championships Course in recent memory, it’s another indicator of Schultz’s reputation. The race didn’t go to plan for the Australian team, but Schultz himself rode well in support of Simon Clarke and new teammate Jack Haig, and he was one of the squad’s last survivors in the Peloton, as the course proved to be as selective as thought beforehand.

He’ll get back in the Caja Rural kit for a final few races now, but then become another successful graduate of the squad, who have launched several riders into the World Tour like Michael Kwiatkowski, Jose Herrada, David de la Cruz, Pello Bilbao, Omar Fraille.

Despite being a well-worn path, it’s not so easy when you’re from Australia. That hasn’t stopped him though; having made it, here’s better off for it, and here to stay.

See you back at the social club,

Josh

Joshua Duggan