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Is the modern peloton too demanding, pressure-loaded for racers?

We discuss whether the 365-day demands on world-class riders is becoming too much for individuals to manage.

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First, there was Marcel Kittel, then there was Tom Dumoulin. And now, in the space of the last week, both Thibaut Pinot and Egan Bernal have been reported to be suffering under the pressure of life in the high-stakes, high-visibility peloton.

With media scrutiny, sponsor commitments, and financial burdens higher than ever, riders are cracking at the seams as they look to maintain their love for the sport while shouldering the increasing expectations of life as a pro racer.

Related:

Is pro cycling placing too much pressure on the modern peloton? Andrew Hood and Jim Cotton look at either side of the argument:

Andrew: Yes – It has become a 365-day commitment

Strade was in the spotlight as the first race of the post-COVID season. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.
Media duties and sponsor commitments makes pro life more intense than ever. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

Cycling has always been a so-called “hard-man’s (woman’s) sport,” but its modern iteration does seem to be pushing the boundary of what’s sustainable. Of course, pushing the limits and targeting new challenges should always be the goal of any professional endeavor.

In the wake of recent declarations from such riders as Pinot or others like Dumoulin pulling the plug on their careers, however, it’s becoming clear that the 24-7, year-round demands on cyclists among the men’s and women’s peloton can simply become too much.

Some teams seem to infuse a bit of fun into the otherwise ever-more mathematical and scientific approach to racing. Think: Team BikeExchange’s laid-back Aussie vibe, or EF Education-Nippo’s “alternative” racing calendar. Those teams seem to keep it loose while still producing results. Other teams are realizing the incessant demands of the current system are unsustainable if pushed to the extreme, and are trying to keep things fresh. Even Ineos Grenadiers, which helped create the model of the numbers-based modern cycling paradigm, is trying to loosen things up.

The average pro has about 10 years in the elite peloton, so it’s natural that both the cyclist and the teams want to maximize that window of opportunity. And the devil is often in the details. Pinot complained in his revealing interview with L’Equipe how riders used to be able to go to the start village and relax before a stage, but now remain inside the team bus going over route details, wind direction, and course profiles. It’s often those details that make or break a race.

It’s also obvious that some riders can handle the pressure-cooker and 365-day demands that come with being a pro better than others. Despite all the scrutiny and shade thrown at Chris Froome, he’s always smiling. Other pros hate the attention and demands that come with the big-money contract.

For those who can’t handle the pressure, there should be some way to allow them to wind down without putting their mental and physical well-being in danger. Is there a way to legislate that or create some sort of rule? Probably not. Perhaps there could be access to a peloton-wide sports psychologist paid for by teams and races. Like everything in professional cycling, things are wildly different from team to team. Finding the right fit between rider and organization is the only practical solution.

Jim: No – Problems are driven by personality

Many riders find ways of deflecting the pressure. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

While I am certainly not saying that life as a pro cyclist is easy, it seems that riders react to it in line with their existing personality.

Individuals who are more predisposed to introflection or lack the ability to “switch off” are going to divebomb in an environment where angry people pile abuse on them via Twitter and data detailing every gram of body weight and percentage of performance leaves them no room to hide. Many riders obsess over power numbers and even laid-back characters such as Geraint Thomas regularly discuss the burden of “making weight.”

Any fragility or weakness will ruthlessly be exposed in life as a pro cyclist, particularly since the scramble for contracts and pressure to perform has become tighter due to COVID shuttering several teams.

However, cases of riders such as Dumoulin being at breaking-point are the exceptions. Admittedly, many examples of riders buckling under the weight of expectation will go unreported, but the majority of the bunch seems to find a way to shoulder that pressure. Don’t want to read every bad review, see every insult that is poked, hear every voice of doubt? Turn off Twitter, shut down Strava, and leave the newspaper shut.

Extroverts like Peter Sagan or Mark Cavendish seem to largely deflect the scrutiny by controlling how they interact with the media. If Cavendish doesn’t like a question, he doesn’t answer it. When Sagan isn’t in the mood, he plays games with the press to leave them frustrated and uncertain. Other riders seem to simply bask in the attention and welcome it, starting YouTube channels and sharing every waking hour of their life on Instagram.

Competing as one of the best athletes in a given field will never be easy. It’s how an individual absorbs that which makes the difference.