War of the worlds: When sport and ‘real life’ collide

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In the three and a half years since his retirement, former pro racer Adam Phelan has started his own digital marketing company, completed a Commerce (Marketing and Economics) degree with distinction, and started working in the media team at the University of New South Wales. In short, he seems to have transitioned well to life after cycling.

But as the world struggles under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, Phelan has found himself reflecting on his racing career, the transition from sport to “real life”, and the ways in which sport and real life collide.


I am half-naked in a small German hotel room when I am told that “maybe cycling just isn’t for me”. I’m seated on an office chair, my body exposed save for the half-torn boxer shorts covering my lower half. Outside, a car alarm bursts to life. All I can think is: “I really should have put some pants on”.

The national coach is sitting across from me. “You’ve arrived at the race unprepared,” he says. You need to be leaner. More determined. Be better. He asks: “Don’t you know that other people would do anything to be in your position?”

I think about how no one would ever want to be in this particular position, wearing boxer shorts, sitting in a German hotel room as a man with a clipboard says you’re not good enough.

“Do you even want to do this?” He asks. By “this”, he means professional cycling. “Of course”, I try to say, but his words swallow mine: “Maybe you’re not good enough to be pro. Maybe you should just go home, do uni or get a job.”

The car alarm outside is finally cut off. Silence lingers between us. “Your window is closing,” he says. Again, I am thinking, why the hell didn’t I put pants on?

Phelan in action for the Australian national team at the 2013 Olympia’s Tour.

***

Seven years later, this memory cuts across my mind as a morning TV news presenter counts the latest cases of coronavirus. A tally of the number of global deaths from COVID-19 ticks up; it’s like a macabre game show.

The focus turns closer to home: Victoria, the Australian state bordering the southern portion of mine, is locked down tight. A State of Disaster has been declared, the presenter says.

Only days earlier, the Tuscan sun filled my TV screen. Cycling had returned with the Strade Bianche. If professional cycling ever looked like a fantasy, a world unto itself, it was in that moment.

As the women’s and men’s peloton burst onto the Italian gravel roads with unique furor – spectators’ cheers muffled by masks and clouds of dust as they stood low in number along the roadside – I couldn’t help but wonder what was in the riders’ minds. What lay behind their determined faces?

Did they hold any fear for the future of their sport, for their careers?

What questions have they asked themselves over the last few months, in those quiet isolated moments of lockdown, watching on as the world changed forever.

Photo: Tayler Wiles

***

Later, I am working at my computer. My commute is all but a few steps: from my bedroom, down the hallway, to the couch, or in this instance, to my makeshift desk – a Bunnings plastic fold out camping table, $29.

I’ve just signed out from another Zoom meeting; an awkward wave and a muted mime, my new ‘goodbye’. It’s our virtual, socially distant working reality. Rinse and repeat.

The memory of the German hotel room all those years ago – the coach, his clipboard, and that damn car alarm – is still stuck in my mind. It’s a distraction I cannot shake. I can see myself from back then, back when it was ‘all so simple’.

I can hear the coach’s words, paraphrased through fractured memory: you’re not good enough. I can hear the young man’s thoughts too, not paraphrased: “Fuck you”. No such words follow the young man’s thoughts, my thoughts; instead there’s a swallowed silence, a nod.

I can see him, that young man, that me. But we are different people. I wonder what we’d say to each other now that we are both bound by different worlds, different realities.

Would I tell him that a different world will replace the world he is in now? That an athlete’s world – a cyclist’s world – is not all there is. How this new other life will be fulfilling in a novel way; how it’ll only be after a sporting life that a fuller sense of self will manifest?

Would we weigh the variables of age and time in this equation of self too? Or would we determine that it is simply an auxiliary function of broadened horizons?

Of course, we wouldn’t. I wouldn’t be able to stand the pretentious taste it would leave in my mouth. Instead, I’d say: “put some pants on you idiot”.

Why then has my thinking brought me back to Germany, to that hotel room all those years ago? To this specific memory, one of no real consequence?

Perhaps it is simply a stark measure of the change between then and now, between the boy in boxer shorts and the person writing this (fully clothed). Yet also a recognition of the ever present value of those years – an understanding of what sport can give a person no matter where they land in life.

Or maybe it is the juxtaposition of how professional cycling can seem so small in the grand scheme of things, yet be inextricably vital at the same time.

Sport is odd like that: a very human phenomenon, a social and entertainment machine built on the competitive pursuit of physical perfection. On the surface it seems so frivolous, yet it also holds the power to drive people mad with an intense passion that breaks the bounds of logic and reason.

It can be viewed as meaningless, or as a religion. It can inspire, or it can divide. It can be many things at once like a quantum particle hurtling through space and time in a constant state of duplicity.

Sport is a beautiful living contradiction. And it’s here, with this contradiction, that my mind rests.

Sport may ultimately seem frivolous, but it makes a lot of people very happy.

***

When you’re living in a cycling world, sport is more than just vital. It’s everything; it’s as though every atom in your body solely functions to achieve a performance goal. Your body is a mere means to an end.

This end – the fuel to the engine, your drive and purpose – is narrow, really; it’s defined, explicit and even simplistic. Get fitter, be leaner, win more races, get to the WorldTour, race the Tour de France, the Classics, the Monuments … ‘Eat, sleep, train, repeat.’ You know the tune.

Today, this is a foreign world to me. I am a spectator watching from the gallery, perspex glass wedged in between. Many of the faces within the peloton are now strangers to me. It’s a life that’s moving beyond the threshold of familiarity.

I think back to that moment in Germany; to the boy being told that another life is the destination for the ‘not-quite-good-enoughs’, for the ‘failures’. I play with how odd that type of thought seems now, how absurd it all really is as I watch on from the other side of the road.

I know too, however, that back then those thoughts and words could have easily come from my own mouth, articulated with a clear sense of certainty. Such was my world view then. To the young man in boxer shorts, the ‘rest of world’ operated in the blurred periphery as if it were completely detached from my daily existence.

How would a pandemic alter that reality, I wonder. How would I have handled the wrecking ball that is COVID-19?

How would the mind of a young aspiring athlete view a cycling world held in suspended animation? With riders locked away for weeks, forced to train in their European apartments, contained by small walls instead of mountain roads – stuck following the virtual pixels of Zwift, in an unreal reality.

Jasper Stuyven and Markel Irizar riding on Zwift. Photo: ©kramon

Events cancelled or postponed. July coming and going without the Tour de France. Bungled team takeovers. Pay cuts; teams on a knife edge. The Tour de l’Avenir, the Tour of the Future, cancelled.

It’s hard to stray from this sense of pessimism and despair, a sentiment attached to the year 2020. Yet hope is arriving with the colours of the peloton as it once again snakes through the roads of Europe, a renewed purpose in the riders’ eyes.

It is in this hope, in the unrelenting fighting spirit of sportspeople, that I think I would have found my grounding as an athlete.

It’s a sense of hope that’s found equally in those who, like Lachlan Morton in his many adventures, push the boundaries of what sport can mean; who redefine the expectations of a professional athlete.

Perhaps too, in these times of global uncertainty, of a political, economic and social moment not ever seen before in my lifetime, a realisation may have dawned on my younger self: sport does not function outside of the ‘real world’ but rather is a driver, a cog, within it.

Maybe I’d discover that this war of the worlds, between a cycling life and that of an outside world (the mythical ‘normal’ life), is a false and illusionary dichotomy.

That as an athlete you can allow yourself to see the bigger picture, the broader world, to understand what is truly important, and still be able to work hard and wholly dedicate yourself to your sport. For one doesn’t detract from the other. And in truth, as life goes on, it’s the broader world where purpose is found.

For now, as I stand watching from afar, I wait eagerly to be swept up into the world of cycling once more. As the season slowly starts again, I look on from thousands of kilometres away.

Waiting to escape again to the mountain roads. To fly across cobbles and down narrow winding descents. To fight against the wind and rain. All from the comfort of my couch.

Yes, I like the sound of that.

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