If you come from a "it’s ok to come second” kind of family then finishing last is okay. But for me, it is like catching an STD. I spend my life trying to prevent it from happening. Should the nightmare scenario happen, then I would never bring it up in conversation!
Unfortunately, it befell me back in April. It was strange though: never before had I received so much attention for something so uncool. Positive attention - even from women. I thought I was supposed to be ashamed. Bury my head in embarrassment. Try and excuse myself every time my girlfriend brought it up. "I didn’t do it on purpose," "I swear it wont happen again," "Honestly , you don’t understand."
But it turns out coming last isn’t such a bad thing after all, especially not if it’s at Paris Roubaix. It’s a bit ironic though. Two years as a professional cyclist and my main claim to fame is placing last. Mind you, it did result in a Rouleur article that attracted quite a lot of attention (in fairness, any of the guys in my desperate group of strugglers could just as easily have crossed the line last instead of me).
These first couple of years have been jam-packed with unforgettable experiences and heaps of fun (I use heaps because I’m currently in Australia, and that’s all they say). For any rider who is about to start their career in the pro ranks, there are a lot of things to look forward to.
Take travelling business class, Down Under style. I was like a 10-year-old when I first sat in my very large, comfortable, electrically adjustable seat. The couple sat next to me didn’t seem too impressed after I’d spent 15 minutes moving the seat up, down, up, down, up, down. I must have looked as out of place as Ozzy Osbourne at a Morris dance, surrounded by all the Ralph Lauren-shirted men and surgically enhanced women. Or maybe they thought I was some young Google hotshot? I certainly received equal amounts of attention from the stewardesses, and grew accustomed to being addressed as Mister Jensen during the long flights.
Of course I don’t want it to give the impression that flying with the rich and famous is what being a pro is all about: it’s just one of the many perks! Plus it helps compensate for the many hours spent wrestling with desperate low-cost airline passengers, who ditch any form of common decency and turn into stampeding waterhole wildebeest when it comes to boarding or disembarking a plane.
Business class or not, one of the most exciting parts of turning pro has to be the materialistic part of the new adventure. I’m sure some of you are thinking 'Hey Chris! How about you concentrate on riding your bike and not on all this superficial crap?' But rest assured, my core values are where they should be. My amateur team in Denmark had a healthy approach to raising young riders. They emphasised the importance of racing as a team, ensured a solid race programme, built a close companionship with team-mates and made sure we rode our socks off.
So when I’m receiving enough team clothing to open a small bike shop or riding the newest Specialized SL4 as my winter bike (with mudguards on, sorry), then it’s nice to put all the hard work into perspective and enjoy where I’ve gotten to. I no longer have to ration three pairs of shorts throughout the course of a whole season. There is nothing to complain about. ‘’Twenty-five pairs of socks? I specifically asked for thirty!” Doesn’t really work, does it?
After the generous clothing allowance, does reality kick in and the real work begin? Well, sort of… actually, not really. It only gets better. For starters, racing is brought to a whole new dimension. Practically everything is taken care of. Most of the time I only have to print my boarding pass (not as easy as it sounds: it took me over a year to buy a printer). The staff on a pro team are incredible, so life is relatively simple when out at the races: all I have to think about is riding my bike and putting food in my mouth (sometimes I do miss).
It takes a couple of days to adapt when I come home. Leaving my wash bag outside the bedroom door, for it to be cleaned, dried and returned before the next day, isn't an option. I either end up with dirty clothes, an offended girlfriend or both. Walking into the kitchen at seven-thirty every evening and expecting dinner can also backfire massively.
A massage after every day is almost mandatory, too. So as you can see, you have to be careful not to end up looking like a male chauvinist pig upon return, albeit briefly, to civilian life: wash my clothes, make my food, rub my back, clean my bike (I’ve never had the guts to suggest that one, actually). I hardly knew what to do when I punctured on a training ride back home one day. ‘Where’s the service car?’
We also get transported around in a big bus with tinted windows, coffee machine, leather seats, showers and TV. All amateurs who have raced against the pros know the feeling of wanting to be inside. Big, shiny and mysterious, the race départ looks like a starting grid for Formula 1 bus racing, team colours and sponsors covering every inch of them.
I always envied the pros, getting dressed in the cosy comfort of their luxury mobile homes. Instead, I was standing half naked on the side of some godforsaken northern French road, surrounded by odd-looking men who demanded that I sign a postcard with a picture of myself on it.
When I hopped on the bus for the first time, it reminded me of my first trip to an amusement park. The amount of coffees I made for myself on that 15-kilometre journey would have kept anyone awake for 24 hours straight. I nearly took a shower before the race, just because I could. It felt strange using the flushable toilet and not having to pee in a bottle on the way to the airport. Riding on an ordinary bus has sucked since turning pro. "Hey bus driver, where do you keep your espresso beans?"
Last, but absolutely not least, is the racing. This is what it’s all about. The many hours spent huddled up in a van travelling up and down Europe, the training rides in sub-zero temperatures, whilst friends had hangovers from parties I couldn’t go to, the issues involved with shaving my legs for the first time. It’s all a drop in the ocean when I finally got the contract and lined up for my first professional race.
No matter that I struggled to keep my cool, failing desperately in the neo-pro department when trying to strike up conversation with some of the big guns. "Hey man. What’s up? Pretty hard race today. Jeez, all these people asking for autographs, such a hassle."
So not cool. My presence was hardly acknowledged. The fact that nobody even asked for my autograph made it worse. But I couldn’t help myself. Here I was riding with and against so many riders I looked up to and had spent hours watching on the TV. I didn’t care how long it was, or that it was brass monkey weather: I was one of the pros, part of a select group.
I’d made it! And it rocked! Every race since has been an experience. I learn something every time - surrounded by experienced riders, sports directors and staff, it’s impossible not to. New races, bigger races, new goals and new achievements, it just keeps coming. With all the perks mentioned above, combined with the racing, I couldn’t imagine a better job.
Chris Juul Jensen is a professional cyclist with Team Tinkoff-Saxo.
Photographer's pick of the crop from a star-studded weekend at the London Olympic velodrome