Coming full circle: Transitioning out of professional cycling

This time of the year is often saturated with the news of rider transfers, new teams, and an array of information regarding the hiring or letting go of key racers within the world of cycling as everyone looks towards the 2012 season. However, what is often overlooked or perhaps more importantly forgotten are those professional cyclists who are starting the transition of retiring from their careers as professional athletes at the end of each season.

Over the years, the culture of professional cycling has kept this aspect under the radar and there is often little discussion or support provided by teams and governing bodies. What exactly does retirement or the process of transitioning away from professional sport look like? There have been vast amounts of psychological research on the impact of retirement but being a professional athlete is not your typical career choice.

Studies has found that these transitions can often cause athletes to face many difficulties, caused by changes in life style, identity and socio-professional situation, followed by a period of personal growth and new beginnings, resulting from adjustment to new roles and the development of new skills in life. In order to better understand this transition, one of the most respected and talented riders in the pro peloton, Burke Swindlehurst who retired in 2010 took time away from promoting his new race Crusher in the Tushar to share his experience and thoughts on this topic.

Kristin Keim (KK): When did you start riding and racing bikes? And when did you decide you wanted to make a career out of it?

Burke Swindlehurst (BS): I started riding and racing bikes in 1987 when I was 14. I have an uncle who was a pilot in the Air Force whom I idolized and he also raced bikes. In 1986 The U.S. Masters Nationals were in Park City and he came out from Alaska to stay for the race. I watched him race and knew immediately I wanted be a cyclist. I asked for a road bike that Christmas and put my skateboard in the closet on Christmas morning. The rest, as they say, is history. It's funny in retrospect as I wanted to be a pro simply because it meant that I had reached the highest level of the sport and it wasn't until much later that I started to realize that if I wanted to be a ‘professional’, I also needed to be good enough at it that I could put food on the table.

KK: Were there other careers you thought of pursuing outside of cycling?

BS: I studied English and Literature for two years at Utah State University until I realized that between studying, working full-time and trying to train that I was ‘half-assing’ all three. I then chose to focus my energy wholly on racing. I guess that's the long way of saying that I briefly entertained the thought of being an English Teacher.

KK: That explains why I have always enjoyed your blog posts, though I’m glad you decided to continue with racing, it was a pleasure following your career. With that said, this is your first year of retirement - what was the main deciding factor for your transition out of professional cycling?

BS: There were many factors that just kind of snowballed over time. By 2009 I had started to lose my lust for the type of exhausting training that I had thrived on for so long. I was also starting to feel much less comfortable with the risks that are commonplace in the peloton, in terms of fighting for position or even the basic level of trust a rider must put in the riders around him, or that the race organizers have selected safe courses, etc. Falling down at 37 years old is not the same as it was in your 20s. You’re no longer made of rubber!

KK: That sounds complicated, when did you first consider this transition and life after racing?

BS: I first really started to think about life after racing in the spring of 2005. I was on a team that stopped paying the riders in March and it forced me to confront the possibility that I might have to look for something else to earn a living. It ended up really motivating me and I had one of my better seasons that year despite having to dip into savings to make it through the season. I never came to a conclusion as to what I could see myself doing after racing. In fact, I remember being very scared at the prospect. Not because I would be devastated to be done racing, more that I just couldn't see myself being happy doing anything else.

KK: Did your team prepare you or did you have any support around the transition from full-time professional athlete to a new occupation?

BS: No. There isn't much in place that I'm aware of to help in the transition from professional athlete to a new occupation. The UCI has a program in place called an ‘End of Career Allowance’ for professional cyclists meeting very specific criteria, which provides a modest lump-sum payment that they have termed a ‘social service’ to help professional riders in the transition. I took considerable time to demonstrate that I qualified for this allowance and submitted the proper paperwork and documentation, but the UCI has more or less completely ignored my request for the allowance. This has been a very frustrating and disappointing experience and I have basically given up on pursuing it because it has become such a source of negative energy for me. (Note: in the weeks since this interview was given, the UCI has since contacted Mr. Swindlehurst to inform him according to their interpretation of the language in the qualification for the fund that he does not qualify.)

KK: Sorry to hear that. Where did you find support and what factors either helped or hindered this process?

BS: Mainly I relied on the support of my wife, Tiffany, and some very close friends and family. A few of those friends were also teammates and ex-professional cyclists, who offered their counsel based on their own experiences with the transition. But from what I can gather so far, it's highly unique to every individual in that it becomes a personal journey. I definitely do have days where I miss the simplicity of being a full-time athlete, but for the most part I’m relishing the many new challenges and opportunities that seem to present themselves almost daily.

KK: What type of planning did you do before your transition?

BS: To be perfectly honest, not much of anything. I started the 2011 season at 37 years old with the intention of racing for at least another two years. By midway through the season I knew that it was ‘time’ and that I would choose to retire at the end of the season.

KK: When did you first begin to accept (or have you) that you have fully transitioned from professional sport?

BS: It probably wasn't until January of this year that I fully came to accept the transition. I continued riding my bike as if I were still a practicing professional for well over four months after I had officially ‘retired’ out of habit. I really needed to find something that I was just as passionate about and that required a similar amount of focus and energy before I could put the bike away for more than a few days at a time.

KK: In terms of coping with the transition, how has your role of being an athlete helped or hindered this process?

BS: I think once I found that ‘thing’ that I was really passionate about, that was ‘mine’, so to speak, it became easier. That ‘thing’ is my event, the ‘Crusher in the Tushar’, and being an athlete has been a real advantage. I have been able to take the discipline, work ethic and attention-to-detail from my years of bike racing and apply it to this new pursuit. The results have been very satisfying.

KK: Sounds like the first year of “Crusher in the Tushar” was quite successful, and you’re busy working on the 2012 race. What other factors have been difficult? (e.g., financial, social, relationships, new skills, acceptance, life satisfaction) Also, have any of these factors helped the process?

BS: All of the factors you mention have been extremely difficult. Financially, I don’t have a lot to show for my cycling career, as being a domestic professional is not particularly lucrative. Socially, I have had to narrow and limit many of my previous social relationships. This is because I had so much flexibility with my time when I was racing and I don’t have the luxury to indulge them anymore. I've had to acquire a lot of new skills and refine and work on many others that I took for granted. It has also been extremely difficult to accept that I no longer possess the physical prowess on a bike that I have been accustomed to for literally as long as I can remember. I would say my general life satisfaction is not necessarily better or worse than it was when I was racing, it’s just different. I had defined myself as a cyclist for so long and took great pride in my accomplishments on the bike - much more so than I had realized. It’s now over and I now have the benefit of retrospect. Now I’m finding pride and satisfaction in something other than how I fast I can pedal a bike, and that’s been refreshing.

KK: These are often the most difficult aspects to cope with during the transition process, but you have a wonderful outlook and perspective on how to move forward. How would you describe yourself today? Do you still identify yourself as an athlete (one does not have to be a professional)?

BS: I do still identify myself as an athlete. I'm very much aware of my physical health and though I realize it's not possible to maintain the level of fitness that I had while racing, I do still feel a strong need to remain fit. I'm also very motivated to redefine myself as something other than an athlete. I'm very motivated to try and find other talents I might possess that I may have overlooked or even more so, to develop skills that I'm not necessarily gifted with that I can work at and hopefully excel at one day.

KK: People often forget that we are constantly reinventing ourselves. What are some of the physiological and/or psychological issues that have come up due to this transition?

BS: The biggest thing I have noticed is that if I let more than two-to-three days pass without some strenuous physical exertion I can become very depressed. That being said, when I feel like that, it doesn’t take much more than an hour on the bike or hiking and my attitude will do a complete ‘180’ and I will suddenly be happy again and regain clarity in my thought and creativity.

KK: If you could have had more support during the process of your transition, what factors would have been useful to know in advance?

BS: At this point my biggest frustration is the situation with the UCI’s ‘End of Career Allowance’. It would very be helpful if there was some sort of support in place to help riders navigate this procedure and someone in their corner to help them when they hit the roadblocks that I have. Perhaps the support of their national federations? Having access to these funds at such a critical time would provide some breathing space for an athlete to not be completely frantic about finding a new source of income so quickly.

BS: My biggest insight, particularly for younger riders who are either on the verge of turning professional or are new professionals would be to encourage them to pursue or continue to pursue their education and other interests outside of cycling. I had a lengthy career and it seemingly went by in a flash. I really respect and admire those cyclists who continued their educations and acquired degrees. They will certainly have a leg-up when the time comes to conclude their cycling careers. For those riders who are already getting close to this transition, I would tell them to realize that during the course of a professional athletic career that you gain many skills that actually will translate to the real world, such as dedication, discipline and a wealth of unique experiences that will be valuable to them in their new lives. Also, they must not underestimate the need for continued physical activity for their physical and emotional wellbeing after they have discontinued their athletic careers. I strongly believe the body and mind come to rely very much on the effects of regular intense exercise and it shouldn't be overlooked as an instrumental part of the transition.

KK: Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, sounds like things are coming full circle.

Many retired athletes continue to work in professional cycling as team mangers and directors, while others start entirely new occupations. But no matter what, a piece of their identity will forever remain on the roads they once raced. Perhaps it is time we start to support riders through this process as well.

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