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Exit interview: Timmy Duggan on retiring from pro cycling

The former U.S. road champ chats with Matthew Beaudin about why he retired, how he reached the decision, and where he plans to go from here

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Last week, Timmy Duggan called it a career. The American had won a national championship after recovering from a traumatic brain injury he suffered in 2008. While he was waiting for a contract with Cannondale to come through, he went for a soul ride around his home in Nederland, Colorado. By the time he got to his driveway, and only then, really, he decided to move on, that the sacrifices he was making to be one, two percent faster, weren’t worth it any longer.

VeloNews sat down last week with Duggan, 31, at a coffee shop in Boulder, after he announced he was retiring.

VeloNews: Was this a long time coming?

Timmy Duggan: Yes and no. To tell you the truth, ever since my brain injury in 2008, pretty much every year after that there was a point during the season where I’d think, ‘Yeah, this is my last year.’ But then at the end of the day, the end of the season, I’m having enough fun, I’m happy with the situation, I’m still continuing an upward progression and improving and I keep going, you know? But this year, for a variety of reasons, fundamentally, it’s just time to move on. It’s that simple. Nothing, all of a sudden, was so drastically different or anything … I’m ready to move on.

VN: Was it instant relief?

TD: I was definitely on the fence. I mean, after the Cannondale contract was taking a while, and I was like, ‘All right, what’s going on here?’ I started thinking a little more, and it was kind of an emotional roller coaster. I was like, ‘Yeah, I could stop.’ And then, in the space of 30 seconds, I’d be like, ‘No, I still have things I want to do in the sport.’ Literally, I’d go back and forth five times in the course of 10 minutes, and it was going like that for like two weeks. And then, I started having more conversations with Cannondale and things were moving in the right direction, so it was looking, like, ‘All right. I guess this is happening.’ And then it was really hitting home. This was decision time.

VN: I feel like you’re fortunate because you have other stuff you can do. Some guys don’t know what else to do, and they stick around longer than they have to, because they’re bike racers. That’s what they do. Did you go through that at all, like, this is my identity?

TD: No, not at all. The driving force for me with this decision is exactly what you said. It’s not like something from cycling pushing me. It was more the stuff on the other side of my life pulling me that direction. … It was December 1. December 1! And nothing is concrete yet, and I hadn’t ridden my road bike in a long time. I had just been riding mountain bikes. And I went on one road ride just through the mountains for a few hours. And I’m like, ‘I’m gonna do a soul ride. I’m going to walk in the door to my house, and I’m gonna have a decision.’ And so that’s what I did. And even during that ride I went back and forth 100 times.

VN: Where was it that you made up your mind?

TD: The thing that was definitely pushing me was the last 500 meters of my ride, I’m coming down the hill to my house. And it’s so freaking windy. It almost blew me off the road. And then I turn into my driveway, and I almost crashed.

VN: There were things you said you still wanted to do. What do you wish you could have done?

TD: Above everything, that’s why I made this decision, why I’m comfortable with this decision. Because I’ve proved everything to myself I need to prove. It’s never enough. I never rode the Tour de France. That’s a big asterisk on my career.

VN: There are worse asterisks.

TD: Right. But you know what? I was a national champion. I was an Olympian. I mean, those are two things I scrawled on a note card when I was a cat. 3 amateur that I wanted to do in the sport. And I wanted to ride the Tour. And to get two out of those three? I’m happy with that. And at this point I’m not willing to — maybe I would have ridden the Tour next year. Maybe I wouldn’t have ridden it for seven more years. Maybe I never would have ridden it. But it doesn’t matter. I wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice, that commitment, to reach those things anymore. … It’s all consuming. There’s not one second of the day that you’re not aware of what you’re doing, and how that’s affecting you as an athlete.

VN: For a long time, you were Timmy Duggan, professional cyclist. Now, you’re Timmy Duggan. Are you comfortable with that?

TD: Absolutely… I’ve had some great conversations with some good friends in the last 24 hours. I forget which one of them was saying there’s a difference between cycling being your identity and cycling defining you. And I thought about that. I’m like, ‘Sure, cycling’s my identity.’ That’s how the world knows you … and that’s my identity to most, but that doesn’t define me at all. In my mind, what defines me more than that is being an athlete. I see myself as being an athlete above a cyclist. Being an athlete, whether you’re professional or not, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a way of life, of putting your health and fitness at a high priority, and taking the time and dedication to be — you don’t have to be world class at something — but to be really good at something, I think, is super cool. And you can do that in sport, whether you attain the highest level or not. That’s the opportunity we all have.

VN: What are you going to be really good at next?

TD: I’m going to ski a lot. A big sacrifice for me in my life during cycling was, I can’t ski. Whether it was against your contract or not, you’re off at training camp in Europe in January, season’s over. The last 10 years I’ve gotten five, six days of skiing in, which is a far cry from the 150 I got in as a ski racer. So I certainly miss that. I miss that more all-around athleticism.

VN: You going to gain a little weight?

TD: Oh yeah. I was in the gym today.

VN: Lifting with your arms?

TD: I haven’t done much arm work yet. I’m starting with the pushups. Ease into it.

VN: You mentioned real estate. That’s what’s next for you?

TD: It’s kind of a family business. My dad has been doing it for over 30 years, here in Boulder… and my mom works with him as well. And that was always something I had my eye on, post-cycling.

VN: Do you feel like you’re leaving the sport in better shape than you found it? You seem to have come in at a good time.

TD: Yeah. Now, the biggest thing we can talk about in that respect is the doping problem. A lot of guys coming out now saying they were doping, they’re all saying they stopped in ’05, ’06, ’07, whatever, which is right when I started my career. I was truly lucky. My generation, my companions, same thing. If you’re of my generation, for the most part, there’s just way less opportunity. It wasn’t shoved in your face. I’ve never seen it. I’ve never had the opportunity. It’s never been a part of my options, my psyche. … Doping wasn’t the be-all and end-all. For that, I’m definitely lucky. It’s always going to be a problem in any sport, arena, business. There’s always cheaters. And that’s not why I’m leaving the sport. I’m not bitter about lost opportunities. I signed up for this. I know what I was getting into. I wanted to do it my way.

VN: Are you bitter about the injuries, though?

TD: I could tell you a bunch of opportunities on paper that were lost because of an injury. Equally, I could tell you some amazing things that have happened to me because of that injury. So, I’m not really gonna say, ‘It really sucks I had a head injury. It really sucks I broke my arm.’ Yeah, those sucked, and definitely a lost opportunity, but it certainly made me tougher, and it made being back at your best that much sweeter. Coming back from my brain injury, that was the highlight of my career, just to have said I was able to come back, and get to the top; that the best results of my career came after that. For me, I’m super proud of that. Sure, if I hadn’t broken nine bones, or whatever… but I’m happy that I could still continue to improve in spite of that.

VN: What’s cycling given you?

TD: Above all, two big things. One, a unique opportunity to set goals and strive to reach them in an environment like that, professional sport … a lot of people aren’t lucky enough to have that. There’s more important things in life than just seeing what you can do in sport … whether I won 100 races or none, it’s a cool opportunity. The other thing is just the people I’ve met, the relationships I’ve made. I didn’t really realize what an impact that had on me until I announced my retirement and my wife and I were drinking some wine and we spent the night reading Twitter and Facebook messages. It was just an avalanche of people sending their support, and most of them where people I had no idea who they were. It was special to realize those relationships you made and those impacts you’ve had on people. … It was a super cool feeling. I felt really alive.

VN: Well, I think you’re an interesting case, because you’re sort of an anomaly in that you walked away in the middle of a career, and now this is the end. Do you think you’ll have some regrets?

TD: It’s never enough. You’re never going to accomplish everything you wanted to. I mean, Lance won the Tour seven times; he still had to come back and try to win it again, you know? It’s never going to be enough. It’s like getting married, or having a kid. There’s never going to be a right time. You’ve just gotta jump.

VN: Are you nervous at all?

TD: Nervous like I am on the start line of a bike race that I’m focused on. Which isn’t to say I’m nervous. It just means I’m engaged.

VN: Are you going to keep watching bike racing?

TD: I don’t know. In some respect, absolutely. I mean, am I going to be checking VeloNews every single morning?

VN: Come on, man.

TD: (laughs) I’ll always remain a fan. I’m certainly going to remain in the sport, absolutely.

VN: You’ll probably check VeloNews when this story runs.

TD: Absolutely. I’m eagerly awaiting.

VN: I see you’ve got some notes there. Is there anything else?

TD: One thing that certainly affected me was my traumatic brain injury was that it kind of took the edge off. … For me, after that, I became not so willing to sacrifice everything to go one percent faster on the bike. Yeah, you can always sacrifice more and be better, but the rest of life is important, too. Since the traumatic brain injury I’ve been able to find a balance that I don’t think I had before, you know what I mean? If that’s what I got from that injury, despite I lost a year of my career and who knows what, then that’s worth it. It’s certainly brought my wife and I closer together in the early years of our marriage. I don’t know if I’d trade that.