Images via Thomas Maheux
When you think of bike racing, you imagine action, chaos, speed – bright colours and crashes, monumental wins filled with emotion and losses that appear heartbreaking in the moment. You switch on the TV and hear the commentators hardly take a breath, there is so much to talk about! Fans and friends screaming and cheering as you rush past.
You imagine training as a professional, hours of pushing the pedals through grandiose mountain ranges, endless picturesque descents and banter and bocadillos at the lively cafe afterwards.
It’s true, and all of the above is very real. Which is part of what makes this line of work a bit surreal and magnificent.
How about what you don’t see?
The stillness. The hours of nothing, of waiting at desolate airports. Of missed connections and layovers. Empty airport hotels and instant coffee. The lineup for the brain-scraping PCR (COVID-19) test almost every other day. Just waiting. Sensational athletes just looking bland and bored, blending in with everyday people. Sharing anxieties and mulling over endless mental lists like we all do.
There are unmentioned hours spend lying face down on the treatment table. It should be relaxing but everything hurts. Recovering from an injury unable to feel relaxed nor content. Peeling off and reapplying wound dressings for days on end.
What about collapsing on your bed in another airport hotel, stiff sheets and dry air, doing nothing in particular, or, on the contrary, cramming in all the life admin, meetings, emails, interviews, bills, family chats on difficult time zones when you probably want just want to zone out.
These are not complaints, but they are simply a reality of life on the road. Life on the road with the expectation to deliver your absolute physical and mental best on the other side of all the waiting. This is what you don’t see. Tears shed for family members back home, missed events, new births, weddings, funerals. You sometimes stifle these emotions because you think ‘yes but this is my job, I chose this.’
To gather athletes from all corners of the globe in some small European township to race takes time. If you were to peek inside the team bus, riders often have their headphones in, consumed in their own reflections or ambitions. The transfers can be long and cumbersome, and I don’t even speak for the elite men doing grand tours.
We don’t all hit our 8 hours of recovery sleep each night and wholesome, healthy breakfast. There are late evenings followed immediately by early risings. Recovery days sometimes get forfeited for admin days. Imagine your favourite athlete, simply hanging out the laundry, scrubbing the bathroom tiles or sitting in the back of a dirty Parisian taxi at midnight longing to see their significant other.
I write this from the Paris TVG train station at 9pm Monday night. 6.5 hours ago I left home with my suitcase. Not even 24 hours earlier did I arrive, home more than a day later after I finishing Strade Bianche.
It went something like race, drive 4 hours, hotel, wait until the next afternoon, taxi, flight, drive, lug suitcase through town. Sleep, kind of. Legs feel like bricks. Unpack. Pack again, training ride, legs are really bricks.
Make dinner to go, drive, train, taxi, plane, wait. Interrogated at the border, ‘professional cyclist’ doesn’t sound like a real job. Train. Hotel. Drive 4 hours. Race accommodation? PCR test. Training ride…..okay RACE DAY!
I want to draw attention to this because despite being loathsome at times, the stillness is sometimes welcomed. It can be calming. After an early morning flight, I look forward to dozing off on the plane. Two hours of catchup on podcasts or drool-worthy napping. A silent train ride where I can write this blog. Dragging your suitcase through a foreign city, wondering what other people are doing in the same location, at the same time. Just you and your thoughts so far removed form cycling, performance metrics and team dynamic.
Recovery rides. Not always a coffee shop occasion or sunny lake laps. For me, these look like choosing a scenic, meandering FulGaz ride of approximately one hour and putting on some noise-cancelling headphones and simply spinning the legs for an hour. No gut-busting efforts, gruelling climbs or PB’s to hit. Just ride. Me, my bike, my living room and some far off place I think I want to visit one day.
So there is a little insight into the less appetising side of professional sports. Next time you find yourself in a bit of a nothing moment, tied up in chores instead of riding or waiting in line, or traffic, remember no one is immune to this. No matter how glamourous or ‘together’ their life may appear.