'I started to cry on the bike': 21-year-old rising star explains his decision to quit pro cycling

Marcel Kittel and Tom Dumoulin are other examples of riders who have stepped away from racing due to mental health issues

(Image credit: Zuma Press/PA Images)

French development rider Théo Nonnez has announced that he will be retiring from professional cycling so that he can be mentally happy.

Nonnez (Groupama-FDJ Continentale) has decided that he will step away from the sport after suffering from severe mental health problems due to the stress of training.

Speaking in a team press release, Nonnez said: "I made this decision after a long period of reflection. I think we can call it a burnout, even though it’s rather an addition of many things that got me to this point. I am not sad to make this decision.

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"On the opposite, it gives me hope again. I had entered a vicious cycle and I didn’t dare talking about how I felt. I realise that I did the right thing with coming out of my silence because I don’t know what would have happened if I had remained quiet any longer."

The 21-year-old has had some very solid performances in the development races, including fifth at the Ronde de l'Isard and a very impressive fourth at the under 23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège as well as the junior French road race title.

The Frenchman was struggling to find motivation last season even with a goal of becoming a full-time WorldTour rider for this year. But he trained too much and ended up damaging himself further.

"Finally, something clicked a few days before Christmas. I went for a training ride on my own, as I often do, because I had specific exercises to do. The weather was really bad, I had very poor motivation, and after a few dozen minutes, I broke down.

"I started to cry on the bike. At that point, I said to myself: 'Théo, you have to stop all this, it has to change, there is something wrong'. I then took a step back and got great support from the team’s medical staff, as well as from my relatives."

The team and his relatives had given him support but when it came to the build-up for the 2021 season, he realised that he could not continue as a rider.

"I had come to a point when I could not do it anymore… I felt bad about not respecting the contract, but I would have felt like taking the guys for idiots going there and pretending everything was all right. This sport is so hard when you’re at 100 per cent, so when you’re not, it’s not even an option.

"When I called the team to tell them I wanted to stop, I was in tears. They told me to take my time, to take a few weeks to think about it, to put the bike aside and not ride if I didn’t feel like it. I can’t thank the team enough for that.

"In another environment, I might have immediately been pushed aside or kicked out. I was fortunate enough to have this time to think through, and this time enabled me to strengthen my decision.

"I had already felt last year that I needed some sort of an outlet, even if cycling fulfils that role for many. I needed something else, the team was very open about it and was kind enough to pay for a training course in communication.

"I’ve committed to it, I still do, and I hope to bounce back in this area. Why not even work with the team again later?! I have many projects but they need to get more concrete, and I’m still slowly getting back on my feet."

Nonnez is not the first rider to step away from racing due to mental health issues. Marcel Kittel and more recently Tom Dumoulin both stepped away from the sport to try and gather themselves again. Kittel never came back to the sport, whereas it is unclear as to whether former world time trial champion Dumoulin will return or not.

Tim Bonville-Ginn
Tim Bonville-Ginn

Tim Bonville-Ginn is one of Cycling Weekly's content writers for the web team responsible for writing stories on racing, tech, updating evergreen pages as well as the weekly email newsletter.

Bonville-Ginn started working in cycling journalism while still at school and university for a voluntary site based on Twitter before also doing slots for Eurosport's online web team and has been on location at the Tour de Yorkshire, Tour of Britain, UCI World Championships and various track events. He then joined the Cycling Weekly team in late February of 2020.

When not writing stories for the site, Bonville-Ginn doesn't really switch off his cycling side as he watches every race that is televised as well as being a rider himself and a regular user of the game Pro Cycling Manager.

He rides a Specialized Tarmac SL4 when out on his local roads back in West Yorkshire as well as in northern Hampshire with the hills and mountains being his preferred terrain.