Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo: SWpix.com
The discussion of mental health in the peloton is, encouragingly, becoming more nuanced after Thibaut Pinot became the latest team leader to open his heart in a soul-searching interview this week.
As a long-standing cyclist whose first fifty miles, many years ago, were ridden in trainers, T-shirt and football shorts, I’ve never had much time for The Rules, the self-styled diktat on achieving road cycling Nirvana through sock length, tan lines and sunglass design.
These days though, as increasing numbers of riders struggle with the demands of the sport, it’s Rule 5 that particularly jars.
“Harden the fuck up.”
Rule 11 isn’t much better. “Family does not come first.”
Perhaps all the macho posturing is intended to be ironic, so haha, very funny etc. However, in all seriousness, the creaking reactions to the career traumas of several top riders in recent months haven’t been too far removed from such archaic thinking.
Yes, physically and mentally, cycling’s a tough sport — probably the toughest of all — but you’re not in the trenches, it’s not war, nor is it a matter of life and death. This is nothing to do with being ‘woke,’ but about having perspective.
A few months ago, La Course En Tete pondered the apparent demise of Fabio Aru’s career, after he quit the 2020 Tour de France in the Pyrenees, a decision which drew stinging criticism from his team management. A few years ago, it might have gone unnoticed, but in a watershed season characterised by uncertainty, growing debates over diversity and duty of care, and some truly worrying safety breaches, it seemed particularly tone deaf.
The dehumanisation extends throughout the sport and would shame any other workplace.
Recently, Lizzie Deignan, speaking to Rouleur magazine, bemoaned the negative reaction to her mid-career pregnancy. “I got to a position where I felt I almost had to apologise,” Deignan said. “I don’t think that a man in my sport would think he’s betraying his team by starting a family.”
Thankfully then, for Deignan at least, family does come first.
Meanwhile, only a few days ago, Peter Cossins reflected on the issues that had impacted on Tom Dumoulin’s decision to pause his career.
Now Thibaut Pinot, a rider who, to many, personifies the description ‘mercurial,’ has joined the ranks of those opening up about the brutal nature of their profession.
In a wide-ranging and engrossing interview with L’Equipe newspaper this week, Pinot spoke of his chronic self-doubt, about doping and his concerns over a “two-speed peloton,” of the pressure of having a team built solely around him, his thoughts this winter of retirement, and of his love-hate relationship with the Tour de France.
Most stories that picked up on the interview focussed, perhaps understandably, on his comments on the “two-speed peloton,” yet it was his revelatory remarks on his numerous crises in confidence that proved equally compelling.
Admitting that he was in some ways ‘unmanageable,’ Pinot said that he sometimes didn’t know how his coaches and sports directors had been able to carry on backing him. “If I was a team boss, I wouldn’t want to have a guy like me on the team. I’d sell him, even give him away,” he said with dry humour.
Adding that his brother Julien was the “only person” who really understood him, Pinot said that his 30th birthday, last May, had been a watershed moment, “not just in cycling, but in life generally.”
“It felt like the end of childhood to me,” he said. “I think about how everything has evolved in cycling and in life in general and we’re not going in the right direction. I think eventually I will be happy to quit cycling, because all of that will have gone too far.”
Deignan meanwhile will continue to successfully align motherhood with her racing career. She has pulled that off with aplomb, particularly in a storming 2020, and will hope to continue her run of form into this Olympic year. She is becoming an increasingly vociferous and direct spokesperson for women’s cycling. “I’ve almost had to become an advocate for my sex, rather than just be a cyclist,” she said.
On Thursday, the Tour de la Provence four day race starts in the south of France. Aru, now with the Qhubeka Assos team, will be on the start line, no doubt hoping to rekindle his climbing form in the stage finish at Chalet Reynard ski station on Mont Ventoux. Pinot, who started his 2020 season at the race, has instead opted for the Tour du Haut Var, that’s assuming his still delicate back does not hamper him.
For both of them, the past few months have been an acutely difficult time. Pinot’s vulnerabilities, in particular, have often been on show. Both riders endured a torrid end to 2020, both riders experienced a crisis in confidence and contemplated retirement, and now, both riders are starting their 2021 season in the next few days.
So much for those so-called Rules.
If you enjoyed reading this, why not take a look at our review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, available to buy here.