F1RST MOVE NEWS

Athletes Behaving Badly

~ published in Bicycling Magazine (Issue 3 • 2021)

Behind the veneer of a slick, focused and confident athlete, you’ll find a little boy or girl filled with self-doubt and insecurities. 

Don’t let their Instagram personas fool you, not all athletes are as invincible, and altogether they would have you believe. We wrap athletes in cotton wool to allow them the ‘freedom’ to focus only on what’s in front of them and perform at their peak. This backfires on us when we have to unwrap them and deliver real-world news. Usually, the bad news is dealt with like adults, but sometimes it results in a full-contact tantrum, just like the kids you see in the sweet aisle at Spar.

I’ve had my fair share of situations where an athlete has gone from zero to batshit crazy when they don’t get their way, to the point of being physically assaulted trying to calm a situation down. 

I physically had to lock a bike away from an athlete who just wouldn’t deal with the reality that he was not medically fit to ride. This particular athlete crashed during training a few days before a sizable one-day event and a respected sports physician gave the athlete strict instructions not to get back on his bike until day 7. After countless occasions of finding him going against the Doctor’s orders, I was forced to treat him like a naughty seven-year-old and take his bike away for misbehaving. He was eventually cleared to race, but it took him months to return to the level that he was at before the crash.

I will always stand up for what I believe to be right for the athletes’ well-being and the teams best interests and this was tested after an over-the-bars crash resulted in a broken helmet and an athlete that pretty much limped back to the finish line. Fortunately, the same sports physician was able to ‘unofficially’ assess this athlete, and the medical advice given was that the athlete would need to be withdrawn on medical grounds due to a concussion. I agreed with the doctor, which caused the athlete to freak out, telling me I was neurotic and irrational. I then had to spend the next 4 hours arguing with the “powers that be”, who thought it was in everyone’s best interests to continue to race. He started the following stage, only to pull out before the first waterpoint as he couldn’t see straight. He got assessed by the medical team after the stage, and guess what? Sometimes, an athlete’s determination can be to their own detriment, and the rest of his season was a write-off. 

Big picture thinking comes with experience and is something we pass down to the younger riders. Seven days into a particular event, we had established a healthy lead going into the final stage. Like with the Tour de France, we wanted the team to protect their overall lead and focus on getting to the finish line in one piece, allowing the other teams to fight it out for a stage win. We discussed this strategy the evening before, which resulted in one of the biggest temper tantrums I’ve ever witnessed. A raging argument about how unfair the situation was and how we were asking the athlete to do the unthinkable, countless tearful phone calls, water bottles being hurled across the team camp at random intervals and camper doors slamming for dramatic effect. Thankfully, we managed to talk everything through in the morning, and the stage went off without a hitch. 

It’s not just athletes that act up under stressful situations or when they don’t get their way. 

Mechanics are the backbone of racing teams, and I have spent a disproportionate amount of time and energy managing the dynamics between mechanics and the team. 

We’ve had mechanics that have revelled in social media attention, so much so that they have failed to fulfil their primary role when it is most needed. This added pressure to the other team mechanics ruffled many feathers and a spectacular athlete tantrum the day before a World Championship event. Said mechanic and athlete never worked together again after that.

I’ve also had to contend with a mechanic who was such a perfectionist that he took it as a personal insult if an athlete’s performance didn’t measure up to the time and effort he put into preparing the bikes. This type of mechanic also believes that no other mechanic can ever live up to the expectation of being a pro race mechanic, and make it his life’s work to remind everyone, constantly.

I have also thrown a couple of tantrums over the years, but of course, they were always justified 🙂


Images: Michal Cerveny