Kiel Reijnen writes poignantly about the struggles of quitting La Vuelta in view of his upcoming retirement
I’m writing this at 4:20 a.m. because jetlag doesn’t differentiate.
Even after covering roughly 2,500 km in the last two weeks of racing, a peaceful night of sleep is more elusive than it should be. I’m drinking coffee out of the same travel mug I’ve been using the entire trip because, frankly, I need to keep something from my routine. The mail is piled up on the kitchen table, a physical reminder of the mounting to-do list and chores that have been accumulating while I’ve been away.
Long travel was much easier when I was younger. I lived in an apartment, and then a small two-bedroom ranch house on a postage stamp lot with my wife for much of my racing career. We still have a small house, but our property is wilder and larger and needs taming along with our two kids.
It’s a constant battle just to keep up sometimes. Sure, we pine for our youthful selves, all that squandered leisure time. But we like the life we have built and, most importantly, we love being parents. Like all things, our life over the past decade has evolved and changed. Sometimes we took notice, other times we were oblivious to the small shifts that seem so big and permanent now. I’m reflecting on all of this change now because it seems so analogous to my recent exit from the Vuelta a España.
Less than 48 hours ago I was ripping through the arid, sun-baked hills of eastern Spain, being towed along at an astonishing 50 kph average by an increasingly urgent peloton. Stronger than predicted wind and a looming series of Category 1 climbs spurred a collective nervousness among the riders, who were hoping for glory before the rest day. I was in a different battle altogether. I knew that morning that my chances of continuing in the race were diminishing.
Every morning for a week I had the same conversation with the team doctor and received the same warning: 'If the pain in your tendon sharply increases, then you need to abandon.'
That had been the case nearly every day since Stage 7 when a heavy, high-speed crash jeopardized my race. Every morning for a week I had the same conversation with the team doctor and received the same warning: “If the pain in your tendon sharply increases, then you need to abandon.”
Just hearing that word as a professional cyclist makes your heart sink. Quit, give up, fail — that is what abandon means in the mind of a cyclist. Of course, the reality is that crashes, injuries and sickness are unavoidable. Especially to athletes pushing the limits of human capability over the course of three weeks. Protecting the body from further damage is often the logical choice. It’s just never one a cyclist wants to hear.
It’s hard to explain or even list the number of sacrifices riders make to get physically and mentally prepared for a Grand Tour. Fans don’t see the time away from loved ones, the friendships forgotten, missed birthday parties and weekend holidays. That is why commonsense rarely prevails and bandage clad riders with blood streaming from their extremities are regularly seen soldiering to the finish line.
I was one of those riders. I admit, in my youth I may have lied to the doctor, told him the pain was improving or even non-existent. Age makes some things easier, and in this case admitting to myself that I was making the situation worse, jeopardizing the last months of the racing season, was easier than in the past. Admitting that doesn’t make the feelings of inadequacy any less, however. Knowing that this season would also be my final season as a professional road cyclist made the consequences of my decision even more difficult to navigate.
After only a handful of pedal strokes into Stage 15, I knew my Vuelta was over.
After only a handful of pedal strokes into Stage 15, I knew my Vuelta was over. Regardless, I spent the next hour and half locked in a mental battle trying to convince myself otherwise. The speed of the peloton that day was relentless as we chased back a dangerous 30-man move that had skipped away in the early crosswinds. I hung on for dear life hoping there might be a lull in the pace long enough for the pain to settle down. However, it was clear from the start that the stage would be fought from start to finish.
My radio earpiece crackled, the words hard to distinguish amongst the hot Spanish wind. The guys were asking for water. In what I hope reflects the type of rider I was during my time with Trek, I raised my hand at the back of the group, signaling to the commissaire my request for bottles. After frantically loading up my jersey at the team car, I made a beeline up the left-hand side for the front of the group. When the riders are strung out at those speeds, the effort to drag yourself from the rear of the group to the pointy end of the race can feel impossible. I clawed my way to about 20th position before the increasing gradient of the pavement forced me backward through the group.
I desperately fumbled the bottles trying to remove them from the jersey as I quickly lost position. I managed to find four of my teammates before I was once again at the tail of the peloton. My effort wasn’t textbook, but it helped. It was my final attempt at contributing to the team over the past two weeks, to give them the last bit of reserve I had left before the inevitable occurred.
The tendinitis and pain in my right hip had noticeably increased over the previous 24 hours and was working its way down my IT band into the posterior edge of my knee. The team staff pulled out all the stops to get me as far as they did. Cryotherapy, massage, chiropractic work, anti-inflammatories. Some of those efforts worked, and the race terrain cooperated just enough that I believed I could reach the second rest day intact. We did our best, but in the end the steep gradients and punishing pace quickly erased any progress we had made.
He looked at me, his eyes already giving me the answer I needed to hear, but I responded, 'I know. Just tell me to stop.'
After I delivered the bottles I was unceremoniously dropped on the next kick, my hip begging me to stop. But I couldn’t. Soon the team cars began to pass one by one. When our second team car arrived, I looked at our team director Grégory Rast, a friend and former teammate, and said, “I can’t.”
“Kiel, it doesn’t make sense. The doctor said if it’s worse …”
He looked at me, his eyes already giving me the answer I needed to hear, but I responded, “I know. Just tell me to stop.”
“Stop,” Greggy responded.
Within 10 minutes of stepping off the bike and into the car there were phone calls between team staff. New flights were being booked and schedules adjusted. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, stopping a race makes you feel shameful. Like being picked last on the playground. Immediately I wanted to disappear. But we still had to follow the race until I could be dropped off with the soigneurs at the feed-zone. For two hours I watched as fans waved and the race that I was supposed to participate in sped along the mountainous terrain. Just my thoughts for company.
Exiting a stage race, especially a Grand Tour is a jolting experience. For the better part of three weeks I had been inside the race bubble. Even before the pandemic and COVID protocols this bubble felt isolated from the world. Time outside of the race stops. The daily routine: wake up, pack your suitcase, eat, drive, put on spandex, race, drive, eat, massage, eat, sleep and repeat. Someone else is doing your laundry, your dishes, cooking, washing your bike and dictating your schedule, all so that athletes can focus on recovering. But the repetitiveness can feel suffocating. You become so saturated in the race, so closed off to the world, that the race takes on outsized importance. The laser-like focus blurs everything in the peripheral. Then suddenly, it’s over.
By 6 a.m. the following morning I was already at the airport in Bilbao bound for home. Less than 32 hours after stepping off my bike I was home, nine time zones away and a million miles from professional cycling. Suddenly the rest of the world came back into focus and the race, for a change, became a distant blur. I had been on the road for two months. My family, who had been with me for only parts of the trip, welcomed me back. I played with my little girls. The following morning, I unpacked and started piecing my life together. Catching up on chores and life tasks that had accumulated in my absence.
I spent more time than usual reflecting on this experience because it will be one of my last as a bona fide European pro. An adolescent dream realized. This has been my life for well over a decade. Who will I be after? I’m excited about the adventure ahead and the chance to redefine myself as an athlete, person, father, etc. But I am also incredibly nervous about creating a new identity and leaving the world of professional road cycling behind.
Fortunately, there is still some race season left and my injuries should heal up in a week or two and allow me to say a more positive farewell to the sport. With a handful of one-day races in France and Belgium less than a month away, I have to reset one more time, trust the process and give my best. Lessons learned after so many seasons in the trenches.