After doing his first professional race in 2005, Mitch Docker is calling time on a long career. His final race will be Paris-Roubaix this weekend, a fitting end to his time in the peloton, as he’s always loved the Hell of the North.
“It's a real challenge, a real journey just to get to the velodrome,” he tells me. “I can't think of any other race where you start the race and you just really don't know if you can even finish it.” It’s this sense of unpredictability and chaos that has put Roubaix at the top of Docker’s list of races he wishes to win.
“Quite often you get defeated by the race, but then you can also conquer it. If you get into the velodrome you really feel this sense of achievement, no matter where you are and no matter who you're with,” he says. “You can look across at that other rider who you probably rode the last 30 or 40km with and he looks across and is like: yeah, we made it. All the riders feel that.”
Despite having an innate love for the race and what it represents about cycling, Docker’s best result was 15th in the 2011 edition of the race, riding for Skil-Shimano at 25 years of age. “I remember seeing the guys who were in the breakaway can finish in the top 10 and I thought that's weird. You can actually do something from the break in Roubaix. So the following year, I got the break again and then I finished 15th.”
Since then, Docker has tried to emulate the success, targeting the Hell of the North each season, aiming to enter the iconic velodrome in the top 10 or even top 5, but it’s fair to say his role changed when he joined WorldTour team Orica GreenEDGE in 2012.
“I have been trying to get in the break ever since 2011 but when you're in a bigger team, a lot of teams are looking at you to bring back the break. It doesn't matter if the pro-conti rider or team goes in the break,” he says. “You're a bit naive, you don't have any built up expectations of yourself so you just race free. All of a sudden I finished 15th and that was, I wouldn't say haunting me, but I always wanted to do better than that.”
Docker tried to race harder and do things better, but on paper has never had a better result than that elusive 15th. He explains that, although it might not show on ProCyclingStats, he’s had some technically and tactically better rides at Roubaix since then. “I’ve finished mid-pack since then but tried to follow the best and I was so happy with those rides,” he says. “I think maybe the 30th or something one year was just a great ride. I got right to the end of the cobbles with the best riders. I was one of the players. I didn't try and do anything sneaky, I just tried to go with the best.”
His fellow Australian and teammate, Mathew Hayman, won Paris-Roubaix in 2016, a shock winner that few predicted would take victory that day, especially as Hayman had been on the turbo trainer in the weeks leading up to the race, recovering from injury. It was a euphoric day for Australian Cycling, but Docker's race told a very different story. “I actually crashed on Arenberg that day and that was sort of a career changing crash for me” he explains. “It was such a low in the team for that crash for me, yet such a high with Hayman winning.” Despite not having fond memories personally from that day, Docker took huge inspiration from his compatriot’s win.
“He gave me hope that if you keep plugging away, anyone can win. It's not always like the Tom Boonens, if you’re just strong and play your cards right you can win.”
Photo credit: Zac Williams/SWpix
As for this year, it’s unlikely that Docker will be able to fight for his own result, being in a team role. He doesn’t expect to better that 15th place of 2011, but is prepared to be in the support of the likes of Micheal Valgren and Sebastian Langeveld. “I think that's something I've always done [working in a team role] my whole career and suddenly to switch roles on my last day just wouldn't feel right for me,” he says.
“I have to be realistic, I haven't been at the front of the cobbles or the classics for a few years anyway, so I know where my place is in the bunch and for me to suddenly just switch roles and ride for myself all day just to finish the race it would just be a bit deflating,” he explains. “That's just not really what I like to do. I like to give everything I can for the team, whatever that is, and then see where I'm at.”
He admits that winning Roubaix would be an unforgettable way to round out his career, but it wouldn't change his choice to retire after the race. “I did a race on Wednesday and it reminded me that I think I'm done with this,'' he says. “It was pretty hectic and I wasn't loving it. I knew I had the legs to do what I needed to do but the real passion for the grimy racing has sort of drifted away a bit.”
Docker speaks about a shift in the peloton, explaining how things have changed since he turned professional with riders coming straight from the junior ranks to the World Tour. In the time when Docker was fighting for a contract, this was largely unheard of. Riders based out of Europe would need to move to the continent to learn their trade and prove themselves in foreign teams.
“If people can do the numbers now, they believe they should be in that position," he says. “They do have the right to do that, too, but it just creates a much more dangerous peloton. Before, and I'm talking around 10 years ago, there was a hierarchy. You had to earn your stripes, earn your stripes in that position. You just didn't attempt moves or things in the race, because you just knew it wasn't your place. Now that those walls have been broken down, and directors have gone, why can't you just do it? It's just changed.”
Docker certainly did his time in Europe before securing his professional contract, moving away from his family in Australia and having to learn the ways of the peloton as well as become accustomed to a new culture. “The first three years in a Dutch team was a real shock but sort of what I needed to do,” he says. “I needed to find out if I love the sport or not being in a full European setup. There was no easy way about it. And if you didn't like it, they didn't care”
“They weren't going to sugarcoat it. I realised after that, I've pushed through it and made the ground for what I wanted to be a long career. I think if I didn’t push through those years before, I don't know if I would have been a pro for as long as I have been, because when I hit a speed bump or something else, then I was able to go okay, I can overcome this."
He’s quick to assert that he doesn’t expect riders to turn down offers of WorldTour contracts out of junior, and understands the reasons why they’d take the opportunities presented to them. “I look at it that maybe guys need to do it a bit harder, or find out if they really love it before they commit to the WorldTour, and maybe get thrown into a job and waste their talent for two years. But then again, do you say no to a big contract in a big team?”Image: Bas Czerwinski / Stringer
Docker is ready to move away from the racing scene this year, keen to spend more time with family and move back to Australia for his retirement. He has plenty of plans for his life post-race, including working on his podcast series, ‘Life in the Peloton’, dabbling in coaching for EF and competing in some big bike-packing challenges.
He’s begun some of these exploits already, working as a journalist with ‘The Cycling Podcast’ at the Tour de France this year and completing the Tour of Sweden endurance race event with his sponsor, Poc.
“It wasn’t really a race, but you can race it if you want,” he says of The Tour of Sweden. “You can go as fast as you want or you can just take your time and we did it sort of somewhere in between.” Originally, Docker had planned to do the race with teammate Alex Howes, but the American had to pull out at the last minute. “We had two guys from Sweden, Magnus and Damien, and they told me all about the countries we rode through. In hindsight, I was like thank God I never raced it.”
Docker’s team, EF Education-Nippo, encourages their riders to complete Alternative Calendars, riding races or attempting challenges off the beaten track, something Docker has appreciated in recent years. “They definitely leave a little bit of room for you to explore who you are,” he says. “As long as they're on race day and you're racing well, that's what's important.”
The team will certainly miss Docker in their line-up in the coming seasons. While he hasn’t been the rider to take many victories for them, his job is often essential in helping his teammates to the win. His lack of personal results meant that Docker was surprised at the outpouring of well-wishes on social media when he announced his retirement after Roubaix.
“I'm not really a big results person. I've only got two wins in my career, and I've just done my job and as hard as I can, but to see that [response], it makes you think that yeah, you had a big, big impact on the peloton and didn't necessarily need results,” he says.
Docker will finish his career tomorrow in the selfless way he knows how, helping whoever he can from his team to get the best result they can. “Your legacy is that you try to be that consistent rider that people look to and see you’re always doing a job,” he says. “In my career, that’s shone through.”