An interview with Darren Lapthorne, February 2, 2009
Staring into the eyes of adversity, a courageous Darren Lapthorne has sported a brave face as he returns to professional cycling. Cyclingnews.com's Greg Johnson discovers what's driving Lapthorne's return to the peloton following the worst of tragedies.
Having broken into the European peloton in 2008, it was always destined to be a big year for Darren Lapthorne. The journey would, however, take a tragic twist in late September. Just days after receiving a concerned call from his parents, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading (DFAT) would inform the Lapthorne family that the former Australian Open Road Champion's sister, Britt, who was travelling through Croatia at the time, had been declared a missing person. It was a call that would lead to the grisly discovery of Britt Lapthorne's body floating off a resort in Dubrovnik, Croatia, weeks later.
Darren had immediately ceased racing and training efforts when news of his sister's disappearance surfaced. His German squad Team Sparkasse fully supported Darren's dash to Croatia, where he would be joined by father Dale in the search for Britt.
"As soon as I heard my sister was missing I informed my team: they were great, they also supported me and told me to get down there straight away, that family is the most important thing," he said. "I still had a few races that my name was down for, but it was absolutely no problem, Team Sparkasse supported me. I didn't even think about riding when I heard my sister was missing.
"I was prepared to stay in Croatia for as long as it took to find my sister," added Lapthorne. "If that had been a few weeks, like it was, or even longer, like years, cycling is definitely not that important. The priority was to find my sister, I wasn't thinking about the bike at all."
While the cause of Britt's death remains the focus of an ongoing investigation, the impact on the Lapthornes' lives is unmistakable. In the year Darren had broken into a European team, he would also seriously consider hanging up the bicycle for good.
"When I heard that Britt's body had been found, my first thoughts were I just don't know if I can continue cycling," said Lapthorne. "Really nothing seemed important to me at all. My initial thoughts were 'that's the end of my cycling career I'd just like to try and go back to a normal life'. Cycling definitely wasn't on my mind."
Getting back on the bike
Ironically just weeks after considering bringing his cycling career to an end, it was the bike that played a vital role in Darren's grieving process. While his parents returned to Croatia to search for answers over their daughter's death in December, Darren slowly returned to the open road.
"It was an important step for me just to go back out training and hang out with some close friends," said Darren. "It's been almost like therapy for me you could say, just getting out training in the mountains with a close group of friends.
"I definitely feel good when I'm out there and life almost feels normal for a few minutes of the day," he added. "I can just almost forget about things and be out either with friends of myself on the bike. It's been amazing actually."
As Darren once again started to feel comfortable in the surroundings familiar to him, the idea of continuing his career slowly entered his mind. While coming to terms with the loss of his sister, knowing how deeply she supported his career helped him make the decision to continue competing.
"I think it was the support from my parents and also the fact that Britt did love what I do," said Lapthorne. "She was very proud of my lifestyle and cycling, that I followed my dreams. She was one of my biggest supporters. Although it's so difficult now to get back on the bike, I think that if I didn't get back on the bike now in the future I'd regret that.
"It gives me a bit of drive again, just feeling that my fitness is coming along," he added. "It does make me think about the future in some way which I've found quite difficult."
One of Lapthorne's friends, Tom Southam, had suggested along with Kristian House that he might be interested in joining them at Continental team Rapha Condor. While Darren had initially planned on re-uniting with Team Sparkasse, the appeal of joining his friends for a season during this difficult time quickly grew.
"Given what Darren has been through we took a very soft approach to it all, being guided by Tom Southam who was on the ground so to speak," said Rapha Condor owner John Herety, who had his eye on Lapthorne since seeing him race at Tour de Beauce. "I'm confident we can give him a platform to continue to develop in a pressure-free environment and I'm really looking forward to working with him in the coming season."
The pressure-free environment will suit Lapthorne as he returns to the routine of racing, having spent nearly three months off the bike altogether in late 2008. "I had a good think about it and I think it's important I'm in a good environment where I'm with some close friends – it's definitely a good choice for me," said Lapthorne. "John's also been very supportive of me. He knows the situation I'm in and he's very flexible with the year ahead. I think once I get back into the routine of racing, I've still got the love of the sport in me, I'll definitely have a good year again. It's just a matter of getting back into that routine."
Having made the choice to return to cycling and decided on his home for the year ahead, Darren faced his toughest hurdle to date. One year after winning a stage of the Jayco Bay Series with his sister present, he would race for the first time since her death at the event.
"The Bay Crits and nationals have always been important for my family, because every year it's like a family event," he said. "My parents and my sister spend the week down in Geelong and watch the Bay Crits then head up to Ballarat to watch the nationals as well."
The Lapthorne siblings had been as close as any other. While Britt had often travelled with Darren to watch him race, the pair had also been studying a Bachelor of International Business together at Victoria's RMIT University.
"Of course it was difficult with Britt not being there; I found that quiet difficult to cope with even just in the days leading up to the nationals, knowing that Britt wasn't going to be there," he said. "At the same time I just have to try and continue, put one foot in front of the other and keep looking forward."
While Darren had only one month on the bike under his belt heading into the Australian Open Road Championship race, the Victorian put in a truly inspiring effort to finish 15th. Despite the disrupted preparation Lapthorne finished the Ballarat race in the same group as Christopher Sutton (Garmin-Slipstream), William Walker and Hilton Clarke (Fuji-Servetto).
"At the moment I can only take things a day at a time," said Lapthorne. "I wasn't planning on winning or getting any results; it was just clipping in and just taking everything a step at a time.
"I was really pleased with my ride at the nationals," he added. "I didn't know what to expect actually and to finish in that group it was still a good result. It gives me a bit of confidence considering the lead-up to the race, I didn't have much time to train all that well or consistently. My preparation wasn't anything compared to previous years, so I was very happy with the results."
A lack of closure on just how Britt's untimely death came about only complicates matters for the Lapthorne family. As Darren continues to come to terms with the loss of his sister, the rider says focusing on goals for his own future is difficult at best.
"I really don't have long term goals at the moment. I just can't really think that far ahead. I just want to get through a day at a time," he said. "I think once I get back into racing I'll be able to again reassess my situation and look further down the track. At the moment I'm going to get back in a good routine – I will aim to do well at the Tour of Britain.
"But at the moment I'm taking things one day at a time. It's a really difficult time for me and my family, so I think at the moment I'm doing as well as I can possibly be doing," added Darren. "I've got so much support out there from the cycling community and that's helped me immensely as well."
Fighting for a seat on a ProTour team was once a dream of Lapthorne's, but he says it will be some time before he discovers if that's still a long-term priority. At 25 years of age Lapthorne still has time to make the step to a top team.
"Before all this happened, being a professional cyclist was everything to me – it was my life and ambition," he said. "I think at the moment it's not as important as I used to think it was. My priorities in life have definitely changed.
"It's going to be such a difficult step for me to hop on a plane, go over to Europe and say goodbye to my parents again," he added. "So at the moment I'm just going to try and get through this year, then when the time is right, I'll reassess my goals and what I want to do with cycling."
Away from the sport Lapthorne had set out to achieve an educational goal with his sister. While Britt won't be there with him, Darren intends on seeing it through to the end in her honour.
"One thing I definitely know I have to do is finish my degree in honour of my sister," said Lapthorne. "We were only one year off finishing our degrees, so that's one thing that's very important to me. Also spending as much time with my family as possible, I've really learned that family is everything in life: just how important family and friends are.
"The bike will always be there. I don't know how far I'll take cycling, but at the moment really just being close to my family is the most important thing to me," he concluded.
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