A fire fighter, a teacher and a dentist: a look at the other lives of cycling pros – Part 2
While women’s cycling is evolving, it still has a long way to go. Whereas minimum wage requirements ensure that riders competing at the men’s WorldTour and Pro Continental level are paid a liveable salary, there is no minimum wage at any women’s level (yet). Even some of the best teams on the scene can’t afford to pay their riders a full salary. As a result, many pros race only part-time, spending the other half of their time supplementing their income with side jobs, studying or taking care of their families.
This is especially common in the cyclocross discipline, where there are but a few riders whose sole income comes from racing cyclocross.
In part one of this feature, we looked at the careers and second lives of service members Christine Majerus (Boels-Dolmans) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5), doctor Claire Rose (Dallas-DNA), business owner Riejanne Markus (WM3 Pro Cycling) and caretakers Carmen Small (Team Virtu) and Scotti Lechuga (HB-Supermint).
But there are many more stories in the women’s peloton like that, so here are the stories of 9 additional cycling pros who balance much more than training and racing alone.
Natalie van Gogh, a full time software engineer
Juggling a full-time job and a professional cycling career may seem daunting, but Dutch rider Natalie van Gogh does just that, holding a senior position in a team of software engineers.
“I have a 40-hour contract, but I’m fortunate enough that my boss understands I aspire to be the best cyclist I can be, so he allows some flexibility. I can change my work hours or get unpaid leave when I have to. The company believes that a happy and healthy employee contributes to the productivity of the company, Van Gogh told Ella CyclingTips.
Still, every non-working hour is spend training and racing, which comes with some big sacrifices.
“I do wish I could spend more time with friends and family, though. I don’t see them as often as I would like. And don’t ask me about any current TV shows, because my TV is mostly ornamental,” she said.
Balancing two careers at the same time, while trying to stay on top recovery as well, is a constant struggle, but Van Gogh takes plenty of positives from her current life too.
“My job satisfies my mental needs and provides some much-needed distraction at times,” she said. “After a day at work, I’m glad to hop on my bike. And if I have a bad time in cycling, I can easily put things in perspective because my other job is there waiting for me, and my boss expects me to be in the office the next day.”
And quitting her office job to pursue a full-time cycling career isn’t an option for Van Gogh at this time.
“I only started cycling when I had already been in my office job for ten years. Once you’ve acquired a certain standard of living, it’s not easy giving up those securities for a highly uncertain career as a professional cyclist. I’m also not a rider who could earn as much with cycling as I do being a software engineer. I don’t want to have to move back in with my parents to live my dream,” she said.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t dream about getting involved in cycling full time at some point in my career though,” she added. “Maybe after I retire as a cyclist, I will try to find a job in cycling as a manager or coach, and be able to earn a full time salary from that. I think I’ll always want to stay involved in cycling in one way or another, because I’d miss being out on the road and spending time with such a diversity of people if I only had my office job.”
Jolien Verschueren, P.E. teacher and Cyclocrosser
Koppenberg Queen Jolien Verschueren (Pauwels Sauzen-Vastgoedservice) shifts between the classroom and the dirt throughout the week as she teaches sport to youngsters in addition to her career as a cyclocrosser.
“I teach sport to kids between the age of 2.5 to 6 and I enjoy this very much,” Verschueren told in an interview with Paxx Global Cyclingteam. “I love introducing them to the sport and make them experience how fun it is to do sports. I also give swimming lessons to four- and five-year-olds, so I’m in a sport environment all the time.”
“If you do something you like, it doesn’t feel like you have to sacrifice anything,” she continued. “Anyone that takes her sport seriously needs to adjust her life and take care of her body. Of course, part of my social life is affected by my cyclocross career; I need to be in bed early the day before a race, for example. But I don’t mind that at all.”
In 2014, her teaching job almost kept her from going to the European Cyclocross Championships, when the Belgian team left on Thursday morning, while Verschueren still had several classes to teach that day. With the late announcement of the Belgian roster, Verschueren felt it wasn’t fair to her employer nor her students to be taking an absence of leave in such a short notice. Thus, she travelled on her own, arriving the evening before the championships. Not ideal, but a compromise she had to make to maintain the tricky balance between her job as a teacher and her cycling career.
Rebecca Locke, fire fighter and cyclocrosser
During the 2016-2017 season, Australian cyclocrosser Rebecca Locke was able to take a double period of leave from her work so she could do a block of races in Europe, culminating at the 2017 World Cyclocross Championships in Bieles, Luxembourg. Afterward she hurried back to Australia where the busy season for her day job was about to start.
“Ever since I can remember I wanted to be fire fighter,” Locke told Ella CyclingTips. “So in 2006, I applied with another 3,000 applicants for one of 30 positions that were available at the time. The process to get into the fire brigade is quite extensive – not only physically, but mentally too. Thankfully, I was able to get a position, as I believe it is the best job in the world.”
This is not your average nine-to-five office job, which means Locke has to be creative at times to be able to combine her job with her passion for racing.
“My work schedule can be a little challenging at times, as we work with what we call ‘a 10-14 rolling roster’,” Locke said. “It basically means two 10-hour days from 8am-6pm, followed by two 14-hour nights 6 p.m. – 8 a.m., three days off and then back into it.”
“It also means working either part of or all weekend, so we only get two out of eight weekends totally off in our block, which can be a little tricky with racing,” Locke said. “But thankfully now I have long-service leave, so I’m able to get my dayshifts off and attend races. I would usually just race coming off a night shift if the race was local and hope that I haven’t been up all night attending incidents. It’s not just fires and car accidents, but we also respond with the ambulance as an emergency medical response team. So it’s really important for me – especially since I’m older now – that I get enough recovery and sleep, but sometimes I find that a little tricky to balance.”
“Since I also study for a promotion, my days are quite intense and full, so I don’t actually do that much training,” Locke admitted. “When I do, it’s quality training of around 6-7 hours a week. But as training does suffer, it obviously effects results sometimes.”
Annika Langvad, world champion and qualified dentist
Danish mountain biker Annika Langvad has collected several rainbow jerseys at different World MTB Championship events over the past few years, both in the marathon and XCO disciplines. But being a world champion mountain biker is only one side of her life.
Langvad was on a career path to become a dentist when she first started riding bikes as a way to stay fit while studying.
“I moved from my native small town in Denmark to Copenhagen in 2006 to start my studies in dentistry,” Langvad told PinkBike.com earlier this year. “To stay fit and active I joined a local triathlon club and later a mountain bike club. I quickly realized that mountain biking was my thing. In 2010 I did my first World Cup and by 2011 I was on the XCO World Cup podium twice and won the Marathon World Title. At that time I was still studying (only part time for a year) and everything felt really good. I was on top of the world. And that’s the thing: when you’re in shape and perform well there’s also a lot of room and energy to do well in other areas of life.”
This inspiring story prompted Specialized, her bike sponsor for several years now, to make a video about combining both careers. “It takes a lot of dedication to be an elite athlete on this level,” she says in the video. “You have to be a human too, you can’t just be an athlete. Dentistry is really tough and so is living is a top athlete.”
Langvad has graduated over the summer and is now a fully qualified dentist.
“A lot of people ask me why I want to spend time on [my dentistry studies] now that I’m World champion, but I thought that post-Olympic’s was a good time,” she said. “I like the work and (…) it’s also a future insurance of a kind. Having a very specific trade I can take up after racing. And then there’s the thing, that studying was something I started before I even got into mountain biking at all and I just have to finish, you know?”
With a diploma in her pocket, Langvad has her future secured. Although she is certain she will work as a dentist at some point in the future, for now the focus is back on the bike.
Giorgia Bronzini and Valentina Scandolara, Corpi Sportivi Militari Italiani
During a 2011 interview, two-time former world road champion, Giorgia Bronzini, advised young girls to take up any other sport than cycling.
“There are only two possibilities,” Bronzini had said.”The first is to go into the military, which at least provides the time and a salary; the second is to prepare to go hungry.”
Giorgia Bronzini (riding for Cylance in 2018), Valentina Scandolara (WM3 Pro Cycling), Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5), Elena Cecchini (Canyon-SRAM) and many other Italian riders have got with option one, joining the Italian military’s sports program.
“Centro Sportivo Esercito was created in 1960, Rome’s Olympics year, to allow the best Italian athletes to continue their career in lower paid sports, and hopefully keep bringing Olympic medals to the country,” Scandolara explained. “There are some different departments which have sport teams: the police, which Elisa Longo Borghini joined; the Fiamme Azzurre, which are the prison guards and of which Elena Cecchini and Tatiana Guderzo are members; and there was the forestry department, which Bronzini and Annalisa Cucinotta joined.”
Regardless of department, all programs are structured in a way that enables an athlete to complete her sports career with funding from the state. She’ll complete some basic training and courses to enrol in the program but won’t serve on active duty until her sports career is completed.
While the athletes race for their trade teams most of the year, you’ll notice that at national championships, the riders will appear in a kit from their respective military branch.
Jessy Druyts, a mom at 21
While Jessy Druyts (Sport Vlaanderen-Guille d’Or) prepared for stage four in the 2017 Boels Ladies Tour, her younger sister Demmy filmed Jessy’s son, Louis, as he went to his first day of kindergarten.
It’s an example of how the Druyts family is raising the little boy together. The four sisters, all professional cyclists at Sport Vlaanderen-Guille d’Or, along with their brother Gerry, are a well-known family in Belgian cycling. Oldest sister Kelly Druyts has achieved the best results so far, earning several national titels on the track, having won the world scratch championships in 2014 and a stage in the Boels Rental Ladies Tour in the same year.
Three years ago, when the then 20-year-old Jessy, announced she was be pregnant, the family would take on raising her baby boy together. And just four months after giving birth, Jessy was back to racing, making her first appearance at the Belgian road championships. A month later, she took her first victory after her comeback in a Belgian kermesse race.
“Pretty soon after I found out I was pregnant, I decided I was going to return to cycling,” Druyts told the Belgian press after the win. “If only to show Louis that his mom was pretty successful on the bike. I got a new coach, former triathlete Kathleen Smet, and she knows what it’s like to combine motherhood with being a professional athlete. So it’s not just the training advice she gives me, but she also understands when it doesn’t all go to plan because of the little one.”
Emma White, computer science student on a bike
Multitalent Emma White (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) is a cyclocrosser primarily, but also knows her way around on a road bike, having won the North Star Grand Prix overall this year and a double silver medal at the 2015 Junior World Road Championships.
She was featured in our Faces of the Future series in February, 2016, where she told Ella CyclingTips about juggling cyclocross and college.
“Education is pretty important to me and I definitely want to get that done and not take my chances without it,” said White. “As of right now, I’m planning on combining college and racing for the next four years. I’m really lucky with my college situation. I really like going to Union and things are working out.”
She’s still attending Union College, but where she thought she wanted to get into medical science a year and a half ago, she finds herself back in the area of computer science at the moment.
White took her first win of the season in early October, when she won day two of the KMC Cross Fest in Connecticut, USA – after taking third on the first day. It looks like White has got the hang of combining school and pro cycling!
— Emma White (@emmabeancx) 25 september 2017
Geerte Hoeke, a cyclocrosser with a PhD in her back pocket (almost)
Riding unsupported during the 2016-17 cyclocross season, Dutch rider Geerte Hoeke still managed to impress, with top-ten finishes at the Koppenbergcross, the Spa-Francorchamps Superprestige and the national cyclocross championships last season.
Joining compatriot Veerle Goossens, Dutch rider Geerte Hoeke and 2016-2017 World Cup winner Sophie de Boer, she signed with Team Breepark for this year, but she’s eyeing a finish line away from the cycling world first.
Currently a PhD in molecular nutrition science, her main priority is finishing her thesis.
“After my Master’s in Molecular Nutrition at Wageningen University, I really wanted to continue in scientific research,” she told Ella CyclingTips. “That’s why I’m now doing a PhD at Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC), which I hope to finish in December. I’m investigating whether brown fat activation can protect from cardiovascular diseases (i.e. atherosclerosis development). In contrast to white fat, which is responsible for storage of fat, brown fat takes up sugar and fat from the blood and combusts these nutrients to heat.”
Without going into specifics, Hoeke’s research might lead to a cure for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
“I’m happy that I can contribute to research on cardiovascular diseases, as this is still one of the biggest health issues in Western society,” she said.
Outside of the lab, however, Hoeke is a budding racer with a promising career ahead of her. In the balancing act of research, training and racing, research has taken priority, but that may change soon.
“My days can be long and hectic, which of course clashes with my time to train or rest. The biggest challenge for me is to keep the balance between work, training and rest – and to accept that I have less free time compared to many other girls that I race with,” Hoeke said.
Inspired by how she’s managed to get while combining school and cycling, Hoeke said she’s looking forward to 2018, when the bike will come first for a while.
Stories like these are a dime a dozen, which female professional cyclists with second careers would you like to read about?