Inside Vlad Dascalu's rollercoaster first year racing with TFR
Vlad Dascalu is in the midst of objectively one of the biggest breakout seasons in XC this season. It’s also been objectively frustrating for him at times.
Arguably no rider has been more consistent when on his bike. The results: Nine World Cup short track or Olympic-distance top-five finishes, including three second-place finishes, in 12 completed races. Turn on any World Cup race, and odds are you’ll find Dascalu at the pointy end.
But surrounding those standout results are a series of setbacks and near misses. He pulled out of short track racing in Brazil due to a mechanical (then finished third in XCO starting from the fourth row), missed short track in Albstadt due to illness (then took third in XCO again), suffered a bad crash in Lenzerheide before one of his few non-podium finishes, suffered an ill-timed mechanical after making what appeared to be a winning move in Andorra, then injured himself in a late crash in Snowshoe, forcing him to miss the World Cup race in Mont-Sainte-Anne.
Nové Město probably bothers Dascalu the most. There, he suffered no setbacks. In fact, he felt fantastic. He attacked on the final lap and emphatically dropped everyone near him … except Tom Pidcock. The talented young British rider and Olympic champion never let go of Dascalu’s wheel until just before the finish line, where he outsprinted the Romanian for the win.
“That one was actually a bit frustrating because I saw the win so close, and so far at the same time,” Dascalu says. “I gave my best, but Tom Pidcock was just stronger. I tried so hard to beat him.”
As Dascalu makes his final preparations before racing World Championships in Les Gets this weekend, it’s a good time to take stock of who he is. He’s perhaps the fastest rider in the world who has yet to win a World Cup race. And though he’s had a rollercoaster of a debut season with Trek Factory Racing, he’s also just 24 years old. Dascalu is still discovering who he is.
Here’s the thing about Dascalu’s ups and downs this year: Never once have they affected his approach to racing. In this case, the bad races illustrate his mentality much better than the good. His crash in Lenzerheide, for example, immediately knocked him out of podium contention, sending him outside of the top 40 riders on the course. Instead of bailing on the race, he fought for every last place he could scrounge, even though it meant scant points for the overall standings. He finished 17th.
After the race, he said, “I think these moments, when you have issues, that’s when you have to fight the most, just to prove to yourself that you can be in the race again.” Lenzerheide showcased what has become Dascalu’s defining trait: A superhuman ability to remain upbeat and never, ever, give up.
“If you don’t give it a try, you never know,” Dascalu says. “You can have your best day even if you feel not that good in training. I start races with an open mind. For sure to win, you need to have the day, you need to have the legs, but you don’t have to give up. It’s a long race, and things can change. You have to go for it.”
It's a long race, and things can change. You have to go for it.
Dascalu doesn’t dwell on misfortune. He’s good at seeing the big picture, and taking note of his own progress. That first World Cup win? It’s coming, Dascalu is sure of that. In the meantime, he’s proud of the growth he’s making in his first year within TFR. He was already familiar with Trek’s equipment having rode for Trek-Pirelli in 2021. But this year, he has learned much more about his bike.
Previously, Dascalu raced one suspension setup that he had become accustomed to. This year, he has played with shock tokens, tire pressures and even aero handlebars to maximize his output at every track.
“I’ve been riding Supercaliber bikes for the last few years, but this year I feel like the bike is different,” Dascalu says. “I feel like the bike I’m riding right now, it’s the best setup I have ever had. I feel so comfortable with the bike. Everything works perfectly, and I know it works perfectly, down to the bearings. Everything is the best you can get.”
Dascalu has been working with team mechanic Litu to make sure that no detail goes overlooked. The two have known each other for a long time, going back to when Litu was team manager at MMR Factory Racing and they would often see each other at races in Spain. They had never worked together this closely before, but their personalities quickly meshed and helped Dascalu come up with his dream ride.
“It’s all about the details,” Dascalu says. “That’s what helps you grow. When you’re at the highest level, there are a few things you can improve. So you have to find that 1 percent in every detail.”
Competitively, Dascalu has been pushed harder than he ever has before, and not just by an elite men’s field that grows more cutthroat every year. He entered a TFR squad featuring a reigning World Champion in Evie Richards and Olympic Champion in Jolanda Neff. From his first day with the team, Dascalu has been pushing himself to reach the high standard set by his teammates.
At the same time, Dascalu has never felt pressured to give up his happy-go-lucky nature. Despite his focus on getting faster, he has never been so single-minded that he couldn’t enjoy the world around him. Importantly, the TFR culture encourages him to be himself and help his teammates as much as they help him.
“From the beginning, I felt like it’s a winning team, you know? That pushes you to be at the same level,” Dascalu says. “It has been very good from the beginning. I feel like it’s a family and everyone is so friendly. Everyone was really helpful with getting me into the team. I like to ask the other riders what they think about the track and the setup. And then we go together on the track and we see different lines. I usually go out Anton [Cooper] and Riley [Amos], and six eyes are better than two [laughs].”
To prepare for his step up to TFR, Dascalu also took advantage of the team’s close relationship with Trek-Segafredo and attended the road racing squad’s December and January training camps in southern Spain. Dascalu lives to race, but he’s not a fan of the long, lonely offseason hours needed to build an endurance base for the year. By ticking off those miles with Trek-Segafredo, he was able to perform at a high level from the outset of the season.
The sum of support that Dascalu has received this year — technically, physically and emotionally — has helped him feel like he’s on track to fulfilling his potential as a rider. Given how he’s performing, it’s easy to forget that Dascalu is only in his third year racing as an elite, one of those years being a severely pandemic-disrupted 2020.
Dascalu is still at the beginning of his racing journey. Nothing could diminish his enthusiasm for the fact that he’s in this position at all, racing among the very best in his sport. Despite his lack of experience, no one has a healthier perspective on his adventurous season than Dascalu himself.
“When I started cycling, let’s say the possibility of being where I am today was really low,” Dascalu says. “If you think outside of the bubble, see the things from the outside, it’s just crazy how things have changed. Being part of Trek Factory is a dream, and fighting for the races with Nino [Schurter], with Thomas Pidcock and a lot of the big names in the sport, it’s just an amazing feeling to be there. And it gives me a lot of motivation and hope for the future.”
You can catch Vlad and the entire TFR crew at World Championships in Les Gets, France, this weekend. If you’re in North America, FloBikes has live coverage. XCO racing begins at 9 a.m. local/3 a.m. ET on Sunday with the women’s U23 final, followed by the men’s U23 final at 10:45 a.m. local/4:45 a.m. ET, the women’s elite final at 1 p.m. local/7 a.m. ET and the men’s elite final at 3:15 p.m. local/9:15 a.m. ET.
Want to keep up with the squad? Follow TFR XC on Instagram for the latest photos, videos and results!