Becky James stunned the cycling world in August by announcing her retirement, aged just 25. Here was one of Britain’s — one of the world’s, in fact — fastest female sprinters, a few years shy of her expected peak. A year earlier she had won silver in the keirin and sprint at the Rio Olympics.
Her hero, Sir Chris Hoy, won the last of his six Olympic medals aged 36, some 11 years older than James when she decided to hang up her racing wheels. What led James to take this bold, if surprising decision, and what can we learn from her resolve to embrace a new chapter?
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‘I couldn’t face another four-year cycle’
We’ve all experienced competitive pressure, but what’s it really like in the upper echelons of sport? James had lived through one complete Olympic cycle; between 2012 and 2016 she won two World Championship golds, five bronzes, and a bronze in the European Championships. During that period, however, she suffered a knee injury that kept her out of competition for 18 months.
She also had a cancer scare — a time she has previously described as an “emotional rollercoaster” and “really lonely”.
Even after winning two medals in Rio, she couldn’t put herself through the same pressures once again. Retirement was, in the end, the only and the best option. Sport, she found, “was never a burden, as there are pressures in all aspects of life” but without daily training and working towards the next event to peak at “a weight has been lifted”.
“It’s so tough mentally and physically, the four-year cycle,” James reflects. “I realised [this year] how many ups and downs you have in that cycle. Between 2012 and 2016, there were more lows than highs and I wasn’t sure if I could put my body through that again.
“It just definitely felt like the right decision. Some people go for so much longer, but I just couldn’t imagine myself carrying on and putting myself through the stress of racing.”
‘I had to learn not to over-think’
In 2016, after winning silver in the keirin at the World Championships in London — “I didn’t expect that at all” — she went into the Olympics hoping to perform, but not in an expectant mood. The keirin was her target and the sprint was secondary.
“The Keirin was the first event in the Olympics and I was on the form of my life. I had the most amazing pre-Olympic track, I was doing PBs on the track in Newport, which obviously gave me a lot of confidence, but I didn’t know how the rest of the world were going to perform until I got there… I always had hopes that I would win a medal, but I didn’t want to jinx myself or over-think it.
“I can be terrible for thinking too far ahead and then getting so caught up in thinking about the future that I forget about taking it a step at a time. I worked really hard with a psychologist all the way up the Olympics on things like that. I always had hope, and deep down I was going there to win a medal.”
And medal she did: James qualified with an Olympic record in the sprint (10.721) and eventually won a second silver, to her shock and delight: “Honestly, I didn’t expect to win a medal in the sprint.”
‘I found myself at an emotional low ebb’
Recalling the period after the Rio Olympics, James says: “I was on such a high until Christmas: loving life, celebrating all the time. And then a friend passed away, just before Christmas, and I found that really hard to deal with. That was when my low started.
“Then it was New Year. You’ve got to look forward and not back, but despite trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I felt unsure and really unhappy.
“I couldn’t snap myself out of it and it was a vicious circle. For months I cried a lot; I felt constantly emotional. I thought, ‘What else can I do but be a cyclist?’”
She is momentarily flustered, her voice cracking as she recalls the difficult time. “It’s all I have ever known, to cycle and race my bike, and I just couldn’t think of what I would be good at. I couldn’t imagine life without cycling in it. It was really strange. It was a horrible circle. I kept coming back to the same questions and inconclusive answers.”
‘I had to learn to trust in a different type of training’
“When you start performing and winning those world titles, that’s when the pressure comes,” James admits, recalling her breakthrough double gold at the World Championships in 2013.
“When I went to the World Championships in 2014 and only got two bronzes, I said to myself, ‘This isn’t good enough; I want to be winning those golds again.’ So I had a short holiday and went straight back into training. But I overtrained.
“I think I just wanted it too much. You have to hold yourself back a little, think long-term rather than expecting instantaneous results.
“I wasn’t thinking in terms of long-term goals, so that’s why I picked up my injury. I was out for more than a year. It was really tough, but coming back was even harder.”
After 18 months of frustration, James was rejuvenated and determined, but she was still having to win battles in her mind.
“I learned a lot about myself between 2012 and 2016. My way of training changed completely,” she reveals. “Despite being a sprinter, doing lots of road miles worked for me, as well as lots of track and strength work. I was a little bit smaller and leaner in 2013 after doing all that road work.
“But when I picked up my knee injury I couldn’t sustain the road riding. My coaches wanted me to scale back to doing two road rides a week and I wasn’t convinced that was enough.
“But by January 2016 I started to believe. I was having three strength and conditioning sessions a week to get fit, rather than slogging it out on the road for two or three hours.
“Obviously it all worked out in the end. I think believing in what you’re doing is the most important thing, as well as knowing that things can change over time.
“One approach worked for me in 2012, but in 2016 something completely different had great results. It’s about what works for your body specifically and believing in what you’re doing and having faith in your coaches as well.”
‘I’d achieved my goals, the time was right’
“I have no regrets,” James, now 26, says.
“I know people think I was young to retire, but for me it felt like the right time. I had won my World Championship, Olympic and Commonwealth medals. I know how much work and dedication it takes to get there and just felt my time was done.”
‘Baking came along at just the right time’
Confusion reigned for James for a while; she was stuck in a rut. She has always been interested in baking and so went on a week-long baking course in London. Unexpectedly, it proved her saviour, prompting her to begin a new life that didn’t revolve around sport.
“The teacher there gave me this new lease of hope and belief in myself just to go out and get started at my business,” she says. “She gave me so much confidence that I thought, ‘Yes, this is it!’ I shouldn’t worry so much about looking back and trying to figure out what I want to do. There’s more to life than just riding my bike, it’s just that it took me a long time to accept that.
“That lifted me, I thought about going back to training and then it took until August to make the decision about setting up my baking business.”
‘I still love cycling, but I’m happily retired’
James has now set up a baking business, Baked by Becks, and is relishing the creative challenge. But with 14 years of cycling behind her — she started riding her bike aged 11 and by her mid-teens was on the Olympic Development Programme — she has a breadth of knowledge that would be a waste not to pass on to the next generation.
“I will always love cycling; I am desperate still to be part of it,” she says. “I still have so much to give. I love the tactics, the keirin, the sprint racing. It’s something that will always be close to my heart, so I’d love to give back as much as I can.”
But her decision is final. “It wasn’t an emotional decision to retire. It just felt right and I’m so happy.”