Like numerous Australian cyclists before him, Nick Schultz packed his bags and headed to Europe to race with an amateur team, driven by the dream of making it as a professional cyclist. The 21-year-old has spent the last two seasons in France with the CR4C Roanne team, adding race days to his 2015 calendar with appearance for the Australian national U23 team that saw him earn selection for the Richmond Worlds.
In 2016, Schultz will ride for the Dutch Continental SEG Racing team with the ambition of signing his first WorldTour contract off the back of a consistent and successful season.
2015 saw Schultz race a "double program with Roanne and the national team", clocking up 70 race days, his longest season to date, starting with fifth place at the Australian U23 national road race. His performance in Buninyong resulted in gaining selection for the Jayco Herald Sun Tour U23 team, ensuring he was in a rider the national selectors had in mind for the European racing to come.
"I was planning on going back to France after nationals so when I got the call up I changed my flight for that experience to race the top teams and it was great to have that opportunity and see how they race," Schultz told Cyclingnews. "The format of racing is quite different in the way it's controlled and I guess the feel in the peloton is quite different in a point one race compared to a point 2 or amateur race. That was a really valuable experience just to see how the more experienced riders raced and how they act in the peloton."
Schultz finished his second 2.1 race in 26th position overall and sixth on the young rider classification having ridden the Tour d'Azerbaïdjan last year with the national team. While Schultz enjoyed his Sun Tour experience, his season was never going to be primarily about early-February performances as he outlined.
"Going into 2015 I really wanted to be successful in the French races and I wanted to chase victories. Unfortunately I didn't get any. I never thought I would be racing regularly with the national team so it was never an ambition to get professional experience because I think it's pretty hard to anticipate to know if you're racing with those guys. My goal was to perform consistently throughout the whole season from February to October in France and chase wins."
With the French races on almost every weekend of the racing calendar, there wasn't a specific event Schultz targeted for success, explaining instead his target was consistency.
"Anything can happen and because of that you need to be at your best every weekend," he said of the style of racing, adding that did however pencil in a few races he wanted to perform well in.
"I wanted to be going well at Rhône-Alpes Isère Tour and a couple of stage races in July. A home race the Tour du Pays Roannais and also Côte d'Or and I was on form for both of those as I was just back from Livigno with the national team and it seemed I had good preparation for both of those," he said of the races he finished fourth and second overall respectively.
"It was really the only period of the year where I took a step away from racing for two weeks and had some good solid, specific training rather than racing and recovering."
Schultz's performances earned him a leadership role for the 2.2 Tour de Gironde, a race won in the past by current Cofidis rider Stéphane Rossetto. The otherwise flat three-day race featured a slight uphill finish on the middle day of racing, suited to the punchy characteristics of Schultz.
"It wasn't very long, it would have been less than a kilometre, but the last 300-500 metres or so were 15-16% so really steep. It was the kind of finish that suited me so the plan going into that stage was to get me into a decent position and see what I could do from there," he described. "I launched quite a long way out as I am a rider who doesn't really like boxing on for position. I get a bit scared so I went from maybe 500 metres out to avoid fighting for wheels and I actually got a pretty decent gap straight away so I kept on going and didn't look back. I was passed by one rider, who was exceptionally strong and just flew by me, and then another rider came past and just pipped me on the line.
"It was probably one of my best results for the year finishing third on that stage and then seventh on GC."
"Going into l'Avenir I was sort of aware I was going to a road captain for the team," he said. "[Coach] James Victor had touched on the topic with me but it wasn't really confirmed until we were at the race and just with my general feeling of fatigue I knew I wasn't going to be able to chase individual results and I was fully going in, and wanting to, support Jack on the GC. I knew that he was really on form and capable of doing an exceptional result like he did."
The Australian team was whittled down one-by-one with injuries and illness taking its toll in the French race. Starting to worry and feel under pressure about not providing Haig with the support he deserved, Schultz battled on.
"There was a feeling of not wanting to let Jack down because of how hard he worked for that and I guess I just had to step up," he said.
"I wasn't at my best level for the season so that's probably why I also felt the pressure because I knew I didn't quite have the form I had a month beforehand due to fatigue.
"To be honest, the last day I didn't really serve much use for Jack," he added. "That was more a mater of making it to the finish line as the race was blown to bits after about 2km on a really long climb."
Schultz was the only other Australian to finish as Haig slotted into second overall, matching the efforts of Rob Power, who missed the race due to injury, a year previously. Both riders are on the books of WorldTour team Orica-GreenEdge from next season.
Schultz was next in the green and gold at the Richmond Worlds as he made his U23 debut having previously ridden the junior events at the championships and the American experience isn't one he's going to forget anytime soon.
"We got there quite early so we could see some things just around Richmond, then we had a lot of time to kill which gave us more time to think about why you are there, how big the Worlds are, and the hype around the race," he said.
"The experience of going to the Worlds, and especially in America where they speak English and just get so into it, that was pretty special and just being part of the national team is such an honour. I have never seen a nation get so into a cycling race. They shut down Richmond for a whole week, all the roads were closed. Even in the night. I was just so amazed. If you did that in Australia or Europe the public would get so annoyed."
2016 and signing with SEG Racing
With his 2015 season now closed and CR4C Roanne farewelled and thanked for the last two seasons, Schultz will enjoy a brief respite from the bike before turning his attention to a big year ahead with the Dutch SEG Racing team.
"Their vision on development was what really attracted me to SEG," Schultz said of why he chose the team. "They really want to see their riders move to the next level. I was really, really happy with where I was in France. I speak French and have a lot of really close friends in France and it was definitely a really hard decision to leave, but I think SEG were offering a real interest in things my French team just couldn't offer.
"They put value in aerodynamic testing, all the equipment is state of the art and I think the staff they employ are really experienced as well. I made the move to SEG hoping I can find that extra couple of percent to move into the tier above."
A common ailment of U23 riders is not knowing precisely where the strengths lie, something that Schultz can currently identify with.
"Another reason for going to SEG is that I think they can provide me with a little more direction. I was quite free to do whatever I wanted in my French team and that made me pretty good at everything across the board but not really a specialist in any given discipline," he added of his decision making in signing with SEG.
"In my discussions with SEG they see me targeting those weeklong stage races that aren't for the pure climbers. I can get over the climbs quite well but I am definitely not made for the climbs that are an hour long. So races like Tour of Alsace, or even stage races that have a time trial, I will try and exploit my time trialling next year and work on that.
"It's a new challenge and with specific direction I hope I can find where my strengths on the bike are. I also see myself targeting the one-day classics so races like U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege that suit me quite well with the punchy climbs."
First up for Schultz in 2016 will be the Australian national championships where he is likely to target a good result against the clock. In the road race, Schultz will have Freddy Ovett as a teammate to call upon and a repeat of his fifth place could result in another Sun Tour appearance. But that isn't a concern until race day as he explained.
"I am not fixating on that objective because before the actual race day, it's out of my control but I'd love to get a start in those races and experience again that high level and I think that would put me in good stead for the season in Europe moving up to the next level," he said.
With SEG, Schultz is in a good position to continue his development as a cyclist and move up to the next level of the sport with several rider agents involved in the team. And signing that professional contract is the primary objective for 2016.
"A successful year, in an ideal world, would either be moving onto Pro-Continental or WorldTour ranks," he said. "That's the end goal for 2016 so whether that means achieving wins or just really consistent results throughout the year. That's my big goal for 2016, to be able to sign a professional contract and the success of the season will be based on whether or not I do that."