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When dreams of a pro career end: Part Two

07 September 2014

In part two of his courageous feature, Luke Hattersley tells us what happened after he decided to come home from Europe, stop cycle racing, and end his ambition of becoming a pro. He tells us what he thinks went wrong and what he might do differently with hindsight.

Importantly, he gives his advice to help today’s ambitious youth riders. Finally, his mum Jules gives her perspective on Luke’s adventure too.

Q. Why did you feel unsettled in Portugal & Italy?

A. I think it was a combination of a lot of things. First of all, I felt the training load was too much for me to handle. That’s not to say it was too hard, just that there was too much of it.

Before going out to Portugal my preferred style of training was on my own, featuring hard efforts almost every time I got on the bike. I felt like that really let me focus on getting the biggest performance gains I could without the fatigue, stress and general lack of interest that I always seemed to get doing long, easy rides day after day. I wasn’t able to train how I wanted, or even under the guidance of a coach, which I feel was a fairly major contributor.

Of course, that wasn’t the only problem I was facing – in hindsight I really would have benefited from some kind of help from a psychiatrist or something, but at the time I really didn’t realise it, and things just slowly got worse, little by little.

Q. Did the decision to stop lift a weight from your shoulders?

A. Absolutely. I didn’t sleep much that night, but the next morning I woke up feeling better than I had in a long, long time. I was positive, optimistic and incredibly excited about coming back to the real world, and doing all the normal things that normal people do. It might seem a strange thing to be so happy about, but I couldn’t wait. I hadn’t entertained the thought of being “normal” for so long that I’d forgotten it could be possible.

Q. How did your family, cycling friends and team react?

A. Incredibly well. I was so nervous about telling everybody, and I knew that after all the fronting I’d been doing people would be shocked. Most people I know outside of cycling only really knew me as “the guy who rides bikes a lot”, but I was greeted with an overwhelming amount of positive, understanding and sympathetic messages. In the space of five days I’d gone from a horrible low point (the lowest I’ve ever been) to being completely at ease with my decision.

The thing I found hardest, I think, was telling my team-mates. At times I’d made myself pretty hard to live with, but I wasn’t well, and I hope they forgive me. I was most worried about it bringing them down. I know that I’ve found it hard (on multiple occasions) when friends of mine who I’d raced with had thrown in the towel, but my team-mates are all awesome bike riders, and they are strong enough to go all the way without a doubt.

Piccola Sanremo presentation

Q. How do you feel about cycling right now?

A. Well, I’m still riding, but only when I want, for as long as I want, and as quick as I want. Currently I’m still recovering from my pretty patchy relationship with my bike, so I’m only riding every now and then, but I hope to return to competing at some point.

I’ve also taken a pretty keen interest in running and I also go to the gym four times a week. I’m really enjoying branching out and trying things I would never have had the chance to do if I were still riding full-time.

Q. In hindsight, would you have taken a different approach?

A. It’s a tough question. On one hand there is no way that racing international-level UCI-sanctioned races in the most competitive, hardest amateur scene in the world at the age of 19 is a good way to develop as a rider. Maybe if I’d stood a chance of getting result in races I would have enjoyed riding more and would have carried on all the way, but I didn’t.

On the other hand, I learned so much about myself out there and the biggest thing I learned is that being a pro cyclist wasn’t what I wanted out of life. Maybe I could have ridden as a pro for a few years, but did I really want that? Not really, no. I also didn’t want to get to the age of 23 and then realise I wasn’t good enough, and be left high-and-dry with no job and no money. I’d rather know sooner than waste time.

Q. Do you think that being part of the British Cycling development structure would have given you the guidance & support that you needed?

A. I think it would have done. Working closely with people who know how to get the best out of young riders must surely be a huge benefit, but make no mistake, the training is always going to be just as tough, the bad days are going to be just as bad and some parts of the life will always suck! It’s the same journey for everybody I guess, but in return for the guidance and support of the BC system you’ll always be running the risk of being left out in the cold.

Q. How much training were you doing during the last couple of years?

A. When I was at Sixth Form (in the months leading up to the National 25) I can tell you exactly how much I trained: an average of 5.84 hours per week for the 28 weeks leading up to that event.

Typically that included two hard turbo sessions (a steady diet of 15 and 20 minute intervals) and a weekend ride which was usually just a jolly club run with a cafe stop in the middle, then some hard riding on the way home. It sounds like a pitiful volume, and it was really, but I had to study and work to pay for races, so I couldn’t change it. That’s the reason I was so pleased winning the National 25 – usually the winners of national events train three or four times as much as I did, so I tended not to be in contention. Spending that whole winter focussing on quality over quantity was the best thing I ever did.

When I finished college the hours increased but only to around ten to twelve hours or so. I was still working a few days a week and basically just riding whenever, however far, however hard I wanted, and that seemed to work well for me.

Out in Portugal I’d find it hard to say, but the absolute minimum ride time was two hours on a recovery day (it always ‘had’ to be at least that, no less) and I guess the standard would just be four hours steady, so we’re talking about 18 to 28 hours weekly. The increase was huge, and I just found it really strange how stringent it was. It was literally a case of having to go out and “do an extra loop” if you got back having only done 3 hours 30 minutes. Mostly reluctantly, we all still had to do it, and I personally just found it very physically and mentally draining. The lack of freedom took almost all of my enjoyment out of riding.

And then, depressingly, power tests often showed that I wasn’t going that much better than a year before, when I’d been training under six hours weekly.

Spanish crit

Q. What would your advice be for today’s ambitious youth riders?

A. There’s lots of wisdom out there about how young riders should develop most effectively in order to become pro. The number one piece of advice I would give is to listen to every bit of good advice you’re given. And I don’t mean just listen, but actually take it on board and learn from it.

For instance, young riders are often told that before pursuing a professional career they need a dependable back-up plan. This is always hard for young riders to take on board, but it is essential that you have your priorities set absolutely straight and never prioritise cycling over school work. You’re only 16 – there are plenty of riders in the pro peloton who didn’t even start riding until later than that! If I could have changed one thing I would’ve take cycling less seriously at least until I’d already left Sixth Form. Working hard at school doesn’t seem like much fun, but you’re there for a reason, and you might not have the chance to go back…

Another thing I think is absolutely essential is a coach. Not just the first one you can find, but ideally a coach with a great reputation and a proven history of developing promising young riders into successful senior riders. A good coach will ensure that you don’t encounter any of the issues I did, and you won’t make any of the mistakes I made. Your state of mind will always be positive, focussed and determined, you’ll have someone to discuss all of your cycling questions with, and you won’t have to put any thought into what training to do on any given day because all the work will be done for you.

Almost all young riders want to train longer, train harder, faster, be the number one Junior in the country, make it onto the Talent Team, win the World Champs. They think that if you don’t do it by the time you’re 21 then it’ll be too late. But a coach will realise that actually you have all the time in the world. You have time to have a great education before taking cycling seriously. You have time to meet up with friends on days when you don’t have any training that day. If you want to go to that gig or party even though you might have to miss a day’s training, then that’s fine – you have plenty of time. This is something I didn’t get right myself either – I thought I had to go and prove myself in my first year as an U23 but that’s just not true. Most of the people coming up through the Italian amateur ranks don’t even go pro until they’re 22 or 23 years old.

Unfortunately a good coach can cost some money – sometimes £150 per month or more. That seems like a lot of money, but a year’s worth of coaching is worth far more than any carbon frame or race wheels would be. Developing young riders requires an experienced specialist. I was fortunate to have some great friends in the world of cycling telling me what do a lot of the time, but when I went full-time I lost that.

We felt it was important to ask Luke’s Mum, Jules Hattersley, for her views on his racing development and his highs and lows:-

When Luke was offered the opportunity to cycle with the team in Portugal and Italy I did initially have reservations as it seemed to be an “in at the deep end” introduction to cycling in Europe as it was so full-time, as well as living away from home for the first time. However, having spoken to one of the other parents whose son had been with the team last year and meeting the team’s Directeur Sportif {Ed. team manager), I was reassured that the boys would be looked after. Luke was so keen I couldn’t stand in his way…

It seemed fine when they were in Portugal to start with. The cycling was good, building up to the start of the season. I did get the impression that there wasn’t much recovery time, and that the diet was a bit unusual: the riders were constantly hungry and off to the cake shop by mid-afternoon. There was very little free time – Luke had hoped to retake his maths A Level in the summer and he thought with a strict lifestyle he would have time to revise, so he had taken the text books with him. He abandoned this idea after about a month when he realised he wouldn’t be able to do enough revision to make it worthwhile. There were times when he just wanted a rest day but couldn’t take even a day off training, but I understood that the regime was intended to build up their stamina.

Things really began to get tough when they moved to Italy. Although they had expected the accommodation to be basic it was even more spartan than that. Luke was the last to arrive so his bed was in a corridor, whereas the other boys were all sharing a room. When the races started in Italy there was more pressure to train with no breaks for rest days. This was when I realised how unhappy Luke was and that he felt he wouldn’t be able to carry on for the rest of season. We had a few FaceTime and phone conversations which made me worried about how he was coping. I did encourage him to carry on, look forward to the next phase with better accommodation if that was a problem. However by that time things had deteriorated and he felt that he couldn’t carry on with this regime. In the end I was so concerned about his state of mind that I was pretty relieved he decided to come home!

Looking back I still think that going with the team was right at the time. Although Luke didn’t last the season it gave him a taste of full-time cycling, the degree of commitment required to carry on at ever higher levels, and made him appreciate that cycling as a hobby is very different from making it a career….

Many thanks to Luke for his honesty and his openness. If you’re a youth rider who needs support, our advice is to keep talking to your family, friends, coach or clubmates and tell them how you feel. Train hard and race hard, of course, but keep cycling in perspective, don’t sacrifice your friends & your education, and don’t rush your cycling development.

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1 response to:

When dreams of a pro career end: Part Two

  1. Annalise
    September 7, 2014

    What a very honest and eloquent account from this young man who seems to have gone through so much at such a young age. How brave to make the decision he did for the sake of his future well being. I wish him all the best with his future. Thank you YCS for the article

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