A new hope
Despite last night’s thunderstorm, the morning sun peeks over the beautiful Suances cliff lookout, just 400 metres away, and cloaks the living room in its warmth. The sound of the sea surrounds us and the views are overwhelming. Iván Gutiérrez (Suances, Cantabria, 1978) has spent many afternoons watching boats pass by, pondering their destination. Others were spent hidden from life, with Iván closing the curtains to block out the warmth of the sun and the sound of the waves, and burying himself under the sheets that serve as both a refuge and a prison. We take a seat by his side, with the sea at our backs, to talk about the depression he continues to fight to this day.
The ninth stage of the 2013 Tour de France marked the beginning of the end of Iván Gutiérrez’s career. During the second stage circling the Pyrenees, the peloton took on the 168 kilometres between Saint-Girons and Bagnères-de-Bigorre up four first-category climbs: Col de Menté, Col de Peyresourde, Col de Val Louron Azet and the Hourquette d´Ancizan. The Movistar team, with Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana sharing the lead, started the stage by attacking the first second-category climb, Portet-d’Aspet, with Imanol Erviti, Jonathan Castroviejo, José Joaquín Rojas and Iván himself. With ten participations, the Cantabrian was the most experienced rider on the Spanish team. In 2000 he rode within the lines of the ONCE team at the Under 23 World Championships and wore his rainbow-coloured champion jersey with pride. He was one of the greatest time trialists in Spanish cycling: four-time time trialist champion and two-time road champion in Spain. His career in sports brought him individual success and also helped him bring success to others in his work as a domestique. But that day, during the Peyresourde climb, he was overcome by the strong desire to go home.
He slowly started falling behind the group while the team and race caravans passed him in pursuit of the peloton. For months, he had been dealing with anxiety, which he says started when his grandfather died during Paris-Nice in the month of March. It was getting harder and harder for him to stay in shape and with the emergence of Nairo Quintana, the team was under more pressure than ever to perform well at the Tour de France. And he started pedalling more and more slowly. Any chance he had to stay in the race that day disappeared when he saw two riders being pulled by a team caravan passing him at full speed, followed by the Movistar team, who didn’t look twice at him. Although he knew the race was splintered and out of control and that is why his team couldn’t help him, it didn’t matter. He turned this into a metaphor, and suddenly felt alone. Abandoned. “When I saw those two riders I thought: Where is my team? Where is my team?” he wells up as he remembers it. “The least they could do is send a team caravan to save a man’s life.”
For years, Iván was one of the best domestiques of the Movistar team and of the international peloton. He’s a calm, kind and happy kind of man with no trace of an ego. He cares for those around him and is a good listener. He’s honest and doesn’t mind going into depth on his comments, so our conversation lasted a long time. It’s a pleasure to listen to a cyclist with so much experience speak so beautifully about cycling. He’s a man who is making the most of a wonderful life and is in good health. To outsiders, his life looks perfect, and that’s why he has felt misunderstood within his illness. “But you have it all, people tell me. But they don’t understand that it’s not about that.”
Four years after that Tour de France, Iván is on the way to overcoming a depression so severe that it not only ended his career, but almost cost him his life. Eleven times. After his abandonment on the Tour, he started to figure out what was happening to him; this wasn’t his first time. “You have to hide it. If someone has cancer it’s newsworthy and everyone feels bad for them, but no one feels bad for someone who’s depressed, people usually just want us out of the way.” During the 2014 season, he withdrew from the Tour Down Under, Paris-Nice, Tour de Flandes, Circuit de la Sarthe, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallone, Liège-Bastogne-Liége and ended his career in August when he abandoned in the seventh stage of the Eneco Tour, a race he won in 2007 and 2008. “I was in agony. My self-esteem was extremely low; I had no energy, chronic fatigue and apathy. You can’t race in those conditions. And no one asked me what was wrong. Everyone thought it had to do with my age.” Although he wanted to compete again in Canada in September, the team doctor, Jesús Hoyos, recommended he focus on taking care of himself. He never wore a number again.
“I’m sure that if I had quit cycling in 2010 I would not have fallen into this depression.” He’s absolutely positive about what caused it. “I had more responsibility on my team than I could handle. I went out of my way for the team and took races as if my team’s life depended solely on me. I would never do that again,” he stresses. In 2010, the last year he won the Spanish National Championships, his role on the Movistar team changed and he became a domestique, something he admits he didn’t mind doing. “In the end, you have to be the best at what you do best, and I could no longer win like I used to. What good would it do me to win two races a year? Being a great domestique was going to extend my career and, in the end, this sport had turned into an investment for me. I wanted to make good money and I surely wasn’t going to be able to make it doing something else.”
Iván remembers his cycling days with a feeling of abandonment and misunderstanding. “If someone would have listened to me, I’m sure I wouldn’t have gone through this. With just a call, a message…” Cycling is an agonising sport, and he has realized that no one ever taught him how to manage his feelings. As he moved up into higher levels of competition, he learned that people paid less attention to those things. Motivated by his interest in leadership and mental training, he decided to take an emotional intelligence class from ex-footballer Imanol Ibarrondo when he was in one of his lowest states of depression. During the weeks he was in class, Ibarrondo very quickly noticed Iván’s passion for football and put him in touch with Ángel Viadero, the coach of Racing de Santander, so the ex-cyclist could attend some of their training sessions.
Iván loves football. The first time his father took him to a Racing match he was just three years old. Ever since then, he’s thought of the club’s colours as his own. Years later, he would step onto the El Sardinero field in Santander for the first time to be honoured for his professional achievements in cycling. In 2015 he started going to club practices and in 2016 he joined the technical staff. He’s done that job, for free, ever since. “In the beginning, the idea was for me to spend time with the players and have fun while learning good habits and bringing some order to my life.” Ibarrondo saw something in Iván and knew he could provide value to the sport; he also brought back some of the self-esteem Iván had lost over the years. “For the last four years, my work at Racing has been my best medicine,” he affirms. Some of his jobs at the club include observing player emotions, managing the team and promoting good cycling values among the younger team members.
Every day, before their talk, he sits on the floor, puts himself on the same level as the players and looks them in the eyes. He admits that what has most surprised him about football is how hard it is and how often the players are injured, much more often than in cycling. “I can’t comprehend how a player can fall down and not get up immediately. In my experience, you get back on your bike right after falling off. I want the players to learn to get up, it shows their teammates that they’re committed and in the game.” He knows that the level of sacrifice between cycling and football can’t be compared, but he tries to teach them how important it is not to give up when things get tough, because their teammates may need them tomorrow. “These are essential sport values that they can’t forget. Some players don’t train as hard or may even fake pain to skip training on certain days when their physical level isn’t up to par.”
When Iván met the team, he was a complete stranger to the players. A few months later, after a weeklong absence from the club due to a severe episode of his illness, he decided to be honest with the players and talk to them openly about his depression. They already admired him as a person and would soon admire him as an athlete. The staff showed the players his farewell video made by Movistar and they quickly got to know the champion hiding inside the person they already knew. “He’s like our own drone,” said Ángel Viadero, Racing coach. “His vision has nothing to do with football but is related to sports. He has the sensibility and skills to identify athletes that need to talk or need a pat on the back. He provides us with important emotional and sports instruction.” For Viadero, the presence of the ex-cyclist is mutually enriching. “Footballers don’t tend to have a veteran to look up to on their own team like cyclists or other athletes do. Even though he’s young, Iván knows what it means to suffer and what it feels like to leave things behind in order to reach a goal, and he transmits that very well. He provides young people with important tools from his own experience.”
On the Movistar team (and this tends to be the same with all other cycling teams), rookie riders share a room with veterans to learn about the profession first hand. They become their mentors. “I want young people to set aside their fears and insecurities and transmit their emotions, since many of them don’t communicate well. In the peloton I was known for being an aggressive and impulsive rider. It’s true; I would have killed for my teammates. I’m sure I did it to hide my own weaknesses and I often made mistakes. I didn’t even know the riders I was up against. If I had known what I know now, I would have treated the peloton differently. I would have been much more respectful.” Iván speaks of a high-competition sport with no room for empathy, where fatigue makes you turn against yourself and where emotions such as rage, anger, euphoria, helplessness and the feeling of defeat are left for you to control.
“In cycling, just as in any other sport, there are many cases of latent depression. Riders that don’t need antidepressants but do need psychological treatment, or at least someone to listen and know what they’re going through.” Iván tells us how he lived with latent depression that manifested itself in anxiety and that he could, more or less, control it while competing. But when he got off his bike at the Eneco Tour, he couldn’t take it anymore. They prescribed him antidepressants, stabilisers and tranquilisers that kept him from training. Without the responsibility of competitions on the horizon, he fell apart. He doesn’t talk about suicide attempts, but episodes. He didn’t want to kill himself, he wanted to run away, sleep, get away from the noise and get away from himself. On one occasion, the police looked for him for hours on the cliffs that are currently standing right behind him, while he sought refuge in the forest after having taken a large dose of sleeping pills. “In those moments you’re insane, you aren’t yourself; it’s as if another person takes control of your body.” He would lie to the doctors to get more medication and he’d follow his girlfriend through the house to try and find where she was hiding the pills. He now remembers how much his father cried and how bad he felt thinking of how much he made his family suffer. If it weren’t for all the times they pulled him out of bed and told him to keep going, he wouldn’t be here today.
Today, he continues to fight the bad memories he has about how he quit cycling. He simply disappeared. Neither his team nor the press knew his reason for leaving; he left misunderstood and out the back door. The feeling of abandonment, once again, overwhelms him. He feels conflicted when he thinks of his ex-teammate, an Italian called Adriano Malori, who suffered a serious accident during the Tour de San Luis in January 2016 and who has, ever since, been fighting to get back into competing. On the one hand, Iván wishes him the best, but the fact that his recovery has taken centre stage on TV programmes, covered headlines and created a downpour of praise on social networks makes him wish he had “broken 30 bones instead of going through depression. The world sees him [Adriano] as a fighter. No one worried about me. If they only knew what I’ve been through…”
The weather in Cantabria is unpredictable, but people say that when the sun shines, it shines brighter than anywhere else in the world. Iván Gutiérrez currently has more good days than bad ones. By taking care of others, he has learned to take care of himself. He found a new path in football that has brought back his confidence and self-esteem. As the flagship he was for the Movistar Team in the past, Ángel Viadero affirms, “I couldn’t imagine Racing without Iván Gutiérrez.”
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.