Kate Bates doesn't want to turn her back on the bike, but her body is telling her to. As the London Olympic Games sit so agonisingly close on the horizon, the Australian stalwart of the track and road is announcing her retirement today, although it's not an easy decision as she tells Cyclingnews.
"I said when I was on this little comeback journey that all I wanted to do was see how far I could get again and it has really stalled and it's stalled for quite a while now," Bates explains from her Adelaide training base. "It's time to be realistic about it all."
It's a little over a year since Bates returned to competition following a labral tear (the cartilage that surrounds the ball and socket joint) in her right hip with the goal of competing at the London Games in Australia's team pursuit squad. The injury which had genuinely threatened to end her career was mended through surgery and rehabilitation, 18 months after the crash while racing for Columbia Highroad in Italy which it stemmed from. However, with so much focus on her hip, it was Bates' back which suffered.
The thought of having yet another cortisone injection to stay on the bike was something Bates was keen to avoid. Athletes often speak of knowing when it’s time to bow out and the factors such a decision involves – to leave their chosen sport at the top of their game; to have certain event boxes ticked – details that crop up over the long hours spent alone with thoughts out training or more recently in Bates' case, on the physio's table.
Bates started her last race the Cronulla event of the NSW Grand Prix, but admits that it was after being pieced back together by her physio. "In any normal circumstance, there's no way I would have started Cronulla," the 29-year-old admits. "It was important to me that some of this was on my terms. It is a very difficult thing to have decisions made for me thanks to things outside my control, for that reason, it was very important to ride Cronulla. It was a bit of a struggle but it was on my terms. I did get to have fun and I did get to remember why I pushed through for so long."
Having started racing as a junior in 1993, Bates was selected for her first Australian team in 1999, rode her first track world championships in 2001 and her last earlier this year in Apeldoorn. Apart from a stellar career on the track, Bates spent a decade on the road with Dutch teams Ondernemers van Nature (2002), Bik - Powerplate (2003), Team Ton Van Bemmelen Sports (2004, 2005), Equipe Nürnberger Versicherung (2006), T-Mobile (2007) and then HighRoad Sports (2008, 2009) before a stint in the United States with Colavita Baci (2010) and finally back to Europe this year with Abus Nutrixxion this past season. Her career was bookended with silver medals won at both her first and last track world championships, a span of 11 years. The constant has been current Australian Women's Track Endurance Coach, Gary Sutton, with whom she consulted regarding her decision to retire. But even then, Bates wanted to be sure, pushing herself through a double track session the day before the decision to retire was made.
"He's been undoubtedly my biggest influence, my biggest motivator within the sport," Bates says. "Working with him at state junior level and then go through to senior international level is a pretty cool journey to have with your personal coach.
"I have to say the one thing that has never faulted, amongst all the questions and doubts, I've never lost motivation. I haven't stopped enjoying it for a second I've just realised that I'm not getting any closer to the goals that I want which you need to in this sort of environment. For the amount that I'm putting in, I'm just not getting enough back. So my priorities are changing and my body has to come first now."
Highlights, there have been a few...
While Bates' 2007 World Points Race title, which bettered her 2005 bronze medal effort, was an undoubted pinnacle of her lengthy career, the Sydney-native also looks back at the heady days during the Australian team's amazing run of success at the Athens Olympic Games with tremendous pride.
"At that time it was so stress free and pressure free and no expectation," Bates recalls. "Looking back it was before it got complicated."
Bates rode to her best-ever Olympic result of fourth in the individual pursuit.
"I'd say that that, along with being world champion that's got to be my highlight. It was the ease in which it was done, I laugh at that now."
Bates rounded out her senior representative career at the recent UCI Track World Cup in Astana, followed by the Oceania Championships in Invercargill, experiences she labels as "disappointing" and "frustrating" respectively. Still, Bates walked away from Oceanias with a silver medal in the team pursuit and two bronze medals from the scratch race and omnium.
"It's a little bit sad that it's over but it doesn't disappoint me and it doesn't take away from what it's been," Bates says. "I know that when I look back in six months I'll just think I used to be a bike racer and it was really cool. I have no regrets, only a mass of experiences and memories."