I’ve covered how to turn pro in the past so with the news that Lance Armstrong has again announced his retirement, some thoughts about ending a pro career. Without dwelling on his case, I think Armstrong effectively left the sport last July and only really appeared for the Tour Down Under in order to collect the appearance fee. We’d all get out of bed for a million dollars.
The cyclist is often poorly paid compared to other sports but there is an advantage in longevity. You can continue riding well into your thirties. It is exception for a rider to be older than 35 but perhaps less so than many other sports since cycling relies on experience and knowledge as physical freshness.
Nevertheless there comes a day when a rider has to hang up the wheels. For most riders it’s rarely a matter of choice, your typical domestique finds he’s past 30 and might have had an off year. Suddenly the team is looking at some exciting prospect in the amateur ranks. The contract’s not renewed.
But there are choices. First is the recognition by a rider that the career is short. Some say all the years on the road can shorten life expectancy but stop aged 35 and that’s another 45 years of life expectancy so the job of pro rider should always be seen as a temporary role, as a first job. Retirement is the wrong word, it is about changing jobs.
Planning for retirement should start early. Cyclists might race long hours but recovery time means plenty of free time and some riders use this to learn, for example FDJ’s Jérémy Roy has an engineering degree and has worked with Mavic to help refine their wheels, combing pro testing with materials science. HTC-Highroad’s Marco Pinotti has gone further, graduating with a Masters in Management Engineering. Team BMC’s Manuel Quinziato uses the off-season to study for a law degree. Several others have done the same. If study isn’t for a rider, then plenty have a business. Rabobank’s Grishcha Nierman is one of several current riders with a bike shop and Tadej Valjavec runs a hotel. The most well paid riders are able to save plenty, even after they’ve got the obligatory sports car.
But it’s not all money, jobs and putting money aside. Unlike most people in work, the sportsman has a public image. They might even be a superstar and many will have a reputation. This is itself a valuable commodity, even the likes of Richard Virenque can turn their name into gold. The rider who retires on a high retains the aura of a champion; the guy with one year too many dilutes his status.
Quitting at the top
Arguably Eddy Merckx stayed on for too long but turning down a big contract is easier said than done. For me the best example is Bernard Hinault who stopped almost at what the French poetically call le sommet de son art, “the summit of his art”.
The Frenchman suffered from injuries mid-career but won the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in 1985. In 1986 he finished second overall in the Tour de France to team mate Greg and took the King of the Mountains jersey as well as the combativity prize. Then he retired.
Bernard Hinault took up dairy farming. Writing Bad Blood, an autobiographical account of reporting on the sport of cycling, cycling writer Jeremy Whittle says “I had endured an overpowering sense of sadness and melancholia over Hinault’s premature retirement“, going on to describe “growling good looks, his Breton granite physique“. A man-crush! Even a cycling journalist had placed Hinault on a big pedestal. Yet meeting the big man in 1994 Whittle laments that the image of a man leaving on a high could not save him from the reality standing nearby:
“I spotted the familiar figure… …clad in a shiny green suit… this was a middle-aged French farmer in a bad suit on an away day.”
Many will welcome the chance to come home every evening. But like any big change coping retirement can be a change. Several riders have found it hard to adjust. Some are used to the structure of the season, of having hotels booked and the simple pattern of travel, training, racing and resting that suddenly rejoining the normal world comes as a shock. Visit the Tour de France and you’ll often spot the red official cars being driven by an ex-pro, they know how the bunch flows and can drive safely in proximity to the bunch but there’s something forlorn about a man who once led the race playing chauffeur.
Worse, I won’t name names but the habits can be hard to shake. One French pro admitted to alcoholism. Worse, some who have been doping continue to see this as a means to cope and continue the addiction.
Many stay around the sport. I’ve mentioned bike shops and chauffeuring at the Tour but obviously there are other jobs in cycling. Riders can even stay with their team and become a DS. Others help organise races. Former American rider Andy Hampsten first made his name in the Giro d’Italia and seemed to have liked Italy so much he stayed. “Finding himself at a loose end after restoring a stone farmhouse“, Hampsten started a tour company to bring mainly American riders to Europe. Laurent Fignon tried several ventures before realising he was an honorary professor of cycle sport. He ended up organising races, ran a cycling hotel in the Pyrenees and was a great TV pundit before his sudden death last year.
But many go onto new things, leaving the sport well behind. Former FDJ and US Postal rider Jean-Cyril Robin owns an industrial laundry (no puns please) and the smooth-pedalling Russian Evgeni Berzin is now a smooth-talking car salesman with three FIAT dealerships to his name in Lombardy.
What Lance Armstrong does next remains to be seen. Triathlon, charity, politics or more. His wealth has taken a big jump in the last month thanks to the arrival of Demand Media on the New York Stock Exchange but he’s slowly seeing the US media turn against him. Even beyond the sport of cycling he is likely to cause debate and division for years to come amongst cycling fans and the wider public.