by Gloria Liu
At some point, every competitive cyclist contemplates a transition away from racing. Whether it’s formal retirement, a voluntary break to pursue other priorities, an injury, or simply no longer racing at a level the athlete is accustomed to; the adjustment can be difficult. Today, we’ll explore this topic with the aim of providing some helpful tips for anyone who is adjusting to “life after racing”.
For a professional perspective on the mental aspects of transition, I interviewed Carrie Cheadle, an expert in Mental Skills Training and a Certified Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology who specializes in working with cyclists of all levels. For advice from a personal and coaching perspective, I interviewed former pro cyclist Shawn Heidgen, who raced from 1992 to 2005 including three years on the professional regional and European circuit. Heidgen is also an accomplished cycling coach of over a decade whose resume includes having coached a national champion.
“Who am I if I’m Not Racing Bikes?”
Even for those who don’t race at the professional or elite level, being a competitive racer is a serious commitment of time, money, and emotional bandwidth. Time on the bike often means time away from family, non-cycling friends, and other hobbies. Cheadle says, “It’s natural and inevitable that there will come a time when an athlete will start to think about moving away from competition. You start to think about the things you could do if you weren’t tied to your training and racing…Life will change, priorities will change.”
But while it may be the natural order of things, there can be an identity crisis that follows. This may be particularly pronounced in the cycling culture where as Cheadle observes, authenticity and racing are intricately tied. She also points out that those whose calendars were largely dominated by races, racing friends and training rides, can also find it to be a tough social adjustment as well.
Heidgen, who retired after her second tour of the Giro d’Italia Femminile, admits it was a struggle initially. “I didn’t know how I fit in at first without the racing. I think you have to be prepared...It’s going to be a little depressing at first because you have this identity as an athlete and all of a sudden you don’t have that. Even dealing with the fact that you’re not as fit as you used to be and not the strongest person on the group ride, because you’re not training to that level anymore.”
Emptying the Tank
Part of the emotional struggle may come from not actually being ready to quit.
Heidgen observes, “I think it’s really important that you do what you need to do before you get out and be okay with where it is that you’re stopping. For me, I feel lucky that I know I went as far as I can go...I emptied the tank. And I think it’s important to empty the tank.”
Cheadle seconds that. “I’ll see some athletes that feel like they want to quit, but then realize that they’re feeling some burnout, hitting a performance plateau, or feeling some anxiety affecting their confidence – and if they weren’t struggling with that particular issue, they may not want to quit. So ask yourself, one, ‘Why am I thinking about quitting?’ Then ask yourself, ‘If that reason were untrue, would I still want to quit?’ Do you really want to leave, or are you just unsatisfied with your sport or performance at the moment?”
A Magic Word
But what if you didn’t have a choice?
Heidgen definitely understands not only the struggle that comes from electing to retire, but being forced off the bike by injury or other life events. In the past 15 years, she’s had five hip surgeries. Each time she was off the bike for extended periods of time of up to two years.
Her advice as a coach and as someone who’s been there begins with one magic word. “Acceptance,” she states firmly. “For me with the first surgery, I thought, ‘If i can’t ride my bike as much as I want, I don’t want to ride it at all. But slowly I came to terms with the fact that a half hour ride is better than no ride at all. It’s about accepting where you’re at, and the fact that things change. You can’t live in denial and hold on to who you were and what you could do - you have to accept who you are now, and make the most of the present situation.”
She also recommends journaling and reaching out to your support network, or possibly even talking to a professional like Cheadle. Very often it is difficult for athletes to open up and admit vulnerability, but often it’s a necessary step for finding peace or at least helpful advice. Finally, she reminds athletes from a coach’s perspective to “trust that it will still be there when you come back”. After her first surgery Heidgen was told she’d never ride a bike again. Her pro career started three years later. Prior to surgery #5 this year, she raced an 18-hour mountain bike race. Heidgen chalks up her a lot of her late career success to a mental toughness that came from these injuries: learning to deal with obstacles, and a greater capacity for suffering.
For her clients who are moving on, Cheadle recommends a celebration. “It doesn’t have to be huge - although for my pro cyclists I do suggest a retirement party! But some deliberate and symbolic way of recognizing the transition. It is important to acknowledge what you have done throughout your cycling career. Reflect on your time in the sport and celebrate. Not only are you celebrating your efforts and accomplishments, but you are also celebrating the closing of one door that will allow another door to open.”
New passions can be cycling-related or not. Coaching is a popular avenue for many former elite racers, and can be a fulfilling way to give back after many years of being focused on one’s own goals. This was one of Heidgen’s avenues (her most recent venture includes a new coaching partnership with 2013 NRC Crit Champion Alison Powers), but she’s also now channeled her winning desires into other areas including writing. In the past couple years Heidgen has become one of the first women to do published power analyses for major races like the Tour de France, Giro, USA Pro Challenge and more. Outside of cycling, I’ve seen former elites throw themselves into anything from backcountry skiing to entrepreneurship to travel. Whatever it is you choose, no doubt the drive, work ethic and perseverance that make you a great cyclist will make you successful in your new venture too.
Cheadle sums it up best. “There are a lot of concerns and fears that come along with transitioning out of competition. That being said, there can also be a lot of hope and excitement as well. Focus on what you are gaining, versus focusing on what you feel like you are giving up. Don’t think of it as an end, but as a beginning of a new path and new adventure.”
For more guidance from Carrie, check out her new book On Top of Your Game available in November, or visit carriecheadle.com. For coaching and other advice from Shawn, visit alpcycles.wordpress.com