The road ahead: Adam Phelan on stepping away from racing
While many professional riders have managed to secure a contract for the 2017 season, there are plenty out there still looking for a ride. For such riders, that search has only been made more difficult by the closure of several big teams – there just aren’t as many spots out there as there are riders to fill them.
With the Drapac Pro Continental team closing its doors at year’s end, several current riders have been left without contracts, including CyclingTips columnist Adam Phelan. As Adam writes, his search for a new team has proven challenging and he’s made the difficult decision to step away from racing.
A heavy rain falls onto the roof as I lie in the darkness. It is 3am and I can’t sleep. I just lie there, eyes wide-open, staring out into the pitch black room. My girlfriend moves next to me, muttering gibberish under her breath as a dream takes hold of her.
Stress pulls at my consciousness, and I look across at her with envy as she sleeps. A sense of unwavering nervousness spreads through me like poison. My mind is numb, yet in a strange way, it is racing so fast it is hard for me to catch hold of a single thought. Thoughts – both positive and negative – flicker through me like a busy highway.
Among all this noise, however, I know that one single thought – one sole reason – keeps me awake. I can see it at the back of my mind. There it is, so clear, yet in so many ways it is also blurred and covered by fear. I say it to myself as I lie on the bed, my mind running the thought over again and again, slowly, over and over like the ocean tide.
This might be it. My days as a professional cyclist might be over.
There it is again. And again I toy with the thought, trying to accept it, knowing that it could very well be my reality soon. It is a moment I knew was always going to come – just not when. I have never wanted to be held hostage by cycling. I did not want it blind me to the point where I knew nothing else, where if I could no longer continue at the level I wanted to, I would be lost and just move forward with it because I felt like I ‘had to’.
Slowly I drift off to sleep, and for a few moments, I forget about everything.
Years earlier. The morning sun cracks through the frosted trees. The air seems frozen as I ride, my breath evaporating into small blooms of steam. I am 13 years old, skinny and way too eager. Next to me is my twin brother Michael, and as I look across at him he smiles at me.
“The sprint is just ahead,” he says. “I bet I’ll smash you!”. I smile back.
“Well hurry up!” I laugh as I launch out of the bunch, far too early for the sprint. As promised, he smashes me, crossing the imaginary line well ahead and we both ride back to the cafe afterwards, out of breath and smiling.
“Told you so,” he says, laughing.
“Just you wait,” I reply.
We were to start school in only a few hours. Yet, unlike many of our classmates, we sit at a cafe – a group of other young cyclists and a few older ones sitting around us – trading stories from the morning ride. It is unbelievably cold, yet we are all happy, impossibly so, as the morning sun breathes life into the day.
“Who is staying up tonight for the Tour?” I ask. “It’s going to be a good one!”
On my 21st birthday, I am racing in the French Alps and I am out of breath. The sun burns and sweat stings my eyes. Riders are ahead of me and behind – we are everywhere, the mountain fracturing the peloton like a jackhammer. I am racing in the Tour de l’Avenir, the “Tour of the Future” — largely considered the Tour de France for U23 riders — for the Australian National Team.
Everything hurts – my legs, my arms, my back, my feet – but it is pain I have come to embrace. I am riding next to a Colombian rider. He too squints against the harsh sunlight as we ride.
“It’s my birthday,” I say to him. “Can’t say I pictured I’d be here suffering like a dog in France for my 21st!”
“Oh,” he says. “That is nice … Happy Birthday.”
He looks across at me, smiles, and then looking ahead, clicks into a larger gear and sprints away from me. “Bastard,” I think, as I ride on.
“Fuck yes!” I yell out loud. I am in my apartment in Girona, Spain. The television is on and showing Eurosport’s coverage of Le Tour de France. Michael Matthews punches the air, his face is lit up with joy and triumph. He has just won the 10th stage of the 2016 Tour, the 11th Australian stage winner in the history of the race. I am still in my cycling kit, having just returned from training, minutes before the stage finale.
After I finish showering, I grab my phone and message him. “You bloody legend, first of many – so stoked for you” I write. A minute later my phone buzzes.
“Thanks, brother! I can’t believe it ay!, Matthews replies. “This is what we dreamt about at Ed’s house watching the Tour de France in the middle of the night eight years ago.”
A smile hits me as those moments, eight years earlier, come back to me. Back then, we all trained and raced together: me, my twin brother, “Bling” and my other good friends – Alastair Loutit, Tom Palmer, Joe Lewis and Ed Bissaker. We were like a gang, all dreaming of being professionals and racing the biggest races in the world. Late at night we would all gather around the television and watch the Tour.
We yearned to ‘live the dream’. To win at the Tour de France. And years later, one of us has done it.
Life can take you on some incredible journeys, I remember thinking as Matthews messaged me. I didn’t expect all these years later to be living in Europe and racing as a professional. Though there I was, racing close to the top level of the sport. You never know where cycling can take you, I thought. It has taken us all on our own unique path, right around the world.
As I write this, I hear a train rattle by, the wall next to me shaking against the noise. I am in a cafe in Melbourne, waiting to meet my girlfriend who is busy in a research laboratory, working on a drug to combat cancer. The heaters are on, and a warm flat-white rests on the bench in front of me.
Earlier in the morning, I got an email from another Professional Continental cycling team, informing me that unfortunately, I had just missed out on getting a contract for the 2017 season. It was one of several such emails and calls. The fragile ground beneath me had begun to crack.
My current team, Drapac Professional Cycling, won’t exist in its current form beyond this season. A few weeks earlier, I had a meeting with Drapac management, in which they let me know that, although I was close to making the jump across to the Cannondale-Drapac WorldTour team, they could not offer me a spot for 2017.
It was a hard hit, but one I knew could have been a possibility. I was already in discussions with several other Pro Continental teams, and once I knew my position with Cannondale, I could push on with those teams.
Yet sport can be a tough and uncertain game. In a year where several teams have folded, the market is full of riders needing jobs, and I am just one more in a long list. As the weeks go by, one after another of my other options fall through. I am then left with a decision, one I did not expect to have to make. And so here I am, making that hard decision.
I had a strong year in Europe. Competing in only .1 or .HC races, I had top 10 finishes in the Tour of Portugal, Herald Sun Tour, Tour des Fjords and Tour of Oman. I’ve been painfully consistent – in almost half of my 66 race days I finished in the top 20 – in races like the Tour of Norway, the Tour of Austria and the Ster ZLM Toer. I am proud of how I have raced, and the journey this year has been one that I’ll always remember.
I love cycling. It has brought me so much joy, happiness and adventure. I have raced and travelled to over 30 different countries because of my bike and made lifelong friends along the way, on nearly every continent. I have represented my country and raced two world U23 championships. I’ve lived in three different cities in Europe. All before I turned 25.
Cycling has also challenged me and pushed me beyond what I thought my capabilities were. Sure, there have been dark moments, moments where I have struggled. I’ve ended up in hospital from time to time; I’ve had my share of close calls. But this wonderful sport has shaped me into the better person I am today. It is a part of me, and it always will be. It is a part of my DNA.
It’s been such a privilege to have been given this experience – it’s one many people can only dream about and I don’t regret a single second.
Though I know I can continue at the Continental level next year, the reality of making a living and my personal goals outside cycling makes that an option that may not be in my best interests. I would have loved to continue on at the Professional Continental level or higher, but right now, that does not look possible. Ultimately, I want to be able to determine when the moment comes for me to change my direction, but I also want to continue on at a certain level.
There is so much I want to achieve outside the sport. I love writing and film-making. I have ambitions in marketing and business. I want to finish a university degree. Do I leave all that for another year? And face the same uncertainty and stress of the last few weeks? I don’t think I am ready to do that.
Here, writing in a cafe in Melbourne, my coffee cup close to empty, I am turning what might have just been a thought into my reality. The reality is I don’t have a team for 2017. I know I could continue at a lower level, but I think it’s time for me to focus on the other things. It’s exciting. There are other opportunities out there.
It’s been a great ride, as the saying goes. And the Australian summer of cycling might just be that perfect finish for me, as I weigh up what it means to move forward. Finishing my racing career under the harsh Australian sun just seems so right.
The smile I had on my face, all those years ago as I rode with my brother in the early winter’s morning, is still on my face now. There are so many people that have made this journey possible for me; their belief in me and the opportunities they have offered me have allowed me to live my dream. There are too many people to thank personally here, but this is an opportunity to thank everyone who has followed me and supported me on my journey.
This fantastic sport, the sport of cycling, has already given me so much, and it will continue to do so. The future may be uncertain, but above all, I am happy. And I can’t wait to ride the new road ahead.