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The Enemy Within

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Photographs: Jo Burt

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.

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.
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.
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.
In 2007 I raced for a top Italian under-23 team in Tuscany, based in the town of Monsummano Terme. It’s a beautiful area, the weather is great and the people are friendly. You couldn’t ask for a better place to be a bike rider in a country where cycling is a part of the culture and the riders are treated like gods. For me, it turned into a bit of a nightmare.
The Italian amateur racing scene is brutal. Each team is only allowed to enter one foreign rider per race, which means if you’re not Italian, you’re expected to win. If you don’t, there’s a line of Eastern Europeans or Colombians waiting to take your place. This pressure to win isn’t hidden behind closed doors either. It’s in your face. “Why haven’t you won yet?” became a regular question.
Like any top-level UK team, the riders have a raft of support staff to ‘help’ them win – or to shout at them if they lose. One staff member integral to an Italian squad, but uncommon in Britain, is the team doctor.
The doc played an important part in team life. You went to see him once a month to face the dreaded fat calipers and find out your official weight and body fat percentage. After doing some prodding and having looked over your blood test results, he would prescribe a list of vitamins and minerals that the team secretary would go and collect.
From the start I refused to inject anything, so my shopping list started and finished with multivitamins. As far as I understood it, the blood tests were taken on a regular basis to check our health and were sent to the Italian Cycling Federation to ensure we were fit to compete.
One day we rode into town to the clinic where the tests were taken, where we were joined by one of the fans for the team who helped feed us occasionally. Despite being in his thirties and slightly overweight, he also had his blood taken, while wearing full team kit like the rest of us. My Italian wasn’t quite good enough to understand why he was there, but it was certainly a bizarre moment. I don’t think he was registered as an official team rider, so maybe he just wanted to feel like a pro and get his health check too…
The team president regularly made sure we were aware that we were all too fat. At the start of the year we had some jam tarts in the team house. After a few months, when it was deemed that we hadn’t won enough, they were banned. And if we ever won any treats in a hamper on the podium, you had to hide them before you got back to the team van or the our manager would confiscate everything.
Bread was okay as long as you only ate the crust. The middle bit was the work of the devil, to be pulled out and thrown away. Seeing the team manager shouting at a waitress at a race hotel the night before a race for having the audacity to serve us pork and roast potatoes, rather than chicken and pasta, was both comical and ridiculous at the same time. As was the time we had sausages as a treat for dinner one night and then had to hide them all when we saw the team president’s car driving towards the house.
The constant pressure to lose weight started to take its toll on me. I got myself into the Italian way of thinking – that power to weight is everything, and you need to shed kilos to improve.
AlI I needed to do was two simple things: ride my bike lots and eat very little. It worked too; my lowest weight was 54kg. By that stage, I was weighing myself at least five times every day. More worryingly, I was still trying to lose weight. I don’t know if I had anorexia; I never discussed it with a doctor. I certainly wasn’t in full control of my decisions regarding what I ate. I’d have gone under 50kg if I could.
Looking back at photos from that time, I see an ill person smiling back at me. It’s a face that makes me sad. My girlfriend and my parents all saw what was happening and begged me to eat more. “They’re wrong,” I thought. “How can I eat more? I need to be fast on the climbs.”
I’ve not weighed myself since that time. Scales have been banned in the house, so that I can’t return to that place in my mind.
As soon as I came back from Italy and was out of the destructive environment, I went back to eating normally. All the strange ideas I’d formed in my head were replaced by common sense again. The weight I’d lost slowly came back on, as did my power on the flat. More importantly, I didn’t stress about what I was eating anymore. That didn’t mean I ate junk food, but the constant battle to get lighter and the feeling of being hungry a lot of the time was over. I was in control again.
Despite my problems, I was still in a good place career-wise. Although negotiations with a WorldTour team came to nothing, at least I was getting close. A place on the long list for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing meant I was within touching distance of what every athlete dreams of. I had a real chance of selection in both the road race and time-trial, as the hilly course suited climbers. At that stage, I was considered to be one of the best Great Britain had, with both David Millar and 116 unavailable for selection.
Don’t bother looking for my name in the results though. I never made it to the Olympics. Instead, I had to endure every cyclist’s worst nightmare: injury.
Like most athletes, at the first signs of pain, I went into denial. Even though I could feel something moving inside my knee, I kept riding. It’ll go away tomorrow, hopefully…
Soon, I could barely walk. A diagnosis of a mal-tracking kneecap later, and my denial was over. I couldn’t hide the fact I was facing a career-threatening injury.
Next came anger. Of all the years my body chose to fail me, it had to be this one. My only hope was that I could get fixed quickly and get back on track in time.
The main issue with having a certain time limit to recover from an injury is that you rush things, or set yourself unrealistic timeframes for recovery. I did plenty of that: a start date for racing in March became April, then May, but it wasn’t until June that I finally pinned a number on.
My chance of riding the Olympics was over but I had a realistic shot at the WorldTour if I got into form for the tours of Ireland and Britain. Despite being in constant knee and lower back pain, that’s what I managed to do.
By the time the Tour of Ireland came around, a top-ten overall finish was a realistic aim. That’s when fate decided I hadn’t suffered quite enough.
A slippery descent and a mass pile up on stage three resulted in me breaking my ankle. Being the team leader meant that rolling around by the side of the road wasn’t an option, as most of the team waited to bring me back to the peloton.
With 30 kilometres left to race, the pace was high as Team Columbia started their lead out for Mark Cavendish. We got back on though; I even joined in with some of the through-and-off chasing. Deep down, I knew my ankle was broken but I didn’t want to lose any time for the overall classification.
Four kilometres from the finish, the pain got too much and I admitted defeat, dropping off the back.
By the time I reached the team van, I was in big trouble. “Shit, Ben’s ankle looks bad,” said one of the lads. My team-mate 141 responded: “Looks fine to me.” Then he paused, looked again and said: “No, wait, I was looking at the wrong ankle…”
You didn’t need to be a doctor to tell I’d snapped my anklebone. It was so swollen, it looked like I had a tennis ball shoved down my sock.
Overcoming one major injury is tough, two is even harder. When you get to three or four, it starts getting a bit much. Every time I was almost back on track, something went wrong. From being rushed to a Chinese hospital at the Tour of Qinghai Lake after fainting into my dinner due to the altitude, to landing on my face in pile-ups in Australia and the Czech Republic, luck wasn’t on my side.

These repeated setbacks led to possibly the most destructive stage of injury: depression. The fact that my career, which had once seemed likely to send me to Grand Tours and the Olympics, was coming to a pretty lame end was bad enough. Eventually that stopped being my priority; soon, just taking pleasure from riding my bike seemed unlikely.
I didn’t really enjoy most of my four years riding for Rapha Condor. The team was good, my mental state wasn’t. Half the time I didn’t want to be at the races I was riding. All I could think about was how long it was until I could go home. More than once, I was ready to put my bike in the garage and never get it out again. Bike riding became something I hated.
Eventually I stopped believing I could win bike races anymore; I’m not sure I was even trying to win them. If ever there was an opportunity to ride on the front of the bunch for the team and then get dropped or abandon, I took it. In fairness, I was involved in some good wins for the team, including defending 141’s yellow jersey for six days in the Tour of South Africa.
I was still giving my all, but the team manager started losing faith in me and leaving me out of the big international races. That just took my confidence away even more, and after my non-selection for the 2011 Tour of Britain, I knew my career was heading for an uninspiring conclusion.
Bike riding had been all I’d known and I’d convinced myself it was the only thing worth getting up for in the morning. Once I started hating the bike and wasn’t able to get results anymore, there didn’t seem to be much else going for me.
It wasn’t until my professional career was over that I finally managed to accept what had happened and rediscover the rider and the person I was before. It didn’t feel that way at the time, but not getting a contract renewal from Rapha Condor was probably one of the best things that happened to me.
Dropping down to ride for amateur teams Vanillabikes and Hope Factory Racing for 18 months taught me to enjoy cycling again. Bike racing became relaxed and fun once more. Having a pie and a pint the night before the race was a refreshing change too. That, combined with visiting a chiropractor called Anthony Lavin, who managed to take away the daily pain in my body over a couple of years and allow me to ride a bike without needing painkillers or ice packs.
I’ve only been told recently how difficult I was to live with during those four injury-stricken years. At the time I couldn’t see how my mood had changed and how depression had taken over my personality; it affected my relationship during that time too.
It’s no coincidence that enjoying riding my bike again coincided with one of my best seasons. Form-wise I was close to my best in 2013; psychologically I was the best I’ve ever been. Fear and doubt were replaced by optimism and excitement.
Even the prospect of crosswinds in races didn’t worry me anymore; I started to look forward to them. The last few months of the season, riding for IG-Sigma Sport, were the happiest of my career. It wasn’t really to do with how I was riding on the bike, it was more how I was off it. After 16 seasons of racing, I’d finally accepted who I was as a person.
Cycling history is full of great riders with mental health problems, from Marco Pantani to José Maria Jimenez; Thierry Claveyrolat to Graeme Obree. Given that one in four people in the UK is estimated to have at least one diagnosable mental health problem, they won’t be the last, either.
However, it’s not something people talk about. It’s kept secret; admitting you have problems is seen as a sign of weakness.
A large percentage of those who suffer don’t seek help and I was one of those people. How can you tell a team manager you don’t want to be racing without ending your career? How do you admit that you’ve got an eating disorder being caused by the environment your team has created?
To beat the enemy within, first you need to accept it’s controlling you and it’s taking over your personality. Then you need to have the nerve to stand up and admit you need some support, even if it’s got the potential to lose you a contract.
I still get nervous most days and I still doubt my ability to do things. Then I remember my first race when I was an under-14 at Victoria Park in Southport. I came last by a long way, but it was possibly the best day of my life: the day I discovered cycling.
I think to myself: “Ben, you can either feel sorry for yourself or you can do something about it.” Bike racing has been my life and passion since that day I got a kicking in Southport. I can’t change the decisions I’ve made or the situations I’ve been in as a rider. But I do have the choice to continue to love the sport that’s been my life and, as a coach, help others in their cycling journeys.
My mind was my biggest enemy at times; now it’s time to put it to a more positive use and help the riders of the future.

71 is a former British U23 national champion who raced with Rapha Condor and IG-Sigma Sport. He is a coach with Scottish Cycling. This article first appeared in issue 58 of 1.

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