From the outside looking in, the life of a pro cyclist appears to be something that’s well worth aspiring to. Galavanting around the globe, racing in far-flung places, being looked after by team staff, all while only having to worry about your form, the team’s results and keeping your sponsors happy. One aspect that’s often overlooked by those with dreams of going pro is the impact such a career has on one’s home life.
Even for the average person it can be a challenge to balance work and family life at times — both require considerable time and energy. And riding bikes as a profession is a far cry from a standard 9-5 job.
Racing around the word, sometimes thousands of kilometres away from family — it’s tough, not just for the riders but for the family members they leave behind. So how do the world’s best riders deal with the challenge of balancing fatherhood and being a professional cyclist? And what about those riders’ partners? We spoke to a select few at the recent Abu Dhabi Tour to find out.
Classics specialist Tom Boonen is now 34 years of age and has a long, distinguished career behind him. It’s only in the past year that he’s become a father to twin girls.
“I’ve already had a busy period for the last month and a half and I haven’t been home much,” Boonen said. “It’s always nice when you are going home; the anticipation of going back makes it nice.
“My kids are only nine months old so they don’t really notice if I’m gone yet, but in the future when they start to notice they’ll be mad and it’ll be harder. We waited actually until the end of my career, not when we were 25 to have kids but we did it now when I’m 34. I don’t want my kids growing up with a dad who’s gone eight months of the year.”
While retirement isn’t immediately on the horizon for the former world champion, having young children is likely to mean Boonen won’t segue immediately into a managerial or director sportif role when he does hang up his wheels.
“I didn’t spend 15 years of my life as a professional bike rider to be away from home when I stop,” Boonen said. “Sure I can see myself being away a day here and there. It’s hard to stay at home if you’ve always had this life for such a long time, but I would like to have a decent amount of time at home being able to see them grow up.”
Another former world champion, Philippe Gilbert, has two children of his own. His, though, are of an age where they know all too well when dad is away.
“It’s not always easy. You want to be there with your kids but it’s a special job what with being away a lot,” Gilbert told CyclingTips. “We have a different relationship with the kids. You just need to remember that you aren’t going to be away from them all their life and to remember that you will be able to enjoy them more when you stop.
“You need to explain this to the kids though — they are usually OK with it. You need to be honest with them. I’ll tell them if I’m going for one week, two weeks or three weeks. I know some guys say that they’re just going for a few days and then they’re away for three weeks or whatever, and then the kids don’t understand it. You have to explain it to them as if they are adults.”
Joaquim Rodriguez is another rider with two children; one of seven and one of five. The fact that both kids race themselves makes it easier for them to understand why their father is away.
“My kids understand the goals in the sport, they race already and they understand that I need to be away so much,” Rodriguez said. “For any sports person it’s tough on the kids with being away from home so often. But it’s a sport that is easy to follow and now there’s so much technology to communicate, its easier.”
Of course it’s not just riders that are part of professional cycling’s travelling circus. Mechanics, soigneurs and directors sportif are just a few of the staff members that also spend great swathes of time away from home. Orica-GreenEdge general manager Shayne Bannan is on hand at many races throughout the year and also has to leave his family at home.
“Everybody on the road is really in the same situation,” Bannan said. “Some guys are on the road for 100 days a year, others for 200, but I think what really is important is that you must switch off when you are at home.
“Try and do the normal things like taking the kids to school, take them horse riding on the weekend, family activities. Sometimes though it’s hard to switch off. But I think it’s really important for the parents to do that.
“As we all know, if you’ve got a happy home life it reflects on your work life. So it’s really important to have that balance.”
Of course cyclists aren’t the only sportspeople (or people generally) that spend lots of time away from home. But having dedicated their careers to cycling, would some of the world’s best recommend their kids get into the sport?
“If cycling still exists in 20 years they’re free to do what they want,” Gilbert told CyclingTips. “I think with the sport you get out what you put in. I’ve learnt that if you work hard you get back and I think this you can apply to all your life. Just work hard and you can make it happen.”
Tom Boonen said he’d encourage his girls to be active, but wouldn’t necessarily push them into cycling.
“Sure I’ll encourage it. I’ll let them choose something they like and if they are good at it I’ll try and help them out as much as I can. I’d love them to do sports, but like my own dad who never pushed me into sport [I wouldn’t with them],” Boonen said. “I just fell into it and I hope they find something they like, athletics, tennis or whatever.
“Doing sports is something that really enriches you. In my case where you can do it professionally it opens your world — you can see all the kind of places where you’d never go if you had never done the sport.”
Shayne Bannan has a similar philosophy about cycling’s ability to help people see the world. This is something he hopes his kids will have access too as well, regardless of what they end up doing.
“I think cycling is such a global sport and it really takes you to places in the world that you normally wouldn’t come to so I think the overall globalisation and the overall experiences with different cultures, languages is something special in cycling,” Bannan said. “It’s the travel aspect I’d pass on.
“It’s pretty important to go into something that you enjoy, take passion into it, whether it’s cycling, tiddly winks or horse riding or whatever the case may be,” Bannan said. “Just as long as they are happy and get fulfilment out of it then that’s what you encourage.”
So how do family members cope back at home when their loved ones are off at races around the world? Alejandro Valverde’s wife Natalia gave us some insight into how her and her children’s lives revolve around Alejandro’s racing calendar.
“Sometimes it’s difficult. For example when he goes to the Tour de France, or in May when he goes to Sierra Nevada [ed. for training], and I have to stay at home because of the babies and school, it’s tough,” Natalia Valverde told CyclingTips. “But we always go during the weekend or on rest days. We travel a lot.
“Pablo my son has traveled with me for the past two years — from the first race of the 2012 season through to now. Pablo is nearly six years old now. He’s been in eight countries already.”
Natalia Valverde explained the lengths she goes to to spend time with Alejandro even for one day during a Grand Tour.
“We might drive to Madrid, take a flight to where the closest airport of the rest day is then we drive to the hotel,” she said. “It takes a day of traveling to see his dad for only one day. Then another day to return. But we use Skype and FaceTime a lot.”
Natalia explains that family events often have to be scheduled around racing, but on occasions it’s a case of missing out on celebrations and life landmarks.
“Racing always comes first. For example [Alejandro’s] cousin got married in the last week of September and he was in the US for the Worlds,” Natalia Valverde said. “Family events are usually planned when he has a mid-season break [ed. in May] or in October.”
There’s little doubt balancing life as a father and a professional cyclist is challenging. Many riders miss out on seeing their child’s first steps, hearing their first words or maybe even witnessing a first school performance. But what else is clear is that professional cycling is a job that riders see as a path to financial security for their family.
Where the vast majority of ‘regular’ people will work to 65 years of age, professional cyclists retire from their main career long before that. So while the sport demands a lot of time from fathers early on, it ultimately allows riders to spend considerable amounts of time with their family once they do finally hang their wheels up.