The most Canadian WorldTour team is Israel Start-Up Nation. That might sound like a far-fetched claim. After all, the team is not called Canada Start-Up Nation, is it? But join us and team sponsor Maxxis tires as we take a close look at ISN and all its Canadian connections.
Canadian ISN cyclist Alex Cataford takes an analytical approach to things. He says his degree in physics helps him interpret data and technical details when working with sponsors. He’s a fan of the complex proprietary software system used by ISN to interpret rider data. He describes himself as “into tire pressure.”
So few Canadian cyclists have made their way to the WorldTour—Cataford, who knows his data, knew this. Despite the math, the numbers lined up for him and the 27-year-old cyclist will soon start his second year on ISN, having signed a two-year extension in July.
Cataford’s story starts in Ottawa. The cyclist, who has podiumed at the Tour of the Gila, Tour of Taihu Lake and placed in the top 10 at Colorado Classic, Tour of Alberta and Grand Prix Cycliste de Saguenay, isn’t exactly sure what sparked his passion. “It’s tough to say what got me into cycling,” he says, “but I remember watching the Tour de France.” He got into racing as a first-year junior, trying out his legs at a local Ottawa 15-km time trial. From there, he was hooked.
Riding with the Ottawa Bicycle Club, Cataford started with some racing in Quebec and quickly moved on to join the Canadian junior track team.
Throughout his junior years Cataford won six Canadian junior national championship titles, including the 2013 U23 national time trial. Despite his success, he still never truly thought he would make a career out of cycling. “In Canada you never really meet pro cyclists,” says Cataford, “I never thought it would be a full-time career.”
He studied physics at Queen’s University. “There are lots of cyclists in STEM,” he notes, “especially in North America and Canada.” The link could be the technical aspect of bikes, or taking a studied approach to optimizing training. As for why there are so many cyclists with STEM backgrounds in North America, it may just be that many riders, like Cataford, pursue higher education as they doubt they will be able to make a career out of cycling.
But, as he neared the end of his degree, Cataford finally began considering the reality that he may be able to make a professional career in cycling.
Breaking out of the Canadian scene
“There are very few opportunities in North America,” he says. “I think it was harder to a certain extent, because we don’t have the same level or access to racing as somewhere like Belgium.”
While there are races here, Cataford points out that eight-10 days of racing a year is rarely enough to get adequate experience. “There isn’t much racing in the U.S. and Canada,” he says, “and the racing in North American is very different. You have to make the jump to Europe at some point, and it’s often unrealistic to expect even a conti North American rider to just jump into the WorldTour.”
Cataford made that jump with his first pro continental experience in 2017 with UnitedHealthcare, after he had spent time on Garneau-Quebecor, Amore & Vita and Silber Pro Cycling. In 2019 he joined (then pro-conti) team Israel Cycling Academy. This year, that team turned into the WorldTour squad Israel Start-Up Nation, ushering Cataford into the big leagues and his first year as a WorldTour racer.
Israel Cycling Academy (ICA) didn’t disappear though. The continental team became a feeder team of Israel Start-Up Nation, helping to develop many non-European cyclists before launching them into the WorldTour calendar. This year there are three Canadians on the team: Robin Plamondon, Benjamin Perry and Carson Miles.
Cataford thinks that ICA is a great opportunity for Canadian riders to get experience in international racing. “It’s a super important stepping stone that allows them to come over and get their feet wet,” he says.
The fourth Canadian
Though they are seven years apart in age, Mike Woods and Cataford both started their pro careers in 2013 on Team Garneau – Quebecor. Cataford is excited for the fellow Ottawa cyclist to join Isreal Start-Up Nation next year. “We go to each other’s houses for dinner,” he says, “We’re quite close.”
Cataford thinks back on his and Woods’s past seven years of racing. “It’s kind of funny,” he says with a chuckle. “We’ve come full circle. We started out our careers on the same amateur team, and now we’re back together at the WorldTour.”
With the addition of Chris Froome and Woods to the gang in 2021, Cataford says the team has even bigger plans as it heads into its second year as a top-tier team. “Obviously we’re planning to up the level of results,” he says, “but one thing we have this year is a really nice family vibe. We’re planning to keep that.”