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Last November, American Tyler Hamilton spoke for an hour to an Oxford University audience. The topic was “the truth about doping.” I watched the video on YouTube. What was shocking to me was not the doping details, but rather his appearance. During my senior year in high school, in Colorado, I had run into him on training rides or at junior races and he had always been so full of life, the kind of kid who reeled in breakaways because he was bored by the chitchat of the pack.
But now, here he was, 45, uneasy with the Oxford crowd, like a first-time attendee at a 12-step meeting. While the YouTube comments below displayed the range from disgust to admiration, I saw only Tyler Hamilton the young man, who had, through the chaos of professional cycling, aged considerably. Cycling was no longer a sport for him, but something that had consumed his entire being.
Another cyclist who has, more recently, been consumed by professional cycling, is Dutch rider Lieuwe Westra. Westra had a year left to go on his contract with Astana, but slipped out, albeit with glowing recommendations from former team leader Vincenzo Nibali. Astana called him the “engine” of the team.
To every journalist that asked, he answered with his brave Frisian accent, that yes, he was depressed. He was taking anti-depressants. Professional cycling was taking a toll. Sure, he was living the kind of life that so many of dream about, but he missed his family. Living out of a suitcase was draining his soul.
For 2017, Westra would downshift to the Belgian Pro Continental team, Wanty-Groupe Gobert, with his old Vacansoliel team manager Hilaire Van der Schueren. It was a new beginning, a slower pace, and a team where he could be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. He was training harder than ever, and said in an interview with the Friesche Dagblad, his hometown newspaper, that, at 33 years old, he realized he had two choices — he could either limp through the rest of his professional career or give 100 percent and see what he was made of.
Then suddenly, a little over a week ago, Westra announced his retirement in a haphazard manner, posting it on Facebook of all places, removing it, and leaving it up to Wanty-Groupe Gobert to announce it on their Twitter account, scrambling a few days later to spin it as an opportunity to sign new, younger riders.
When I contacted his sister-in-law, his unofficial spokesperson, she said that Lieuwe wasn’t speaking to anyone, at least until the end of January. He needed some time, a month, maybe more. I imagined his sister-in-law leaving my message on his cell phone while Westra was on his bike, spinning through a frozen Friesland, desperate to get his head straight with his tiny hometown of Tijnje, where he is one of 1500 inhabitants, crouching in the distance.
When Westra wasn’t living out of his suitcase for three-quarters of the year, he was hiding away in his studio apartment in Monaco, sitting on his one-person balcony, and watching the bustle below — the mania of the super wealthy who never seemed to work traveling in packs.
In the morning, he’d ride along the busy southern French roads, climbing through the tight rocky curves where Bentleys brushed him aside. There is little doubt that during these rides Westra longed for the space, if not the dim darkness, of Friesland, where speed-skaters drifted upon frozen canals, where the clouds met the mist, gliding figures synchronizing arms, legs slicing frozen air then regrouping and muttering over warm cups of Gluhwein [mulled wine]. Speed-skating is all the grace of cycling minus the machine.
Westra told the Leeuwarder Courant that, in the South of France, he usually rode alone, ate alone, and slept alone.
Often, somewhere between Monaco and Nice, Westra would run into fellow Dutchman, Bauke Mollema, with his family. Mollema, also from the north of the Netherlands, possesses a similar down-to-earthiness and speaks with an unflinching honesty, yet he and Westra were lives apart, riding for rival teams, one cyclist consumed with his children, the other with melancholy.
Westra would also run into Philippe Gilbert, his wife, and their children. Westra said, almost admiringly, that Gilbert, who is similar in age, had had the opportunity to join Astana, but stayed away for fear of being swallowed whole as Westra had.
Westra’s father was also a cyclist, and set his son racing at the age of eight. Around age 16, Westra said he had to make the choice between becoming a professional racer or partying. He chose the latter, and for the next few years he was a staple at house parties. He labored as a road worker during the days, and drank heavily from Thursday through Saturday. He didn’t touch a bike for almost seven years.
Then, at 26 and weighing almost 90 kilos [198 pounds], Westra returned to racing. Within a year, he won a stage of the Tour of Alsace. He took third in the Dutch national time-trial championship, followed by back-to-back national TT titles in 2012 and 2013. After dominating continental races with KroLStone from 2006 to 2008, he rode with Vacansoleil from 2009 through 2013, and then went on to three years with Astana. He took stages at the Tour of Belgium, and finished second overall at the 2012 Paris-Nice, behind Bradley Wiggins.
By 2014, within six years of being a construction worker, Westra won a stage of the Criterium du Dauphine and a combativity award in the Tour de France. Last year, he won the Three Days of de Panne, making all the critical splits, staying safe in the sprints, and finishing fourth in the decisive time trial. He was proving himself as that precious breed of TT specialist who could climb and hold his own in difficult conditions.
Then, last fall, his relationship with longtime girlfriend, Adriene, fell apart. In the Friesche Dagblad, Westra said that when he first began dating Adriene, he wasn’t a professional cyclist — he didn’t drive a Porsche, didn’t live in Monaco, wasn’t guiding Nibali across the cobblestones at the Tour de France. While he was traveling the globe, Adriene was continuing her studies in Friesland, a world as diametrically opposed from the fast-paced existence of professional cycling as there is. Westra had managed to do what so many cyclists dreamed of doing, yet, in the meantime the woman he cared for the most had drifted away.
Westra had also gone into business with relatives on a parking garage, in the overcrowded middle of the Netherlands, and when that failed, lawsuits ensued. He missed his mother. He missed his friends. Astana dropped him from its 2016 Tour de France roster, a race he’d done for five consecutive years. For the final six races of 2016, Westra either did not start, or did not finish.
Westra had achieved incredible accomplishments, but simultaneously, professional cycling was consuming him. His depression was suffocating. The sport which so many see as liberating — the sport where Westra’s talent made him wealthy and famous — was slowly killing him.
To some extent, most cyclists are lonely creatures, forever searching for solitude, however meager. Yet, they ride in packs and chat for hours, elbow-to-elbow, locked in a similar solitary concentration. They long for the singular challenge of a climb, the wind, the battle keep the pedals turning over. But, when they are attacked from all different directions, whether it be court cases, the endless media requests, or the strain of living out of a suitcase, it takes the metaphorical sprinter to survive. Westra’s return to the sport, and his meteoric rise to its top level, is the stuff of Hollywood films, but we forget that the roots of his rise, and downfall, are common in professional cycling.
In a recent interview, Taylor Phinney told Cyclingnews said that too many aspiring cyclists, like young Australian Campbell Flakemore, are dropping out of professional cycling for all the wrong reasons. “Cycling is the most beautifully sensory experience you can have as a human,” Phinney said. “Like, you’re flying, you’re levitating, riding on two wheels magically balancing, going up and down mountains, you can ride for like 12 hours and still keep going. That’s the heart and soul of cycling, not the numbers. It has to keep coming back to that.”
Now that the black days of cycling are largely relegated to the paid confessionals like Tyler Hamilton’s, we have to ask ourselves what remaining parts of professional cycling are those that inspire, and what can lead to ruin.
For me, cycling has always been about the imperfect human on the perfect machine, the man or woman who slogs through their daily dysfunctions for those few hours of escape upon their bike. This is perhaps why I like to picture Lieuwe Westra during this cold January month, as he holds his silence, riding his bike under the carbon-colored Frisian sky, alone yet again, but perhaps a little more free.
About the author
Erik Raschke is an American writer living in Amsterdam. His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Buzzfeed, RIDE, De Volkskrant, and Soigneur.