"We're all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children's game, we just don't... don't know when that's gonna be" – Brad Pitt, Moneyball.
In my first training camp with my first WorldTour team in 2011, Jonathan Vaughters took the Garmin team to see Moneyball, Brad Pit and Jonah Hill's portrayal of a washed-up baseball player turned manager who teams up with a geeky sports nerd and takes their ramshackle team, made up of otherwise valueless players, to one of the finest baseball seasons of all time.
JV felt this was the story of his team, which, I tell you, might have missed the point, as the fragile ego of your average professional cyclist had trouble seeing the bigger picture and rather, didn't like being considered akin to washed up, ragtag, valueless players.
10 years later, after a whirlwind mix of incredible and not so credible moments in my career I began to realise that perhaps I was no longer a child in the game.
Part of what makes road cycling a kid's game in my opinion, is that you have your entire life mapped out for you. It feels like being at school. This is when you get holiday. This is what you eat. This is what you wear. This is what you ride. This is where you train. This is where you race. This is, in simple terms, hard determinism.
And sure, this is what helps enable a rider to be their best. Not to question the process, to trust, do and achieve everything that a team wants you to. So where does that leave us? Well, I'm super proud of everything I've achieved in my career.
Sure, the white whale of winning Amstel Gold Race never caught on, but I was close, and that's pretty cool too. As my mum has said many times when I didn't win: 'Well, somebody has to lose'. I loved my time in the school of road cycling, so to speak, but it's time to turn the page.
I think if you've followed my story over the last few years, it would be one of the world's worst-kept secrets that I am changing to gravel racing. I love it. I feel like a kid again, but to be honest, a little bit different from that, but I realised my most important lesson of all in the past two years and here it is.
To express yourself to your best physical potential, it needs to be paired with an equal or greater love and passion for what you're doing.
Again, don't get me wrong, I still love road cycling, I watch it whenever I can, I bleed it. However, after two very hard years the true love of it maybe slid away as the effects of Covid – both the changes to the intensity of racing post-lockdown and actually having had Covid, in a season in which I never felt I caught back my breath, so to speak – made me realise that it's time to change.
There will be those out there who will criticise how I rode, but honestly, say what you will, I needed to suck to realise that my love for it wasn't enough to keep fighting on. And that's the effect of love, right? It's what keeps you going. Love lost? Career over. Simple.
But in all true love stories, the love is never quite over. In fact, my love wasn't lost at all – it turned out that it has just changed. I'd been training for years on my cyclo-cross bike (now gravel bike, because that's a thing now), to avoid traffic and to get into nature, and the more I did the more I needed it. Quite addictive.
I threw myself into a few gravel races and I noticed one thing. It was the first time I'd been nervous in a long time. And what does that say? Well, my career is not over, it's just changed. Nerves = meaning and meaning = drive.
The thing I felt most relieved about in June/July of this year was having the change of heart to shift into the gravel space. It meant I'd be leaving the school of cycling behind and taking control of all the things in my life again. Hard determinism, meet free will. Hello, free will.
So where am I now? Well, I feel like I'm in the driver's seat for the first time in a while.
I'm speaking with technical partners, using the bikes and parts I want, talking with race organisers, choosing the races I want to be at, skipping the ones I don't, choosing the flights I want, and learning how to budget travel costs (we will call that 'upskilling'), but essentially I feel like I did indeed leave the kid's game, only to feel that the adult game of pioneering in cycling is way more fun, for this stage in my life.
I recently had a creative phone call with my clothing partner for next year, Castelli, who are all in on this new adventure with me. I worked with Castelli for my first four years in the WorldTour and after so many years away, I’m so stoked to be back with them. We’re both so excited to jump more into the gravel space as technically, there is huge space for evolution and creativity. There are no limits. There’s room to have special designs all year round (hint, hint) and there’s nothing holding us back. It’s going to be fun to say the least.
I’ll be announcing my bike partner very soon, and again, I’m beyond excited to be in the driving seat, speaking with and deciding what partners will be best to work with for performance. No compromise. All race. All style. Yes, this is not a retirement. It's a change of discipline. To follow the footsteps of fellow teammates and friends Pete Stetina and Ian Boswell in taking on gravel not just for fun, but to race. This year I was at the World Championships helping somebody to try to win, and heck, next year I'll be there to try to win it myself.
Not getting ahead of myself and results, but just having the freedom to not ride for others is incredible. When you have a great result, it's yours and you own it, alongside the partners and people who are part of your project. And inversely, when it's a bad day, it's on you and you alone, but you don't owe any explanations to anybody but yourself. And isn't there something special about that? True ownership of your actions. Gravel, baby.
As my father recently told me as I was deliberating over sticking with road or jumping all guns blazing into the world of gravel: 'The best way to predict your future is to create it'. And hell, for myself, my talents, and my spirit, there's not much room for creativity in road cycling, so, easy decision.
Gravel, I can't wait.
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