The Criterium - Tour Down Under Adelaide 2009
The peleton at the Tour Down Under, Adelaide 2009

A Portrait of a Cyclist as a Young Man is the name of an early chapter in a landmark report into the state of professional cycling in Australia that will be released publicly next week. In part due to the increased presence and participation of Australian cyclists in world cycling the report, I Wish I was Twenty-one Now – Beyond Doping in the Australian Peloton, will be very relevant to the world-wide future of cycling as a profession and a sport.

The I Wish I was Twenty-one Now… report has been prepared by Martin Hardie, David Shilbury, Ianto Ware and Claudio Bozzi and draws from interviews with current and recently retired professional cyclists and includes a review of existing antidoping measures to consider the possibilities for a cleaner, more sustainable sport than cycling – by any fair assessment – is at present.

I Wish I was Twenty-one Now… will be launched at the New Pathways for Pro Cycling Conference to be held at the Waterfront Campus of the Deakin University at Geelong, Victoria on 27 and 28 September 2010 before the start of the second most important event in the annual cycling calendar, 2010 UCI Road Cycling World Championships, which start in Geelong on 29 September and run through to 4 October.

You can access a copy of the Report and find out more information on the Conference at the New Pathways for Pro Cycling website here.

I’ll take a closer look at a few of the other chapters in the I Wish I was Twenty-one Now… report over the next week or so in the lead-up to the New Pathways for Pro Cycling Conference and look forward to reporting further from there during the conference.

The report is based upon:

…a research project supported by the Australian Government through the Anti-Doping Research Program (ADRP) of the Department of Health and Ageing. Its focus is on the perspectives and experiences of Australian professional cyclists and their cohort as they relate to new directions for their sport. As a grounded research project, the aims were more than purely academic. This study engaged with, and ultimately represented, the views of those directly affected by anti-doping policy. From there, the aim was to identify pragmatic starting points to developing effective, sustainable policies that enhance the positive impact of sport, both as a social force and as a career for those who operate within the field of professional cycling.

The purpose of this study is to contribute to the development of positive, practical, preventative and sustainable anti-doping policy by identifying attitudes towards antidoping policy and potential mechanisms for the positive engagement of those who deal with it in professional cycling.

The scientific literature, in particular, focuses on the claims, reasons for, and testing of doping that is reported as being rampant in the sport and beyond regulatory control.

This study is built upon twenty-two in depth interviews, ranging in duration from one to two hours, primarily with cyclists but also with ex-cyclists and others closely involved in the professional cycling industry. The study sought to construct an overview of their attitudes, values, experiences and impressions, which could then be compared against a more conventional analysis of policy, legal and regulatory frameworks. The aim was to descend into a part of the hidden abode of pro cycling’s global factory and bind together those two things, hoping to shed some light on the structure of the industry and how it is ‘lived’ by those within it.

For the moment I want to have a look at the report’s Chapter Three: Portrait of a Cyclist as a Young Man.

That chapter “discusses some of the characteristics that define the professional peloton as an industry and as a workforce.”

The authors sought to develop a picture of the pathways that cyclists take in the course of their careers as professional cyclists and they identified three common elements to a pro cyclist’s career.

Firstly, the lack of any clearly identifiable career path at a cyclist’s entry or exit to the sport.

This appeared as a constant shadow or undertone in many of the interviews, evidenced by consistent themes around the loss of opportunities to gain more long-term, sustainable career options, skills or professional networks, and an uncertainty about what participants will do with their lives once they leave the vocation of professional sport. Whilst some cyclists had completed either trade apprenticeships or undergraduate degrees prior to entering the sport, the gap in professional development posed by devoting countless hours to training and moving to another country for anything up to a decade, presents a significant barrier in returning to any skilled profession.

The older cyclists and ex-cyclists talked about the limited options…none of those interviewed left or were likely to leave cycling with a reasonable level of superannuation, savings and investments capable of sustaining them in the long-term, or with skills or experience capable of easy transference to a different industry. There was a notable absence of viable ‘second’ career options that were both economically sustainable and fulfilled the substantial sense of personal reward associated with cycling. Thus, when the profile of an Australian cyclist is examined, whatever their particularities, they are likely to:

(a) recognise that they will one day need to leave the sport;

(b) most likely struggle to find something to do when that happens; and

(c) find limited scope to reconcile these two contradictory themes.

The second common thread was the high “buy-in” cost to the industry and the high physical, emotional and financial costs associated with “learning the ropes“.

Participants talked about the necessity to learn a large array of new skills very quickly when entering the profession. Whilst there was some disparity between older and younger cyclists…interview participants consistently identified not only the drain of heavy, athletic training but also an understanding of the culture of their profession, learning new languages, contract and financial negotiation, dealing with their teams and support staff, remaining up to date with the regulatory frameworks impacting upon them and, for younger cyclists, doing that whilst living away from family or social support networks.

While the report notes that recent years have seen improvements in the professionalism of Australian state-funded and resourced training facilities, there is a cohort of professional cyclists, particularly those who went “through the system” in earlier times, who have suffered due to poor program design, implementation and management.

If our search for a ‘profile’ is narrowed down to a ‘profile of cyclists who turned professional during the 1990’s’, a consistent theme emerges. Their experience of ‘learning the ropes’ involves a highly pressurized, physical training regime coupled with a notable absence of support, both for longer term personal and financial welfare. At times, there is evidence to suggest that the mental health and ongoing wellbeing of the athletes was far from a priority.

The most striking and obvious difference between younger and older riders is that those who entered cycling in the new century received greater support outside of simply athletic training. At the crucial point in which they shifted from riding at a state or national level, there was a strong indication that those moving to Europe received help finding accommodation and being absorbed into a social network of other Australians. The AIS was seen by younger riders as, generally, very helpful and supportive.

The third common element in a cyclists career that the report examines is one that might be obvious to any outsider conducting an assessment of the sheer effort and often illusory rewards offered by professional cycling.

The authors call this “Identity Work.”

Taken as a form of employment, it would be hard to tell why the average professional has devoted themselves so intently to a career which they themselves recognise as tenuous and likely to have a negative impact in the long-term…Although the term might seem like an innocuous label, for our purposes ‘identity work’ encapsulates the many ways in which constituting and sustaining one’s work and life depends upon working on one’s identity or self.

The paradox of cycling as a profession is that, if we consider both the lack of long-term career paths and the high volume of commitment required to even begin a professional career, it seems highly undesirable. Keeping in mind that the participants interviewed here have all, theoretically, ‘made it’ to the pro level and, in some cases, had quite long careers at the top end of the sport. Their stories contain a greater volume of adversity and a lower volume of reward than would be expected in many other professions. The obvious reason is that cycling is not just another profession.

It is perhaps unsurprising that in conclusion the authors can only muster a reluctantly positive outlook for any young man wanting to join the ranks of professional cycling. They note that it is difficult to draw a conclusive “portrait” of a typical cyclist in the modern-day peleton but that:

…our interviews suggested a portrait of individuals who begin working towards a professional career in their mid to late teens, usually move to Europe in their early twenties, and are usually transitioning back out of the industry by their late twenties or early thirties. The time and energy commitment to training, and the disruption of moving to another country, is on par with a full-time job…To put that in practical terms, a professional cyclist who had devoted ten years to reaching the pinnacle of their sport, racing across Europe, could easily find themselves aged in the late twenties or thirties returning to an unskilled job stocking shelves in a supermarket or, at best, working in a bike shop.

Increasingly, the common issues faced by Australian cyclists seem to become pressing as they leave the profession. Most of the older or retired cyclists found themselves leaving a job that had constituted both their only means of earning a living and the defining force of their sense of identity, and struggling to transition back into the ‘real world’ where many of their achievements and skills counted for little.

Here I have just looked at the author’s comments, analysis and conclusions and have not examined any quotes from the individual cyclists that participated in the research.

That is not to demean what they have to say – far from it – and I would encourage anyone interested in this area to look closely at the many, very frank and instructive comments by the participant cyclists contained in the report.

* I Wish I was Twenty One Today – Beyond Doping in the Australian Peloton by Claudio Bozzi , Martin Hardie, Ianto Ware and David Shilbury will be launched at 10.30 am on Monday 27 September as part of the New Pathways For Pro Cycling Conference at the Waterfront Campus, Deakin University, Geelong.

For more information on the Report and the Conference go to: http://www.newcyclingpathway.com/