Sometimes, riding a bike is a simple pleasure that makes us feel so good that we forget all our troubles. Other times, it can be a grind, when the hills seem too steep to conquer, your bike doesn’t feel quite right, and you curse your luck when you get a couple of flats. Life itself can feel the same: smooth sailing one day, shitty the next.
Everyone has their ups and downs, of course, but some people seem to cruise through the “downs” and take the “ups” for granted. That was the case with some of cycling’s greatest champions, who might have come from working-class backgrounds but quickly moved ahead in life and ended up as superstars.
Just look at the men who won the Tour de France a record five times. Jacques Anquetil’s father grew strawberries; Eddy Merckx’s parents ran a grocery store; Bernard Hinault’s dad worked on the railroad; and Miguel Induráin was raised on a small farm. Those four champions had the natural talent to succeed, but it took determination and hard work to succeed and they never lost sight of their dreams. And the more they won, the more confident they became, and the more they kept on winning.
That’s not been the case with less successful riders, the ones who are inconsistent, battle with frequent injuries, or can’t cope with the high expectations forced upon them by team managers, the public and the press. They’re the ones who might drift into a downward arc, maybe into a depression, from where life doesn’t looks so good. Some then turn to drugs because of their mental state, leave the sport early, or even contemplate suicide.
In developed countries, including North America and Western Europe, more than a quarter of all adults are affected by a mental disorder in any single year, and one quarter of those people suffer from a mental illness such as severe depression, bipolar disorder or drug dependence. Those percentages are probably lower among competitive cyclists simply because it has been shown in various studies that the circular motion of pedaling a bike is beneficial to your mood and general mental health.
But even the most optimistic athletes, when things don’t go well, can fall into a depression (or worse). As in most professional sports, there is overwhelming pressure to succeed—both from the athletes and those around them. And when the hoped-for success doesn’t come, perhaps because of injury, sickness, over-training or internal pressure, then the individual has a much higher chance of suffering from a mental illness.
A cyclist who has done the most to educate us about the dangers of depression is Graeme Obree, the Scot who twice held the world hour record (in 1993 and ’94), twice won the world individual pursuit title (in 1993 and ’95), and twice in has adult life attempted suicide (in 1998 and 2001). In a 2007 interview, Obree said: “I suffered depression at various times in my career as a professional cyclist but it was only after I retired that the illness really took hold. I wasn’t qualified for anything and there was nothing left for me. I used to need cycling to cope with my illness, but with the help of my family and with counseling I’ve begun to overcome the personal issues that caused the depression.”
Obree was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which doctors have successfully treated with medication, and today Obree is again pursing his dreams—just like he did 20 years ago, when he astonished the world of cycling by breaking Francesco Moser’s longstanding hour record on a bike he built himself, using an egg-shaped tuck position he also thought up himself. Now, he’s designed and built an unconventional-looking recumbent bike on which he intends to break cycling’s land speed record, with his goal being 100 mph!
Not every rider who’s suffered from deep depression has come through like Obree. One was Frenchman Christophe Dupouey, who committed suicide four years ago this month at age 40. He came from a humble background and went on to excel at mountain biking. His best year was 1998, when he was cross-country champion of France, Europe and the world—he won his rainbow jersey at Mont-Ste-Anne in Canada.
Dupouey made enough money to retire in 2004 and buy a house with a swimming pool in the village where he grew up, just outside Tarbes on the edge of the Pyrénées. But he couldn’t cope with retirement. He got mixed up with a group selling recreational drugs, run by an old cycling buddy, Laurent Roux, and he was given a suspended three-month jail sentence. He then took a job running the city bike-sharing program in Tarbes. It didn’t give him the same thrill as winning bike races.
The day Dupouey killed himself at his home in Momères, a villager told La Dépêche: “When champions stop, there’s no one to be with them, so it’s particularly hard to go from climbing a podium to facing the grind of daily life. It’s not surprising that they go into the abyss.” Dupouey left a suicide note and texted a family member about what he was planning to do. He left a wife and two young daughters.
Others have followed a similar path. Ten years before Dupouey died, another French cyclist, the 1990 Tour de France king of the mountains Thierry Claveyrolat, committed suicide, also at age 40 and also five years after he retired. His successful career earned him enough to buy a popular pub in his hometown of Vizille, in the valley between Grenoble and L’Alpe d’Huez. He had some problems with the business, but they were nothing compared with a DUI conviction after colliding head-on with another car, injuring four people, including a teen who lost an eye. Three weeks later, with the threat of jail, a depressed Claveyrolat shot himself dead in the cellar of his home. He, too, left a wife and two children.
Then there was the case of Luis Ocaña, the 1973 Tour de France winner, who committed suicide at 48. Often affected by depression through his cycling career, when he was one of the few riders to match or even out-ride Merckx, Ocaña came from a large Spanish family that moved to France to escape poverty. He never achieved the fame of his rivals Merckx and Felice Gimondi, and his morale was often at a low ebb because of frequent crashes, injuries and sickness, but Ocaña retired a rich man and lived with his wife and two children on a vineyard he bought near Mont-de-Marsan, southeast of Bordeaux. The winery had the usual financial challenges, and a car crash disrupted his life, but it was after he contracted the infectious liver disease hepatitis C that Ocaña ended his life with a gunshot to the head.
These tragic tales can serve as a warning to any athlete who gets depressed, either during a pro career or in the years that follow. Graeme Obree was lucky that his suicide attempts failed and that counseling, medication, help from his family, and riding the bike allowed him to reconnect with his life and his dreams. In life, as with shitty bike rides, it’ll look better tomorrow when the sun shines.
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