Illustration by me (Ronan McDonnell)

I am a designer and a category 1 bike racer. Racing bicycles has taught me a number of important lessons about running my small design studio, and life more generally.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not stellar at either, but I enjoy what I do. I am proud of how my work and my amateur sports “career” feed off each other, giving me a unique approach to both.

Racing not Cycling

First let’s be clear on what we are talking; this is about racing not cycling around — it’s about visual communication design not other jobs. That said, racing could stand in for any number of pastimes you are dedicated to outside of work, and design could be read as any job you love.


Put in the groundwork. I train on a bike over 10 hours per week, most of which is on a stationary turbo. I draw everyday; everytime I plan a job, everytime I have to remember something, just to relax. You don’t have to design something new everyday. Just draw to keep your eye in. Respected designers who claim they don’t draw are like winning cyclists claiming they don’t train. They are either lying, or worse still, they are happy plodding along with the familiar and are unwilling to be challenged. You don’t want a designer who feels comfortable with every job.

Keep going.

Finish things. Whatever you are doing may be an onerous, lengthy process and you might endure stretches of extreme tedium, but the ones who win are the ones who keep pushing, past the line.

Be prepared.

Pack your kit, prep your bike, make your food, shave your legs. Research your client, Google your contacts, know their audience, speak their language.

99% + 1

99% of races are won by someone who was not much stronger, faster or better than the rest. The winner was usually just a bit cleverer, holding back when possible so as to always keep something in reserve. On the bike energy is finite. On a project resources, time, money and, crucially, passion are equally tightly rationed. For your project to succeed, to really stand out, it has to have a little something that puts it beyond the others.

Right place, right time

Life’s opportunities don’t come looking for you. You have to be ideally located, physically, socially, culturally or otherwise to catch them, utilise them and benefit from them. Cycle racing is no different. If you are way down the back of a bunch that stretches the full width of the road when the winning breakaway bursts off, you’ll never get to them. In a sprint if you leave a gap and someone goes through, it’s your fault they got “your” result. If you leave yourself out in the elements instead of the shelter of a group and suffer, you should have seen it coming. You make your own luck, you put yourself in a position to win. You second guess what others did, are doing or will do. You read the race.

It’s all on you

No-one else can win something for you. When a move goes up the road in a race, you can’t win if you’re not in it. When technology advances, you must keep up with the new standards.


Competing on bicycles is out-and-out competition. Design isn’t like that, it’s about being apt, providing precisely what the job requires, and that rarely wins prizes. By competing outside of the studio, I have the competitive side of me kept satisfied.


Put your head up, look around you, what’s going on might change your approach.
Your many experiences and interests across your life will cross pollinate your ideas. No one wants ideas from someone who only thinks design. Good design is for living with.

Sprint vs endure

In racing many people train and race on power read-outs, forgetting how they feel, not observing a race as it evolves around them. If you don’t train your sprint, you won’t have one. If you spend your days typesetting, that new identity is going to be a real challenge when you get the job. 
Practice visual thought — doodle. It really is all about the training.

Train! A lot of time spent on each, the turbo and the sketchpad.
This is the one take-away — practice is training is preparation

Be productive.

Don’t wait. I’m a proactive, attacking rider. I can’t sit in and wait for a sprint; it doesn’t sit right with me. If nothing is happening, I’ll attack. If something is happening and everyone is tired, I’ll attack. Not sure if a move will work out, I’ll attack. It might work out, I’ll attack. 
If it’s going to work, it’ll work. And by attacking you’ll be there at the front.
In studio work, try something, try it quickly, ink or pencil on paper. Still unsure, whack it together quickly on the computer. If it looks like a plan, pursue it.


Racing & Design both have their fascinating histories. Heritage is important. Doing either activity we are always aware of what lies behind us, looking over our shoulder. We have a past to judge our efforts against, just as much as we have our current peers against whom we must also judge or efforts. We also look to make something lasting, a record or a name on a trophy.

Take your chances.

Sometimes things don’t pan out as planned. If you are open to suggestion you can capitalise on mistakes, deviations or unplanned complications, even if they are your own fault.


Get used to being uncomfortable. Going faster on a bike than others hurts, and makes you wonder if it’s a good idea at all. Working on design, makes you question every mark you make — is it right for the job? Does it say what the client wants to say? Can it be better? You’ll never be comfortable, and that’s perfectly ok.


No-one can race and train 24/7 and still be competitive. No-one can design 24/7 and still care. You need to step back every so often. Two days off each every week works.

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