When dreams of a pro career end: Part One
04 September 2014
Cycle sport is booming and there are huge numbers of kids racing every week – many of them dreaming of becoming professional cyclists. They train & race very hard to reach their target, but only a tiny proportion of those riders will ever reach the highest level of the sport.
What happens when the dream ends?
In this two-part feature, talented young rider Luke Hattersley tells us his candid story about stepping up to race in Europe for the 2014 season, raring to go – but how it actually ended his cycle racing career.
We thank Luke for being so open about the problems he faced. He hopes that his experiences will help today’s ambitious youth riders and their parents to keep the sport in perspective, and to guard against the kind of burn-out that Luke suffered.
Q. How did you discover cycling?
A. I first started riding when I was 14.
I can’t really remember what motivated me to get into the sport, but it was a choice made completely by me – I don’t come from a cycling family, and I was never pressured into doing it.
I think my biggest reason to start was losing weight. I’d reached 90kg at that age, and I had confidence issues. Following my first long ride (the London to Cambridge charity ride) I was hooked.
Q. How did you develop from your first steps in the sport?
A. For the first few months I rode just once a week. Usually that would be the Sunday club ride with my local club, St Ives CC. As my ability on a bike improved and I met more people from the club I was persuaded to start racing. The thought of racing hadn’t even crossed my mind when I started riding. I had absolutely zero knowledge.
Fortunately, with the kind help of a couple of experienced club members I was on the start line for the first time early in 2010. At the time I felt it was quite intimidating. All the other kids had thousands of pounds’ worth of equipment, their own support crews, they all knew each other, and they clearly knew what they were doing. I was dropped from the main group almost as soon as the commissaire said “Go”, but I struggled around to finish in 10th place.
Lots of people wouldn’t have been happy with 10th, but it was quite clearly drilled into me before that race that when you’re as inexperienced as I was, the result doesn’t matter. I knew in advance that the only thing that mattered was enjoying myself at that stage. Not fretting about the results, being persistent, training consistently and making absolutely sure that I finished each race with a big smile on my face. There was never, ever, any pressure.
As a result of not taking it seriously I didn’t get any good results in that first year – but that was fine. I spent the winter doing exactly what I was doing before. I hadn’t suddenly started training more, I hadn’t eaten like a rabbit, and I lost 15kg. The only difference was that when I rolled up to the start line come April I had another year behind me. I was a year older, wiser, stronger, and quicker on a bike.
I won my first race that year, whereas the year previously winning some of those races seemed like an absolute impossibility. How could I ever win a race if I couldn’t stay with the group? The reason why is because I still wasn’t taking riding very seriously.
Q. What did you achieve in cycle racing along the way?
A. I did win a few races at youth level. I must have had about 15 podium finishes as well. Every time you win a race or just get a result that you’re pleased with your confidence gets a huge boost. The more races that you win the more confident you get with your own ability, and so you win more races, and so the cycle continues.
The highlight for me was becoming national champion at the Junior National 25 Mile Time Trial in June last year, while I was also still at college and therefore not training many hours at all. The days after winning that just felt surreal, but that was the first proper indication that I might have some promise.
Q. What did you feel about British Cycling’s Performance Pathway?
A. At Youth and Junior levels almost all of the big races are won by riders on the BC Talent Pathway. There are a good few reasons why I don’t agree with the system, the biggest one being pressure: placing any amount of pressure on 14, 15 and 16 year olds is not healthy in my opinion. A substantial number of the riders who were very successful, dominant even, at a young age have ended up falling by the wayside.
Some of these guys are training like pros, but they’re only in their mid teens. They are too focussed on how successful they can be right now, and not on how successful they can be over a twenty season cycling career.
There also aren’t many people who follow the performance pathway all the way: there are those who were on the Talent Team but don’t make it onto the Olympic Development Programme; and there are riders on the ODP who don’t make it onto the Academy. Inevitably these riders take a huge mental battering and are basically left out in the cold. In a lot of cases I know of they end up leaving the sport, disillusioned.
I think I made the right choice by making no attempt to follow the Performance Pathway.
Q. How did you balance training & racing with your family, friend, education & social life?
A. To tell you the truth I didn’t do this very well. I was (still am really!) about the least sociable person you’ll come across, so when I started training more seriously any form of social life I had was the first thing to go. I also badly neglected my friends and family once I’d decided I wanted to be pro.
I was so transfixed on making sure my training plan was perfect and uninterrupted that as soon as I finished college for the day I’d be back home as soon as I could so I could get my training done. I never made any effort to communicate with anyone because I was too focussed.
I didn’t make many friends at college during my A Levels either for the same reason. I’d sealed myself into my own bubble of “I’m a cyclist, I want to be pro, I don’t want to study, I can’t wait to finish here.” Naturally, my education also suffered significantly and in my final round of exams I was so desperate to chase my dream that studying was the last thing I wanted to do. I fluffed those exams, and my A Level grades reflected that.
Q. Why did your feelings about cycling change earlier this year?
A. I thought that when I’d finished college in June of last year that everything would fall into place. I was a recently-crowned national champion at that point. My cycling was going well and I just wanted the extra time to train, train, and train some more. I had a fantastic job working at a bike shop for three or four days a week, and the rest of my time was spent on the bike. When I say that I mean it – I worked, I trained. I did nothing else. I didn’t have any other hobbies, I didn’t have a social life or a girlfriend. I didn’t speak to anybody really. A lot of my friends were living a short drive down the road but I just spent my free time doing a whole lot of nothing.
Then, come January, I had the opportunity to travel to Portugal then Italy with my new team. If I thought I was lonely back home then I wasn’t prepared for what Portugal would be like. I got on with the rest of the team – they were a really great bunch of lads but, typically, I never opened up about anything. I had very little contact with anybody back home, not even my Mum. Portugal and Italy are beautiful countries, but I was always fighting with my own thoughts. I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling for hours at night asking myself questions and just torturing myself. It wasn’t healthy.
Then, as my time in Europe progressed and my mental state continued on its downward trajectory I began to be honest with myself that things weren’t going as great as I was pretending they were. I was enjoying riding less and less. I felt out of control of my own life – like a mistreated dog being reluctantly dragged along by its owner in a direction that it didn’t want to go. I had no freedom anymore, I had no control and I had nobody to help me.
This all reached a head one evening in Italy. I had a big argument, and was an inch way from taking it out on the other party, just barely holding myself back. I waited until everybody else had left the house, then I broke down. I was so alone I could have been the last man on earth. I didn’t want to be in this disgusting house in this alien country under the dictation of somebody else. I’d already spent the last two years sacrificing so much. I’d invested vast amounts of time, money, blood, sweat and tears into this dream which I was suddenly realising wasn’t my dream anymore. I was holding onto that dream, feeling like it was pretty much the only thing I had left, and here it was, falling apart in front of my eyes.
I had a FaceTime call with my Mum and I opened up to her at last. I finally told her how I was feeling, and I said I didn’t want to be a pro anymore. I wanted to go home.