Every autumn sees its annual migration toward the exit door. It’s part of the ebb and flow of the peloton. New riders come, older riders stick around as long as they can, or want to.
The end of 2019 is no different, but there are a few twists to the retirement season. There are no big-name star exits. No Tom Boonens or Alberto Contadors calling an end to highly successful careers and leaving a vacuum to be filled in the hierarchy.
Instead, this season’s major retirements mark the end of the road for many of the peloton’s journeymen. The 2019 season says goodbye to some of the hardest working, team-oriented riders in the bunch. Most of them were not big winners. More than a few didn’t win one race in a career that might have spanned nearly two decades.
But it’s on their legs and commitment that winning teams are built. This fall marks the goodbye to the peloton’s working-class heroes.
Look no further than Lars Bak, who, at 39, personifies the retiring class of 2019. Back in 2005, the big Dane won the Tour de l’Avenir, and had the wind at his back. Never quite a major captain, nor a consistent winner, he emerged as one of the top domestiques in the bunch. Strong as an ox, he often sacrificed for others, and managed to pick up nine career wins, riding for such teams as CSC, High Road, Lotto-Soudal and Dimension Data.
“I had a great 18 years, but nothing lasts forever,” he said last week before racing Paris-Tours, his final race, where he was seventh. “I think I have done my duty. I have left all my energy and power on the road.”
That honor code exemplifies many of the riders hanging up the cleats at the end of this season.
The list of nearly three-dozen retiring WorldTour riders includes the likes of Roy Curvers (Sunweb), 39, and Hubert Dupont (Ag2r-La Mondiale), 38, who won one and zero races, respectively, during their careers. But it’s riders like them that bring the depth and experience essential to any WorldTour operation.
Each rider checking out this season has their own story. Markel Irizar, the 39-year-old Basque rider at Trek-Segafredo, survived testicular cancer in 2002, inspired in part by Lance Armstrong, and rode another 15 years in the WorldTour, always sacrificing for his teammates.
Many were winners, but just not quite at star billing status in the peloton. Samuel Dumoulin, 39, won a stage at the Tour de France as part of his career palmares of 31 victories. As the saying goes, he’ll never have to have to buy a beer again. Matti Breschel, 35, who will slot into a sport director’s role, won 22 races and was twice on the podium at the world championships, just inches away from life-changing consequences.
Simon Spilak, 33, won 12 times in his career, including twice the Tour de Suisse and once the Tour de Romandie, but he could never translate that success in shorter stage races into grand tours. He only started five, finishing just three, and only once made it to Paris in the Tour de France, with 106th in 2009.
Most of these riders were pulling the hard yards at the front of the peloton before the TV cameras came on. Their job was to protect and nurture, and chaperone their teammates through the treacheries of the peloton.
Many leave the sport without much fanfare.
Mark Renshaw, 36, was an integral part of Mark Cavendish’s once-unstoppable sprint train. Following an abbreviated shot at trying to become the go-to man in the sprints, the Australian unselfishly went back to being one of the sport’s top lead-out men. In his final race, his family was waiting for him alongside the road at the Tour of Britain in September. The tough-man Aussie broke down in tears as he had a chance to stop and hug his son, racing for the last time as a professional.
“Looking back on my career, it’s very gratifying to note the individual successes, as well as being a major component in victories for my teammates,” Renshaw said. “Being a key part of these victories has certainly been a career highlight, and motivated me to perfect the role of a lead-out rider.”
Quite possibly the most memorable feed zone in @Mark_Renshaw’s career. Being handed a bottle by his son on his final race before retiring, what a special moment. #OVOToB #CheersRenshaw #BuiltByTheRide pic.twitter.com/4iaElVYFrG
— Sigma Sports (@sigmasports) September 14, 2019
With a wave of young, hyper-talented riders pouring into the peloton, it’s inevitable that older riders must step aside to make room. But perhaps more than ever, the peloton needs the know-how, professionalism and work ethic that veterans can share among today’s newest crop of budding superstars.
Riders can often extend their careers by emerging into road captain roles. Many of this year’s retirement class are well into their 30’s, having prolonged their racing careers after changing roles.
Laurens ten Dam, 38, twice finished in the top-10 in grand tours, and later emerged as an essential ally to GC riders like Tom Dumoulin. Maxime Monfort, once a budding grand-tour hope, later evolved into an experienced road captain. At 36, the Belgian retired this month on home roads.
Many of these riders racing into their late 30’s are survivors, enduring a string of team closures, scandals, and marketplace vagaries that see some riders lucky to stay in the game, while others are forced to end their careers earlier than they would have liked simply because they could not secure a contract.
They say in cycling it’s not the first pro contract that’s the hardest to secure, but it’s the second. All of these riders deserve credit for hanging around as long as they did in a sometimes cruel, unforgiving sport.
Manuele Mori, 39, won only one race during his 16-year-old career, but he raced at the WorldTour level, consistently proving his worth in 14 grand tours and 38 classics. On the other end of the spectrum is Daan Olivier, 26, a promising young rider on Jumbo-Visma who was forced to retire in the spring due to a knee injury suffered during a training crash last season.
Of course, there are exceptions. Marcel Kittel, 31, and Taylor Phinney, 29, each pulled the plug early by their own volition on what looked to be superstar trajectories for both riders. Phinney’s career path was forever changed when he crashed in the 2014 road nationals, while Kittel’s career went off the rails from burnout.
“The biggest question of the last few months was: Can I and do I want to continue to make the sacrifices needed to be a world-class athlete?” Kittel said in his retirement announcement this summer. “And my answer is: No, I do not want that any more, because I have always found the limitations on a top athlete as an increasing loss of quality of life.”
Both seemed destined for bigger things, but each decided to take new paths that also reveals the demands placed on athletes at the peak of the sport. Without 100 percent dedication, both physically and mentally, it’s hard to succeed at the WorldTour with full and utter commitment.
“I feel like my body sort of made this choice for me,” said Phinney in a post last week. “I’ve now been injured longer than I’ve not been injured as a professional athlete. I’ve kind of had one foot in the sports pool and then one foot in the art pool, and art just won at some point.”
In all, about 20 riders look to be retiring the WorldTour at season’s end. Jarlinson Pantano, 30, tested positive for EPO, hardly the scenario he would have imagined. Mat Hayman officially retired last year, but raced his final event on home roads at the Santos Tour Down Under in January.
There are another two dozen pros hanging up the cleats at the lower divisions. Rubén Plaza, 39, who survived the Puerto scandal to later win stages at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, leaves at season’s end. American Evan Hoffman, 29, also calls an end to a career that included WorldTour and U.S. racing success. Canadian Svein Tuft, 42, says goodbye to a long and unconventional career that saw him emerge as one of the hardest working and dependable team riders in the peloton.
There were a few riders who could not live up to weight of expectations. Moreno Moser, 28, had the burden of the family name, while riders like Brice Feillu, 34, or Roberto Ferrari, 36, tasted big success early and could never reconfirm despite riding for another decade beyond their promise.
Of course, retirement rarely means riders leave behind the sport entirely. Many stay involved in cycling as coaches, sport directors, TV announcers or tour leaders. Phinney hopes to incorporate art into his future, while ten Dam plans on to keep racing, just not on pavement anymore.
“I will immediately be starting the change from pro cyclist to adventure rider,” ten Dam said last week. “It’s this kind of thing that I am aiming to do in the future to replace professional cycling but fulfill my love for the bike. For example, I would like to do races like Dirty Kanza, Cape Epic, maybe a crazy bike packing race.”
The wheel keeps turning. Most pros only want to end their racing careers on their terms, and leave the sport with their head held high, and their bodies intact.