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In this article, former professional (and former CyclingTips columnist) Adam Phelan returns to the fold with a touching look at just powerful the humble bicycle can be, even when your relationship with cycling has changed markedly in recent times.
I remember the exact moment I decided to step away from professional cycling. I lay in bed on the top floor of an old renovated schoolhouse–turned–Airbnb, situated in the sleepy town of Port Campbell along the Great Ocean Road. The old house creaked and crackled with the wind as if the whole building was swaying with the slow ocean tide outside. But it wasn’t this that kept me awake.
Earlier that day, my girlfriend and I had gone and seen the Twelve Apostles; we had watched the sun as it began to set against those famous golden cliffs, our eyes following the waves as they crashed into the rocks and shore, moving back and forth in a monumental push and pull. We were spectators until the sun melted away beyond the ocean and darkness drew the curtains closed.
That night, in the pitch black bedroom, I made the decision: It was time for a change, for a new challenge in my life. The thought had been on the perimeter of my mind for some time, but this was the first time I had let it take my full attention. Something inside me had changed, and I was certain it was time to take a new road.
The Australian National Road Championships would be my last race. Tour des Fjords in Norway – a breathtaking race that I wrote about at the time on CyclingTips – was the last race I had done in Europe before I decided to leave the sport. Tour des Fjords, despite being an impossibly beautiful and visceral race, couldn’t be my farewell to racing. When I packed up my bikes and kit after that race, I had thought I’d be back to do it all again the following year. There was no romance in that, I thought: no, I needed to finish on my own terms.
The National Championship was everything I’d come to know it to be: it was hot, hard and long. It was the Australian Summer of Cycling that had become so intimately familiar to me, an annual ritual of sorts – a yearly pilgrimage down south, fighting against sun and sweat around the Buninyong circuit.
My dad, mum and girlfriend all travelled down to Ballarat with me. We stayed in a house just outside of the main street in the centre of town – a very different experience from my Nationals in the five previous years, with a whole team, trucks of equipment and staff all taking over a whole apartment complex. It was like going back to basics, to when I was a young junior, with both my parents as my support team.
One afternoon after we arrived, my Dad pulled me aside and said how great it was to come down for my last race, and that for him too, it brought back all the memories of our family travelling around rural Australia, racing at track cycling carnivals and road races with my two brothers. I saw the smile on his face as we all headed out to the start line together. I knew then that this was the right moment, that I was ready to say goodbye to professional racing. And I never before had so much fun racing around the infamous Buninyong circuit.
Months later, I had just returned home when my phone rang. I had been at university for most of the day, and had stayed late to finish some work for my freelance marketing business, New Gravity Media. I remember feeling the vibrations in my pocket long before I heard the sound of the ringing. I was in the corridor of my apartment, an afternoon breeze drifted through the window. It is a memory that is both clear and blurry, all at once, like an unforgettable cloud in my mind.
It was my mum. Her voice was muffled from crying. She said it was Dad, that he was in hospital. For a minute she couldn’t speak, but the silence said so much. It was in that moment that everything changed for me. It was one word that stopped me in my tracks. It came from the phone, broken by gasps of breath and soft sobs, yet it was there, clear and ugly. It was one word that would define the weeks and months that lay ahead for my family: “He has cancer.”
The lamp that stood next to Dad’s hospital bed was dimmed by the flickering lights of the machine next to him, swamped by cords and wires that were connected to his arms and chest. My heart was crushed. Cancer, an almost foreign disease to me, was now at the centre of my father’s world, sweeping him up off his feet and placing him in a hospital gown, his body wired to glowing machines. It’d thrown him in front of an avalanche of doctors; so many doctors, from this department and that, asking questions, taking scans, drawing blood, again and again.
My Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic colorectal cancer. The treatment options, we were told, were just one: chemotherapy. The doctors told us how the chemotherapy was not to cure the cancer, but rather to manage the disease.
The devastation of the next few days couldn’t be summed up in words. In any case, this kind of thing is best confined to the realm of memory and personal experience. Yet, the days and weeks which followed the diagnosis reminded me of one clear fact: my Dad is the strongest, bravest and most impressive man I know.
One afternoon, after we returned from the hospital, I looked at my bike – which was resting in the dining room of my parent’s house. I hadn’t been for a ride in over a month. Stuff it, I thought. I grabbed some cycling kit that was still in my old bedroom. I didn’t know where I was heading, I just knew I needed to go outside, I needed to ride my bike.
Ten minutes later, I was riding up a steep climb, my head down and my heart racing. I kept pushing myself, as if I was racing a time trial. The world blurred around me as I rode as hard as I could. Everything hurt and it felt good, sweat dripped into my eyes and my breath escaped my control.
At the top of the climb my body ached and the cold air swirled around me. I stopped and unclipped along the dirt track next to the road. There was silence here. Silence. And then I could hear birds, chirping in the distance, their songs drifting in the wind.
I hung my head down, my arms resting on my handlebars, and cried. I stood, draped over my bike, for what could a have been a minute or an hour, I am not sure, staring at the brown dirt below.
Cycling had been so many things to me over the years, but it was on this hill that I realised it had a whole new role in my life. It was like a form of therapy; there was a sense of catharsis to be found in each pedal stroke, with every moment as I rode and breathed in the world around me. I hadn’t been sure where my relationship with the sport would head after I finished professional racing. Now I had found it.
Life can take some unexpected turns. For as long as I could remember I wanted to be a professional cyclist, to race in Europe, to do the best races in the world. I’ve experienced this all to some extent, creating memories that will be with me forever – with friendships that will last the test of time and distance, forever tied together by our shared experiences and love of riding bikes.
My life now, only one year after leaving racing behind, has taken a completely new form. I have my own marketing business, which has allowed me to step on to the other side of the fence in cycling, working with Signature Sport and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. I’ve moved to the NSW South Coast with my girlfriend. We’re both students. She’s doing Medicine. I’m completing the commerce degree I left behind for cycling many years ago, and have found an unexpected passion for economics. I’ve started doing local crits with the MAAP Basso cycling team.
Everything has changed, yet my love for riding is still there – though it has taken a different shape, one that is inexplicably linked to events through the year. The good and the bad.
My dad is living with cancer, yet he is not defined by it. There are daily struggles and it’s hard, for him and my family, and yet every day Dad proves his character is not determined or bound by this horrible disease or by his circumstance. The lessons he has distilled in me and my brothers, through sport and cycling, are on show every day and every minute. He is a man that is still teaching me so much, about life and resilience, of love and determination. He brought cycling into my world and, in a strange way, helped me redefine my love for the sport.
In this way, my father has been there for the whole journey. From the early mornings, when he would take us out training when we were young, in the cold and frosty Canberra weather – saying, “this is the stuff that makes you stronger” – to the countless times he and my mother travelled hundreds of kilometres to hold me and my brother on the start-line at track carnivals.
From making the long journey all the way to Europe to watch me race my first U23 World Championships, to only a few weeks ago, when he came out one evening to watch me race my first Canberra criterium in a year, telling me: “It doesn’t matter if you don’t finish, I will love just seeing you race again.”
No matter what, my father has always been there.
And I know, no matter where the ride takes us next, he will still be there with me. There’s still a lot of road left for us to ride.
For the love of it, if nothing else.