There’s no first day of term in cycling like there is in other sports. No single race where everyone shows up, in brand new threads and haircuts they booked a few days before so they could grow in a bit before anyone else saw them.
Because every rider in cycling has a different timetable. Although the Tour Down Under is as close to a season opener as we’ve got, with several of the sprinters starting there this week, it’s far from a critical mass of big names. Others we’ll catch up with in the Middle East in a couple of weeks; we’re not likely to catch sight of most of the climbers for a while yet. In 2019, it was almost March before Rouleur columnist Romain Bardet put a score on the board.
One consequence of this is that there’s no occasion to suddenly notice who is no longer there. No-one leaves a gap at the front for an absent (former) colleague.
Yet plenty have fallen between this year and last. Time catches up with us all; riders inevitably age out of contention for coveted slots on squads. What makes this season feel different is how many more than usual seem to have packed it in prematurely. Their bodies might be physically capable but their minds have lost the will.
The most prominent of these, Marcel Kittel, provides the best and most detailed explanation for his decision to call it quits in the forthcoming issue of Rouleur (no spoilers). Kittel, however, is far from the only high profile rider to decide that he’d rather be doing something else with his days.
A concussion may have been the catalyst for Ian Boswell to reconsider his career choices but, with a WorldTour team offer on the table, had he wanted to return to top level racing, he could have. In the end he turned it down.
Taylor Phinney was once the great hope of American cycling. In 2012 he wore the maglia rosa for three days after winning the Giro’s opening stage TT, and finished 4th in both road race and TT at the London Olympics. Last year Phinney called time on his time in the bunch in order to, as a certain Rouleur staffer put it, “make weird art”.
The colourfully dressed Adam Blythe is another who, although perhaps not drowning in top team offers, was still several years off the average age for a retiring rider when he turned in his badge and weapon last year. He could have carried on in some capacity, but found he simply didn’t want to.
It might seem hard for many of us to make sense of. When you spend a large amount of your free time and disposable income on an activity, it’s hard to imagine voluntarily giving up the opportunity to be paid to do it. When someone has the kind of talent most of us mere mortals could only dream of, to not want to make the most of it is inconceivable.
Might the conclusion be that maybe the life of a pro cyclist is not all it’s cracked up to be? That perhaps the fun you have on your Saturday club run or Mallorcan “training camp” is not comparable to the experience of the elites?
Rouleur met up with Blythe – and his new boss at Chpt 3, Niall Russell – before Christmas. The Yorkshireman described it this way: “If I told you for 150 days a year, you’ve got to go share a room with a grown man you don’t really know, and speak to your family and friends every night, when you’re at your most vulnerable, when you’re tired, would you be up for doing it?”
When he puts it like that, I do like my own space…
Phinney explained his own decision in a-typically lucid terms:
“Talent is nothing without work ethic, and work ethic comes from genuine passion for what you’re doing. And if you are constantly forcing your work ethic because your passion is elsewhere, then potential and talent mean nothing… I think that there’s a lot of power in recognizing that you don’t have the genuine passion for the thing that you’re doing anymore. And then having the courage to make that choice, to make that decision when you’re so deep in it. I feel like I’ve been basically preparing for this for a while now, cultivating the ability to voice my honest opinion and say: “‘I think that I don’t want to do this anymore.’’’
Marcel Kittel announced his retirement last year, after self-evidently struggling to perform on the bike for a season and a half. At the time, a number of fans – and plenty among the punditocracy – were quick to jump to the mental illness conclusion. While matters of stress and psychological wellbeing do arise in Andy McGrath’s fascinating profile, the conclusion one comes to is ultimately both more complex and more straightforward.
Speaking to Der Spiegel last year, Kittel summed it up succinctly: “I lost all motivation to continue to torture myself on the bike.”
Does this not sound more like good mental health than ill?
We know, because many of us do it ourselves, that any athletic progress obliges sacrifice of some sort, but how many would describe it as torture? The pros operate on another level, in more ways than the obvious. Few complain about getting to race their bikes for a living, it seems to be everything around it that imposes the burden. They’re still people, with the same emotional and psychological needs as the rest of us. They make the choice. They could make a different one.
There’s a lot to be said for a normal life.