If all good things come to an end then the only choice left is to pick the moment to quit. Jens Voigt is ending his career with an attack on the Hour Record, Cadel Evans is planning antipodean swansong and others are leaving the peloton like Thor Hushovd or David Millar. Some get to choose when but most don’t.
Picking a moment to retire is something we might think about in the light of Cadel Evans or Jens Voigt, those riders with long careers who begin to see a decline and are able to call time. Thor Hushovd will leave at the GP Impanis this weekend, a discreet exit for a long and impressive career. But for most there’s no choice. Hopefully team management will have a chat but it could be a signed letter arrives before the 30 September deadline informing them their services will not be needed for next year and by this time it’s getting late to find another contract. Too late.
Retirement’s a questionable word, it’s more a change of career and while we might think of a thirty-something rider approaching the end of a long career, “retirement” for the majority of the peloton is probably experienced by twenty-somethings who’ve had a couple of years in the peloton and maybe one contract extension, but things never worked out as they wished. For a current example see Ignazio Moser of BMC who’s hanging up his wheels after two years but there are many who don’t make the headlines.
As the chart above suggests a lot of riders leave the peloton by the time they get to 30. For what? Many stay in pro cycling in various forms, maybe becoming a soigneur or a team manager but it’s not for everyone given the time spent away from home. A long career means separation for weeks was the norm for many couples, as was the focus on performance and the sudden change of being at home and not having such demanding goals might be a factor in the anecdotally at least, seemingly high post-career splits. There’s the shift in status too, one rider mentions his post Tour blues, of how he went from being cheered around France and not having to cook or clean for three weeks… to standing in a DIY shop, gathering materials to repaint a bedroom; if this is deflating imagine if it became permanent? For others who leave cycling there’s a big variety. Three random cases:
- Isidro Nozal was second in the 2003 Vuelta. He is still criss-crossing the roads of Europe, this time as a truck driver
- Allan Peiper, today’s Head of Performance at BMC Racing, started flipping burgers in retirement, despite being a vegetarian
- Paolo Fornaciari was a pro for 17 years between 1992 and 2008 and today sells gelato
Even the best can go on too long. Eddy Merckx’s decision to sign with FIAT and then the C&A team might be a footnote to his career but his visible decline was demystifying, “the Cannibal” had lost his appetite and the aura of invincibility. Sixth in the Tour de France could have been great for anyone else. Perhaps he’d lost it before but the decline was visible, as if the public was seeing something that it wasn’t supposed to. “Deep down I knew I was done” he said and during his final season the public knew it too. Bernard Hinault did it better. He picked his retirement date years in advance saying he’d stop when he was 32. He went out on a high after a competitive season including rivalry with team mate Greg LeMond for the Tour de France.
It’s said there’s an art to leaving a party, to get out while the going is good. But pro cycling’s no party. Stay on for an extra year and it’s more money in the bank. Outsiders might whisper about “hanging on for too long” but for the rider and their family it’s another year of premium earnings banked. It’s also easy to do what you’ve always done. One more year might seem a year too much to outsiders but it’s a comforting choice, a repetition of past routines and visiting the same places once again rather than stepping out into the real world. Many riders aren’t just ending a pro career, they’re ending a way of life that began as a teenager that took them from local races to national and international competitions and then a pro contract. Finding something else to do can be daunting and postponing the inevitable is understandable, even rational.
The Final Hour
As Michael Hutchinson points out in a podcast, Jens Voigt’s Hour record attempt isn’t new as the likes of Francesco Moser, Chris Boardman and others used the Hour as the exit route.
Leaving before you’re asked to leave seems right. Bernard Hinault’s often cited as the perfect example because he picked a date and stuck to it, going out on a high and leaving the French public wanting more. But many riders are valuable in the twilight of their careers whether it’s for their experience or reputation. What might look like “one year too many” for the public can mean a chance to pay off the mortgage while still taking good results. Yet for most riders sporting retirement comes a lot earlier and the decision is made by others.