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What Comes Next? Part 1: Designing a Life After Racing

From Issue 95 • Words by John Wilcockson

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There was a time not so long ago when pro cyclists ending their racing careers would put their earnings and experience into some sort of business. Perhaps they’d open a pub or a bike shop, using their popularity to publicize it. That was largely true in the 20th century, but times have changed. In today’s more competitive business world, retired racers have to completely rethink their lives. So how do they design a life after racing? Do they stay in the cycling world? Go back to school? Learn new skills? Take a manual job? Or does nothing work out?

“When you quit racing, you’re exhausted and shocked. You can’t even imagine what’s next,” said Craig Schommer, who raced for Montgomery-Bell in the 1990s and married another bike racer, Laura Mullen of Team Shaklee. “A topic my wife and I talk about, particularly when you’re racing, we wonder why do some people end up lost afterwards? And others, like [1988 Olympian] Bob Mionske—his wife wanted to go to law school, and he was like I’ll go to law school too—who’s now this cycling attorney. We can’t quite figure out how we end up on these different paths, some living out of cars, some doing well.”

Indeed, British cycling hall-of-famer Malcolm Elliott decided to un-retire when he couldn’t figure out what profession to pursue. After a successful pro career that included four years with the California-based Chevrolet-L.A. Sheriff team in the 1990s, he made a comeback in his 40s with a second pro racing career that didn’t end until he was 50. Eight years later, he had still not found a new profession. And last year the cycling world learned that Rebecca Twigg, America’s legendary six-time world pursuit champion and double Olympic medalist, was homeless in Seattle. She told Seattle Times reporter Scott Greenstone: “Once you’ve done something that feels like you’re born to do it, it’s hard to find anything that’s that good of a fit…anything else that feels that way.”

After talking with a number of prominent ex-pros, we’ve found that several of them think there should be more assistance given to fulltime racers to prepare them for the rest of their lives. Olympian Ruthie Matthes, who excelled at both road and mountain bike racing, said, “What I would really like to see happen is some kind of transitional service, a support system that could help athletes.” Another former American world champion, Mike McCarthy, concurred: “I think there’s an absence of good resources for athletes that want to make that transition. I’ve often wished that there was a better resource pool. Cycling is relatively unstructured. There’s nobody babysitting you. There’s no team practice you go to every day; you just [get together to] do a couple of training camps a year.”

Curiously, Twigg did plan for her future when she was still racing. She earned an associate degree in computing and took a programming job for two years, returned to race the pursuit at the 1992 and ’96 Olympics, retired again, earned a masters in computer science and started a career in information technology. She worked several IT jobs with mixed results and left that path in 2013. She returned to Seattle, her hometown, and ended up without work and living in shelters—though late last year she’d reconnected with family members.

McCarthy, who quickly found fulltime employment, said this about being a bike racer: “You do this job that at face value doesn’t really transition well into anything else outside of that world. And the truth is, you’re a lot better prepared than you think you are. The one thing I did right in the whole process was to understand that [cycling] was going to end at some point. And think of the access you have as an athlete: to sponsors, to decision-makers, people in positions who can help you out, who respect you as an athlete. And it’s not that you need to ‘use’ people, but I think just developing relationships and nurturing them over the years really puts you in a good position to make that transition when you’re done.”

The challenges of transitioning from full-time athlete to normal life were recently emphasized by EF Pro Cycling team manager Jonathan Vaughters in his memoir “One-Way Ticket,” in which he wrote: “Many of my friends from my racing days have not been so lucky. Depression, unemployment, addictive behavior, divorce, and some suicides all impacted many of those who rode in the peloton in my era.”

Suicides due to mental health problems—perhaps arising from post-racing depression,  concussions due to crashes or other trauma—are not uncommon in the cycling community, and crashes can result in brain damage and trauma that might continue after a racing career ends. Twigg suffered a training accident concussion shortly before she stopped racing, and Matthes said: “I’ve had numerous concussions, concussions that have really compromised my thought process. I think the head injury thing is a big deal. As elite athletes we’re pretty protected in our little world…and then, stepping out into the real world, you don’t have that same kind of support. And if there’s physical, mental or emotional trauma issues to deal with, you can’t even [cope].”

Her words emphasize the challenges of adjusting to “normal” life after years of being in a pro cycling bubble. But McCarthy reflects that a professional bike racer’s skills can be used positively in later life. “Bike racing is a hard job,” he said. “It’s not just the physical part of it. You have to manage a business, you have to manage your fitness…. I looked at cycling as a passion, by no means the end of the line for me. I thought of it as a steppingstone—and if, as an athlete, that’s not embedded in your psyche then you’re in trouble.”

Another former full-time racer, Canadian Lyne Bessette, said that using the skills she learned as an athlete have helped her in a new career as a parliamentarian, as well as in the rest of her life, where staying active remains a priority. “In my mind, I’m retired from being an athlete at heart,” she said, “but not retired from running twice a day because I love to, not retired from running trail marathons, not retired from adventure racing…. I will never retire from the active life I love.”

It’s true that some cyclists “never retire,” but not all of them are successful in rehabilitating to normal life. We interviewed Bessette, McCarthy and four other former pros to see how each of them progressed in designing a life after racing.

NEXT: Lyne Bessette’s Zigzag Route to Canada’s Parliament.