When to Retire?

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.

Age distribution in the 2013 pro peloton

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.

45 thoughts on “When to Retire?”

  1. Do you have any information on the post retirement bankruptcy rates in the sport? One of the interesting things about Miller’s bio was the fact that he essentially lost all his prior earnings after the drug bust. I remember how exciting Nozal’s brief lead in the Vuelta was, it’s hard now to imagine him on such a basic salary.

    • Linus Gerdemann is one recent example, he didn’t get a contract and had a year out only to return with MTN-Qhubeka this year. But the original retirement wasn’t his choice.

      Another is Arnaud Labbe who retired for good from Cofidis at the end of last year but before he’d found himself without a contract and returned to the amateur ranks, only to get a call from Cofidis in April 2010 after several of the team’s riders were ruled out with injury for months.

      • Dominique Rollin retired, but will be back in Bouhani’s lead out at Cofidis next year.
        Jon Lee Augustyn retired for medical reasons, had a short break and is now back.
        Mario Cipollini with Rock Racing. Pettachi with Quick Step last year (kind of).

        • Jon-Lee Augustyn tried a come-back this year with MTN-Qhubeka, but only managed until May, due to the hip problem that forced him out in 2012. Retired for good now.

    • Yeah that would be fascinating, if not daunting. It must be so tough to leave any sport, especially when it’s all you’ve known since you were a child.

      In America in particular I find this so interesting, where kids are made stars of in high school, before potentially hitting the national spotlight when still in college. What happens when its all over?

      • If you mean college stars that don’t quite make it to the pros; I read recently that they have a higher than average depression rates, drug abuse, and arrest rates, but otherwise live a normal life. They work in banks, groceries, postal service, join the military service, some go on to post graduate studies; normal lives as stated before. (I wish I can remember where I read it.) But if you mean 2-4 year pros, oh boy, they do much worse than those who never became pros, or those that were pros for a long time.

        This trend (length of contract correlation to depression and arrests) parallels those who do join the military service as well. Something to think about there.

        • I can’t find the article now, but Michael Drapac talked about meeting Australian cyclists with no skills beyond pro-circuit cycling, who wound up having unfortunate lives (being arrested, depression etc) post-retirement. This seemed to be a major reason (if not THE reason) behind the Drapac team putting so much emphasis on ethics and life balance.

          • It makes sense to me. After a longer period in a high-stress and highly-idealised career, you would have (hopefully) integrated it with the more mundane aspects of life, not to mention some of the glamor would have faded and your viewpoint would become more grounded by necessity.
            Having a career that burns hot and fast for two or three years then abruptly ends gives you no opportunity to readjust before you’re back in the real world and having to do your own laundry again.

  2. Hi GB

    Here is the article you were looking for- worth reading and taking some time for reflection on the values of not just professional cycling but many other elite sports. What does the athlete have left after his career closes, other than hopefully with some medals or awards- A close which is not often not at his/her choice?
    Where are their non-cycling friends that they had before they were professional athletes, relationships, career outside their sport?

    Here is also an interview with Michael Drapac and sports psychologist Jacqui Louder on the Melbourne Radio show SEN 1116 “The Science of Sport” in February 2014

    • Thanks Ian! The article I read was on an Australian newspaper site (can’t remember which one hence being unable to find it again) and included Michael’s anecdotes about meeting certain cyclists and his criticism of the Australian Institute of Sport, but this speech has the gist of it.

  3. I’m a big fan of David Millar but think he is an example of someone who has went on a year too long. After his attack on the Champes Elysee in the 2013 TDF this would have been the perfect way to bow out.

    Having to watch him not being selected for the TDF team and a very poor showing in both the Commonwealth TT and Road Race (probably the only reason he continued into 2014) was painful to watch and he would have been much better to go out on the high.

    Who knows maybe he can contribute to some Team GB success at the World Champs but I think he has been chosen for sentimental reasons rather than for his performances this year.

  4. I believe UCI have some sort of retirement scheme if you have been a pro for x years. The Norwegian rider Mads Kaggestad once told me that he received some money from UCI which he used for studies.

  5. Great article and very timely.

    Retirement can be for many different reasons, I remember last year David Veilleux retired from Europcar to pursue a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering (http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/david-veilleux-announces-his-retirement), maybe he’ll come back as a top bike mechanic!

    I know Nico Mattan postponed retirement to lead a development squad, and although he looked completely out of shape, he helped provide valuable support to younger riders.

  6. I suppose a key difference is that someone like Cadel Evans can continue making a good living out of being a “brand” with sponsorships and what is rumoured to be a promotional/ambassador role for BMC as he’s so closely identified with them. Then there’s Hinault who seems to have a job for life on the TDF podium after every stage.

    • Hinault’s employed by the ASO in a number of capacities including ambassador, as well as keeping a very orderly podium at the Tour, P-R and the Dauphine 🙂

  7. The reality is tougher than you think. ESP for those of us who raced to get out difficult situations. The number of riders that struggle is far higher than you think.

  8. Some say the body can no longer perform or it is time to go.

    Most retire when they can no longer get a contract.

    As to David Veilleaux, he left on his terms in his way while he was extremely young.. Took his money and ran when he saw an opportunity. Good for him

  9. By the way, inrng, do you think the Italian newspaper’s article is likely to have it right re Cadel Evans? Cadel retiring with his new race is also what Keenan suggested during the Vuelta commentary, but he and BMC still haven’t made the official announcement they promised, and the rumours I was hearing before the Vuelta suggested he’d only quit Grand Tours rather than pro cycling altogether.

    I didn’t say this during the Vuelta wrap-up, but thanks again for your blog. It’s astoundingly interesting and well-written considering how quickly you say you write your entries–not to mention useful for a newbie like me!

  10. I do feel a little sad for Hushovd, as injuries seemed to have wrecked his last couple of years. He was a fearsome sight in full flow back in the day…

  11. It does seem as though the few that get to choose a dignified exit are the lucky ones (often those who have had the most successful and lucrative careers) Despite that, making a positive decision to stop must be difficult.

    With the proposed reductions in the size of team rosters will we find many more are forced to retire before they’re ready? Or a reduction in younger riders coming through at WT level? Either way – sad for the sport if so.

  12. I would say Chris Hoy (albeit on the track) is a very good example of someone who got it right. Retired on a high with two medals at London 2012. There was talk of continuing to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games this year but he probably made the correct choice. Now ripping up the tarmac in the British GT.

  13. Robbie McEwen once said that you should never retire at your peak, as then you haven’t kicked the habit of having success.

    Another point to consider: why stop when you’re still having fun? People use the “Joe Montana in Kansas City” phrase as a doomsday scenario, but they fail to see that Joe had a great time playing for Kansas City.

  14. Hinault will always be “The Man” to me, a guy who chose his retirement date and stuck to it despite what must have been serious pressure to continue. I vowed to see him race in-person before his career ended, but didn’t actually do it until near the end in 1986, the old Coors Classic, which he duly won. Still have the water bottle he handed me at the start line in Sacramento!

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