How the harsh realities of pro cycling left me with an eating disorder
Molly Weaver raced as a professional from 2015 to 2018 on several teams based in the UK and Europe. She was a trusty domestique who spent much of her career riding in the support of others. Weaver stepped away from the sport in mid 2018 after “a lifetime’s worth of misfortune” in one year — she’d been hit by a car, she’d broken 13 bones, she’d suffered a series of concussions, and she was battling depression.
Now retired for almost two years, Weaver is keen to shine a light on some of the darker parts of women’s cycling, to stop others falling into the same traps she did, and to help create real change. In this third instalment in a multi-part series, Weaver talks about how the constant pursuit for lower weight led her to develop an eating disorder.
It’s hardly a secret that weight is important to cyclists, and that this is amplified once riding a bike becomes your career. But all too often it’s seen as the only thing that’s important, and the damaging idea that being a lighter athlete always makes you a better athlete has an impact on more than the simple number on the scales.
Unlike most other factors that influence performance, weight is easily quantifiable and infinitely measurable. Form is fickle, strength is changeable, fitness is often difficult to calculate, but weight is objective. Well, the number is at least. What people do with that information is often a different story.
Growing up I never had a problem with my weight. I’ve been sporty since I was a child, and I had a good relationship with food. In fact, until I became a cyclist I’d never given it much thought at all. I was fortunate to grow up happy and healthy.
Knowing this, it might come as I surprise that I left the sport with an eating disorder that I had been battling for years; that for almost my entire cycling career I was completely controlled by food and weight; and that this affected every aspect of my life on a daily basis. I had taken for granted the healthy relationship I once had with diet, and to this day I’m fighting to regain it.
The reason I’m sharing this story now, and revealing a secret that I have kept closely guarded for so long, is to talk about how and why it happened. Not in order to place the blame on anybody else, or indeed any particular team, as the decisions that led to an eating disorder were ultimately mine.
My aim is to highlight the environment and systemic culture in which my unhealthy relationship with food was able to develop and thrive. I believe that everybody, including myself, was trying to make me a better athlete, but I don’t want others to fall into the same traps that I did.
As with all of the articles in this series, I only want to highlight the harsh realities that I believe were avoidable, and therefore addressable. The vast majority of the bad experiences I had, or indeed that I simply witnessed, didn’t need to happen. I was lucky enough to experience enough good in my career to know that.
I wish I’d had the strength and awareness to talk about the issues that arose from the very beginning, but it’s only now that I feel strong enough to do so.
Health and happiness
Before I launch into the circumstances and environment within which I developed an eating disorder, I want to talk about a team that stopped me from potentially taking a similar road. A team where my health and happiness were more important than my power-to-weight ratio.
I felt that I needed to be lighter if I wanted to compete. At first this was a good thing: I got lighter and my power increased as I trained harder. But as the kilograms continued to drop off, so did my strength. What had begun as a quest to lose a little bit of weight over the winter, which was beneficial to me and my performance on the bike, gradually became a quest to lose too much.
I enjoyed the positive reinforcement that others gave to me, and that I gave to myself, as I got skinnier.
Crucially though, my team didn’t reinforce or encourage it. In fact, they addressed it.
I was given a safe place, free from judgement, to be honest. My weight had never been mentioned while it appeared healthy, but now was the time to be educated. I was asked how much I weighed, for details about my diet, and if I’d had a period since I joined the team; which I hadn’t.
We talked about nutrition, the negative impact on performance if I continued to under-eat, and the long-term health repercussions of this. I was encouraged to eat more, and a more experienced rider in the team became my mentor in this.
Perhaps this wouldn’t have been enough to save everybody from slipping further into a disordered relationship with food, but it was for me at the time. I was shown compassion, and I was in an environment where admitting weakness felt possible.
This remains the first and last time in my entire career that weight was spoken about in a positive way.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to hear it once.
The losing battle
They say that if you repeat something often enough, people will start to believe it. That was certainly my experience at other points in my career, when I was told I needed to lose weight on a constant and seemingly endless basis.
At first it didn’t affect me. Heading towards important races in the mountains, it made sense to me that my DS would want us all to lose a bit of weight. If I was going to be an effective climber, perhaps I needed to be lighter. I did what I thought was necessary and lost a couple of kilograms. But unfortunately it didn’t end there.
On one team I was required to record my weight regularly in a spreadsheet for my DS to see. Armed with a constant log of my exact weight and the assertion that I needed to be recording an ever-lower number, the outcome isn’t surprising to me. Every time I recorded a weight loss it was celebrated, and every time I recorded a weight gain it was highlighted and questioned. Not just metaphorically, but literally highlighted in bright yellow in my training log.
It didn’t seem to matter what weight was optimal, or at what rate it was healthy and sustainable to lose it. I was required to chase a seemingly arbitrary goal, and it appeared to me that the faster I reached it the better.
The fact that this was driven by my DS made it impossible to escape. The right people to be discussing my weight and performance were my nutritionist and coach, but it appeared to be unimportant if my coach was happy with my numbers in training, or if the team nutritionist thought I was losing weight too quickly. All that mattered was the apparent fixation of my DS on me being lighter, as his was the voice of authority that I heard on a daily basis.
The constant examination of my weight took over my life, and avoiding judgement became an obsession. I didn’t want to be shamed for my failure, and I didn’t want the comments about my missed weight-loss targets to continue.
More than that, I wanted the approval of everyone around me. If others were positive about my weight then my life felt immeasurably better, and the stress I was carrying melted away. It felt like I could breathe again, and that’s a powerful motivator.
The weight of other riders was constantly discussed, and weight-loss was glorified. I’m as guilty as anyone else of being impressed by riders ‘getting lean’.
Making a choice
If ever I knew I was going to be weighed at a training camp, I would try to dehydrate and under-eat the day before. But at one camp, for the first time, I was told we would be weighed without warning, and I panicked. I felt that I was going to be too heavy for my DS.
So, I made a choice.
I went to the bathroom, and forced myself to be sick. In that moment it felt like a solution to a problem, and a well-judged decision on my part. I no longer cared about any repercussion this may have had on my mental and physical health long term. That was immeasurable at this point, and therefore unimportant to me. All I knew was that this would help me achieve a goal in the immediate future. A goal that had taken over my life for months.
The next morning I woke up, stepped on the scales, and it had worked. I was even lighter than I had hoped, and it was celebrated.
As much as I had told myself that this would be a one-time thing, and that I would never resort to it again, that’s rarely how these things go. I had lost the ability to be objective about my weight any longer, and I was in an environment where it was easy to hide an eating disorder. More than that, it was an environment where it enabled me to reap rewards. I could lose weight faster, and maintain a low weight more easily.
Of course, this didn’t last long. My own self-image was distorted, the purging became regular, and my weight became more erratic. It began to feel like one of the few things I had control over, when in reality the complete opposite was true. It had control over me.
I struggled with bulimia for over three years after that first day, and it remains the hardest thing I’ve ever had to overcome. Facing something that makes me ashamed hasn’t been easy, but allowing that shame to silence me was a mistake.
Lighter isn’t always better
This issue is by no means unique to women’s cycling, and I’m far from the first rider to come forward with a story like this. However, I can only speak from my own personal experience, and I don’t necessarily think this needs to be an inevitable outcome.
The lack of money in women’s cycling for regular — if any — interaction with nutritionists and psychologists puts the management of the complex relationship between cycling performance and weight in the hands of the wrong people. People who have no real understanding of anything but the number on a scale. It’s a relationship that is by no means linear, and yet it was all too often reduced to the simple statement that lighter is better.
This is incorrect, and the constant assertion that I needed to lose weight caused damage that reached far beyond my performance on the bike.
During my career my weight ranged from the low 50s to the mid 60s (115 to 143 pounds), and I can see now that I was at my best at around 59 kg (130 pounds). Yet I never once stopped pursuing the smallest number I could. I always felt like a cyclist first, and a person second. Long-term health rarely appeared to be a consideration, and potentially damaging repercussions of maintaining a low weight were ignored.
I didn’t have a single period for over five years, and I know I’m definitely not alone in experiencing this. That in itself is a red flag, and has potentially serious health repercussions, and yet on most teams it was never mentioned. If my weight was open for discussion and management by others, then the potential dangers of losing too much should also have been part of the conversation.
I have lost count of the number of riders I’ve watched shed vast amounts of weight, and who at a certain point began a distinct decline in performance. Yet, once again, this was never spoken about as something to be cautious of. And to be completely honest, I was too busy envying them for their skinniness to notice at the time.
I recall plenty of negative remarks about riders who dared to put on a few kilograms, no matter if their subsequent results improved. Nowadays I look at those riders, who are healthy and happy, and it makes me smile to see the success they achieve.
These are the role models for the next generation of young women in the sport.
Food is fuel, strength should be celebrated, and lighter doesn’t always mean better.
The Weight of Responsibility
Looking back now I can see how quickly a sporting environment obsessed by weight, or lack thereof, changed me. The pressure I felt from those in power to be lighter led to decisions that impacted my life for years. These decisions may have felt calculated and objective to me at the time, but that in itself is a problem.
As with everything that happens in life, I’m happy to accept the ultimate responsibility for my choices, but I feel I could have been put in a position to make better ones; and I’m just one of many. This can’t continue to be an outcome we fail to be shocked by, and it definitely shouldn’t be one we accept.
I knew plenty of other riders with eating disorders; some of which were kept well hidden, and others that were abundantly clear. It didn’t seem to matter either way though, because it was never discussed. Perhaps an eating disorder was just collateral damage, and accepted as inevitable for some riders. But I refuse to believe that it needs to be that way.
Athletes suffering from eating disorders, and careers being cut short as a result, impacts far more than just a rider’s ability to pedal a bike.
My life was drastically altered for years because I was too heavy. Or was I?
Perhaps I was just put in a position where I believed I could never be light enough.