Philippa York: Don’t you want me?

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Professional cycling might be a hard sport, but it’s an even tougher business. As Philippa York found out the hard way, a rider’s stock can fall a lot quicker than it can rise…

Photographs: Offside/L'Equipe

 

 

I flop onto my hotel bed and switch the TV on. A quick search through the meagre list of channels reveals nothing much worth watching, so I settle on the music offering which, though it’s not MTV, has to be better than mainstream blandness. If it had been a race day and I was physically and mentally frazzled then silence could well have been the chosen option, but it’s the day before the race and I’m already feeling a certain level of brain-induced anguish. 


Some random Euro pop noise thankfully stops – probably Belgian given the singers are trying too hard – and I recognise the next song’s intro as the Human League’s biggest hit. As I lie there listening to Oakey and Sulley, I reach the conclusion that it’s strange how anything nearly a decade old has now become a classic. An oldie, but no longer quite goodie enough for those in the fast lane of life.


I’ve just been fired after a short but concise meeting with the team manager. The lyrics “Don’t you want me, baby?” sound like they were written for me.

Becoming a professional bike rider is hard enough. Staying there is even harder. Each year, there’s a high turnover amongst the peloton and the brutality of that situation is apparent when transfer season opens in earnest. We all know negotiations go on outside of the officially sanctioned period but everyone pretends otherwise. Announcements of who is heading where and who is heading nowhere, all bundled into a nice little media package that’s blurted out when the Tour de France has finished and before the Vuelta has begun. Anti-climax August.


Before the UCI took control of all things contractual, or rather think they did, it was supposedly different. Actually, it was exactly the same. Teams talked to riders and riders pretended they didn’t until the Tour was over. 


Now, it’s all very well signing a new contract before the season’s main event, as it brings security to the rider and stability to the team, but that decision is not without risk. Have a successful Tour and your worth could increase – better offers could roll in. On the other hand, if things go badly, then signing early might be the best move ever.

But that was not my situation. My share price had taken a sudden dip and the investor wanted out.


The story leading up to the predicament I find myself in is a complicated one, but it began with leaving my former team under circumstances where no one was happy, and arriving in my current squad on a one-year deal. Then events unfolded where the support, or rather lack of it, from the management was, in my eyes, lacking which was a bit disappointing at the time and not forgotten when negotiations came to extend my stay with them.


Luckily, I was also in good form, so the upper hand was mine to a certain extent. The team expanded, I went from being team leader to the number two, which was okay, and though certain riders had been recruited whom I didn’t like, I thought I was fairly settled and respected. 

As the season progressed, I found out that one of the new arrivals who I considered below my level was being paid more than I was, despite his palmarès and ranking being lower than mine. This kind of rumour would circulate amongst riders all the time, so I investigated further and sure enough it was true.


I wasn’t too impressed to learn of the lack of faith, so when it came to the next set of contractual extensions, I had already decided I would take a risk and wait for the Tour to be done. I calculated I could prove a point and have a strong position to negotiate from. 


Of course, that’s not how the team management saw it and my lack of commitment to their cause meant they began to look elsewhere, which if I’m honest was something I had discounted as unlikely. How wrong I was. I’d forgotten that all it takes was one mediocre performance, especially a Tour-related one, and you are on shaky ground.

I had been wondering why the team had been so quiet on the discussions of re-signing my contract and now I knew. They weren’t going to. And here I was in the holiday period, doing races that I had been spared in previous years with sore legs from July and a sore head from an uncertain future.


I knew I’d be leaving the team and I knew I’d find another one, but under what conditions? The money would be less, but that wasn’t why I loved racing. That was one of those things you learned came with success. Excitement, speed, danger, fans and ultimately the respect you gain from doing something well – these mattered more. But that’s the rider viewpoint.


Teams operate differently. Is rider A performing, and how long for? Is rider B a better option, has more potential, is cheaper or more likeable? Do they fit better into the team’s plans or the sponsors’s needs?


Read: Remembering the day LeMond beat Fignon by eight seconds


Sometimes you find that you meet the criteria and a relationship is struck up. If it goes well, trust and respect develop and it becomes a long-term thing. But introduce a few niggles and a few doubts and the whole shebang can go to pot just when you don’t expect it.


As the Human League video reaches the end, I reflect on my situation. I wonder how long I can be a bike rider. Will I end up in a decent team or be with a bunch of clowns? And will I have to cut my hair? Phil Oakey did.


This article was originally published in Rouleur 19.7