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The Enemy Within – part one

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Eating disorders and mental health issues are as common in the peloton as in the rest of society. Former pro rider Ben Greenwood opens up on his own struggles with both

Photographs: Jo Burt
Jo Burt - depression

I could hear myself talking. There were words coming out of my mouth but I wasn’t really in control of what I was saying or where my monologue was going. The rest of the room was silent, the young riders and the other coaches totally captivated by my story.


When I finally finished, I felt like I was going to throw up, like my heart would explode. It had taken 18 years for me to get to this moment and I’ve no idea why I decided then was the right time.


Maybe it was because I was talking to juniors who still had a chance to be whatever they wanted, empty books with the pages yet to be written. Maybe I wanted them to avoid making those same mistakes that I did. Or perhaps I’d just accepted who I was and was finally ready to start living my life free of the demons of my past.


Being a good bike racer isn’t just about pedalling fast. It’s about being a cyclist, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You’re not just a rider when you swing your leg over the bike at the start of the ride. And you don’t stop being one when you roll your bike into the garage afterwards. It’s a part of everything you do, from going shopping to eating dinner. Is walking going to be bad for my legs? Should I be eating that dessert? The questions never stop.


The combination of physical strength and a committed cyclist’s life still isn’t enough though. Most people think getting fit and peaking at the right time is the biggest challenge for a rider. They couldn’t be more wrong. There’s something else required to make everything click into place. The problem is that it’s also the most elusive part.


The real battle is much harder to control and also much closer to home: it’s with your mind. It can be your strongest weapon as you face the biggest race of your season, but more often than not, it can be your undoing. When the going gets tough, it won’t be your legs that give in. Mind over matter, as they say.


As a racing cyclist, what you do only defines the public perception of you. It’s doesn’t change how you feel inside. Being outwardly happy doesn’t mean you are – it just means you’re good at looking happy. It took me 18 years to understand that. Until that day in a lodge in Derbyshire, I’d lived behind a mask, hiding who I really was.


Bad things happen to everyone, so I’m not going to pretend I’ve had a tough life, but it hasn’t always been easy. You play the cards you’re dealt and my hand included not having a mum after the age of 11. Breast cancer ended the happily-ever-after fairytale.


If she was scared before the end, she didn’t show it, not to me anyway. That’s the main thing I took from that situation: you don’t show weakness and you don’t give in. That mentality made me the bike rider I was, but it’s also probably had a negative impact on other parts of my life.
Not being able to change the past is one thing, totally ignoring it is a different matter. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, don’t show weakness, I kept telling myself. So I didn’t. Nor did I show any emotions.


Philippa York on her return to a public life in cycling


It’s now my job to develop young riders and the coaches that work with them. One key question I ask the coaches is “Why do you coach?” It’s important, because it makes them think about what they need to do to improve themselves. I wish I’d asked myself as an 18-year-old: “Why do you race a bike?”


The younger version of me would have had a totally different answer. I didn’t just race because I enjoyed it, I did it because I wanted to be someone. Without the bike I was a nobody, I had nothing to offer – or so I believed, anyway. I thought that being a successful rider meant I would be good at something, people would look up to me and I would feel happier. I was wrong.


Some people are naturally confident and can take on any challenge with a bounce in their step. I’m not like that. Off the bike my confidence was so fragile that it started to have a serious impact on my life.

Jo Burt - depression

At the start of my professional career in 2005, I was also going to university. My first attempt in Bath didn’t last very long: I wasn’t homesick, I just couldn’t fit in. Meeting and having to live with new people didn’t work out. It wasn’t a situation I had the emotional capacity to deal with.


After that negative experience I tried again closer to home, studying Environmental Mathematics. It appealed to me because I wanted to be a weather forecaster. The only problem was, at the start of the second year, we had to do a residential field trip. It doesn’t sound too scary, but I couldn’t summon up the courage to go away with people I didn’t know. After a change to a course I didn’t want to do and some failed exams, my time at university came to an end.


On the bike, my mental state was a little more stable. Riding allowed me to escape from the real world. When I rode hard, it took me somewhere else, to a place where I didn’t feel worthless. When I sprinted up the hills, it wasn’t other people I wanted to distance but myself. The problem was when I stopped riding, the real me was always there, waiting. Sometimes in races, my off-the-bike persona took over. I’d get to the business end of the race in perfect shape and then panic.


Waiting until the final climb was too much pressure, the possibility of failure too much. So I’d drop everyone on the penultimate climb just to show myself I could do it. And then on the finishing hill, I’d not have the legs after my earlier efforts and the riders who had waited patiently would beat me. Afterwards I’d kick myself for bottling it and promise myself I’d have more self-belief next time. Of course, I’d find a way to mess it up again.


What’s inside the next issue of Rouleur? Dan Martin and more


That’s not to say I didn’t have good races. There were British national road race titles and World Championships appearances, but the results didn’t match my physical ability.


It took GB Academy coach Rod Ellingworth to change my mindset. In a one-on-one meeting before the Tour of Britain, he said: “Do you realise you climb faster than 95 per cent of the WorldTour riders?”


I’d had no idea. After those words of encouragement, I out-climbed pretty much everyone at the race. Unfortunately my time in the under-23 ranks was coming to an end, and therefore so was my time with Rod. Without his calming influence, the doubts came back.


While self-doubt and a lack of confidence affected both my racing and my personal life, it didn’t have a huge impact on my physical health. Going to race in Italy changed that balance between mind and body.


I’ve always been skinny: my weight isn’t something I need to think about too much. Before I raced with the Great Britain under-23s in 2006, I weighed around 59kg, which is really light for my height. That year, doing races like the U26 Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Britain, I ended the year at 56.5kg. To say I looked lean would be an understatement: more than one person said I looked like I’d escaped from a concentration camp.


It wasn’t that I was trying to lose weight, but all the training and racing that came with living in Italy saw the kilos drop away. I was climbing as fast as the best young riders in the world and my metabolism did the work for me.


Racing within the bubble of the British national team meant I was looked after. We had a nutritionist, Nigel Mitchell, making sure we were eating properly. The focus wasn’t on riders losing weight, but making sure you had enough power. Being a track programme, the aim was to ride fast, not only on the climbs but, just as importantly, on the flat and in the lead-out train. Winning wasn’t everything, it was about doing things correctly and learning how to live and ride like a professional.


The next year was different. Before I went to Italy, weight wasn’t something I worried about; by the time I came back, I was obsessed with it.


Ben Greenwood is a former British U23 national champion who raced with Rapha Condor and IG-Sigma Sport. He is now a coach with the British Cycling Academy.


Part two to follow. First published in issue 58 of Rouleur

87 thoughts on “The Enemy Within – part one”

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