‘Sometimes you need to say stop’ - Women’s cycling’s burnout problem

Marlen Reusser’s honesty after she abandoned the individual time trial due to mental fatigue has empowered others to speak out on the strains of a growing calendar and added pressure

Partway through the 2023 elite women’s time trial World Championships, Marlen Reusser did something that shocked everyone. She was the nailed-on favourite to win on the punchy course around Stirling, but after completing less than half of the total distance, she pulled to the side of the road, unclipped her feet, and stopped. Her team car pulled alongside her with a spare bike, but there was no mechanical, no puncture or dropped chain, Marlen Reusser had simply had enough.

As the cameras watched and waited for the Swiss rider’s next move, Reusser walked over to the grassy verge on the side of the road and sat down. Consoled by hugs from her team staff, she cried, the pain she was feeling inside outwardly visible on the world’s biggest stage. Reusser’s humanity shone through, she showed the real, raw and difficult part of being a professional bike rider.

“I had to give up. It wasn't a mechanical problem, it was just me,” she said afterwards to DirectVelo. “Since the Tour de France Femmes, I feel that I need time to breathe and rediscover this desire to seek victories. It's a bit like when you're preparing for an exam. There is all the preparation, the stress of D-Day and when it's done, we relax. However, I need this moment of relaxation. But on the contrary, I have the impression of being taken in an infernal and infinite spiral.

“When I set foot on the ground, I said to myself that it was probably not a good idea… But I wanted to do it. I know it's not cool for Eddy, my coach, for everyone, who put a lot of energy into me. But I take this decision. I need a break. I am not a machine. Cycling has so many great things to offer, so many great races, from the spring Classics to the Worlds. But it never stops and sometimes you need to say stop. For now.”

Image: Zac Williams/SWPix

Reusser’s actions on the day of the time trial have had consequences and raise questions. They throw into light the demands of being a professional cyclist and force a look to be taken at if too much is being asked of the women’s peloton. Over the last three years, the Women’s WorldTour calendar has grown exponentially. In 2021, there were 17 races in the WWT and in 2023, there are 27, including stage races like the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. The addition of these races are a positive, but problems arise when there aren’t enough riders in teams to compete in them. SD Worx has 16 riders on its roster this year, for example, while most men’s teams will have close to double that number in their teams.

“It's a job to sit down and look at the calendar. It is becoming so big so to choose where you want to perform is hard. You need that balance where you can get some days off and with your family and with your loved ones,” third place finisher at the World Championships, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, commented when asked about whether she could understand where Reusser was coming from in her concern over burning out. 

“To get that mental energy back, where you are hungry to go out and wanting to win, I think it is a balance. Sometimes you get it just right and sometimes you don't. I think it's nice that the women's calendar is expanding, and we're getting awesome races. I think it is a job for all of us to choose what's too much and what's too little. It's brave to speak about it.”

Another key difference between men’s and women’s racing is that due to the smaller team sizes, it’s common for female riders to race throughout the whole season, rather than specialising in particular events. Reusser, for example, has raced a full Classics campaign alongside the Vuelta Femenina, Itzulia Women, Vuelta Burgos, Tour de Suisse, Tour de France and the World Championships, amounting to 39 total race days at the time of writing – when we are still far from the end of the season. In most teams, there are only a limited number of riders who can ride deep into a race and have the ability to still be active at the front, meaning there is a disproportionate amount of pressure on particular team members.

Lizzie Deignan also pointed to this as a reason why we sometimes see more defensive racing on the women’s side of the sport; there are fewer riders who have the strength to bring back or control a breakaway, which means teams are reluctant to let big groups of riders escape the peloton.

Amongst all the growth in the calendar and addition of historic races to the Women’s WorldTour, Reusser’s actions at the World Championships are a reminder that the rate of progression needs to be in line with the abilities of teams to field riders for all these events. Just because a rider has the ability to race the Classics, Ardennes and stage races, for example, shouldn’t mean they have to, especially not at the expense of their mental or physical health. Pushing riders to do too many races season after season poses risk to the longevity of their career as a whole.

Winner of the Tour de France Femmes and teammate of Reusser on SD Worx, Demi Vollering, also commented that such an extensive number of races can cause riders to lose the hunger to win.Image: Pauline Ballet/SWPix

“It’s not only the racing, but also all the training you do in between, altitude camps which are mostly three weeks. It's always really difficult to combine all this. You need to find the balance. Sometimes you don't know beforehand if it's going to be too much or too little,” Vollering said. “For myself, I also found it a little bit difficult last week, but after the Tour I was with my family on a little holiday because if I went directly home alone and started training directly, then I think it would have been the same [as Marlen Reusser]. But still, this week, I was a bit doubting if I was still hungry or not.” 

It’s well known that the mental aspect of racing is as important as the physical – huge gains can be found in riders having a positive mindset ahead of key events. Vollering pointed out that speaking to her mental coach was crucial in preparing her for the World Championships.

“I think it's good to have someone who is not too close to you to talk about those things because if you talk to the team or some close friends, it's always difficult because you don't want to lose their trust,” she said. “You need to know how to find that thing in your head again and be ready and motivated and focused on the race.”

Uttrup Ludwig was in agreement with her colleague: “We talk about how much you need to train in cycling and it’s super tough but there’s also the mental part of it,” she said. “You need to pay attention. For some people that comes easier and for some you need to work on this with a mental coach and with someone that you trust to talk about how you feel. It’s about dealing with the pressure, not only that journalists and all that are putting on, but also your own expectations.”

The issue of mental health in the women’s peloton is so rife that Annemiek van Vleuten, who will retire at the end of the 2023 season as a two-time world champion on the road, explains that she is interested in helping younger riders deal with these pressures after bringing her career to a close.

“I loved that Marlen said it. If you ask me what I want to do when I retire, I want to work on the mental side of coaching with athletes. It’s really nice that she was open about it. I’ve worked for a long time with a mental coach and I think it’s important to be honest about it,” Van Vleuten said. “Sometimes people say ‘Oh, what issue did you have that made you start working with a mental coach?’ and it’s like, I have no issue, I just want to be better in every area and one of the areas is mentally. With my teammates I like to help with this mental coaching part, it’s something that gives me energy.”

The comments of riders like Vollering, Uttrup Ludwig and Van Vleuten certainly show that there is a problem with burnout in the women’s peloton and that more needs to be done to consider the impact of a growing calendar and added pressures on the athletes themselves. While Reusser will likely remember the day she abandoned the World Championships as one of the most difficult of her career, she has opened up an important dialogue and given others the confidence to speak out, something that was urgently needed.

Cover image: Zac Williams/SWPix

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