They call it the dead season. The period that lasts from the final UCI race on the calendar (historically Il Lombardia) until the start of January and those first pedal strokes under the blazing Australian sun.
What a funny idea, taking our holidays in November, during Halloween, right when the days are at their deadest, the light is dwindling and all our friends are, of course, all busy! Cycling is a world apart. The incongruity of the high-level sportsman on time off: we’ve barely climbed off our bikes when the questions start flying around. “Well, can I let myself go a bit?”
From the outside, the ascetic life that we seem to lead is a subject of great curiosity, to the point of having to sometimes hide my passion for wine, due to the supposed incompatibility of drinking a little with the healthy lifestyle of a top athlete.
However, that love of wine tasting has helped me rediscover an essential quality in life – sharing. The collective tasting of wine and contemplation has transcended my relation to time, fixing in my memory moments that would naturally be ephemeral: what a beautiful definition of socialising and the pleasure of sharing.
Our fine forebear Laurent Fignon spoke of bike racing as sometimes abrutissant – mindless – such is the physical energy spent to reach the heights coupled with the relative isolation which that requires. So, these social interludes seem crucial to hold, and maintain, a level of dedication throughout the season, year after year. And to therefore have the greatest career you possibly can.
If managed successfully, this potential should ensure the athlete progresses through his whole career too. I don’t believe that age-related obstacles stop anyone from performing at the very highest level. Certain riders show that it’s possible to be competitive for close to two decades…
For me, no matter which professional cyclist knows how to focus and prepare a goal in the short term, what’s truly fascinating is seeing the capacity of a select few to be at a top level from February to October, season after season. To me, this prowess shows a balance, a healthy attitude to life. Who could endure that if it’s about making those real sacrifices we often hear about?
The magic solution comes down to the right balance of good fortune that we professional bike racers have had to turn our passions into our jobs. That exists: some of the best, most experienced guys out there still have whole campaigns having fun like juniors every time they pin on a race number.
For some, once they’ve passed their 30th birthday, a certain kind of apathy sets in, perfectly described by David Millar in his book The Racer, where he recalls the monotony of training days which wear down the spirit more than the body, and the inevitable dip in enthusiasm given the rigours of this sport, one in which resilience is necessary, but still not quite enough, to succeed.
The hours in the saddle are gruelling in themselves, but they only constitute the tip of the iceberg of the image ascribed to a pro rider. It’s fascinating to note the level of independence the bike racer must exercise when he is home. The opposition to group sports like football is clear. It’s not a question of days totally planned out and a training centre with set hours.
The racer has to organise his entire day himself with a fine toothcomb: plan training, plot a route and organise his so-called “luxuries” (massage, motorpacing, food), while reconciling all that with the needs of family life.
I’ve tried to take all these key factors for performance into account as early as possible in my career, to make sure I turn it into a routine, something that becomes natural over time. When I go off to use a foam roller after a long day on the bike or throw in a gym session, everyone around me considers it business as usual. Hey, the training camp is even better when we’re going above and beyond what the team expects.
It’s hardly a surprise to see that professional cyclists are ahead of the curve in terms of maturity: a good number are house owners, married and already have kids before they turn 30, something rather rare among peers.
It’s a real asset for our future life when these accomplishments do not come at the price of a relative isolation in a professional world that’s otherwise quite divided. Because over the years, I’ve learnt a fundamental truth: performing well also comes down to the pleasure of sharing.
Romain Bardet’s debut column was originally published in Rouleur 19.1