For the past few months I’ve been fighting a battle with myself. As most of you have noticed by now, I’ve not shown my face on the start line for a while, and I’ve been relatively absent from the world of social media as well. Nothing’s been a done deal, but now the time has come to announce that I’m taking a break from professional cycling.
I’ve gone through many versions of this announcement, and I’ve managed to avoid the topic of my absence from racing up until now. I have brushed aside questions and given vague roundabout answers to anyone who asked them.
I’m going to start by saying that while I’m extremely sad about the way things unfolded over the past months, I’m also happy with the decision I’ve made. I’m seeing this as a hiatus, and not an end to anything. I’ve loved being a professional cyclist, and I hope someday the journey circles back round, but for now some time away is necessary. It’s a time to focus on other things, discover myself away from the pressures of this life, and fully recover mind and body.
I would also like to thank my team for supporting me in this decision. I couldn’t have asked for any more from them during this time, and I will miss being a part of Drops more than anything this year.
I originally wrote this blog without the next part. I simply stated that I was taking a break from professional cycling, and then moved straight onto the ‘what’s next’ part of the story. I wanted to keep things private. But I’ve decided now is the time for an honest reflection.
For the first few years of my career I had it pretty easy. Of course, the training and racing were hard, and I hit the ground a few times, but overall, I was constantly progressing. Things moved forward. I was always improving and gaining experience, and I was almost always happy doing it.
I’d only ever had a couple of bad crashes, and my broken bone tally was still at one. I’d also never given much thought to mental health, because mine had always been healthy. Don’t get me wrong, I’d been sad. I’d had periods of time where I was feeling down, but I’d never hit the bottom. I’d never known what it was truly like to battle with depression.
Then over the past year I feel like I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of misfortune condensed into one extended nightmare: hit by a car, thirteen broken bones, back and neck; the battle to comeback; to crash again; another impact with a car, another concussion. Season over. Since then more crashes, more concussions.
For a lot of people maybe that would have been enough to end a career anyway, but time healed the physical wounds for me, and it was the mental scars that burnt ever brighter.
I’ve always been my biggest critic, and I’ve sought control and perfection as an athlete. The moment that car hit me was the spark that lit the flame. I lost control, and everything was far from perfect. I struggled to regain power over my life, and this had a big impact on me. Since then, any setback in my personal or professional life just stoked the fire.
Where I was once able to keep positive, and see a future beyond these things, I could only see darkness. Perspective was lost and it felt like there was no point in even trying anymore. I started to struggle more and more to even get out of the door, let alone train. ‘What’s the point? You’re going to fail anyway.’ The voice of depression chipping away at your self-worth.
My biggest mistake was doing nothing to stamp it out at the first signs of trouble. But at the time, in the grips of the demon, I couldn’t see this. I didn’t want to admit I was struggling. That isn’t who I am. I’m stronger than that.
Turns out strength has nothing to do with it. Depression can find anyone, and most of the time you don’t even see it coming.
In an industry which is as much about your image as anything else, you want to preserve this. The social media lie is all too present in the world of cycling. Riders outwardly presenting the picture of the perfect life. The dream of being a professional athlete documented for all to see. For some this is probably the truth: for a lot of people it’s not.
The constant distortion of reality can be more destructive then we recognise. It looks like everyone else has it better than you. Everyone else is happier than you. But you don’t ever know what’s happening behind the filter.
I hid away my depression and put on a smile through it all. I said the right things. Some of which were true, and some of which I just wished were true. This felt like the only option. I thought I needed to paint myself in a certain light if I wanted to be successful. Mould reality around what people wanted to hear.
Then I would get home and take off the mask.
Eventually the cracks start to show anyway. You can only keep up the façade for so long. It’s exhausting, and you’re not as good as you think you are at hiding it. Whether it’s your close friends, family, or your team that notice first, someone sees through the smile.
At the end of the day, the reality is that the majority of us as female cyclists are riding on passion and love for the sport alone. We don’t earn anywhere near a minimum wage, and so once the joy is lost there’s not much else to carry on for.
It’s been a slow process, and it’s not been a constant downward spiral. I’ve had peaks and troughs. If I look back through the fog, I’ve had good times as well as bad through this process. I’ve had days and weeks where everything was going right. But I was on a hair trigger. Everything had to be flawless, or it fell apart.
Unfortunately, things are rarely flawless in life, let alone in sport, so I knew I needed to take a step away. It’s been the hardest decision I’ve ever made, but also in some ways the easiest. There’s so much I’ll miss about it, but until I sorted my mind out I was missing it all anyway. My body was there, but it may as well not have been. I couldn’t have been the rider I wanted to be this year, and it was more important to not lose myself as a person in the process.
Now I need to find the old me, or maybe even the new improved me. New projects, trying new things on the bike, and finding happiness in it again. Sometimes you just have to look somewhere you haven’t before. More on that soon.
The more we open up a dialogue about mental health, the less power it will have over us. When it comes to physical injury we shout about it, but when it comes to mental injury we hide it away. But it’s not weak to admit you’re struggling.
It would have seemed easier not to write this blog, not to open myself up to the potential scrutiny and judgement, but then I would have been contributing to the problem. Athletes are strong by definition, but we’re also human.
Thank you to the people who’ve pulled me out of the darkness. You know who you are. Here’s to the future.