Vlad Dascalu talks about his breakout year, and why he's staying in the Trek family for 2022 and beyond
Vlad Dascalu is a pure racer. “I need the motivation which racing gives me,” he says. “It helps me push my limits and reach my top level.”
That is to say, when the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded in 2020 and ruined the race calendar, he struggled with the long hours on the indoor trainer. His few results during his first elite XC racing season weren’t what he hoped — 30th at the World Cup race in Nove Mesto, before a nice bounce back to 11th at World Championships and European Championships.
With a full slate of races in 2021, Dascalu displayed his immense potential while racing for Trek-Pirelli, riding faster and faster throughout the season. He took fifth in Leogang in June, then seventh at the Tokyo Olympics. He barely missed a podium with a fourth-place finish at World Championships in Val di Sole in August, then capped the year with his first ever World Cup medal in Snowshoe in September, taking silver.
Being here now, being part of Trek Factory Racing, it's like a dream come true and I couldn't be happier with it.
At just 24 years old, Dascalu still hasn’t hit his ceiling. He is stepping up to Trek Factory Racing as the final member of the team for the 2022 season, joining Evie Richards, Jolanda Neff, Anton Cooper, Riley Amos and Maddie Munro. He hopes to continue his upward trajectory when he takes on another jam-packed calendar.
“I’m so motivated to be with this team,” Dascalu says. “Being here now, being part of Trek Factory Racing, it’s like a dream come true and I couldn’t be happier with it.”
Dascalu spoke with the Trek Race Shop about his best memories from a stellar 2021 season, what it was like realizing his Olympic dream for Romania and what he’s looking forward to most as part of TFR. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Why do you think you improved so much from your first elite season in 2020, to your second in 2021?
Vlad Dascalu: There were a lot of changes when I went to elite, which I think I didn’t manage well. Because when you have the Red Bull helmet, you want to do your best and win every race. So the first races of the 2020 season didn’t go well because I got sick, and it took me a lot of time to recover.
The first World Cup of the year was Nove Mesto, and it didn’t go as planned, I didn’t feel very good. Because I’m the kind of rider who needs racing, you know? There are others who can reach a good level just through training, but I need racing. I need the motivation that racing gives me. It helps me push my limits and reach my top level.
We didn't know when we'll be racing next. I really need the racing and I really love it.
So yeah, the first races were not very good, but every race I went faster, and I was 11th at the World Championships and European Championships in 2020, which was quite good because all season there were a lot of ups and downs. And those results gave me the motivation for the offseason.
Then for the 2021 season, I worked hard before it started with the motivation of going to the Olympic games. I really worked hard for that. I think that and having a normal season with a lot of races motivated me to find my top level.
Having your first elite season take place during the height of the pandemic, how stressful was that?
Dascalu: We didn’t know when we had to race, but we still had to be prepared. We had to continue training. I spent two months indoor training, which was crazy. I look back now and I don’t know how I did it [laughs]. I tried to keep my shape by just doing indoor training workouts. And there was that thing where we didn’t know when we’ll be racing next. I really need the racing and I really love it.
And when that went away, I was missing energy sometimes to go training, you know? The discipline was there, but something was missing and my training wasn’t the same.
Looking at this past season, your level seemed to go up and up throughout the year, capped with a silver medal in Snowshoe. What did it feel like to win that hardware? Were you surprised?
Dascalu: I think the first podium in Leogang surprised me. That one was unexpected, because yeah, for sure I was in good shape, but I didn’t expect success that early. That made me feel like I was competitive again, like I could fight for a podium and the win wasn’t so far. It really gave me the confidence that I can be there.
During the 2019 season, my last Under-23 season, I had that confidence. Then in 2020 I lost it a little bit because I didn’t feel 100 percent like myself. And I think this past season I recovered that confidence, and I had coaches that had a lot of confidence in me, and that helps a lot in racing I think. If I feel down, it takes a lot to push your limits and stay calm. For example in Snowshoe, I came in around 20th on that first lap, but I just stayed calm and I knew I could breathe.
I was in good shape, but I didn't expect success that early. That made me feel like I was competitive again, like I could fight for a podium and the win wasn't so far.
What felt better, your first podium in Leogang or your first medal in Snowshoe?
Dascalu: Snowshoe was amazing. I really enjoyed it. It was proper racing. It was frustrating to see the win was that close, but I couldn’t do anything. It was very, very fast on that last lap. All these things keep me motivated for next season.
Looking back at the year, is there a standout memory for you?
Dascalu: Yeah, it’d be the Olympic games. Even outside of the result, I think it was quite good. I went to the Olympics with a top ten in mind, so it was very nice, but the experience, just being involved in such a big event, it was just great. I really enjoyed it.
What was the Olympic experience like? And what did it feel like being on the start line?
Dascalu: It didn’t feel like a normal race. Before flying to Tokyo, the pressure was there, but not so much. But when you get there, and you see everything around the Olympic Games, also on social media — everything is bigger around the Olympic Games.
When I arrived there, I felt more pressure on me. I don’t know why, but I was trying to do everything perfect, to have all my best days before the race, making 100 percent sure I did everything I could.
It was a bit more pressure than normal. Our Olympic village was a bit farther from Tokyo, like four hours. So it was nice because it was a little like a World Cup. Most of the riders there were World Cup riders. So it was a familiar environment, at least.
It feels not that far, but it's far at the same time, to win a World Cup, but that is what I want.
You’re at December training camp with Trek-Segafredo in Spain right now. What are you hoping to get out of that experience?
Dascalu: Normally I don’t do so many hours on the bike. But when you have an opportunity to train with the road guys who are really fast, I think it’s a good experience, and also good base training.
So I want to take ideas and see what they do after training. Just take more ideas for my daily routine. It’s a good opportunity to improve little things, and also train with good company, because training for five hours at home alone, it’s much more difficult than with five or six riders [laughs]. And also December and January here is very nice weather. You can wear shorts.
Next season will technically be your third elite season, but it’s sort of like your second elite season because the 2020 season was so disrupted. How are you looking to grow as a rider now that you have experienced a full calendar of elite racing?
Dascalu: The results I had last year gave me confidence to continue to improve. I want to keep that kind of routine, and do the training camps I did at altitude before the important racing. I just want to give my best. I’m so motivated to be with the team. You know, it feels not that far, but it’s far at the same time, to win a World Cup, but that is what I want.
You’re stepping up to a new team. What does it mean to you to be part of Trek Factory Racing?
Dascalu: For me it’s real. When I was young, when I was starting to race, it was a big deal. Trek Factory Racing is my dream team. I thought, ‘I would like to be in this team in my future.’ And being here now, being part of Trek Factory, it’s like a dream come true and I couldn’t be happier with it.
Coming off a big year, what factor drove you to stay within the Trek family?
Dascalu: I wanted to stay with Trek because I really like the bikes, and all the things involved with the team. I looked up to it from the outside, and now even more from the inside. Because when you know the people who make a team, you like it even more. So I think it was the best decision I could make.