Former U23 World ITT champion Campbell Flakemore on why he quit cycling
In 2014, Campbell Flakemore showed that he was one of Australia’s most promising cyclists when he won the U23 World Time Trial Championships in Spain. He joined the pro ranks with BMC the following season and spent a year living and racing in the WorldTour.
While everything appeared fine from the outside, Flakemore was struggling with life as a pro cyclist and eventually pulled the pin on his cycling career at the end of the year. Until now it’s been a mystery as to what drove Flakemore away from cycling. This is his story.
It was the night of the opening prologue of the 2014 Tour de l’Avenir, and the Australian U23 team and I were in a creperie, enjoying a plethora of elite crepes with ice-cream and maple syrup. I remember a French man, who was part of the race organisation, coming to our table and looking us. His eyes judged us all. Then, in a condescending tone as he looked down at us in disbelief, he said: “You’re eating that the night before the race? Ha, good luck tomorrow.”
Cycling, like any sport, is a much better environment to be in when you are getting results and enjoying what you are doing. In 2014, I had struggled for any results in Europe worth writing home about. I had big goals for the Olympias Tour and U23 Ronde Van Vlaanderen, but sickness in the lead-up to both of these races put me a long way from my best. After a mid-season trip to Barcelona with a few of my teammates, I came back to attack the second half of the season with a fresh approach, and a no-nonsense mentality. I was as relaxed as possible, with the mindset that this was going to be the last four months of my cycling career.
In June 2014, at the age of 21, I was living in Italy, training every day in the best possible conditions with not a stress in the world. This was a perfect recipe for a build-up to a potential World Championships in September. Beginning with a good block of training in Livigno in June/July, the whole Australian U23 squad hit the ground running in August. I was in good form and played my part in helping Rob Power win three Italian one-dayers on the bounce, including the biggest of them all: GP Capodarco.
Cycling is a team sport, but when your teammates are your good mates it adds another layer to the term. You go further and harder to help a teammate if he is a genuine mate, and for the second half of 2014 we would have ridden through brick walls for one another – a feeling that I’m sure that many of us will never have again.
With the momentum behind the team as we crushed all the races in the build-up to Tour de l’Avenir, it was finally time to take on the biggest U23 race in the world. I remember warming up for the prologue thinking that this could be my last ever TT. I had the words of the French man from the creperie ringing in my ears; words that reflected the precise aspect of cycling culture that I hated so much.
Over and over, with each pedal stroke, his words filled my mind. Fuelled with anger from the French man’s words, I decided there was no way I wasn’t going to win that prologue. I had literally nothing to lose. And I hope the Frenchman saw me standing up on the podium that day, a smile on my face and crepe in my guts.
I wore the yellow jersey for a day and the rest of the tour was an absolute pleasure — riding through the mountains of France, on roads that I had only ever seen on the TV for the Tour de France, was truly unforgettable. Caleb Ewan won a stage and Rob Power almost won the race overall. It was by far the best week of racing I ever had. I knew that it would never get any better.
All the focus was now on getting a start in the Worlds TT. I was probably third choice for one, or maybe two spots. Three Aussies went to Chrono Champenois, the traditional pre-worlds tester for women and U23 TTers. It was essentially a selection race between the three of us and, lucky for me, I was the best of the three, finishing on the podium and handed the only golden ticket to the Ponferrada Worlds.
For five days, it was myself and three Cycling Australia staff members in a cottage in the outskirts of Ponferrada. It was a regime like no other I had done before, but I wanted to win this god-damn race like nothing else before. The demons of my shocker 2013 World TT still seared in my memory like it was yesterday. It fuelled my desire to win like gasoline to fire.
It was two days before the TT when I got a call from my manager. “BMC have a contract for you,” he said, “Do you want it?”
Before that phone call I was 50/50 on even riding in 2015. My plan was to do the Worlds TT and then take stock on things, but that call suddenly changed my perspective. As soon as you are offered something that you have worked four years for, including countless hours on the road and trainer, you have to take it. I owed it to myself and to everyone that had helped me along the way. Within five seconds, my mind had shifted from possibly pulling the pin on cycling to riding for one of the biggest teams in the world.
When warming up for the TT, I remember looking at the 10 Cycling Australia staff, all there just for one rider: me. At that point, I didn’t care that I had a pro contract for 2015, there was no way I could let all these people down, and the only way to do that was to win.
I remember reading a quote years ago, that I’ve never forgotten, and always think about in any high or low point: “You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.” Lucky for me, the day went perfectly: I won by only half a second, but it was enough between winning and losing. I was World Champion. It is still the best day of my life.
In February 2014, I booked a trip with a few friends to the USA for November/ December with the thought that I wouldn’t be riding the following year. Alas, that trip fell by the wayside, replaced by training at home and flying to Spain in December for BMC’s pre-season training camp. At the camp, I got to meet all the staff and other riders. It all felt like a dream: eating on the same table as guys that you have only ever seen on TV, 30 odd staff members doing everything for you except riding your bike, and just being around all the team buses, trucks and vehicles. I just couldn’t believe it.
My first race for BMC was the Australian Nationals where I was sixth in the TT and fourth in the road race. I was subjected to doping control and missed my flight to Adelaide for the Tour Down Under. It was no stress for the team, who organised another night’s accommodation. I had Cadel’s driver pick me up and take me to Barwon Heads, where I spent the day at Cadel’s baller house before his driver took us to Tullamarine for our flight to Adelaide. I was being looked after like a king — why wouldn’t they? The chips were up.
Tour Down Under started well, and I was feeling like I belonged on the team and part of what we were aiming to achieve. On stage 2, I found myself in the break on the Stirling stage for a second year in a row. I am not sure why, as it is a hard, lumpy, fast stage every year, but there I was. As per, I was legless and dehydrated after the stage and, riding back to the hotel down old Mt Barker Road, I crashed big style at 50kmph.
You can still find pieces of skin on the corner where I crashed. I clean snapped my collarbone and in that moment, I knew it was the end of my cycling career. All things from the previous October had gone smoothly, but I knew that one serious setback would probably be the end of the line.
I really struggled to watch the rest of the Tour Down Under, with the boys suffering to help protect Rohan Dennis’ lead. I would have loved to have been a part of it but was, instead, in bed, in a sling, thrashing pizza and BBQ shapes with my cousin who kept me company for a few days before I flew home to Hobart.
I had always hated boxing on and fighting for wheels in a race, and of course the high possibility of crashing in such scenarios, but I had managed over the years to block out the thought of serious injury. I had been quite lucky until this point, with only two broken wrists from crashing at slow speeds and mountain biking. After that crash, though, I was never the same.
I missed the Tour of Qatar as a result but got some comfort from a comment from Heinrich Haussler, who said, “lucky you broke it here because it would have happened in Qatar anyway.” To be fair, I would have preferred the comfort of Australia than the Middle East in such grim times, so that was one positive to take out of it.
After three weeks of a few indoor turbo sessions, my form far from my peak, I flew to Europe in the middle of February and stayed with Calvin Watson at his apartment outside of Monaco, until I could find my own place. (Hot tip for any new pros: sort out an apartment before you arrive, or get someone to do it for you).
The reason I choose to live in the south of France was to be closer to mates I already had in cycling. It was great to have them there, but everything else (besides the wonderful postcard views) I grew to dislike. After a few days, I was on a plane to Germany for a bike fit with a bike fit guru. This was probably not what should have been a primary item to tick off the to-do list, but that’s where I was headed and that’s what the team thought was important at that time.
Not long after, I was on my first of many Nice-Brussels flights to my first Euro race of the year: Three Days of West Flanders. Even in my best form, I would have struggled, but after minimal training, and trying to sort out living amenities, I was on the rack for three straight days of getting hung out to dry on the cobbles. Probably not the perfect race to come back to after snapping my collarbone. With my confidence in the bunch low at the start of the race, it took even more of a battering over the three days.
After a few weeks, I finally got my own apartment, thanks to some help from David Tanner, who I didn’t know well but was a big hand in trying to get me set up. It wasn’t long until I was back on the route to Brussels for some more battering in Belgium: three one-day races. I got torched in all of them, in every way possible and, in the last race, I remember riding on a back road with a local bunch to the finish line after being dropped. I had already been riding solo for 10k’s on the race route, it was freezing cold and sleeting. I remember genuinely thinking to myself “What am I doing here?”
That night I asked the team if I could head back to Australia mid-year for a few weeks so I could have something to look forward to, and break up the season as well as the trip to Portugal I had teed up with the U23 Aussie boys. It was approved, and I felt a bit of relief, until it was time to get battered again a few days later in the Three Days of De Panne. All the big boys were fine-tuning their form for the classics; this was proper racing. As expected, I was put through the ringer for three days. I had suffered “up north” before in the U23s but this was on another level. Not only was I getting physically smashed, but my confidence was at zero.
By far the worst thing though was I felt like I was letting my teammates down. I just didn’t feel like I belonged in their company. I got home from that stint in Belgium at 11pm. I walked down to the Maccas by myself, before it closed at 12pm, and thrashed a Big Mac meal and 20 Nuggets (with BBQ sauce, of course) and, for the first time in weeks, I was happy. It didn’t last long.
After the nine straight race days in Belgium, and one filthy wet race in Holland, I finally got back to Nice for a few weeks. For the first time since Christmas, I could try and log some training miles. After having a great relationship with my team coach Marco Pinotti, who I had huge respect for and who had got me into super shape for the Aussie summer, I was assigned a change of coach at the start of April.
Marco had too many guys on his books. With my chips being down in a big way, the team saw me as the rider to be chopped. With the wheels falling off, it was the last thing I needed. I was now coached by someone I hadn’t met, and I didn’t enjoy the training workouts and general training plan nearly as much as Marco’s.
I managed to get a bit of work done before the Tour of Romandie, but I was nowhere near top shape. The TTT I enjoyed, and the rest of the tour was leaps and bounds better than the long stint in Belgium, but it was still wet and cold, and I got another battering.
I got back to my solo apartment after Romandie and was only back for four days before flying to San Francisco for the Tour of California. For four days straight, I ate chips and played FIFA. I didn’t ride my bike once. I got kitted up once but didn’t get out on the bike at all.
California was OK. Fellow Tasmanians Will Clarke and Nathan Earle where also racing, so it was nice to have their company and be in a country where they spoke English but, at the end of the day, I was still there for a bike race. I had some OK days racing there, but nothing to write home about. To be honest, at this stage, all I could wait for was the day we had after the tour to check out Los Angeles and try the famous “In and Out Burgers”. They were elite.
Then I was back to Nice, and after a week of little riding and plenty of FIFA, I was off to Belgium for the Tour of Belgium. I got absolutely smashed, like I had never been before. I didn’t finish the last day. I was at rock bottom. I was on the team bus with still 50 odd km remaining in the race, and told the team sporting manager Allan Peiper that I was considering pulling the pin on cycling. It was the first the team had heard of it.
A few days later, I was back in Australia for three weeks. I rode my bike twice in that time I was home, mostly due to the fact that I was watching the Tour de France into the early hours of the night. I was so confused during my time back home, I didn’t know who to talk to, and tossed and turned on what to do about my cycling career. I knew I was done with it, but I couldn’t pull the pin just yet.
When I returned to Europe, Allan Peiper came to Nice to visit me to chat about my situation. He suggested that I give it a good crack for a month or two and take stock after that. I agreed, but I knew it was the end of the line.
I raced the Arctic Tour of Norway in August. The race was okay, but the scenery was amazing. Professional cyclists get to race in some of the most amazing places, but they never really get to take it in. It’s hotel-bus-race-hotel; some riders don’t even know where they are some of the time. So, in Norway, I tried to enjoy and take as much of it in as possible.
A week later was my last race as a pro, the Vattenfall Cyclassic in Germany. Allan and I had set this date as the time for me to make a decision. Before the race, I was called off the bus into a team van with Allan. I told him I was done. It was the hardest thing I had to do, but the biggest weight was lifted off my shoulders. I felt free for the first time in months. I got to do my last race with Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet. It was great riding with these big names but not once did it feel like the team chemistry or camaraderie that I had with Praties or the U23 National team, or even my social Futsal team last year.
This was something that I struggled with in my time with BMC, but I guess it was a job, and it sure felt like one. I finished the race, and it was all done. A weird but relieving feeling flooded me: I didn’t have to race again. The team was good about it all and the break was clean, but not once did I hear anything from some of the senior staff, which I thought was a pretty ordinary way to deal with one of their own athletes. That’s professional sport though, it’s a business, and a ruthless one most of the time.
I started cycling full time at 18 years of age. I felt like I had missed out on so much in five years and felt like I had to do some of it before I couldn’t. For the next few months, I went travelling around Europe with Alex Clements and Caleb Ewan. I got back to Australia in 2016, moved into a house with some mates from school and started working in a sports shop.
I played soccer for the first time in six years, I went to the USA in May, Europe in June and the Philippines in September. For the first time in years, I was back in Australia for the AFL grand final and I was back with my family and friends, something you have to sacrifice to be a pro cyclist.
It all just wasn’t worth it for me, I could never make Europe my home and, to be a successful rider, you have to make it your home. You have to get to a point where you don’t miss Australia. I could never see myself at that point.
I tried university in Melbourne for the first half of 2017, but after a mid-year four-week trip to Greece and Croatia, I didn’t end up going back in the second semester. For now, I am working for a landscape company in Hobart and I am moving back to Melbourne to start university again.
Not once have I regretted my decision to stop cycling at the top level, and I am glad I stopped when I did, but I have never stopped loving the sport. For the past three years, I have stayed up to watch races into the early hours of the morning, and that will never change. Cycling gave me everything I have today, and without it, I would be lost. I’d do it all over again, and recommend it to anyone; the places it takes you, and the people you meet is like nothing else, but it just wasn’t for me as an athlete.
I’d love to pursue a career in cycling or other sport in some capacity in the future and, through the Stanley Street Social as a starting point, I hope to make that new dream a reality.