Familiarity is like an old friend. It comforts you and keeps you settled in an increasingly crazy world, a safe haven in stormy seas. The trouble is it can hold you back when you should be moving forward. The first step away from it is the hardest, filled with doubt and fear. The possibility of failure seems too real. But you can’t live in the past: eventually you’re going to have to start walking.
As a young rider I didn’t think ahead. A week was almost too far away, never mind a month or a year. I had the whole world at my feet and anything was possible. Older riders seemed like relics from the past, of a time that wasn’t mine. You’ll never be like them, I thought. Like Peter Pan, you’ll be forever young.
Then one day I looked in the mirror and a tired face looked back. I saw the evidence of all the battles in the crosswinds and the suffering on the climbs. The press releases and race guides didn’t follow my name with words like contender or champion any more. Instead they used phrases like veteran or former winner. I was on borrowed time and everybody knew it. My career was about to be consigned to the history books.
Every rider’s career has a beginning, a middle and an end. Even those like Jens Voigt, who seem indestructible, have to stop at some point. The only question is: when?
For many riders it’s not a decision within their control. Cycling history is littered with promising careers ended by injury, a folding team or a bad year followed by a lack of contract offers. No rider wants to fade into obscurity and leave the sport with bitterness or regret. You’ve spent the whole of your adult life and a large part of your childhood building your legend, you want to go out on your own terms with a smile on your face.
The trouble for me, like most riders, is that cycling is all I know. The bike is my security blanket: whatever the country or the weather, it remains a constant part of my daily life. The two things I asked myself when I woke each morning were: “What’s the weather like?” and “How many hours will I ride today?”
I always treated rest days with suspicion. There’s the fear that not riding will break the equilibrium. What if the form vanishes? How bad will the legs feel if I don’t ride? But that’s only a day without the bike. How could I possibly not ride for weeks, even months? And the approach of winter suddenly seems much more ominous if you‘re not a rider. You can normally battle through the shorter days as the thought of the first race of the season pushes you on. The winds and snow can’t stop you because next year could be the season you make it big. But what if there isn’t a next season? Am I just going to feel cold for six months with nothing to lift my spirits?
The main reason riders fear retirement is much simpler. You might endure brutal suffering in training and races, go to bed early, avoid foods that taste nice and spend weeks away from your loved ones.
But the truth is that most of the day, you don’t do very much. Resting is an art form, and it’s one professional cyclists can do with aplomb. Even the working part of the day involves riding your bike, which is more of a hobby than an occupation. In fact, being a professional bike rider isn’t really a job at all.
Aside from the fear of actually having to do a proper day’s graft, there’s also the worry that it will be boring. It’s pretty hard to replicate the thrill of riding past hundreds of thousands of screaming fans round the landmarks of central London or facing the Welsh Mafia on the slopes of Caerphilly Mountain. In a real job you can’t accidentally get your photo taken with a TV soap star who you assumed was just a random fan. You can’t stay in amazing hotels around the world for free; you have to pay for it like everyone else does.
The fear of the unknown is a powerful force. Stepping out into the abyss and a new career is a scary prospect. At some point I knew I had to move on. The 2013 Tour of Britain was the end of my journey. The five hours I spent in the breakaway in my adopted home of Scotland, with my wife cheering me on, will remain one of the most special moments of my life.
The funny thing is, after years of pain, injury and hating the bike, I love it again. I’m going out on a high. So much so that the bike’s coming with me in my new life. It’s still my hobby, after all. Maybe I want to fade gradually into obscurity and pin on a number once in a while, just for fun. I’ve been in the shadows most of my career anyway.
As injuries took their toll and contract offers dried up, I realised it was time to find an exit strategy so I started doing my coaching qualifications. My first experience was with the Carnegie Cyclones Go-Ride club in Fife on a windswept and freezing cold grass banking. You couldn’t get much further away from the glamour of professional cycling if you tried. It didn’t matter though, I loved it.
Ironically, my new opportunity arrived during one of the best and most enjoyable seasons of my career. At the same time, I knew deep down that I wasn’t going to ride for teams at a higher level and do any bigger races.
I’d climbed my mountain and found myself at the top looking at a big plateau. No new challenges ahead, just more of the same. The peaks of the WorldTour looked down on me from high above and I knew I couldn’t climb them.
Now I’m starting at the bottom of a new mountain. The summit is in the clouds though so I don’t know how high it’s going to take me. Time to take my first step on my journey.
I’m in no rush though. Maybe I’ll keep my cycling shoes handy, just in case.
Ben Greenwood is a former IG-Sigma Sport rider and U23 British national champion. He is a British Cycling Talent Development Coach for Scotland.