It’s been a wee while since last we spoke to Gabriel Cullaigh, four years, April 2018 to be exact – he’d just won two stages in the ‘pro team shop window,’ Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal then followed that up with a top 10 in the u23 Gent-Wevelgem.
That year he also won the UCI 1.2 Rutland Melton Cicle Classic and enjoyed a solid season.
Season 2019 saw him still with Team Wiggins and ride another strong Alentejo with two fourth places, a second and a stage win; in addition he rode a solid Tour de Yorkshire with two top eight placings against top opposition.
These rides had caught the eye of Spanish World Tour team, Movistar and for season 2020 he pulled on that nice blue jersey with the big white ‘M.’
But it’s fair to say that his two years with the team didn’t go as well as he’d hoped and for 2022 he’s back in the UK with Cornish UCI Continental team, Saint Piran.
We caught up with him again recently.
That last time we spoke you were with Wiggins and had a great start to the year with those two Alentejo stage wins…
“Yes, it was a pretty consistent year, I won the Rutland and had a few good placings at the Tour of Britain, it was my last year u23 and I wanted to make an impression.”
You rode well at Alentejo in 2019, again.
“I was fourth in both of the first two stages, won Stage Three and then was second on the last stage, so yes, it was a good race for me.
“I had an offer from Allan Peiper to ride stagiaire with UAE but my agent, Andrew McQuaid told me to hold off, there was something in the pipeline.”
Was the 2019 Alentejo stage win the catalyst in getting the Movistar ride?
“They’d actually had an eye on me since 2018 when I won two stages, that race is one which their talent scouts pay particular attention to.”
The 2020 Tour Down Under was your first race with the team – that must have been an exciting debut?
“That was living the dream, flying out there with the team, I got to know Jurgen Roelandts and he took me under his wing.
“Those two weeks over there were great.”
Lockdown must have been difficult though, your career just starting then, ‘on hold.’
“I rode the opening weekend but then everything just stopped after Paris-Nice.
“Fortunately I could still get out on the bike in the UK, the team kept in touch with Zoom calls and there were no pay cuts for us like some teams had to endure.
“I was told to focus on the Classics when racing resumed and with hindsight, perhaps I over-trained in an effort to get my weight down and impress Patxi Vila, my DS.
“When the season resumed I rode Milan-Turin, Milan-Sanremo, Plouay and the Europeans but after Plouay I’d contracted shingles and didn’t realise until I spoke with the team doctor.
“August 2020 was a big learning curve for me.”
But 2021 started well, seventh in the Clasica de Almeria and fifth in the Trofeo Alcudia.
“I started well, the speed was there but races were scarce; Alcudia was pretty relaxed until the last 30 K where it went mad.
“I rode Gent-Wevelgem and De Panne but didn’t have the depth.”
Why was your programme so lean?
“I don’t know; after Almeria we went to a training camp and I was told I was riding the Opening Weekend then I got a call to say that I wasn’t riding The Omloop and Kuurne.
“I got a call from Patxi but he didn’t really give me an explanation, he just said I’d have plenty more opportunities.
“I kept my head down and trained but I felt my training wasn’t preparing me for the races I was riding.
“But in those I did ride I dedicated myself to looking after Ivan Garcia Cortina who was grateful for the help I gave him; I’d keep him out of the wind when no one else in the team did.
“I was down to ride the Tour of Flanders and then they took me out of the line-up, Ivan made a fuss because he wanted me there to look after him for the first three hours but management wouldn’t budge.
“They gave me constant promises of races but they never materialised and then it was Tour time and there’s not a lot of other racing but I rode the Tour of Sardinia and got a top 10 on Stage Five.
“I got rides in Poland, Plouay and the Tour of Britain but didn’t have the depth because I hadn’t done the races – I still don’t know why I didn’t get the programme…”
I have to ask, what was it like riding alongside a bona fide legend like Valverde?
“We did camps together and he’s a really sound guy. He doesn’t speak much English but along with Imanol Erviti and JJ Rojas he was very welcoming.
“I remember going for coffee with him in Pamplona, he’d always make time to chat.
“I raced alongside him in Almeria, he said he’s look after Ivan and me until the last 30 K when things started to kick off, he was obviously thinking about keeping safe before the Olympics.
“I’d have to describe him as a legend and gentleman.”
I believe you had Vuelta and Giro stage winner, Leonardo Piepoli as a coach for a while?
“Yes I did but his training wasn’t the answer for me, he was old school – big miles, long intervals; I felt he was constantly overworking me.
“And he was obsessed with getting my weight down, I felt he ran me into the ground and that I was getting further away from being the rider I was.
“I met Gary Sadler, the former British track champion, Commonwealth Games medallist and professional who lives in Spain now; when I told him about what I was doing in training, his eyebrows raised.
“I spoke to Patxi and asked if I could start working with Gary and he gave me his approval.”
When did you hear that you weren’t being retained?
“That was a bit of a strange one, I had a conversation with Eusebio Unzue the team’s general manager and he asked if I had anything sorted out for next year?
“Then I got an email from the team’s finance guy telling me that my contract wasn’t being renewed – my agent tried to contact the team but couldn’t make contact with them.”
How did the Saint Piran ride come about?
“Steve Lampier from the team dropped me a line after he heard Movistar were letting me go saying that he knew I would be trying for a World Tour or ProTeam ride but if I needed a ride at Continental level then there was a place for me at Saint Piran.
“At that time my agent was in talks with Doug Ryder at Qhubeka but there was no guarantee that the team would continue – and of course, it didn’t.
“I got in touch with Steve and we agreed a deal which he has delivered on.
“I know the British scene isn’t the best right now but the team is a good one and we’ll be riding on the continent; we have the five stage UCI 2.2 Tour du Loire et Cher coming up in France on April 13th which I’m looking forward to and then the Rutland is on April 24th.
“We also have one day races coming up in France and Belgium.
“James Shaw is my inspiration; he jumped back up the World Tour after riding for a British Continental team and that’s what I’m hoping to do.”
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Alas, not long after we spoke to Gabriel he let us know that Covid had caught up with him, meaning he’ll miss the Tour du Loir et Cher and perhaps the Rutland Cicle Classic as well. We wish him a speedy recovery and look forward to seeing him back in action soon.