Thor Hushovd: “I can look back at my career with a big smile”

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Thor Hushovd planned to retire after the world road race championships in Ponferrada, Spain, later this month. He showed strong form in the recent Arctic Race of Norway, taking second on stages two and four, and believed he was in with a chance of worlds selection. However injury scuppered those plans and meant that he would have no last chance to represent his country.
He spoke recently to journalists about his career and his recent battle with fluctuating form, explaining that a virus finally brought forward the moment when he had to hang up his wheels. It’s tough, but that’s life, and he’s ready to move on.

Had things gone to plan, Thor Hushovd would have had two more years in the pro peloton. Two years of battling the world’s best riders as an ageing competitor, accepted, but also two more years where he could draw on the talent which saw him clock up some of the biggest wins in the sport.

His palmares are remarkable. One Elite world championship. One stage in the Giro. Gent-Wevelgem. Three stages plus the points ranking in the Vuelta. Ten stages of the Tour de France, plus two points classifications. Stage wins and points jerseys in many major stage races. And, in addition to that, top finishes in many of the sport’s big races, including second and third in Paris-Roubaix and third in two editions of Milan-Sanremo.

Hushovd wins the World Championships in Geelong in 2010

It was a glittering career, and one which came to an end sooner than he intended. Speaking to journalists at the recent Tour of Norway, the BMC Racing Team rider explained that there was a moment in June when his body said stop and his mind, finally, agreed.

“When I did the Dauphiné this year I got dropped in a small climb like 60 or 70 kilometres from the finish,” he said. “I really prepared to be strong and be ready for the Tour de France, and then I just realised that something is wrong.

“So, I took the decision then that I’m stopping. I’m going to announce it to everyone, and also to say that it’s a virus that had been my problem for the last years.”

Despite being in his mid-thirties, some of the best periods of his career were relatively recently. After winning stages in the Tour and Vuelta plus the world title in Geelong, Australia, in 2010, he went on to take two stages in the following year’s Tour de France, be part of the victorious Garmin-Cervélo team time trial squad and to wear the yellow jersey for a week.

Victories on stages of the Tour de Suisse and the Tour of Britain added to the buzz of that period, but the well soon dried up.

Having moved to the BMC Racing Team in 2012, he was suddenly unable to perform. At the time there was uncertainty about what was wrong, but he was finally diagnosed with viral issues. The precise nature of those wasn’t stated at the time, but he believes he was hit by mononucleosis or glandular fever.

Other careers have ended because of that, but he was able to continue on for two more years and had a real resurgence in 2013 with nine victories. That run was partly due to anger. While he took first on a stage of the Tour du Haut Var early in the year and rode solidly after that, he was passed over for selection for the Tour de France.

Hushovd disagreed with the decision and made a point by winning the national road race championships, a stage of the Tour of Austria, two stages in the Tour of Poland, two stages, the points classification plus the overall classification in the Arctic Race of Norway and a stage in the Tour of Beijing.

Despite that, though, fatigue struck him again in 2014 and he had another frustrating season. That led to the BMC Racing Team stating that it wouldn’t renew his contract.

He was likely disappointed but, reflecting on that, he insists that had nothing to do with his decision to ultimately hand up his wheels.

“[It had] nothing, I would say…my plan at the beginning of the year was to ride two more years. It’s not because the team is, it’s not the fault of the team, it’s just I want to do something new for my head. So, that didn’t change anything.”

Instead, the repeated frustrations that he has been through were the main reason. “I had some difficult times when I thought I was coming back. Times when I thought I was good, like in Argentina in 2013, when I felt that I had a normal level [beforehand]. Then I went there, the heat was really warm, and I suffered a lot. Big time. I was like the last guy.

“Then I was thinking that maybe I just burnt out my body.

“Everybody is born with that much energy level in your body and I was afraid that maybe I just burnt everything, like a battery that’s flat. Sometimes I got like a connection and got some energy back.

“Also, with years I suffer more with jet lag, from big heat, stuff like this, then I did before. Maybe it’s just a sign that I’m getting tired.”

Hushovd winning stage 13 at the 2011 edition of the Tour de France
Hushovd winning stage 13 at the 2011 edition of the Tour de France

The clock ticks for everyone, of course, and particularly pro athletes. It is often said that they die twice; once in terms of human mortality, of course, but also prior to that when they retire from their sports as relatively young people.

Adapting to that is often difficult because it removes that person from that which they have excelled at for years. It also necessitates them to work out what to do next, and upends what their self identity has been built around.

Hushovd definitely has mixed feelings. He’s pleased that the frustrations and the times spent wondering if his body will support him or betray him are drawing to a close, but he also knows that he is leaving something special behind.

“I love what I’m doing. I love my life and it’s just such a… You know I have to do something quick [in terms of a decision]. It’s not that I’m half-way stopping because I can’t ride, perform on the bike. It’s just that I love my life and it’s hard to accept that the time is over,” he said.

There is definitely a feeling that the end has been forced on him. As he said, he wanted two years more in the peloton. That won’t happen now. “I didn’t plan it…it just came from all the suffering,” he explained. “I just took a decision deep in my head in one bike race.

“First you have to decide to retire and then you kind of have to accept it yourself. And that was maybe the most difficult part, that I had to accept in my head that the time is over and I had to stop.”

Life as a pro rider necessitates a lot of sacrifices, a lot of commitment. It also requires long periods of time away from family and home, plus the willingness to grovel in difficult weather conditions and very tough events. It’s already tough, but when the body doesn’t cooperate this is even more so the case.

Still, Hushovd knows that there are many pluses. There’s the money, of course, and the sense of achievement. There’s the support of the fans and the constant affirmations that what you do matters to others. There’s the sense of camaraderie with team-mates and the friendships forged on the road, in pre-season training camps and in the heat of battle.

There’s also the buzz of being part of some of the biggest sporting events on the planet.

Asked what he will miss most, though, and he ponders a while before deciding on something else. “I don’t know,” he said. “This is one of the questions I have. I’m afraid I’m going to miss maybe, you know, having goals to achieve. I don’t think I’m going to miss the way to achieve them, because I look forward to not missing thinking of what I’m eating all the time, doing all the hard training, the diet, all that kind of stuff.

“This I really look forward to, not taking that much care about. But I think I’m going to miss to have this drive to be fit and be ready for a goal, and be there.”

One of those goals he most wanted to achieve was victory in Paris-Roubaix. It was for many years the big focus of his season, and with little surprise: the difficulty of the race was something which really sparked his imagination. Finishing second and third only increased the obsession to win the race some day.

In looking back at his career, he pinpoints that as one big target which got away, but also realises that he achieved a lot of other big goals. The overall balance is very positive; he can be happy with what he did.

“I would say I’m proud of it, I can look back at my career with a big smile. I achieved a lot, I achieved more than I thought I would. Of course I didn’t achieve everything but there are not many who can do this also in such a hard sport.

“For me, I missed one thing, it’s the Classics and especially Roubaix. But again you can’t predict your whole life, your whole career. I wish I could, but unfortunately I can’t.”

Hushovd treasures his world championship victory and so too one of the biggest success he achieved while wearing the rainbow jersey, namely a mountain stage to Lourdes in the 2011 Tour de France (see photo above). When he looks back at what he did, that gives him satisfaction.

“Absolutely, it is one of the highlights,” he said. “Not the win itself but how I did it. Also of course with the jersey. Nobody expected me to do it including myself. I didn’t think that morning that I was going to win that stage.”

He did, though, and is one of the moments that will stay with him forever.

“Things like this stay high up there as memories,” he accepted.

That’s not only true for Hushovd, of course, but also for his supporters too.

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