Hope in the Dark: Chasing the Pro Cycling Dream in Europe

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You always hear about the success stories. About those who skyrocket to the top of their sport and make it look all too easy. Yet, for every success story, there are more tales of struggles, close calls, and of missed dreams. It’s the reality of sport. For Australian cyclists wanting to become professional, this often means leaving your life in Australia and heading to Europe. Luke Parker was one of those riders. This is his story.  



The afternoon sun floats above the skyscrapers of Melbourne. The heat from the Australian summer lingers in the air like a nagging memory. Luke Parker is sitting across from me, the golden light fractured across his face. He shifts in his seat. A coffee rests on the table in front.   

We’re sitting at café in North Melbourne. Noise chokes the laneway and street side around us: a tram screeching to a stop, people laughing, the click-clack of glasses and cups, the ever-present shuffle of busy feet moving along the footpath. It’s a constant movement of colour and sound.

“Melbourne is, and always has been, home for me,” Parker says, “so it was a big move to go to Italy.”

We’ve just begun to talk about Parker’s time living and racing in Europe with Cipollini Ale-Rime in his early twenties; about the realities of trying to become a professional cyclist in a foreign country and with a foreign team. The highs and lows, challenges and life-changing experiences. And the mental demons which would eventually wear him down.

“I had some really incredible experiences in Italy,” Parker says, “but it’s not as glamorous as it can seem. There were some really difficult times over there and I definitely wasn’t prepared for that.”

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"It could just be so incredibly isolating. It got to a point where it was just hard to keep happy and positive about anything."

As he speaks, I can see he is taking himself back there, to the town of Gavardo, in the Lombardy region of Italy. Back to the team house where he lived for two years, a building that was perched on the hillside, five kilometres out of town. I can tell his mind has taken him back there, to his bedroom, a place that would eventually feel like a prison for him.

“Overall, I loved it and I wouldn’t change anything, but there were periods that were really tough. It could just be so incredibly isolating. It got to a point where it was just hard to keep happy and positive about anything. Over time that aspect wore me down.”  

***

Making the pilgrimage all the way to Europe – where the heart, history and action of professional cycling lives and dies – is like a rite of passage for an Australian cyclist. You are not considered a ‘proper cyclist’, not a true racer until you go make something of yourself in Europe. Or so the thought process goes.

It is a view often held by young budding professionals; those who have spent hours on end, staying up into the early hours of the morning to watch the Tour de France, dreaming of being there, fighting on the hills, racing down the twisting descents. This vision is born in a romance that’s embed within the sport, and one unequivocally connected to Europe: the homeland of ‘real’ cycling, where heroes and legends are born and made.

It is here that Parker’s love for cycling was born. After watching the Tour de France in his early-teens, an interest in cycling quickly developed into a passion and a purpose.

“I was doing a bit of road racing starting out as a junior, but when I did some testing for the NTID [National Talent Identification Program], they realised I had a decent sprint on me.”

The power test, which showed Parker’s peak power hit 900 watts at slight 48kg, set him on a path towards the boards of the velodrome and the sprint discipline. It was here with the fast men, he found his success in the junior ranks. He won the Austral Wheel Race in 2012 and competed at the 2011 Junior Track World Championships in Moscow.

On boards in Russia that year, Parker also made history. In the flying 200m sprint, he set a blistering time of 10.16 seconds, an Australian record for the event in his age group – a title that, seven years later, he still holds.

Despite all the success on the track, however, it was the road that he saw a future. The images of the Tour de France: the peloton, the mountains, the sprints, the ever-changing roads – everything that got him in the sport in the first place – was alive in his mind. The velodrome always had a timeline.

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He picked up his life, saying goodbye to his family and his dogs – to everything he had ever known.

Three years after his record ride in Russia, Parker packed his bags. He picked up his life, saying goodbye to his family and his dogs – to everything he had ever known. He was set to try and become a professional road cyclist. Aged 20, he left for Europe alone, to the small town of Gavardo. Nothing could have prepared him for the journey that awaited. 

***

It was in the middle of August. Parker remembers the sun, hot and low in the summer sky, as he walked along the small alleyway. Gavardo, the small township further down the road was floating through a mirage in the distance. A homeless man was sitting on the corner of the street.

Parker walked past when the man asked him if he had any change. He remembers the man’s words making him stop, suddenly, right there on the corner of the road. The man had spoken to him in English. Clear, fluent, English. He recalls smiling, turning around, and then almost cautiously, replying.

“Yeah mate…I sure do,” he said. He then walked up to the man and handed him some change. They then chatted, about nothing in particular, for the next minute.   

Parker shakes his head as he thinks back to that moment. How could such a brief, seemingly small exchange bring him so much joy? But, he remembers. It had been months since he had any real conversation in English. From the suburb of Ormond in Melbourne, he had been thrust into another world.

“I headed over without knowing any Italian,” Parker tells me, “so those first few months were hard. I couldn’t even work out what was going on half the time. My teammates would try and help me, but I never really felt properly a part of the conversation.”

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It was one way to learn fast. Without speaking a word of English for months on end, Parker was forced to make sense of what he could and to learn, otherwise he couldn’t function, let alone race.

“I went over and was shocked by the racing: how hard it was compared to Australia, how big the fields were [with over 250 riders per race], and how aggressive Italian riders could be. There were punches being thrown nearly every race,” Parker says.

“It was initially very daunting. But what I didn’t realise was that the racing was the easy part – the hardest aspect was going to be off the bike.”

***

Cycling, like most elite level sports, can be tough mentally. There are psychological pressures surrounding performance, weight, diet, and recovery. You have to deal with injuries, racing tactics, personal conflicts, motivation, and politics.

These psychological challenges are permanently glued to the periphery of the sport. It’s the incessant background noise that comes with racing a bike. It's also a noise that can become far more intense and acute when you add further pressures, such as living over 16,000 km away from friends and family, you're immersed in a completely different culture, and you have little to no money to your name.

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Talking about his time in Italy, Parker makes a clear point: you have to make Europe your home. For an Australian rider that wants to try and be professional over there, he tells me, you need to fall in love with Europe, wholeheartedly. Not just in a whirlwind holiday kind-of-way, but fully embrace the culture, language and everything in between, at an intimate and personal level. 

“It was the biggest thing I learned from my experience. You have to make Europe your home, in every sense, to the point where you don’t miss Australia that much,” he says.  

It’s not something that just happens either, you have to work at it and sometimes that mental transition can be too hard for some people.

Parker sights one person who mastered this mental transition better than most. Nick Schultz, a Queenslander who now races with Caja Rural–Seguros, spent several years in a French amateur team as a u23 rider. In his time there, Schultz became French, Parker says, with the people in the town where he lived becoming his family.

“If you can’t manage that and adapt properly, it just gets too hard. Especially when the racing is so tough and you have other challenges like worrying about food and weight, in an unhealthy way most of the time.”

This defines the real challenge for young cyclists. It’s never just about racing your bike. It's not as simple as hitting peak power numbers on a computer. Instead, it is the overwhelming mental and living hurdles that become the true test of an athlete. It was these hurdles, compounded by the cultural change and isolation, that challenged Parker’s resolve over the two years.

“Over time, everything there just wore me down. When I was at the team house, after training, I was literally stuck there. I didn’t have a car, and there was no public transport near our house. A lot of the time I was by myself, and I’d sit in my room, day after day, watching TV shows and movies,” he says.

“I ended up spending a couple weeks with the boys in the [now defunded] World Tour Academy in Gravitate. It was like a big release for me. I could just go the café, speak English and talk through all shit that I was dealing with. I wish I could have been in an environment like that, just as a way to ease into life there.”  

  Luke Parker with Australian riders from the World Tour Academy

Luke Parker with Australian riders from the World Tour Academy

The Australian u23 men National program has seen some of Australia’s biggest road cycling stars go through its ranks: Michael Matthews, Rohan Dennis, Cameron Meyer, Simon Gerrans, Matt Goss, Caleb Ewan, Luke Durbridge… just to name just a few. It has, over many years, acted as a transitional platform to Europe; a development program that gave young Aussie riders the chance to live and race in Europe with proper financial and community support.    

Listening to Parker’s story, you have to wonder: if those riders didn’t have Cycling Australia’s platform, how many would be where they are today? How many of Australia’s road cycling stars would have been lost due to the challenge of European life without this intermediary stepping stone?

It’s an answer we will never know. Yet, with Cycling Australia pulling their support of the u23 program, Parker’s experience of going through the European amateur ranks may become a more frequent reality. Although Australian businessman, Gerry Ryan, has pumped life into a similar program through the Mitchelton-SCOTT development team – it’s a program with an uncertain future, one currently contingent on the charity of a single person.

So how can young Australian cyclists manage it all?

“I think you just need to get the living side of the equation in order first. That’s the biggest challenge,” Parker says. “I got close to that point, over the two years. I learned Italian, got used to my life there. But, even with the huge support from the manager of my Italian team, Daniele Calsosso – who become a good friend of mine – it all eventually got to me, it wore me down, and ultimately ended my time in Europe.”

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Parker’s story is not an uncommon one. Countless Australian riders have uprooted their lives in pursuit of the European cycling dream. Some like Richie Porte has since made it to the top of the sport, whilst others have receded into the shadows. Some riders cross through the European amateur scene for brief fleeting moments, and others work at it for years.

These are all tales of an unrelenting passion and love for cycling, of a determined pursuit for a sustainable future in the sport. But, they’re also tales of tough realities and real mental challenges, the underlying truth to any worthwhile endeavour.

***

At the café in Melbourne, the noise in the street has dulled. The busy lunch-hour rush is slowly receding back to their offices. Parker looks down at his watch. He also has to return work. He has recently assumed a customer relationship and retail manager position at MAAP, a cycling apparel brand.

As we begin to wrap up our chat, Parker is quick to point out that, despite the challenges, the whole experience was something truly remarkable and one he wouldn’t change. He loved so many aspects of his time in Europe, and meet some incredible people.

“I just wish I was more prepared. That I knew there could be some hard moments. That I didn’t go over there believing that every aspect was meant to be great and enjoyable, thinking something was wrong with me when I struggled. It’s okay to find it tough, it can be a hard and sudden transition for a young Aussie.”

Parker still loves cycling. It’s a sport that he grew up with and one that has given him so much. He doesn’t have bitter feelings about the sport, or any regrets.

Although he left serious racing behind at the end of 2016, he doesn’t attribute his time in Europe as to why he moved on from high-level racing. That, he says, “is an entirely different story.” Instead, the time in Europe taught him life-long lessons, giving him insight into some tougher realities not often talked about. It also gave him unforgettable memories.  

Everyone has their own story. While Luke Parker may not be a household cycling name across the world, his story is no less important. It’s here, with authentic experiences such as these, that we can get a true glimpse into what it can be like to chase a dream on the other side of the world.

See you back at the social club,

Phelo

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