Jack Bobridge on retiring at 27: ‘At the end of the day health comes first’

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In an interview last week with the Adelaide Advertiser, Australian track and road cyclist Jack Bobridge revealed he was retiring from professional cycling at age 27. The news came three months after he’d mooted the possibility of leaving the sport, having ended his 2016 road season ahead of schedule.

CyclingTips’ Australian editor Matt de Neef spoke with Bobridge to learn more about his decision to hang up the wheels, the extent of the rheumatoid arthritis that plagued him throughout his career, his favourite memories from the road and the track, and what might come next.


Battling rheumatoid arthritis

The last time we heard from Jack Bobridge, the 27-year-old had come home to Australia early, skipping his planned appearance at the Tour of Britain, and ending his 2016 season with Trek-Segafredo ahead of time. At the time he told CyclingTips he was run down and that “the body was just too tired to race”. But he didn’t go into specifics.

Now that he’s made the decision to retire, Bobridge is willing to divulge more — the rheumatoid arthritis he’s battled throughout his career was worse than he’d been letting on.

“Over the past six years or something I haven’t really expressed the arthritis to too many people but it was pretty hard on the body,” Bobridge told CyclingTips. “The Olympic campaign, jumping from track to road and back, forward, back, forward this year … I was carrying injuries a lot of the season as well … little niggly ones, nothing serious, but it was part of the big reason I come back [to Australia].

“The body was just tired and worn out and 90% of that was probably the arthritis.”

Bobridge said in September that he hadn’t yet decided whether he would retire, that he was weighing up his options. But in the months since his return, the way forward has become clear.

“I think since I got back and backed the training off and wasn’t racing, I realised that the arthritis … I found that it was a lot less stressful on the body and the joints [once he stopped training and racing],” Bobridge said. “[It] definitely wasn’t an easy decision [to retire], I wouldn’t say that at all, but at the end of the day health comes first.

“I want to be able to, [at] 50 or 60, still be able to function and be mobile and getting around like a normal person, instead of thrash the body and abuse it for the next five years for sport.”

Bobridge was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2010 and since then the auto-immune condition has proved a constant thorn in his side. He’s battled swollen fingers, wrists, feet and knees, making cycling painful. Flare-ups were brought on by hot conditions, cold conditions, and certain foods.

Crashes — a hazard of the job for any pro cyclist — only made the problem worse.

“I had that big crash in the Nationals in the time trial a few years back [in 2012 – ed.] and I hurt my back and some ribs and I’ve never been able to get it out of there either, which I never will,” Bobridge admits. “That’s slowly progressing. At the [Rio Olympic] Games, my back — I had treatment every day on it, ribs and things like that.

“It doesn’t make things enjoyable any more when you’re carrying injury or you’re stiff and sore. You can’t do your job properly or try and be the best you want to be.”

Bobridge wins stage 5 of the 2010 Eneco Tour with a late solo move.

Managing the condition

In the lead-up to his attempt at the UCI World Hour Record in early 2015, Bobridge told CyclingTips that he was using his diet to help manage the arthritis. Sometimes it worked; other times it didn’t.

“Taking stuff out of your diet, adding it back, stopping everything, then applying [and] reapplying certain foods — it’s like a rollercoaster really, with that sort of thing,” Bobridge explains now. “When you go to race there’s some foods you can’t avoid; sometimes certain sports drinks you can’t avoid and in a three-week tour you have to take it.”

Throughout his career Bobridge has also used the corticosteroid prednisolone to manage his arthritis, a fact revealed in a leak of athlete data by Russian hacking group Fancy Bear in September.

The leaks showed that Bobridge had six therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for prednisolone between December 2010 and the end of this year, some for a couple months at a time and others for the entirety of a season (e.g. in 2012). The most recent TUE, which came into effect on July 8, 2016, revealed that Bobridge was “seriously considering retirement due to his ongoing disabling symptoms”.

Bobridge isn’t concerned that people know he used TUEs throughout his career — to him, the TUEs he had are an example of why the TUE system exists in the first place.

“To be honest it didn’t bother me. Everything I’ve always had in TUEs … that’s what the TUE’s there for,” he said. “It’s not hiding anything — it’s permission, you’re not dodging the system or anything. You’ve got permission to use that substance for whatever reason you have, and mine was the rheumatoid arthritis.

“Some people jumped up and down about it but the worst thing out of that whole scenario there is not that the TUE got published … it’s just that they were able to hack personal information and personal data. That’s the bit that was most annoying, but an actual TUE itself it doesn’t bother me — as I said it’s all legit and above-board.”

Looking back at his career

Bobridge leaves the sport at just 27 — still young by any measure — having spent six years racing at WorldTour level and many more representing his country on the track. But despite leaving the sport so young, he’s got much to be proud of as he looks back at his career on the bitumen and on the boards.

A thrilling solo win at the 2015 Tour Down Under sticks in the memory (see video below) as do his two national titles on the road, both also from solo moves. His late escape on stage 5 of the 2010 Eneco Tour also netted an impressive victory.

On the track, Bobridge earned himself three world titles, two Commonwealth Games gold medals, and two Olympic silver medals.

But despite these accolades, Bobridge hesitates when asked to recall his favourite memories; the results he’s most proud of.

“One of my best road moments was probably when I won the U23 Worlds TT in Mendrisio in 2009,” he said after a pause. “Only because [I] was the first ever Aussie to win a U23 World Road Title and it was also special because [U23 coach] Brian Stephens at the time — I think he’d done 18 years with U23s and never won one, and he was retiring at the end of that year1.

“So it was nice to see the smile on his face and to get a world title out of the guys he’s looked after for so many years.”

For many fans, it will be Bobridge’s 90km solo effort in January’s Australian Road Nationals road race that stands out. Bobridge remembers that ride and that win with great fondness.

“Obviously, when you perform like that, on your home soil, in front of all the Aussies, it’s always a fantastic moment,” Bobridge said. “I’ve always enjoyed going to Ballarat anyway and Buninyong and racing there. It’s a course that’s always suited me.

“I still have people coming up to me on the bike, or if I bump into people that’s the first thing they bring up, was the Nationals ride.

“For myself that was just … I had a shit ride in the time trial which I was disappointed in, so to be able to turn it around in a couple days and put that behind me and perform like I did in the road race, was special. To be out the front there by yourself — every time up that hill you’ve got the whole crowd cheering for you. There’s no one else around you. That was pretty special too.”

To Bobridge, it’s the still-unbeaten 4km individual pursuit world record he set five years ago that stands out among his track performances.

“I guess it’s hard to go past the world record that morning in Sydney, in 2011, just for the simple fact that it was a shock to everyone,” Bobridge recalls. “Morning session — I think you could nearly count all the spectators on both hands, so that was pretty good. Just the feeling of coming around, doing one bend after and looking at the clock and realising … that was a pretty special moment on the track.

“It’s hard to pinpoint one on the track [though]. There’s been multiple occasions, even the Olympics this year after the [team pursuit] final. Even though we got second it was still special for the group because we knew we had done everything possible to win, and we laid it all out there.”

Missteps and hiccups

While there are no shortage of memorable moments to look back on in Bobridge’s career, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Speak to those within Australian cycling who know Bobridge and you’ll hear of a rider who enjoys a drink; whose fondness for alcohol has occasionally landed him in trouble. It’s something he doesn’t deny.

“In life I do things 100%. I race 100%, when I’m training it’s 100%, full commitment and over the years that has got me in some trouble over the years, if I take it off the bike,” he admits. “Some people obviously go through their whole career without getting in trouble and whatnot but yeah, there’s been a few hiccups along the way for sure. I won’t deny that.

“I guess that’s been a part of me and I dealt with them hiccups along the way and moved on and got the best, I think, out of myself on the bike.”

CyclingTips understands that not all of Bobridge’s alcohol-fuelled setbacks have made the news, but a 2012 drink-driving incident in Spain did. That day, Bobridge and then-teammate Michael Hepburn were arrested and fined by a Spanish court with Bobridge also receiving a driving ban in Spain for eight months.

Highlights from Bobridge’s solo victory in the 2011 Australian Road Nationals road race.

Bobridge says he was only young at the time, and pointed to the circumstances that led to that particular stumble.

“You go to Europe, you leave home, you leave everything in Australia, you’re paid decent money and this is how people can get in trouble. I should talk for myself …. this is how I got into trouble a few times,” he said. “You’re over there and you’re not racing — and that’s when I was injured, off the bike — and because you get good money, you get bored, there’s nothing else to do, you’re not home, there’s no friends or family …

“This is how sometimes you slip up and you do make mistakes. You have to learn from your mistakes — if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, well then you’ve got to have look. But I don’t believe I’ve ever repeated my incidents that I’ve been in trouble for — I’ve always acknowledged that I’ve done it, and didn’t let it happen again.”

Moving on

While his professional cycling career is now over, Bobridge isn’t wasting any time in setting up the next phase of his life. He’s hard at work renovating the Bobridge Cycle and Fitness Studio in Perth, adding a space for stationary bikes to the existing gym. He’ll be there from Monday to Friday each week, running training sessions, chatting with customers, building up the business.

“The gym and everything is under my name so it would be silly if my face wasn’t there every day to welcome people and talk to people and run it,” he said. “I’ll definitely be on site everyday to be able to talk to people and run the sessions and doing that side of it.”

The hope is to get the studio up and running by mid-December but if that doesn’t happen, he’ll defer the opening until early next year.

It’s something that Bobridge is throwing himself into completely, and something that’s taking up much of his time. Unlike so many professional athletes who retire and are left wondering “Now what?”, Bobridge has a plan for his future and one that he’s already putting into place.

As Bobridge’s short professional cycling career comes to an end, he leaves behind an impressive legacy. He’ll be remembered as an immensely talented rider who struggled with demons both on and off the bike. Yet on his day, Bobridge was capable of just about anything — a master of the solo breakaway, a massive engine equally comfortable bringing out the best in his teammates as he was finding it within himself.

Footnotes

1. At Bobridge’s suggestion, CyclingTips contacted Brian Stephens to confirm these details. This was his reply:

“I started coaching with the AIS in 1992 so Jack won in 2009 so, yes I was on my 19th year. He’s right about my smile. I ‘retired” from being European based but still coached with the program until moving to the European training center in 2011. I’m still coaching under 23 men but now for British Cycling so that retirement went out the window.”

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