A life after: The challenge of adjusting to ‘real life’ post-racing

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It’s been two years now since Adam Phelan retired from professional racing. In the time since he’s worked to build his own digital marketing agency, gone to uni, and worked in the media team at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing — as he writes in the following article, “Nothing can truly prepare you for life after sport until that new life comes knocking at your door.”

The heat stuck to the air like honey. It dripped down over us as we lay on our hotel beds. Outside, the night consumed the Italian mountains surrounding our hotel – a small crumbling building perched on the uneasy hillside. Our only relief, a whistle of air breathing through the cracks in the old stone wall.

My teammate and I lay shirtless, sweating. Stories kept us distracted from the heat. We joked about the German rider who, on the ride earlier that day, had crashed after showing off to a group of locals. He had popped his front wheel into the air, zigzagging up the hillside. His showman grin, wider than the road, was quickly wiped away as his arse skidded across the tarmac.

Both of our feet dangled high in the air; our legs perpendicular to our beds as we rested them on the wall. This supposedly aided our recovery, but in truth, we only did it because ‘that’s what you do’. I had turned 21 one month earlier. I didn’t know it at the time, but much of what I did, I did because ‘that’s what you do’.

The next day, we’d race our bikes on the narrow Italian roads. Darting, ducking and weaving. The sun high above our bodies. Pushing, hurting, sprinting, and skidding. It was, at the time, a characterisation of our normality. Doing anything else would have felt foreign to our young bodies. Yet, as the Italian heat suffocated our hotel room, we lived within a fairy tale.

This was not a fairy tale in the sense that we lived a joyous happily-ever-after story. Not even that we lived a fantasy – though much of this life was a surreal departure from the lives of many. But rather, it was a fairy tale by virtue of the fact it had an end. A full stop waited for us somewhere in the distance.

After all, this life had a timeline. And while that line seemed immeasurable and invisible, as we lay on our hotel beds the line didn’t exist at all.

Moving from childhood to adulthood through the prism of sport is a remarkable thing. Remarkable, it must be said, in both an incredibly positive and, at times, negative sense. Cycling particularly, no matter the level you achieve, can shape and mould a person in such a fantastic way. Yet, it also wields the power to isolate and distort your perspective, narrowing your view on reality.

This becomes most acute when the ‘full stop’ arrives. At that point – the end either planned, unexpected or self-induced – the broader (or real?) world suddenly comes crashing in. And what do you do? Where do you go?

How do you manage your life, when the only life you have ever known vanishes before your very eyes? From personal experience, it’s fucking hard. No matter how well you are prepared.

Seven years ago, on that hot night in an old hotel room in Italy, we were just boys chasing a dream. Our eyes were fixed firmly on the future we had worked towards for years. You could tell us a hundred times about how it all could end tomorrow, and we would never really understand it. Nothing can truly prepare you for life after sport until that new life comes knocking at your door.

The brushstroke of human memory will often paint the past with an air of romanticism. This holds true for many of the memories I have from my time racing. In the early months after I stepped away from cycling, I would find myself staring into the darkness of my room. Unable to sleep, I was paralysed by fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of a life untested. In the dead of night, full of worry, my mind would often drift to the past.

In one memory, I am descending Gavia Pass. The sun dangles above us like a motionless pendulum melting in the sky, our shadows stalking our bodies as we snake down the road in a thin broken line. There’s a group of us, around five in total, all smiling but delirious. We’re talking drivel, unable to utter a single sentence of substance, our minds floating up high with the clouds. The strain of a long ride in the mountains starves us of clear thought.

Before the memory was lost, I stopped myself. I held on to it. Was it really just that? A happy ride in the mountains? Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. In truth, I had nearly shat myself four times that day. I had also pulled over near the end of the ride, the urge to vomit caught at the back of my throat, before quickly jumping into the team car and rushed to the nearest toilet. Food poisoning from the night before, due to a bad tuna steak, had made the ride one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve had.

This sense of nostalgia also means my memory often skips certain details: the weigh-ins and skin-fold tests. Yes, and the drug tests. Missing holidays, birthdays, family events. The ever-present feeling of inadequacy that’d often float around your brain, at times, on repeat: too fat, too slow, not good enough. Then there are the episodes of loneliness. These are small details in the broader context of it all. But details nonetheless.

You can also find yourself forgetting too, that during your time as an athlete, you were just human. That life wasn’t always on the straight and narrow. In reality, every day wasn’t always ‘eat, train, sleep, repeat’. We were still young, after all.

Another memory takes me to Oudenaarde in Belgium. My teammate and I have snuck out from the side door of the team house. It’s 11:30pm. Our hushed voices are lost to the night breeze. We’d just returned from a race in Holland the day before, and now months into our time in Europe, we were keen to have a ‘mental break’.

We make it to the centre of town by bike. People fill the town square, moving between the bars spotted around its edges like the stream of a river. We lock the town bikes in a back street, on a pole hidden from view. The sky is dark purple, the last glow of the European summer’s night fading slowly into darkness. We are three Duvel’s deep before we know anything else.

A drunken haze blurs the rest of the memory. Yet, the night did end in a chase through the streets of Oudenaarde: us on our town bikes, swerving across the roadside like moths encircling a light; and a car, high beam lights on full, following us, the driver unhappy with our early departure from the bar.

These types of memories can suffocate your mind after you’ve left sport. But the trouble is, the past – whilst shaping and informing who you are as a person – can also glue you to an identity; your identity, that no longer exists.

And therein lies the toughest step towards moving to a future after sport: dislocating yourself from an identity that has been your life-blood for years, the one constant that gave you a purpose. To leave a world, at least in part, that ultimately consumed every fibre of your being.

On the night I made the decision to stop racing, I lay awake in the dead of night. The realisation that my usual everyday existence was no longer my reality had cut an empty pit in my stomach. I knew, deep down, that it was what I wanted. Yet, tears still rolled down my face.

It’s the strangest of feelings, at that moment, when you truly let go: a mix of grief, fear, and excitement. The face of an unknowable future now in sight.

I also lay there in ignorance. Ignorance about the challenges, the hardships, and rewarding experiences that lay just around the corner.

I remember when I was told my Dad had been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer. I’ve written about that moment: in the corridor of my apartment, my Mum on the other end of the phone, her voice broken by sobs. About how that very moment changed my relationship with cycling and, in several ways, reignited my love for riding.

Before it was published, I gave the article to my Dad to read. I was scared. It was, after all, his (and our family’s) personal struggle. Was it my place to bring those experiences out of the shadow of our personal lives? I stood in the other room as he read it. The words I’d written ran through my mind. Over and over again.

Minutes later, I heard him stand. I stood too, questions resting on the tip of my tongue. Was it okay? Our eyes met under the archway of the dining room. We didn’t say a word, a moment of understanding hanging in the air between us. Then he opened his arms to me, and I fell into them. We stood in silence, our arms wrapped around each other, tears rolling down my cheek. My Dad’s thin body softly shaking in my arms.

I’ve rewritten this article countless times. I tried to avoid the topic of my Dad’s illness, as it’s not an easy topic to write about. Yet, my transition into life after sport has been influenced by this experience more so than I initially realised.

My father’s unwavering will for life in the darkest of circumstances, and his love for our family, despite the torture of his disease, has given me a perspective on life that has shattered the prior confines of my sporting world. It’s readjusted my lens, broadening my view on what is truly important.

It has also made me realise that transitioning out of sport is a deeply personal experience. While many sentiments are shared by athletes, our path after sport is one carved out by our prior history and the inescapable realities of personal circumstance. My experience can’t be the same as a WorldTour rider whose career has spanned 15 years, or even that of a junior superstar who cuts off their journey early.

In the two years since I left racing behind, this personal reality has also shown itself through the fragility of life.

The deaths of my former teammates Jason Lowndes, and then the following year, Jonathan Cantwell, has rocked me to the core. Both Lowndesy and Cantwell fill out the memories of my time racing: on long drives through foreign countries, in dark hotel rooms in the middle of nowhere, or being dropped together on mountain passes and laughing our way through it. They are there, with me, forever.

In late 2017, I raced with both of them at the Melbourne Super Crit. It was the last time I would race with them. Lowndesy ready to take on the world, his beaming smile bigger than ever, and Cantwell continuing to build his new life after professional racing. We danced around the South Melbourne circuit, one last time, sharing one last memory. Little did I know that this memory would become one of the most important to me.

At moments like these, the bubble of the cycling world bursts. Once again, we are all just human. The world comes into focus. The walls blocking out everything else come crumbling down.

It’s this perspective that is often lost when you’re consumed by your sport. Where every action, every decision, every moment is directly related to going faster, getting lighter, being better. Everything is a measure of winning or losing. There is no room for the outside world. But, that outside world will come. At one point or another.

Lowndes (left) was third at the 2017 Shimano Supercrit.

If I were to write a letter to my younger self, it wouldn’t have words of caution. Instead, it’d be reaffirmation. I’d tell myself, go, embrace the gift that is cycling. Take your chances with the sport; work hard and make mistakes. Travel the world with your bike, breathing it all in. Live it, let it become a part of your being, because that’s what will make you as a person.

It’ll test you, this life, but you will be made better for it. You’ll make friends across the world, building bonds that will last a lifetime. And when that stage of your life comes to an end, when you choose that moment or not, it’ll be okay. The world is bigger and wider than you think. But, keep your interests just as wide whilst you ride. Understand that there’s a wonderful richness to be found outside sport too.

If you keep that interest, if you write, read, and learn, the transition to a new life won’t be as daunting. Not every day will be easy when you let it go but it’ll be the best decision you make when the right time comes. You may not reach the heights of the WorldTour, but that doesn’t matter. It may give you more time. Time others may not have. Time to build a whole different reality.

To go back to university, which could go better than you ever thought it would. And to work, in new ways, and at new places and organisations you could have never expected. There will be people who believe in you, who give you a chance in this new life; grab it and don’t let them down.

Then, as you settle into your new life, you’ll realise your time as a rider will become your greatest asset. Because, it is as an athlete you learn life’s most valuable lessons. The building blocks of character, that you cannot learn at school, at university, or in an office.

Hold those lessons close, they’ll be your toolkit for life.

Do all that and you’ll do just fine.

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