Professional cycling is a peculiar sport. And sport in general is a peculiar job. Our careers off the bike peak when we’re middle aged, when we’ve had enough time to think about who we want to be and how we want to engage with the world. Often cycling careers peak in a rider’s early twenties, and sadly many often end before 30. Trying to decide who you want to be, when the only thing you wanted to be has been taken away from you can be hard.
For Ryan Eastman, retiring from professional cycling wasn’t a choice. Indeed, his career went from its highest point to its finish with a skid, a squeal of brakes, and a thump. The years, and weeks leading up to this event had been nothing but promising for the talented young rider from California. He began racing at 14 and, like so many of us, “really took to it and became obsessed”. Soon, he joined the Team Swift junior team and was scouted for a USA Cycling Talent ID camp, and within a short period he found himself at the Junior World Championships.
Eastman then raced for various versions of the Trek-Livestrong team run by Axel Merckx. “I spent four years there, my under-23 years, I loved it and I had great success. All my hard work, everything I had sacrificed, it all led to a stagiaire ride with Trek Factory Racing.”
For a young cyclist whose talent and hard work had conditioned him to expect success in the sport, it was the logical next step. “My first race with them was Tour of Utah in 2014. I still have memories of how I just felt so right, I was so happy. It was not like I had totally made it, because that’s the very beginning. But I was so happy to even have the opportunity to be there.”
With more opportunities upcoming, Eastman went home and began doing what we would all do when faced with such a chance to excel – training like a maniac. “I was out on a six-hour ride and I was descending, 55 mph or so the Garmin tells me. A deer came out through a corner and I hit it. I kind of catapulted across the road, the bike flew over the guardrail and I landed in front it. I ended up breaking my back and my collarbone. That kind of ended it all with Trek.” Just like that. The dream was over.
“It [the crash] put me in a weird mental space and kind of ended everything with bike racing for me. A lot of people make it out to be an easier process than it is. The transition period between stopping something that you have basically committed your entire life to and changing completely takes a long time. It took me a couple of weeks to decide that I did not want to continue racing. The opportunity with Trek was gone, and I was too old for Axel’s team. There were other opportunities on the table, but I wanted the top level and I took some time to reassess what was going on. I decided I wanted to do something different with my life.”
It was in the same hospital bed where Ryan abandoned cycling that he found his new passion. “I made that decision lying in bed with a broken back. I decided to go to EMT [Emergency Medical Technician] school because I have always been fascinated with helping other people. Being an EMT, there is no step removed between you and the person you are helping.”
But, just like pro cycling, this career had its unexpected twists and turns. “I don’t think I was mentally ready for what I was going to see working there. I didn’t go to medical school, it was a very quick process. I saw a lot of bad, bad things. I saw a lot of death, basically.”
There’s nothing in bike racing, or even coming close to death oneself, that prepares a young man for being confronted with mortality on a daily basis. “I was there when another human being was called, when they died. It was really hard for me. I had a few nights where I would do CPR three times on three people and three out of three would pass. I don’t think I was mentally ready for that, I was so fresh, and I was coming from a sport that’s so different.”
Struggling to cope with the harsh reality of life in a trauma ward, Eastman found solace in the very thing that had put him in just such a ward not so long before.
“At the time I wasn’t riding at all. I just worked and went out and partied, doing all the things that cyclists aren’t supposed to do. I was trying to live up my early twenties and I was having a hard time coping, I would get really down. After that night where I did CPR on three people who passed… I got on my bike, basically dusted the cobwebs off the thing, and I rode as hard as I could for three hours.
“In that three hours, cycling completely changed for me. I feel like it almost healed me. I rode so hard that I just got out those demons that I was dealing with in my own head and it got me to this meditative state. It got me through that in a really healthy way. I walked into work that night and I had a clear head. I felt okay. I was not completely dreading walking back into that ER. That turned on a switch and I thought ‘I don’t need to walk away’. It made me forgive cycling and it brought a whole new life to it.”
Having found a balance between his work and his love for cycling, Eastman rides as much as he can. This year, at the Tour of California, he was no longer on the front of the race, but working equally hard behind it in the race ambulance. “I always try to be around cycling. It is the most fascinating sport. I take trips like the Haute Route or to work races with American Medical Response.”
Being around bike racers who have just crashed might seem hard, but Eastman says it reminds him of his own relative good fortune. “I am so glad that I haven’t had a bad experience at the Tour of California. I haven’t had to see a former competitor or team-mate go down.”
When I last crossed paths with Eastman, it was at a local gravel ride where a cyclist unfortunately passed away following a cardiac arrest. I sent him a text later with the news. “I wish I could have been there to help him” he replied immediately.
Seeing so much death has made him realise that he could have lost a lot more than his career in that crash. “I am so lucky, that is one of the things I have taken out of all the accidents that I have seen. I have seen very similar crashes within my work. The closest thing I can relate it to is crashes on motorcycles where essentially the patient is ejected at that high rate of speed and I have seen patients get paralysed, have traumatic brain injuries, even people passing away from stuff like that. I realise I am so lucky… I could have been paralysed.”
He sees his future as even more intertwined with bike racing. “I love doing what I am doing right now but I know I need something more in my life and I naturally keep coming back to cycling. I have decided I want to start my own training business [www.eastmantrainingco.com]. I have had this realisation talking with my girlfriend, I could come back to the sport and tie it in with the whole EMT thing, with the service to others. It can keep me riding as much as I can. In between calls on the ambulance I am doing research on training plans and I am completely into it.”
Eastman was never interested in the scientific side of things as a rider. “I was the guy who would leave his head unit at home. I wanted to ride just for the love of riding.” But, much like he found cycling and quickly became hooked on the growth and success it allowed him, the same is true with his new passion.
“As I have matured and kind of taken those years to learn all this, I have realised your brain is a muscle as well and I have started tapping into working out your brain as a muscle. From such a young age, all I did was cycling, I didn’t even think about school. I barely had to do much work to get through high school and I raced instead of going to college. I had really never worked out this “muscle” and now I have started to, a lot. I see so much progression so rapidly in my learning.”
Ryan’s third career is only just beginning, but if his success in the last two is anything to go by, it won’t be long before he’s at the top of his game. It’s a rare coach who combines experience, compassion and education, and whether his clients encounter success, or heartbreak, Eastman will know exactly how they feel, and he’s not even 30 yet.