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Retirement and the pro cyclist: what comes next after a career in the peloton?

The length of a cyclist's career is limited, so what happens when 'Civvy street' calls? We speak to four former pro cyclists to find out

The competitive life of the professional cyclist is rarely short or merry, but when it ends, the return to comparative normality can be tough to take.

A berth in cycling’s top tier is difficult to attain and precarious. A rider is required to stay competitive and injury-free in the most demanding sporting environment, while negotiating a contractual landscape that is unstable at best. Teams are created at the whim of sponsors and disappear by the same method.

Despite all of this, few who have plied their trade by pedaling would swap their experience for anything else. Entering real life after a cycling career likely to have begun in teen years or earlier can be a difficult period in the lives of those who left much of themselves on the road.

For an increasing number, life after cycling hasn’t meant a return to the local bike shop, or an anonymous position in the broader economy. We spoke to four former riders who have made a successful transition from the peloton to Civvy Street.

The directeur sportif

When Charly Wegelius called time on an 11-year career in 2011, he was keen to see the back of the sport and to experience another life. Anyone who has read his book, Domestique, co-written with another former rider, Tom Southam, will know the intense physical and emotional demands Wegelius faced in becoming one of the peloton’s most respected riders.

His transition to the team car at Cannondale-Drapac was the last thing he had planned or wanted. Wegelius admits now that when team owner Jonathan Vaughters offered him the position, he accepted in order “to buy some time to look around.” That his new role has proven to be as satisfying as the last has come as a pleasant surprise and is one he is grateful for.

Charly Wegelius swapped life in the pro peloton for an unexpected role as a directeur sportif (pic: Sirotti)

“I find it very rewarding,” he says. “I find it very challenging. I think I’m also very privileged. Statistically, not that many people find a continuing livelihood in professional cycling, and I was lucky enough to do so. For someone who did nothing else but work in pro cycling, to continue using those experiences is a luxury that many other people don’t have.”

Wegelius provides a fascinating insight into life as a DS. He insists that during the race, the man behind the wheel of the team car does not move his riders like pawns on a chess board – a popular misconception. By then, it is largely too late, and experienced riders do not require such intensive in-game supervision in any case.

The DS has a greater effect by helping his riders manage their lives away from the races, Wegelius argues: by removing any impediment to them delivering their best performance when it matters most.

Wegelis admits to having had “big ideas” about the new direction his life would take when he hung up his wheels, but reality has proved different. He draws an amusing analogy with the adolescent who steps just far enough from the family home that he might continue to enjoy its comforts.

“I suppose that’s a bit like a teenager growing up and saying he doesn’t need his parents and that they can go to hell, but you come back for Sunday lunch and to have your shirts ironed. That’s what happened to me.”

Now married and a father of two boys, Wegelius has relocated to Finland, where he was born and cherishes time with his young family.

Wegelius earned a reputation as a reliable domestique and now DS duties can be equally demanding (pic: Sirotti)

The life of the DS offers no less travel than the life of the rider, but when at home, Wegelius is able to structure his working life around his family. He compares his setup favourably with the ‘office dad’ who sees his children every day, but only in the small windows of time left by the daily grind of working life.

“It’s very tough,” Wegelius says of the constant travel. “The older my boys get, the harder it is on both of us, and my wife too. But I like to think that when I am here, I’m 100 per cent ‘present’.”

The coach and ambassador

“London is a great city. Everyone wants to win. I’m definitely still in the race, and I’m enjoying my life.”

For Matteo Carrara, winner of the 2010 Tour of Luxembourg, retirement and a new life as cycling coach and brand ambassador has involved relocating to one of the world’s major capitals.

The Italian, who raced for 12 years in cycling’s top tier, before finishing his career with Vacansoleil-DCM at the end of 2012, has become a face on the London cycling scene, with a roster of coaching clients that encompasses City boardrooms.

His work as an ambassador and industry insider has made him a mover and shaker in the West End too; for example, coordinating an event at the Pinarello store on Regent Street. He is able to name X-Bionic and Passoni among a host of brands he has worked with, and his BelieveCreate agency was a driving force in the inaugural LikeBike Monaco event – the world’s most prestigious bike show.

Matteo Carrara retired at the end of the 2012 season (pic: Sirotti)

All of this is a far cry from a frustrating final season in the WorldTour, where Carrara found himself struggling to regain his best form in the early part of the season, and overlooked for selection for the biggest races of the latter part, despite returning to Europe from an extended training camp in Colombia in fine condition.

Despite this setback, Carrara’s unsullied reputation and his ability to gain WorldTour points made him an attractive prospect. With an effective personal manager (who also represents Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran), Carrara says he was “99 per cent certain” he would join Team Sky.

When the deal failed to materialise, he decided to call time on a 12-year career whose highlight had come with the defeat of Lance Armstrong and Andy Schleck to claim overall victory in Luxembourg.

“I raced for the top teams in the world and I wanted to finish my career at the top  level, not with one of the smaller teams. Ok, I never won the Giro or the Tour, but I still have an excellent reputation in cycling.”

Carrara was initially offered a role identifying new talent, but when it became apparent that his employer could not afford to pay him, he gambled on a new life in London with his then girlfriend, now his wife.

He had intended to spend six months in the British capital, but after arriving in February 2013, continues to live and work in a city he describes as “the cycling capital of the world.” He returns regularly to Italy, but being a local hero is not always conducive to moving on.

“The first six months in London was tough, but I think if I stayed in Italy it would have been even tougher,” Carrara says. “Now I’m in a different country and I don’t see all the people [from home]. Everyone knows me in my home town and they stop me to ask questions.”

Carrara got his start in London with Cadence, a “gym for cyclists” in Crystal Palace, which set him on the road to building a large and affluent client base of keen amateur cyclists. The skills Carrara had acquired over a 12-year professional career proved to be in high demand.

Carrara says life as a pro meant a rigid, structured lifestyle and plenty of pressure – now he is keen to pass on his experiences in his new role as a coach (pic: Sirotti)

“You can teach people how to ride a bike, because the bike is your life,” he says, simply. “You know how to arrive in top condition: the diet, the training, the position on the bike. I’d learned so much for myself in 12 years as a professional.”

He jokes that he finally began life as an adult when he left the peloton.

“You become a man when you start life in the real world. You finish school and go into a job. But cycling is not a real job.”

The professional’s highly structured existence – “You wake up, have breakfast, and train. In the afternoon, you rest. You watch your diet carefully. Your body is like a Ferrari.” – is married to the constant anxiety over form, fitness and health.

Life as an ex-pro begins with the search for new objectives, he says, but once discovered, happiness is not far away. He offers Bradley Wiggins and Miguel Indurain as examples of that rare breed of rider with no need of a job after cycling. For most, a second career is a necessity, but one that can be as rewarding as life on the bike.

Carrara is now helping his ten-year-old son to become a cyclist. The boy races every Sunday and has ambitions to become a professional; ambitions his father shares, to a point.

“He loves cycling. I want to help him to become professional, but if he doesn’t become professional, I’ll be happy too, because it’s a tough life.”

Life outside the peloton can be tough too, but after the danger, exhaustion, and relentless schedule of training and racing, budget airlines and cheap hotels, it’s easy to see how a life representing exclusive brands and training City executives might also hold some appeal.

The pundit and presenter

Daniel Lloyd has carved out a career in the cycling media as a presenter, both for the online GCN channel and the broadcaster Eurosport.

He admits to entering a challenging period after it became apparent that Slipstream Sports, then racing as Garmin-Cervélo, would not be renewing his contract at the end of the 2011 season. Lloyd had joined Slipstream the previous year following the Garmin’s merger with Cervélo Test Team.

“It fell apart with Garmin, and HTC had folded, and there were a lot of riders on the market,” he recalls. “As one of the lower-end riders, I couldn’t find a space with any team. It was quite daunting, actually.”

Lloyd admits that he had been advised throughout his riding career to prepare for the life after the bike. The dichotomy of the professional cyclist’s existence, he maintains, is that a rider needs all of his concentration to survive the present, and has little spare capacity to consider the future.

Daniel Lloyd shows the natural ability in front of the camera that has since served him well in retirement (pic: Marc, via Flickr Creative Commons)

“Once that concentration has gone, you’re not going to be as good as you can be,” he insists. “A lot won’t be able to train and race at 100 per cent [if thinking about retirement].”

His confidence in front of the camera makes Lloyd seem like a natural, but he admits to struggling in his early days as a presenter and to being lucky with the timing of his career move.

“I struggled a bit at the start with presenting and I was just very lucky. GCN had just started. Nobody had any expectations. There weren’t many people to tell me I wasn’t very good at it, in terms of viewers. In our case, practice has made…” he pauses, then adds with a laugh, “not perfect, but not quite as bad.”

Such is the lot of the ex-professional. The racer’s career path is far from defined, even in an era of Olympic Academies and development teams, and so it is with retirement. Some professional riders complain about their jobs, Lloyd reveals, and even speak enviously of life in the workaday world.

“It’s a very different life,” he concedes of the pro cyclist’s existence. “When you’re in it, you feel that it’s hard, but in hindsight, I don’t think it’s any harder than anyone else’s life. A lot of pro cyclists say they would rather have a normal job, but I don’t think they really mean it, and plenty of them have never had a normal job.”

Lloyd soon realised how structured his life as a cyclist had been: a carefully planned schedule of pre-season training camps and a race programme which at the peak of his career included Monument Classics and Grand Tours.

Lloyd believes pro cyclists at the top level are now well paid enough to save for retirement – providing they are sensible with their money (pic: Sirotti)

Retirement and a successful transition to a second career has not made Lloyd forget his brothers in the peloton. He is quick to advise riders he sees socially to avoid the high life and to keep a close eye on their savings.

“Cycling at the top end is pretty well paid nowadays and if you’re careful with your money, you can come out with your house paid off, which gives you a bit more time to relax and not be suddenly stressed about keeping a decent amount of money coming in.”

The cycling CEO

Michael Rogers, a triple world time trial champion and now the CEO of the Riis-Seier Project, received a new job the day after a 16-year career as a professional cyclist came to an end in abrupt circumstances.

The Australian, a key lieutenant to Bradley Wiggins during the latter’s 2012 Tour de France victory, rode the last stage of a career that had also yielded three Grand Tour stage wins, at the Dubai Tour in February.

His sudden departure from the sport was brought on by an irregular heartbeat: the result of a malformation of an aortic valve. Rogers had been aware of the condition since his first year as a professional, but its deterioration had been minimal, leaving him with little to worry about.

Michael Rogers stepped straight from the peloton into a CEO role at Riis-Seier (pic: Riis-Seier)

Despite being aware that the condition accelerated for sufferers in their mid 30s, Rogers had completed a hard, pre-season training camp with the Tinkoff team in Gran Canaria without issue.

“My heart was working fine,” he says. “I had heart monitors on 24 hours a day. There were no real signs of any danger, but then in the race [the Dubai Tour], just through some basic analysis, we picked up some weird beats; these runs of high heart rates.

“When you do an effort, there’s always a lag before the heart rate comes up. The power steps up straight away and the heart rate comes up about 10 seconds later. What we saw was that the power had come up, and the heart rate responded straight away. When the power dropped off,  the heart rate kept going up for about another minute or so.”

While Rogers is unlikely to have planned the second stage of the Dubai Tour as his farewell to professional cycling, there was little point in continuing to risk his health in what he had already intended would be his final season.

Though retirement was forced upon Rogers, he had already decided 2016 would be his final year (pic: Sirotti)

Rogers, now based in Switzerland, describes a summer spent, not at the Tour de France, but walking in the mountains with his young family. He watched the action in France on television, tuning in more recently for La Vuelta España, where he might have ridden in support of Alberto Contador.

The transition from an active working life to retirement can be hard to manage in any career, but for a professional athlete, the change can be more dramatic. Rogers puts it well when he says: “Cycling isn’t a job, it’s a way of life.” Now 36, and after 16 years in cycling’s top tier, he had begun to place a greater importance on other aspects of life.

“You may not have a race tomorrow, but going for a four-hour walk in the mountains has a cost. When you’re in your 20s, you don’t think about that stuff, you’re so focused, but when you get to your mid-30s, it starts to weigh on you. It was weighing on me.

“You just want a normal life. Your cycling career is coming to an end. That’s they way it should be: when you’re not prepared to go out in the rain or the sleet or to miss that party, then it’s time to call it a day.”

The Riis-Seier Project is a step outside of the retired pro’s typical post-career path into the DS role or media work, if still firmly within the world of cycling. The ultimate ambition for the company is to fund a top-tier professional cycling team from revenues generated by delivering fitness and training solutions, specifically an advanced static training bike and app, and from a business and hospitality base at a luxury villa in Lucca, Italy.

Rogers says that Lars Seier Christensen, the SaxoBank co-founder and former team owner, called him the day after his career as a rider ended. On May 17, his appointment as CEO was announced on the riis-seier.com website.

Rogers is realistic about the scale of the challenge (“We’re very aware that we’re going to have to sell a lot of fitness bikes and really have to develop to fund a whole team”) but ambitious about the challenge (“Rivers are formed from drops of water, right?”).

Riis-Seier took over the Danish Continental squad Team Trefor in July, rebranding it Team Virtu Pro-Veloconcept in time for the Tour of Denmark, where 22-year-old Mads Würtz Schmidt won the fourth stage time trial ahead of Astana’s Lars Boom.

“We started off this project because we’re very aware that funding cycling teams is a tough ask,” Rogers explains. “It’s a sport that probably through various circumstances has put itself in a corner where it solely depends on corporate sponsorship. Soccer has jersey sales, ticket sales, membership sales. They also have sponsorship, but it’s only a percentage of the entire budget.”

Rogers talks of one day returning to college to study business, but he seems already to have a firm grip on the economics of cycling, and with a position as CEO in his first job outside of the peloton has made a flying start to life outside of the peloton.

Retired, but not retiring

It’s not until you get up close to a professional bike race – most vividly from a team car directly behind the peloton or breakaway – that you realise how impossibly fast and dangerous a working environment it is. Adrenaline, injury and exhaustion come in equal measure, and those who merely survive are as worthy of our respect as those who triumph.

As savage as its demands can be, life inside the peloton is still a rare privilege for the elite community of athletes who make the grade; a brutal meritocracy of athletic ability, where no amount of off-the-bike charm will compensate for a deficiency in wattage. The ‘soft skills’ that make other professional worlds turn are of no use here.

Wegelius, Lloyd, Carrara and Rogers represent a fair cross section of the peloton and their separate roles in the peloton are somewhat echoed by the distinct paths they have followed in retirement.

Not all are as fortunate as our model retirees. Most riders never reach the top tier, and so miss out on the salaries paid to the very best. Even those in the WorldTour need paid employment when their sporting career ends, with the exception of the great champions.

The end of the 2016 season will see a number of riders retire, including high-profile duo Joaquim Rodriguez and Ryder Hesjedal (pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

“I  must admit I think a lot about how many riders go through the system and get lost and churned out the other end with no real plans,” Lloyd says. “A lot slip into a depression afterwards; some go on to be more successful off the bike than they were on it.”

Retirement remains a rollercoaster for the professional cyclist, even in an age when arguably they have never had it so good. Ex-riders are forced to navigate the post-career landscape alone, much as they do during their time within the sport.

Cycling must do better, but with an economic model dependent entirely on sponsorship and unlikely to change any time soon (despite Rogers’ efforts), the ex-rider must continue to make his own luck.  

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