Cycling almost destroyed Jani Brajkovic. Now he wants to help fix it

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I have known Jani Brajkovic personally for just over a year now. We got in contact on social media and chatted about cycling in Slovenia, about the lockdown, about his past results, about nutrition, training and about our lives in general.

Gradually our talks became more personal. He started to open up about his struggles: the bulimia that he was living with. He slowly unfolded his story on social media, his blog and podcasts as well, and over time his stories became more honest. Brutally honest.

I could ask him anything. No holds barred. Questions about his past, his traumatic childhood, his doping suspension, whether he might be considered vengeful because he hasn’t signed with a team yet, whether he could be perceived as craving attention. I got an honest answer to everything. Jani didn’t even flinch.

He is happy with where he stands, happy with the road he chose and sincere in his wish to create more transparency in cycling about eating disorders and mental health; sincere in wanting to be there for anyone who needs his listening ear, his advice, or both.

He is not a psychiatrist or therapist. He doesn’t claim to be one. He doesn’t claim he can fix a person. He is a rider who realised what went wrong with him and sees it happening all around him over and over again. He hears from other top-level riders and feels the need to share his experiences. If only one person gets help through his story, it’s all worth it for him. He has nothing to lose, only to gain. This is Jani’s story, in his words. I only wrote them down.

Food is like an addiction. The difference with other addictions like smoking, drugs or alcohol is that you can’t go cold turkey. You need food every day. There is no escaping it. That’s what makes an eating disorder so hard. It’s always there. I was addicted to the control food offered me. It was the one thing in cycling I had full control over.

Cycling has always been a sport where nutrition is important but, in the past, you could mask or compensate sub-optimal eating with performance enhancing drugs. That is not the case anymore.

Everyone is focused on eating. It’s all you see on social media and team communication. A WorldTeam just advertised the title sponsor’s nutritional prowess. Riders are shown on social media weighing their breakfast using an app. They compare themselves constantly to what the other does. Every team has a nutritionist who decides what riders eat during races or training camp. I saw firsthand how every rider got weighed in the morning, trained and then got served a ketogenic meal. Exact portions. When they get home and the scrutiny is gone, they go overboard and eat.

I developed bulimia and opened up about that about a year ago. I could eat 20,000 calories a day and then throw it all back up. I was on the path to dying.

But it’s not about the eating. Addictions are never about the substance but about trauma.

In my case I didn’t have a particularly great childhood. As a kid your subconscious mind gets programmed between the age of zero and seven. I was programmed as not being worthy. My family didn’t feel worthy. It goes from generation to generation. I love my parents; they just did as they were taught as kids themselves. And I did the same to my kids.

To me the food was an escape from failure but I recently realised that I created my own failure. If deep inside yourself you feel you are unworthy and will fail, you will fail. When I returned to WorldTour level [in 2017] I subconsciously felt I wasn’t deserving of this opportunity and I created my own failing.

Brajkovic’s breakthrough came at the 2004 U23 World Time Trial Championships, where he won the rainbow jersey ahead of Thomas Dekker (Netherlands), and Vincenzo Nibali (Italy).

My biggest results came when there was no pressure: the world U23 time trial title in 2004, the leader’s jersey in the Vuelta a España in 2006, the Criterium du Dauphiné in 2010. Nobody expected it so there was no pressure. After that it went downhill. I got a top ten in the Tour de France of 2012 but crashed eight times in those three weeks. I had the shape to be fourth, but was ninth. Subconsciously I made sure that my thought of just not deserving success became a reality. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I don’t think I ever reached my full potential and that’s down to the fact the mental side never balanced the physical side. I know a rider who did really badly in the first week of a Grand Tour this year. We started talking every night. In week two he was much better and in week three the manager asked what happened. He had improved so much it got noticed. He performed three times worth his salary – but only after someone listened to his story.

When a rider gets told on day one of the Tour de France that his wife is leaving him, do you think he will do a great race? Of course not – but in cycling there is no room for mental issues.

The question is ‘how are you?’ and the answer is either fine, great, injured or tired. Never will a rider say that he or she is mentally unwell. Pro cycling teams or pro sports in general are not safehouses. The riders are your rivals, not your friends, and the team management decides your fate. When a rider opens up, he is deemed unreliable as part of the team. There is room in cycling for a sore knee or a tired body, but there is no room for a tired mind.

If a rider is not performing, he or she is out of the team and no longer the team’s problem. It’s a scorched earth tactic. Riders are commodities.

I have an example. A few years ago, a team doctor asked me how I felt. I was not ready to tell him about the bulimia I had since my U23 years. I lied. On my first day on the team, I lied. I became an expert in hiding. I had a complete lab at home to measure all the values a team could ever want. I trained alone, always. I didn’t want anyone to find out my secret. I had no friends. Only my wife knew and she couldn’t help me either.

It’s like this with every addiction. If the addict doesn’t want to accept help, it’s like a concrete wall: impenetrable. Deep down I didn’t want to be fixed because this life was all I ever knew.

After a decade in the sport’s top tier, riding for various iterations of the Astana and Discovery Channel/Radioshack squads, Brajkovic stepped down to Pro Conti level with UnitedHealthcare in 2015 and 2016. Image: Cor Vos, Abu Dhabi Tour 2015.

The thing is that I never ever had weight issues. I am skinny by nature but controlling food became equivalent to controlling my life. Right up until the moment I was on a pathway to dying from bulimia.

During the COVID-19 lockdown there was so much insecurity and I dealt with it by riding 35 hours a week on my own. I hit insane values that made me competitive with the top riders at the Slovenian national championships at the end of June. On the day itself, I hit 0.5 watts per kilo less than I had a few days before in training. That opened my eyes finally, and I sought help.

After the first two hours with a therapist, I cried endlessly but those were happy tears. Since then, we meet about three times a month. I want to share my story with riders but unfortunately being open about my issues closed doors to teams. Cycling is a conservative sport and no one wants to change the status quo. “It works like it does, doesn’t it?” That’s what managers think. They are former bike riders too and were brought up in the same system. Don’t say anything about eating disorders or mental health. Just pretend all is well.

My dream is to join a team for one more year. I am a realist. I also have a dark past with a doping suspension. But I am still a rider who can perform and I believe I can ride top ten in a World Tour stage race.

But that’s not my biggest selling point now.

Ideally, I would like to ride one more year for a ProTeam or WorldTeam and help make the change from the inside out. I want to be the safehouse that riders can turn to. After my blogs and podcasts, riders who didn’t know me personally approached me: men and women from the highest echelons of racing. It gave me hope that they reached out. I listened. I learned how to listen to others now. Addiction makes you selfish. I know I can’t fix people, and that is not my aim on the team I hope to join.

Brajkovic in the stage 19 ITT at the 2012 Tour de France 2012. He would finish ninth overall that year.

Romain Grosjean gets trauma therapy after his crash in the F1 of Bahrain. What happens to a rider who’s involved in a heavy crash? Usually doctors fix a leg, an arm, a torn lip. There is no mental support. I think many pro athletes have the same problems. They don’t manifest themselves in eating disorders in everyone, but they do in many. There is such a sharp focus on food nowadays in teams.

I hope to join a team and show that by listening and taking care of the mental fitness of riders the entire team grows and the results come in. The body is two parts – mental and physical – and no one can achieve their full potential when one of the two is not well. We have doctors to fix the physical issues but are all afraid to confront the mental fitness. I hope to show and document how a team can perform when both are taken care of.

There is so much hidden suffering now. I don’t have the illusion that I will blow off the lid on the taboo, but I want to make a start.

For me, opening up changed my life. It changed my relationship with my wife and with my children, with my family and with my friends. This problem touches every aspect of your life yet the world of pro cycling is still eager to hide it, to bury the issue as deep as it possibly can.

That has to change.

I have nothing to lose now but everything to gain. I think I can be the person on a team that is safe enough to open up to. Nothing they say to me will reach the sports directors or management. Getting it off your chest, finding someone who has been through the same to listen to you, helps so much. Knowing you are not alone. If I can only help one person move forward towards getting fixed, it’s worth every ounce of energy I put into this.

That’s my motivation. Nothing more and nothing less.

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