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The dark side of chasing the pro cycling dreams

We are floated with success stories from sports that make it all look glamorous and way too easy. But the reality is that every success story carries a tale of struggle, failure, missed opportunities and dreams. Here is a story of Luke Parker, now 24 years old Australian cyclist, who did what many of young Australian cyclist do in order to pursue a professional career – left his life in Australia to start in Europe, where the hart, action, and history of professional cycling lives and dies.

Parker’s love for cycling was born watching Tour de France in his early teens. He started doing some road racing as a junior and later made few testing for the NTID (National Talent Identification Program), that showed he had a lot of speed and quite some talent. Soon after that, he started to compete in the velodrome and the sprint discipline as a junior, won the Austral Wheel Race in 2012 and competed at the 2011 Junior Track World Championships in Moscow, where he made an Australian record in his age group category.   

Despite his success on the track, it was the road where he saw his future career. So he packed his bags and moved to Europe in 2014, a small town of Gavardo, Italy, to train with Cipollini Ale-Rime. But high hopes and dreams were soon smashed by reality. Since he didn’t speak any Italian, first few months were especially challenging. “I had some really incredible experiences in Italy,” Parker said, “but it’s not as glamorous as it can seem. There were some really difficult times over there and I definitely wasn’t prepared for that.”

However, he was forced to learn the language fast, so that was not the only problem. “I went over and was shocked by the racing: how hard it was compared to Australia, how big the fields were (with over 250 riders per race), and how aggressive Italian riders could be. There were punches being thrown nearly every race,” Parker said.

But the hardest part for this young rider was when he went off the bike. Like most elite level sport, cycling can be specially taught mentally. There is a constant pressure regarding performance, diet, weight, and recovery. One has to deal with personal conflicts, motivation, injuries, racing tactics, etc. And all of this can be even harder to coop with when you are over 16,000 km away from home, immersed in a completely different culture, with little to no money attached to your name.

The Australian u23 men National program has seen some of Australia’s biggest road cycling stars go through its ranks, acting as a transitional platform to Europe, that gave young riders the chance to live and race there with proper financial and community support. And with Australia cycling pulling their support of the u23 program, Parker’s experience may become a more frequent reality.  So how can young athletes coop with that all?

“I think you just need to get the living side of the equation in order first. That’s the biggest challenge,” Parker said. “I got close to that point, over the two years. I learned Italian, got used to my life there. But, even with the huge support from the manager of my Italian team, Daniele Calsosso – who become a good friend of mine – it all eventually got to me, it wore me down, and ultimately ended my time in Europe.”

Despite the challenges, the whole experience for Parker was something truly exceptional and one he wouldn’t change. “I just wish I was more prepared. That I knew there could be some hard moments. That I didn’t go over there believing that every aspect was meant to be great and enjoyable, thinking something was wrong with me when I struggled. It’s okay to find it tough, it can be a hard and sudden transition for a young Aussie.”

Luke Parker’s story is not an uncommon one. Many young athletes from every sport go through the same experiences when trying to pursue their professional career, and unfortunately, many of them don’t manage to overcome them. But while we think there should be something done to increase the psychological support in this manner and the awareness of it, Aussies are still lucky to have Cycling Australia’s platform to allow them at least to start this path. There are many remarkable young talents out there who don’t have this chance in their country, but here is where SportyCo comes into the picture now.

Source: Stanley Street Social