An early goodbye
As he sat at the bottom of the narrow steps of a BMC Racing Team bus, a band of nervous anticipation tightened across Campbell Flakemore’s chest. It was the morning before the 2015 Vattenfall Cyclassic in Germany. Yet, it wasn’t the looming race that had the young BMC neo-pro nervous. Allan Peiper, the head director of the team, had called him to a van parked further along the road. He knew his life would never be the same once he walked to that van. He remembered feeling every inch of his slow breath. He was ready to leave professional racing behind forever. It was a truth he had known for some time. But now, it was time to make it official.
Three years later, the Australian winter bites at the air. Dark, heavy clouds amble across the sky in a slow march. It’s pouring rain when I arrive. Flakemore greets me at the front courtyard of a townhouse. His hand waves up towards to the door in a suggestion that we should get out of the cold. We’re in Hawthorn East, a suburb nine kilometres outside of the Melbourne CBD. Flakemore has just finished recording a podcast for the cycling website he started with a former teammate.
“Sorry about the mess,” he says once we’re inside. Microphones and several computers cover the lounge room table. “We’ve only just finished the weekly podcast for Stanley Street Social.”
Stanley Street Social, the name of the cycling website he co-runs, pays homage to the name of the street outside. It’s here, he tells me, that hours of conversations on cycling have taken place. Conversations about racing, the realities of professional cycling, the joys of victory, and the pain of crashes. It was also here that the idea for the website was born.
“We thought that there needed to be more relaxed and honest conversations around professional cycling. There weren’t many media outlets tackling cycling in that way. So we thought, why not do it ourselves? It started with wanting to share our authentic conversations with the world,” he says.
The website also acted as a catalyst for Flakemore to reflect on his own cycling journey. In 2015, his exit from professional cycling seemed abrupt, and for many, shocking. Retiring from the World Tour as a neo-pro was almost unheard of. Flakemore still had an entire year left in his contract with BMC Racing Team, and despite a crash at the start of the year, it seemed like he had the world at his feet.
For a long time, it was only those closest to him that knew why he had retired from professional cycling. He had never openly talked about his first and only professional season. About the mental struggles he faced during that period. Or about the fact he had come close to leaving the sport long before that moment in Germany. But now, with his new platform, and encouragement from his friends, he finally found the courage to tell his story.
“When I first left the sport, everyone kept asking me why. And I’d just respond with your typical media-type answer. I never really told anyone how it really went down for me. But with Stanley Street Social, I thought I’d be able to offer an honest account of it,” he says.
Flakemore sits down on a brown leather couch in front of me. He looks out through the fogged window, the view outside half blocked by an old set of blinds. You can tell the rain is heavier now. The wind howls and billows as he speaks.
“Mainly, it was just good to get it off my chest. And hopefully it may inspire other people, who are going through something similar, to speak openly about the tough realities of a sporting life.”
Flakemore looked out at the streets of Saint-Flour. It was the morning of the 2014 Tour de l’Avenir. The medieval French town was host to the opening prologue of the biggest race on the under 23 cycling calendar. The Tour de l’Avenir – often regarded as the u23 Tour de France – is the ‘Tour of the Future’. Yet, as Flakemore gazed out over those narrow French streets, he was contemplating a future elsewhere. “I remember just pausing, and thinking, this could be the last time trial I ever do. This could be it,” he says. “In a lot of ways that motivated me. I had nothing to lose if I was leaving the sport. If this was my last time trial, I remember telling myself: I have to fucking win it.” Flakemore had arrived at the closing races of the 2014 season almost certain that they would be his last. During the year, with the u23 Australian National Team, he had assisted riders like Robert Power and Caleb Ewan (now both professional with Mitchelton-Scott) notch up impressive wins. He enjoyed the atmosphere in the national program in Italy, riding with close friends, achieving success together. But there was another side of the sport, an often unspoken aspect of cycling, which slowly ate away at his resolve.
“Although I was largely enjoying my time in 2014, there was a lot I missed out on back at home,” he tells me. “Being away from friends and family was hard. I missed countless birthdays, my mates were all off to university, and everyone was having their 21st birthday parties.”
Flakemore pauses. It’s as though he has taken himself back to that time, to those thoughts that filled his mind in 2014.
“It may seem silly, but I really felt like I was missing out on a normal life. And although I really enjoyed being over in Italy, I began to question whether I could uproot my entire life [in Australia] for the long-term. I didn’t know if I could go and live in Europe indefinitely.”
In Saint-Flours, Flakemore won the prologue. He edged out Davide Martinelli and Timo Roosen to take the yellow jersey by a slim second. He’d go on to surrender the leader’s jersey a few stages later, but the week that followed, he tells me, “was one of the best weeks I’ve ever had in cycling.”
After that week in France, Flakemore decided that he’d take stock of everything at the end of the year. Once he had finished racing, he’d have some clear air to make a proper decision. Regardless of what he planned for the future, there was one goal that motivated him more than anything else. He still had unfinished business to attend to.
Three months after the prologue, the sun rose over the Spanish city of Ponferrada. It was three days before the 2014 u23 World Time Trial Championships. In a hotel on the outskirts of the city, Flakemore’s phone rang. Picking it up, he remembered being surprised at the sound of his managers voice. “My manager called, and I remember him saying, very casually: ‘BMC have a contract for you,’” he tells me. “He then asked, ‘do you want it?’”
The BMC Racing Team contract represented everything Flakemore had worked for since becoming a cyclist. All those years of training had built up to that moment. Despite his reservations, there was no way he could say no. It took less than a second to respond.
“I just thought, where do I sign?” he says. “There wasn’t much hesitation. When you start cycling, that’s always the goal. To make it to the top level. It’s what you’ve worked towards every day. It’s what motivated you to get out and thrash yourself on the bike over and over. It’s almost like you’ve ‘made it’ once you get that contract.”
Despite the euphoric shock of that call, Flakemore’s focus did not wane. There was one sole reason he was in Ponferrada. It had been his fuel and motivation for an entire year. He needed to win the time trial. He had to make up for what happened 12 months earlier.
In 2013, Flakemore was one of the clear favourites for the u23 World TT Championships. He had won the week earlier at the Chrono Champenois, often regarded as a warm-up for the Worlds’. He felt fit, hungry and ready to race. But then, on the startline in Florence, everything went wrong.
“I am still not sure what happened to me that day,” he says. “I just couldn’t ride properly. My average power was nearly seventy watts less than the week before. I couldn’t get into a good rhythm. God knows how I still managed 4th. I thought I was going end up last.”
The disappointment from that day in 2013 cut deep. That night, in his hotel room in the center of Florence – fueled by anger and frustration – he made a note on his phone. In bold capital letters, he wrote: REMEMBER THIS DAY.
“I was so angry at myself. The failure in 2013 become such a motivating factor for next 12 months. I’d always see that note on my phone and it would remind me of that day. Of the disappointment I felt. I wanted to rectify that more than anything else.”
In Ponferrada, one year after his fourth place in Italy, Flakemore becomes the u23 World Time Trial Champion. Standing on the top step of the podium, with the rainbow jersey pulled over his head, Flakemore remembered feeling relieved. He had actually done it. He could finally delete that note on his phone.
“I felt like I had finally buried my demons,” he says. “It was, and still is, one of the best days of my life. Even now, I always think back to that moment.”
I can hear the joy in his voice as he speaks about the race. About holding that gold medal in his hands on the podium, now framed back at his parent’s house in Hobart, Tasmania.
“Without a doubt, that will always be a highlight of my life.”
In December 2014, Flakemore travelled to Denia, Spain, for the BMC Racing Team pre-season training camp. There, he received boxes of new equipment, his team bikes, and BMC kit. He met his new teammates and spent time with Cadel Evans. There were massive trucks and buses. Even the media were there, snaking their way through the horde of staff and riders, taking photos and recording interviews. It was hard to not be swept up in the spectacle of it all.
Only a few months earlier, Flakemore was considering leaving the sport. Suddenly, he found himself in Spain as a professional rider, shaking Philippe Gilbert’s hand as a teammate. It was as though he was in a strange dream.
“I’d seen documentaries of those December training camps and had seen how big all the team’s setups were. But to actually be there was a little bit surreal,” he says. “Everything had been going really well from the Tour de l’Avenir till that camp. But at the back of my mind, I wondered how I’d manage if something went wrong.”
Then, at the 2015 Tour Down Under that moment arrived. As he rode back to the hotel after the Sterling stage, Flakemore crashed and broke his collarbone. The moment is still clear in his mind. He was riding down a winding descent, at fifty kilometres per hour. Before he knew it he was then sliding across the ground. Laying on the corner of the road, a distinct thought forming in his mind. It was as if it were a matter-of-fact: This is the beginning of the end.
Later that year, Flakemore opened the door of his apartment. He was in the town of Cap-d Ail, on the outskirts of Monaco in Southern France. He had just finished a three-hour solo ride in mountains. His body, he recalled, felt like it’d been hit by a truck.
He had returned from Belgium a few days earlier at 11pm. Once he had arrived home, he went to straight to McDonalds and ordered a Big Mac and twenty nuggets. As he ate alone that night, he tells me, he felt happy for the first time in months.
Once he was inside the apartment, he rested his BMC bike against the hallway wall. The apartment was empty and the lights were off. Nathan Earle and Caleb Ewan, the only other riders he knew that lived close, were away racing. So he had a shower, and then made himself some late lunch. He played FIFA on the PlayStation. The next day, he had another long ride. He hadn’t talked to another person all day.
“If I had my time again,” Flakemore tells me, thinking back to that moment in his apartment, “I’d probably try and live with someone else, or in a town with more people.”
As he speaks about those first few months in Europe as professional, it becomes clear that the challenges for young riders lay beyond the racing. There is the issue of setting up an apartment on the other side of the world. Dealing with pockets of isolation. Then trying to find motivation amongst it all.
“I found it hard,” he says. “There’s a lot of time to have negative thoughts in that kind of situation. I was living by myself, in a town with not too many people close by. When the others where out of town, I would end up feeling sorry for myself. Which wasn’t a good thing.”
In Europe, Flakemore struggled. After his fall at Tour Down Under, he wrestled to regain fitness. He had only had three weeks on the indoor trainer before flying over to his first race. His confidence was then crushed, over and over again, in those early races in Belgium.
In those races, Flakemore found he couldn’t fight for position or take risks like he used to. The danger of the hair-raising battle for wheels was suddenly more pronounced and obvious than it had been previously. He could no longer block it out of his mind. Every close call made him question whether it was worth it.
Coupled with his less than ideal racing form, Flakemore remembers those races feeling like a reoccurring nightmare.
“Even in my best form, I would have struggled in those races, but after minimal training, I was taking a real battering,” he says. “Then I’d be on the plane back to my empty apartment in France, before heading off again only a few days later for another serving.”
All those thoughts that were in his mind in 2014, came flooding back. Flakemore remembered questioning himself daily: What am I doing here?
By the middle of the year, he knew. He could no longer be a professional road cyclist.
Before the start of the 2015 Vattenfall Cyclassics, Flakemore finally told Peiper that he was done with professional cycling. It had been a couple months since he first raised his reservations with the team, and after trying to make it work, it was time make a decision. There in the van, he made it official. As he walked to the start-line, he remembered feeling a weight lift off his shoulders. It was one of the hardest moments of his life, but he felt free for the first time in months. That day in Germany was the last time Flakemore raced his bike.
Today, when I ask if he regrets his decision, Flakemore is quick in his response.
“I have no regrets. I am really glad I did try and be a professional cyclist, and that I took on the challenge of the World Tour,” he tells me. “It didn’t work out for me. But if I had said no to that contract, I think I’d always have that ‘what if’, and regret not giving it a go. But it just isn’t a life that everyone can handle,” he says.
There wasn’t one specific reason, or one event, that lead to Flakemore’s departure from the top of the sport. Rather, it was the accumulative toll that the professional cycling life can take on a person. A toll that some can manage, or even thrive off. Others, however, learn that the realities of a professional sport may not be the dream they once thought it was.
In Melbourne, the rain has now eased into a thin mist. Flakemore is still sitting across from me on the couch. The microphones and laptops, which sat on the table when I arrived, are packed up. Tomorrow, Flakemore has another podcast to record in the city.
“We’re doing a series on people ‘outside of the bubble’ of cycling. So, chatting with people that love to ride, but come from a completely different world. From comedians to football players. It’s crazy the different types of people that love cycling,” he tells me.
With the new website, Flakemore has found an avenue to engage in a sport that he still loves. Yet, in the three years since that final race in Germany, it’s been a long and, at times, difficult journey to arrive at this point in his life.
“You’re a bit lost, in a way, after you leave a sport. You don’t really know what to do,” he says. “I’ve found it really hard.”
For much of 2016, Flakemore went on holiday. He travelled without a bike and gained the experiences he felt he had missed while pursuing a cycling career.
In 2017, he started university, before taking a break to reassess his plan for the future. The transition into ‘normal society’, it turned out, had its own challenges.
“In society, there’s nothing that really keeps you quite as focused and on track as a sport does. There’s always that new goal with cycling. Always something you are working towards. The hardest thing about leaving sport is probably finding that purpose and goals again,” he says.
Today, he tells me, he is finding his feet. He has returned to university, and has thrown himself into his website, Stanley Street Social, including covering the Australian Summer of Cycling. The platform has seen him interview Cadel Evans, Juan Antonio Flecha, and Australian comedian and TV personality, Charlie Pickering. It’s been an interesting road to get here, but above all, Flakemore is happy.
“It’s probably taken the best part of three years to try and get into the swing of it all,” he says. “And I was only bike riding full time for about five years. If you’ve been a professional for fifteen or twenty years, it must be so hard to snap out of that cycle. I was lucky that I was young enough get a head-start in a new area of my life.”
For Flakemore, he looks back on his time cycling with a smile. He has had experiences that some people could only dream about. He has lived overseas and made friendships that will last a lifetime. There are memories that cycling has given him which he’ll never forget. In many ways, it was these experiences that shaped who he is today. And for that, he tells me, he’ll always be in cycling’s debt.
Campbell Flakemore may have left professional racing behind in 2015, but he has not said goodbye to the sport. His love for cycling has never faded. For him, cycling doesn’t end on the competitor side of the spectrum. It is too broad and encompassing of a sport for that.
“Whether it’s with Stanley Street Social, or something else, I’d love to work in cycling or another sport full-time,” he says.
“It’s a new dream for me, but it’s one I’d love to make a reality.”
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 19 where it was first printed.