The men behind the masks of the modern peloton

A passing glance at the biggest bike races in the world shows faceless men behind huge reflective glasses and protective helmets, radio earpieces clearly visible.  

Rather than human faces, they can become dehumanised gladiators – part automaton, part superhero – capable of feats of performance many of us can only aspire to.

But sometimes, things change, and we’re reminded of the very humanity of the racing we watch.

In the last few months, several dramatic and tragic tales have unfolded that remind us that professional cycling is a sport played out by fragile young men, prey to the insecurities and afflictions that can haunt so many of us.

Looking at anyone’s eyes can betray a lot about their mood, energy and humanity. For the 90% of the peloton that doesn’t receive media attention, we rarely see those eyes and can forget the emotion and thought they display.

Like any other individual would be, these performance machines are receptive to the abuse thrown at them from armchairs around the world, are aware of the criticism thrown at them in 140 throwaway characters, and are oh-so mindful of every fault they make.

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TV interviews reveal nothing more than the praise of teammates or bland recollections of winning moments, and written articles can be washed by PR men.

The riders that step from behind those masks are those that catch our attention, whether it be the housewives’ favourite Tommy Voeckler’s tongue-wagging dramatics, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig’s incredible La Course interview, or the juxtaposition of sensitivity and unfathomable rage that pushed Mark Cavendish into our consciousness.

But unfortunately, the darker moments jump to our attentions too, a chilling reminder of the pressure underlying elite sport, and the self-worth that can become tied to a profession based on physical prowess.

Early this year we had one of the generation’s sprint heroes, Marcel Kittel, step away from cycling altogether.

Sprinting is a discipline of ruthlessness and machismo, so when the German stated “I have had the feeling of being exhausted. At this moment, I am not able to train and race at the highest level. … From now on I will put my happiness and joy above everything and seek ways to find this also in my future,” we were starkly reminded that those riders capable of pushing out superhuman peak powers are actually just humans.

Just as Kittel’s loss of form and disappointment in himself led to his decision to step away and reset himself, Michal Kwiatkowski, a bedrock in ‘Fortress Froome’ and vital worker for Geraint Thomas in his Tour de France victory, crumbled.

He had little part to play in the pivotal moments of Egan Bernal’s victory this year, and his poor form picked over at journalist’s laptops and Joe Bloggs’ twitter accounts around the world.  

Athletes are proud individuals, and when your life is devoted to the production results and data, no one notices a loss of form and confidence more than a rider themselves.

Just a week after the Tour, Kwiatowski publicly announced his dismay at his decline, and that he’d be staying away from his home race, the Tour of Poland.

“Hopefully soon I will be able to find a joy from riding my bike,” he said.

When a rider unexpectedly drops out of the back of a paceline or finishes an anonymous 10th in a sprint they ‘should’ have won, it’s not like an office worker not quite ticking off everything on the day’s to-do list – it’s a wound that can fester.

The insecurities and self-awareness of form, physique and repute in the pro peloton sometimes plays out in ways other than just cancelled races or mid-season hiatuses however.

The need to be the fastest, lightest and healthiest, something that boils down to the bare bones of the food you eat and the hours you sleep, can manifest itself in conditions that are far from healthy.

Just as wattages can be influenced by training programmes, the other side of the power to weight equation, kilos, can be influenced by dietary choices and behaviours.

Every cyclist is forced into neuroses about what they eat, and when they eat it. In many cases, it’s managed by a nutritionist, and the rider sees body composition and performance take upward curves.

But the nutritionists and team doctors can’t monitor everything, and in many cases, that expertise isn’t available to riders, even those at the upper ecehelons of the sport.

Ben King of Dimension Data has revealed he struggled with Bulimia as a teenage athlete. Earlier this month, Jani Brajkovič, formerly of Astana and Bahrain Merida, who was banned from professional cycling for using a contaminated food supplement, revealed he has fought the eating disorders much of his life.

It has only now emerged that Brajkovič’s ban was the result of his taking meal replacements he drunk as they were all his damaged stomach could handle, something rendering the news of his condition even more heart-breaking.

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In the revelatory article on the 35-year-old’s website, he confirms something we all knew but perhaps try to forget. “Every team I’ve been on, I’ve had teammates struggling. There were at least five, six with an eating disorder, many more with disordered eating behaviours,” he wrote.

He signs off his blog raising the dichotomy in cycling, a sport so focused on the spectacle of suffering, that while some types of conflict and challenge are acceptable, some are not. “Someone who fractures a bone and carries on, is seen as a hero, but somebody struggling for months, years, with mental issues, eating disorders, addiction, is WEAK?”

While we see the hardmen and revel over incredible performances such as Lawson Craddock’s ride through 20 stages of the Tour de France with a fractured shoulder, we don’t see, and are not aware, of the challenges bubbling beneath those sunglasses and helmets that can remove their humanity.

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Fortunately, an eating disorder can be treated and combated, and a loss of form and confidence can be addressed.

King overcame his illness, and hopefully, Brajkovič’s can too. And you can be sure that Kwiatkowski and Kittel will be back before you know it – indeed, the latter is already being linked to a new contract with Jumbo-Visma.

However, sometimes, riders don’t come back. Watching racing on the television gives you little appreciation of the speed and skill of the riders and the hazards around them.

Watch a race pass by on the road, however, and you remember that hundreds of young men are separated from the tarmac, pavement, and road furniture by a brittle 7kg machine and two 25mm strips of rubber.

A lot of the time, they fall, they skid, they get back on and return the next day covered in gauze and bandaging.

But sometimes, they fall and don’t get up.

The recent tragic passing of 22-year-old Bjorg Lambrecht after colliding heavily with a concrete culvert is the latest terrible addition to the list of riders that we didn’t see the day after they collided with road furniture or slipped on the descent.

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Riders commonly speak of the fear they sometimes feel as they jostle in the bunch or descend mountain switchbacks at 50+ kph. We think about it for a few seconds, then move on. They always come back the next day, right?

As racing becomes faster and the peloton becomes more equal in ability, the crashes become more likely, and so does the possibility of irreversible consequences from them.

But sometimes it’s the failure of a body pushed to breaking point as they fight for the wheels in that peloton that claims lives as well.

Though the riders that compete at the highest level have the most highly-tuned systems imaginable, they’re just as prone to faults and failures like the rest of us.

Michael Goolaerts crashed during 2018’s Paris-Roubaix and died later that night. Many instantly assumed his passing was the result of injuries sustained in the fall. But it wasn’t.

“According to our initial information, some form of medical issue, without doubt cardiac-related, caused the crash, rather than a crash causing his medical state,” was the conclusion of the autopsy.

Goolaerts is not the only rider to have clipped into his cleats at the start of a race blissfully unaware of an underlying cardiac issue that would mean he would never make the finish line.

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Several have died in recent years from cardiac failure mid-race as the muscle fails. Just as a calf can spasm and cramp, the heart is just as liable to unexpected and uncontrollable behaviours.

As The Haywire Heart, a book published only the year before the incident pointed out, pushing the heart too hard can have a lasting consequence. The human system only has so much resilience and longevity.

Profession cycling is a sport rooted in human endeavour and brilliant characters, from the heroic exploits of Octave Lapize in 1913, the first Tour de France rider to climb the Tourmalet, to the almost rock-star panache of Marco Pantani and his equally Hollywood-esque tragic passing.

Amongst the whirl of data, PR-washing and reflective shades of the modern-day peloton, we sometimes forget about the men behind the masks.

Sometimes, terrible situations arise that remind us of the living, blinking eyes behind those masks.

Main image by Pauline Ballet, courtesy of ASO.

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