Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) wins Paris-Roubaix 2021.

Colbrelli reflects as retirement is confirmed: ‘the man covered in mud looks like a superhero’

2021 Paris-Roubaix champion Sonny Colbrelli has confirmed his retirement after suffering cardiac arrhythmia this spring.

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Sonny Colbrelli has confirmed his retirement from professional cycling, citing the subcutaneous defibrillator that was fitted after his Catalunya collapse as a key reason that a comeback is not possible. The news comes a year after the Bahrain Victorious rider won an unforgettable edition of Paris-Roubaix to cap off the best year of his career.

“A year ago in this period, I spent my days celebrating the most important victory of my career, Paris-Roubaix,” Colbrelli said in a team announcement on Sunday morning. “I never thought I would find myself a year later [facing] one of the most challenging moments that life has put in front of me. But it’s my life that I want to be grateful for, a life I risked losing and which gave me a second chance. That of being here today, to remember that I came out of the Hell of the North as a winner, and I did it in a legendary way, which will remain in history and that I will be able to continue to tell my children. It is to them, my family and all the people closest to me that I owe this new life of mine. From them, I am drawing the strength to accept this moment of my sporting career that sees me here today [having] to give up being able to add a victory to my palmarès in a Grand Tour or Flanders, a lifelong dream.”

Six months after his landmark victory at a historic ‘Hell of the North’, Colbrelli lined up at the Volta a Catalunya with a much weightier status within the peloton. After a career-best 2021, the Italian had a fairly quiet start to the 2022 season with just three completed race days – including second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – before stage 1 of the Spanish stage race, which started and finished in Sant Feliu de Guíxols.

Bling vs Colbrelli in Catalunya.

After almost four hours of hard and fast racing on a distinctly lumpy route, Colbrelli went mano a mano with Michael Matthews up the finishing straight in a closely fought sprint. But then, amid the confusion just beyond the finish line, the then-European champion collapsed with what was later reported as cardiac arrhythmia.

Colbrelli was well looked after in the immediate aftermath and the months that followed. After investigations at the hospital in Girona, he was transferred to the Cardiology Clinic of the University of Padua for further evaluations which led to the decision to implant a subcutaneous defibrillator (ICD), ‘a life-saving device that works to correct the rhythm of the heart if it’s needed in extreme cases’.

All signs pointed regrettably to the premature end to his career, but the Italian, who turned 32 in May and was by all accounts enjoying the height of his powers, was not ready to give up just yet, not if he could help it.

The word ‘iconic’ is overused in sport, but in this case, we’ll allow it.

“After what happened at Catalunya, the hope of being able to continue being a professional rider has never abandoned me, albeit minimal,” Colbrelli admitted. “I knew that the way back would be difficult with a defibrillator. In Italy, it is not allowed by law. With the support of the team’s medical staff, directed by Dr Zaccaria, I did not give up anyway. I resumed cycling under strict medical supervision and underwent several visits and consultations with specialists in the sector. Among these, the director of the University Clinic of Padua, Prof. Corrado, who followed the implantation of the defibrillator. And an evaluation was also made by those who have followed similar cases, such as the footballer Christian Eriksen, who, like me, has a defibrillator and has resumed his professional career.

“But cycling is not football. It is a different sport; you ride on the streets. You do not play it on a football pitch, where, in case of need, the interventions of the medical team can be timely. Their training activities take place in a limited area, while in the case of a cyclist, you often find yourself alone for hours on little-travelled roads.”

One path back to competition was to have the defibrillator removed – “I admit I considered it” – but unsurprisingly, this option, the removal of a potentially lifesaving device, was a risk too far for Colbrelli.

“A risk too high. A risk that I cannot afford to take. For me, for the opportunity that life, that God I believe has given me. For [my family] Adelina, for Vittoria and for Tomaso. For my parents,” he said, going on to reflect on this past year and the time spent with his family. “I was delighted to see how the children have taken me as a model in recent months. Maybe, I tell myself, because the man covered in mud looks a bit like a superhero.”

So Colbrelli draws a line under more than a decade in the pro ranks and moves into a new chapter.

“I say goodbye to cycling and try to do it with a smile for the good it gave me, even if it hurts to say goodbye after a season like last year,” he said. “That was the best of my career. I learned what life offers and what life takes. But it also gives back in a different form. I’m ready to keep trying to be a champion, like on the bike.”

Colbrelli is set to stay within the Bahrain Victorious family in an as-yet unspecified “new role that will evolve daily”, but which will involve interaction with partners, performance staff and teammates – a role which perhaps was already in play when he attended the Giro d’Italia presentation earlier this month. He’ll also provide his experience to the development teams Cycling Team Friuli and Cannibal U19, whose partnership with Bahrain Victorious was announced in September.

“New challenges await me, and with courage, I prepare to face them. I want to do it with a smile on my face. Continue to rejoice in every ride I will do, even if only for fun and no longer for competition.”

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