LIFE AS A PROFESSIONAL CYCLIST
WORTH THE PAIN AND SUFFERING?
One of my athletes recently announced his retirement from professional sport of cycling at an age of 25. Bennet van der Genugten has been on of the greatest talents for the sport I have seen since a while. The last 4 year working with him have been fun and successful.
In his Dec 20, 2009 Blog entry Bennet wrote, "This is going to be the final blog my friends! The last week has been a wild one, I have decided to stop racing. This decision is a pretty tough one, and one that’s hard to describe, as it is extremely personal – but I feel like I owe it to my friends, my family, my sponsors and my team to explain what factors have led me to this decision".
I am going to try to speak from the heart today. I feel like Bennet’s early retirement has become a shadow of the truth of what has really been going on, not to say all these bad things have been happening that I’m not writing about –but that I felt an obligation as I climbed the ranks of the sport to produce a more polished, professional and ultimately sponsor friendly version of the truth. Anyone can tell you that real life, and bike racing especially is neither of those things
This is going to be the final blog my friends! The last week has been a wild one, I have decided to stop racing. This decision is a pretty tough one, and one that’s hard to describe, as it is extremely personal – but I feel like I owe it to my friends, my family, my sponsors and my team to explain what factors have led me to this decision.”
I am stopping bike racing for two reasons, the first being my physical health, the second being my mental health. Anyone who has raced on a high level knows that the sport beats you up, but most people don’t know just how much. Besides the obvious crashes, broken bones and road rash, there are physical wounds you cannot really see. For a rider like myself, immune-suppression is a reality. I have had innumerable infections, sicknesses, and chronic health issues that an otherwise healthy young man should not have. I will spare you the details of most of these, mostly for my privacy, but also because the list would make this post even longer than it has to be!
To give a scope of the weakness of my ability to fight infection when I’m racing well I’ll tell a quick story. This is another one I never wrote about, because it was scary, and it was embarrassing. In this season just passed, I was in the form of my life coming up to my big goal race for the season: philly. Two weeks before Philly at the the Ricola GP, I came down with a mystery fever. No one on the team had seen anything like it. My body temp was super high, we couldn’t find a thermometer, and all of my team mates were so afraid of catching whatever I had no one really came in my room for 3 days. We called it "lobstosis" because I turned beat red, literally, the color of a burned lobster – my whole body was burning hot to the touch, my eyes were bloodshot the whole way through, and I slept for about 20 hours for two days. I went to bed the first night pretty freaked out. I was too broke to afford to go to the doctor, and had no insurance, so I drank a ton of water – took a few aspirin in hopes of keeping the fever at bay somewhat and fell asleep literally thinking ‘I hope I wake up’. I did wake up, but I never regained the form I had the week before, and struggled through the rest of the season mentally and physically. The week after the lobstosis incident I had a recurrence of MRSA staph, another infection that I picked up wrecking on a dirty road in Tulsa OK. It was this week I started considering stopping riding for the first time. I had toyed with the idea plenty of times, but at this point, I was thinking ‘this is NOT worth it!’
There are so many more of these stories I could write about, but won’t. Honestly it’s serving as a therapeutic tool to say some of these things out loud. Normally its just been my girlfriend, my brother, and maybe a handful of others I tell these things, so getting it out in the open feels really good. I want people to know that I’m stopping for the right reasons. The opinion my friends and sponsors have of me means a lot to me, even after I’ve left the sport I want to be thought well of.
The next reason I am going to hang up the wheels for the last time is my mental health. The stress of the racing life is a lot to bear, even when things are going well. I have been really unhappy, just as Bennet the human being for too long, and its time to take care of myself as a person – to make some hard choices that will allow me to live a better life than I have been living. I realized after talking at great length with my brother, that the reason I have continued cycling through such hardship was fear. I was afraid to stop something that has defined who I am for a decade. It’s a huge part of you removed from your life all of a sudden. Look at all the great stars who stopped, or crashed and burned, Pantani killed himself with drugs of all kinds due to the pressures of the sport, when Merckx stopped he ballooned 100 lbs and looked like hell. I don’t intend to put myself in league with these heroes, and can never know the stress they were under! But as an example of how cycling can break the spirit. I think I’ve overcome that fear, I think I am a good person, and that I have grown mentally strong and hard working through my life in racing, and whatever I do after cycling I have the tools in my mind to do that thing with excellence. Now I just gotta figure out what the hell that’s going to be.
I think that shows where I’m coming from. There are some things I still wanted to do in cycling, a few goals unfinished, a few races still not won, but 10 years from now I think I won’t remember those goals but will remember when things went right. I will remember the friends I made, the friends I lost, the great rivalries I had, the peoples lives I touched and the other riders I helped to teach the craft of racing, the amazing host families who took us riders in as their own, the beauty of solitude on the long training rides, the feeling of coming across the finish line first and letting out a war-cry of defiance and elation – those things can never go away now, they are mine, and I want to thank those of you who have followed me on this blog in that journey, for sharing the trip with me and supporting me in doing it.
There are so many people to thank that have guided me through cycling over the years. Team mates, friends, family members, coaches; I actually wrote down everyone I could think of and it took up another 2 pages and I decided to leave it out, I think the people who helped guide my path know who they are and what they mean to me. I will however say thank you to my brother Russell, my dad Hans, and my girlfriend Elicia for backing me up all the way over the last two weeks in this decision, and helping me get life in perspective.