2019 was the year of the early retirement.
First it was Marcel Kittel. Aged 31, the gloriously coiffured German was not happy. His form, known to swing wildly between totally unbeatable and totally unable to ride over the mountain in front of him, had gone.
Illness, we speculated.
Laziness, some suggested, cruelly.
Turns out he had a life beyond cycling, a child on the way, and a desire to spend his time doing less painful things. Almost as if flogging yourself on a bike for five or six hours a day, every day, for the next half-decade, might not be best use of one’s time.
Next came Taylor Phinney. With his West-Coast-drawl and green-tea-and-yoga world view.
He began to morph from quirky artist-in-his-spare-time-Paris-Roubaix-contender Phinney; to gravel-riding-yeah-pro-cycling-is-ok-but-LOOK-at-that-more-interesting-thing-over-there Phinney; to eventually become former-pro-cyclist-full-time-artist-no-quirkier-than-most-other-people-in-my-new-profession Phinney.
He retired at 29.Embed from Getty Images
I can’t believe he chucked all that talent away, said some. I’m so glad he resisted the pressure to confirm and did what he really wanted to do with his life, said others. In the battle between art and sport, art won, said Phinney.
Finally, came Adam Blythe. The British Lotto-Soudal (and former BMC, Orica Green Edge and Tinkoff) rider.
Wearer of loud shirts on the telly, 2016 UK National Road Race Champ, Head of Fashion on the Global Cycling Network and deliverer of a nice line in BS-free see-the-funny-side self-deprecation.
He handed in his racing licence – also aged 29 – to spend more time at home raising his kids. The pain of training, and the travel of racing, no longer cutting the work-life mustard.
All of which has men’s pro cycling, against all the odds, at the forefront of a perspective epidemic. Previously single-minded sportsmen the length and breadth of the continent are reappraising the wisdom of how they spend their precious time. And this, in a sport seemingly structured to tend to every need of the Alpha male.
The old if you’re standing, sit down, if you’re sitting, lie down recovery mantra having always carried the convenient whiff of old-fashioned gender roles. Yes, I know I’ve been away riding my bike for three weeks but I simply cannot help with the housework; my team wouldn’t stand for it.
This new perspective is a sign of the times. Also, perhaps, a symptom of the uncertainty of a sport based on such precarious, sponsor-reliant financial foundations. A poor season here, a team benefactor losing interest there, and early retirement can easily become not so much a luxurious choice as a cold, hard reality.
Better to control your own destiny, perhaps.
And then, of course, the exceptions that that prove the rule.Embed from Getty Images
Chris Froome, aged 34, having crashed in career threatening fashion back in June 2019, has spent the intervening six months being just as relentless as ever. Maybe more so.
The standard-issue thumbs-up-from-hospital-bed-I’ll-be-back media appearances morphed into one-legged-indoor-training-for-social-media became here’s-me-back-on-the-road-my-return-to-crushing-domination-is-all-but-inevitable.
Except it’s not.
He might come back and win bike races but he might not. His body, having hit a wall at fifty-something kilometres per hour might be – and I apologise in advance for the use of complex medical terminology – all out of whack!
I’d like to say to him: Chris, just chill out. Give it up mate. Spend your time with your kids and follow one of the hundreds of other opportunities no doubt open to you. Another training camp up a Tenerife volcano without human contact just ‘aint worth it.
But each to their own. That mythical fifth Tour win is a obviously a carrot that’s just too big, orange, and juicy, to resist. And who’s to say that’s not the right decision for him?
Well…him, that’s who.
There’s a reason, I suppose, why Froome has won four Tours and I’m still stuck on none. Maybe even more than one reason. But a fondness for the idea of early retirement is almost certainly the clincher.
(Top Image: Marcel Kittel via Greg Melia @ Flickr CC)