The analytical rider embraces the mysteries of cycling
Before the summer of 2017, James Piccoli had been struggling to make things click as a pro rider. He was wondering if the sacrifices he had made were worth it. Then, he got a l ucky phone call. In the following 12 months, the analytical rider says he developed a more nuanced outlook of the sport, including an appreciation for the l ess quantifiable elements of cycling. He also became the first Canadian in 10 years to win the Tour de Beauce.
You almost quit cycling close to a year and a half ago. What kept you in the sport? I got a call from Paul Abrahams, the boss of Elevate khs Pro Cycling. He told me the team was going to do Tour of Utah and the Colorado Classic, which were bigger races than I’d ever done. He said he could really use someone on those hills. And I said, “Yes.”
He called you out of the blue? Paul was paying attention to how races were going and wasn’t just looking at race results. He said he’d seen me race and that he believed in me. He also said that with the right support, I could do good things in cycling.
Tell me more about Abrahams. He’s the main director of the team and also does a lot of the back-office stuff – sponsorships and stuff like that. More than a year ago, I thought cycling was just about watts per kilo, as anyone outside of cycling does. But Paul really showed me the nuances of the sport, on and off the bike. He’s been the figure I needed, that I was looking for but never found. I guess by serendipity, he found me. At the this year’s Tour de Beauce, you were on the national team. Some of your teammates were pro continental rider Ben Parry, Elevate khs teammate Jordan Cheyne and Svein Tuft. What was it like having Tuft, who is the last Canadian to win Beauce in 2008, on your team? In 2012, Beauce was the first big, uci race I ever did. It was a bit of a shock. Svein was on the national team then. I remember thinking, whoa, that’s Svein Tuft. He rides for a big team. He’s won a silver medal at worlds. That’s, like, a real big bike rider right there. This year I was lucky enough to have him as a teammate.
What cycling wisdom did he share with you? More than wisdom, it was just having his presence. Having a rider of that calibre believe in me and the team and having him believe we could win was really special. People talk about having the legs and the watts to win, but in my experience, having that self-belief, the mental aspect of the sport, is probably more important. Having essentially Canada’s best rider, a long-established Worldtour pro, believe in me was a boost. It’s like he was your yellow jersey. I’m thinking of the way that jersey seems to give its wearer extra strength, what the psychologists call audience effect. I totally believe in that. I’ve experienced it several times in different ways. Just having a support system that believes in you, like Elevate khs, or having people believe in you, just switches something on mentally and you have better legs because of all that.
I studied mechanical engineering in university so I have that quantitative/analytical mind. Calculations of watts and drag and the formulas that quantify cycling have always interested me. But the more I do bike racing, the more I realize there’s stuff that can’t be quantified. That’s the beauty of the sport really.
What about luck? Behind a result in bike racing, there are a lot of factors. One of them is luck, for sure. That’s just the way it works. Anyone who doesn’t understand the role that chance plays in professional cycling, doesn’t understand professional cycling.
Tell me about your feelings for the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal. It sounds funny, but was always my dream to do the Worldtour race in Montreal.
Always your dream? The race is only nine years old. It’s nine years old, but before that there was a women’s race on same same circuit. The road Camillien Houde, the climb they use in the race, it’s the road I’ve done the most in my life. It sounds strange to say, but I have a connection to that road, to that climb. It’s been my sanctuary, a place I’d go to disconnect from the world and just ride. Riding a Worldtour race on that road, is special more than for just the fact that it’s a Worldtour race.