Not since Neil Stephens and Stephen Hodge in the late 1980s has an Australian raced for the Caja Rural Seguros RGA team. From 2017, Nick Schultz will become the third rider from down under to pull on the familiar green kit of the Spanish Pro-Continental squad.
A consistent season highlighted by a stage win at the Tour de l'Avenir helped the 22-year-old seal the deal but the fact that his contract wasn't down to one result was one of the more appealing factors in signing.
"They weren't just waiting for one really big breakthrough performance or anything in particular," Schultz told Cyclingnews of the move. "They saw potential, contacted me, showed a lot of interest and were really motivated. They saw a future with me in the team which is really reassuring for a rider when a team isn't just taking you based off one breakthrough result and are laying out a pathway, showing a lot of confidence."
Schultz started the season with SEG Racing but also rode with the U23 national team and earned a stagiaire ride with Orica-BikeExchange. The SEG team and structure allowed Schultz to "grow as a rider" and to "achieve the results I did this year". He praised the Continental team for playing an important role in, not only his 2016 season but also in securing the contract with Caja Rural.
"I am incredibly grateful to SEG Racing Academy for providing me with plenty of opportunities throughout the season. After gaining both the staff and riders confidence after the win in Bretagne, everything continued to fall into place and I was able to really focus on my training provided by the team staff and prepare for specific targets. It was nice to be apart of an u23 team where I could set specific goals and know that the team would be backing me for a result. Their flexibility when it came to essentially riding for three teams at once for the second half of the season made a potentially stressful time, pretty calm and relaxed."
At the end of the 2015 season, Schultz told Cyclingnews that a successful season would be securing a professional contract for 2017. Asked if therefore he judged 2016 a success, Schultz explained the year "certainly surpassed my expectations and I basically succeeded in almost all of the targets I set out for myself and the team along the way. There is nothing much I can really complain about."
Central to Schultz's season was the Tour de l'Avenir, a race he debuted at last year and helped Jack Haig to second overall. His second appearance though was arguably a better vintage with a stage win, victory in the team classification, two riders in the top ten overall and the KOM jersey. However, the race was almost a right off for Schultz who explained that his dreams of riding GC went up in smoke on stage 6.
"What I really like about stage racing is that so much can happen throughout. I am pretty good at re-focusing if don't meet an initial target or goal," he said. "After that bad day, I was pretty devastated, really disappointed. I spent a little bit of time dwelling on it then refocused and went out and really unleashed everything on that day that I won. I think that a lot of the emotion you see when I crossed the line was satisfaction and a little bit of anger at myself for the previous day. I guess I also like racing in France and it was nice to win in a mythical location in the Alps. They are the sort of races that when I was younger, I was always watching. The Tour stages in the Alps and to actually be racing for a win in a big race was pretty special."
For Schultz, the race was also a success and enjoyable as he 'dropped' into the Australian set-up from his SEG Racing 'day job', making sure to reference his gratitude to his trade team for allowing him to do so.
"They were all really open and they were really easy to work with and everybody worked well together," he said of the welcoming set up. "Often the success of a team comes down to the vibe and atmosphere within the team and with great riders and great staff, everybody getting along on both ends, pretty much the only thing we had to think about was riding and delivering on our ambition."
Prior to racing Tour de l'Avenir, Schultz made his Orica-BikeExchange debut as a stagiaire at the Vuelta a Burgos, and before that he had ridden the Tour Alsace with SEG Racing. That made it three races with three different teams in just over three weeks.
"It is not a super easy thing to do," he said of spending time with different teams across the season. "You get used to riding within a team and it is always one of the hardest things about the races at the start of the season. In February or March you don't really know the guys you are racing with. You don't know their strengths, their weaknesses, how they react to different things on and off the bike. There is always a 'get to know you’ period. Dropping into the national team was less intimidating than dropping into Orica mid-way through the season. I guess it's about doing what I do and trying not to disrupt the norm in each of those environments and generally the transition is pretty comfortable."
During his time as a stagaige with Orica, something that wasn't planned at the beginning of the season but an opportunity Schultz jumped at, he also rode the GP Impanis-Van Petegem and Japan Cup along with the Vuelta a Burgos. Describing the level of professional racing "certainly a level above" U23 racing, Schultz found himself quickly adapting to his new surroundings. Sandwiched in the middle of the Vuelta a Burgos was a team time trial, an event that Schultz had little prior experience in.
"It was definitely next level with the speeds that they ride at in a team time trial," he said. "I definitely hadn't experienced anything like that, it was quite jaw dropping at the end when I thought about how fast we were going. It was different but it was also very fun to be a part of. That's definitely what made me the most nervous about the whole stagiaire with Orica, that I had to do a team time trial."
Caja Rural and life off the bike
Schultz was the sole stagiaire for Orica-BikeExchange in 2016 and while he was told that it was unlikely a place would be available for him in 2017, he was "ambitious and hopeful of earning a contract."
While there was contact from other teams for his signature, Schultz decided the Caja Rural set up suited his current plans and ambitions and the fact they had showed interest from early on was an added bonus. For Schultz, bike racing is just one component of his life and the opportunity to experience a new language and culture was equally appealing.
"There is the race programme and the fact that it was Spanish," he said of the added attractions. "I really want to learn Spanish and a good way to learn that is when you have no choice. Similar to what I had to do in France. If race radio is in Spanish, team meetings are in Spanish then I am really going to have to understand and speak in their language, which is a motivating factor. Bike riding is just one side of it. If I can come out of cycling with a few languages and life experiences and learn about different countries cultures then that is a positive. It is not just about racing a bike."
"The race programme is certainly very attractive for a rider like myself. I am not going to be thrown into races that don't suit me very well, which was a big positive. The majority of the races will be in Spain, France, and Italy where the terrain is more undulating, and the racing is quite aggressive. I think in general it lends itself a little bit more to a rider like myself."
Schultz won't be making any appearances on Australian soil over the summer as he sets up base in Girona. With 2017 his first year in the professional ranks, Schultz is hoping to have everything settled in Spain before he starts his year in earnest.
Once he is racing, Schultz's ambitions for the year may appear modest as he seeks to gain experience but that won't stop him from taking his opportunities when they arise.
"I want to be in the race, I want to do my job, get in a few breakaways here and there. Every now and then, earn the opportunity to be at the pointy end of a race. That was another appealing factor about going to Caja Rural is that at that level, every weekend is not going to be a WorldTour race which will hopefully give me a chance to progress and get races where the level isn't as a high as the WorldTour. This should hopefully give me the opportunity to have a go at actually racing and not become too complacent being a domestique. Regardless, I am really looking forward to everything that next year will throw at me."