Words by Sophie Smith | Photos by SWpix.com
Mark Cavendish’s teary contemplation about the end of his career after Gent Wevelgem on Sunday demonstrated how personal, complex and confronting athlete retirement can be.
The post-race video of him pulling up briefly to speak to a Sporza reporter came after the veteran sprinter spent the day in a seven-man break that went early and eventually gave way to the real contenders. It was a position Cavendish, in his halcyon days, wouldn’t have even considered being in.
The 35-year-old pulled his sunglasses off in front of the Sporza reporter, dried his eyes with the back of his hand and then alluded to it, the ‘R’ word.
“That’s perhaps the last race of my career now,” he said.
Cavendish is down to compete at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday, a revered one-day race among pure sprinters, which he’s won three times before, so there’s that. But the off-contract veteran, I’d venture to say, was thinking more broadly.
Cavendish hasn’t won in years and increasingly competes in a support role, which, no matter how gracious one is, can be a raw adjustment for the big stars, if they go there at all.
Position in the bunch was a contributing factor to Mark Renshaw’s decision to call time on his professional career following the Tour of Britain last season, which he finished arm-in-arm with long-time teammates Cavendish and road captain turned TV pundit Bernhard Eisel.
“Mentally, I’m tired. I’m starting to get tired and I don’t want to keep riding just to get paid. I want to be there and be competitive. It’s not fun to be kind of on the back foot in racing when for so many years I’ve been on the front of it,” Renshaw had said in a phone interview from the team bus before the opening stage of the September tour.
“I’ve been 16 years pro now and the racing has progressed so much and is so fast. Young kids these days are winning everything.”
Renshaw at the time had said he was happy because he knew his future. He had announced in July that 2019 would be his last season. But even then, talking about his retirement that September was a sensitive issue and there were places he wouldn’t go and reflections he wasn’t ready to make.
Asking about the ‘R’ word, I believe, is one of the most personal questions you can put to an athlete. Very few times have I actually done it, without the athlete raising the topic first. And even then, you tread, at least initially, lightly.
For some, it is OK.
Richie Porte, who finished third overall at the Tour de France last month and in doing so became only the second Australian to stand on the podium, behind 2011 winner Cadel Evans, has all year referred to being in the “twilight” of his career. His future is equally clear in his mind: two seasons with Ineos, in a less stressful role than Tour contender, and then adieu to the peloton.
On the Champs Elysees last year, I asked Andre Greipel if he had potentially finished the last Tour de France of his career.
“I don’t know,” he had said, pursing his lips together before circling away on his bike.
It wasn’t and he started but did not finish the 107th edition held under extraordinary circumstances this year.
Tyler Farrar made the transition from marquee sprinter, to lead-out man and since leaving the WorldTour has commenced a new life as a firefighter.
However, for others, letting go is hard.
It can also be daunting.
The professional sports realm is markedly different to the real world, which is what athletes face when they call time on their careers, not as grey-haired men and women, but often as late 30-somethings with a lot of life still to live.
One of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done was with a retired Aussie Rules football player, who said he suffered from depression the two years following his retirement from one of Australia’s biggest domestic codes, partly because he didn’t know how to do anything himself.
He reflected that he didn’t know how much a pint of milk cost. He didn’t know how to go grocery shopping because through his star career someone had always done it for him. He struggled with not being famous, not publicly adored by fans, not the subject of women’s desire.
International sport and professional cycling is no different. Everyday life is made so much easier for the athletes so they can one-mindedly focus on performance.
“I never had to think,” Boy van Poppel reflected last year when speaking about mental health in the pro peloton.
I’ve often thought that if you gave your average Joe or Joanne the same amount of encouragement an athlete receives that productivity would skyrocket.
The prospect of retirement has been put to Cavendish by fans and rivals. One of the new generation of sprinters at the UAE Tour in February asked him why he hadn’t. But it seems he himself now sees the threshold that separates the world as he knows it and reality.
Bahrain-McLaren hasn’t publicly committed to re-signing the Manxman and sadly he’s not the only rider – in what across the board is a brutally tough transfer market due to the COVID-19 pandemic – that may be forced to contemplate retirement, if not a drastically reduced salary, in 2020.
“It’s impacting things significantly. I’ve not seen a year like it. It’s been the most difficult year we’ve operated in,” Altus Sports Management boss and rider agent Gary McQuaid said.
“I think there was as many as 60 or 70 riders at Binckbank [Tour] still without a contract and it’s been very difficult and it’s a market for the teams.
“We still have some teams who are not yet in the market on new signings, the likes of EF will come in late and pick up riders at bargain prices due to the state of play. I suppose if I was a team manager with a budget, I’d be inclined to do the same myself and it is what it is. You try to make the most of it. “From our perspective, at Altus, we’ve got good riders available that are still unsigned and available and that’s pretty difficult. It’s a unique year.”