“One has to be in touch and honest with oneself”

This is the end of a story, but the start of a new life for Théo Nonnez. At just 21, the young Frenchman made the hard, yet inevitable, choice, to end his career as a pro cyclist. Suffering from deep doubts and a chronic breakdown for several months, the former junior French Champion went into a large introspection before making his final decision. In this interview, he tells his story in detail, but with a number 1 priority: for it to be useful to others.

Theo, you’re today officially closing a chapter.

That is right. After a little more than two years with the “Conti” Groupama-FDJ, which was the first team to give me my chance in the pros, I decided to stop my career. 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. 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 realize 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.

“I started to cry on the bike”

What was the starting point of this thinking process?

This phenomenon has lasted for a few months. I was realizing, little by little, that several things were no longer making me happy. I was having trouble finding my groove. I couldn’t even remember when was the last training that made me happy. Cycling had become a constraint. I wanted to take a step up last year to get to the WorldTour, and I wanted to put the odds in my favour. But I did too much, and it hurt me more than anything. I just think that I was fed up with it, subconsciously. I glorified the WorldTour, telling myself that it would be a new start, while it would only be a continuity. Bit by bit, the constraints became more and more important compared to the benefits. When I had to start from scratch this winter to prepare for the new season, I felt my motivation was low, very low even, but I still wanted to force myself over and over again. 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. After some thought, I told myself that either I would join the WorldTour at the end of the year, either I would change team or quit. I just had to hold on one year and do my best. However, a few days before the team training camp in Italy, I felt I was totally unable to go there. I called Jens and the medical staff and told them how I really felt: like I was able to run away as soon as I got to the airport… 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%, so when you’re not, it’s not even an option.

You were then able to release what you held inside of you?

I kept it to myself a lot, but being able to talk about it and to share it has helped me so much. That doesn’t mean it was easy to say. When I had to call my coach, the doctor, the manager or even Marc Madiot, I did not feel good at all. However, I was relieved afterwards. I managed to talk about it, and once it was done, it was done… It felt good to take that weight off my shoulders. After something clicked in late December, I spoke about it to people around me, in particular to the team psychologist and to the team doctor Jacky Maillot, whom I thank very much. For weeks, I was lost. Deep down I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore, but I didn’t want it to be a phase and to regret it later on. I wanted to be sure of my decision before making it definitive. At the end of December, I was even about to call Marc to tell him: “I quit, tear up the contract before it starts”. I wanted to push myself to my limit, but eventually, it was inevitable. 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 could not see a meaning in my life anymore”

How did you experience this two month-period?

When I put the bike aside, I told myself “as soon as you feel like going for a ride, go for it”. However, it’s been over two months now since I got on the bike… I only used it for shopping or moving here and there. I went through a phase of extreme loneliness. I certainly had my friends and family, and I was lucky to have them, but I still felt super weak. I am the only one to know how I feel, and I can guess it is not very easy for others to understand, no matter how hard they try. I questioned myself a lot. I was almost like, “What’s the point of living? “. It might sound hard, but that’s how it was. I could not see a meaning in my life anymore. It took me a little while before I managed to get back on my feet. I still have some real bad moments, but I wanted to pick myself up very quickly. I wanted to do a lot of things, but it was very impractical at first, so I was completely lost. Sometimes I would lie down on my bed and think: “what are you going to do with your life?” Even though I was no longer happy in cycling, at least I did have a situation and a prospect for the future. So I thought: “Now, you’re nobody, you are going to start from scratch”. I had never looked too much ahead. When I was riding a bike growing up, I was doing it just because I wanted it. There were already constraints, but I was able to overcome them because I was enjoying it. I just got to a point where I thought: “Your life has started. You can’t tell yourself, we’ll see later ”. I then wondered if I wanted to build my whole life around cycling, and the answer was no.

Were you worried about ruining years of sacrifices?

Absolutely, but not only mine! My family has invested a lot, financially but also in terms of time. The team trusted me, many people have been there for me. I worked hard myself, struggled, and forbid myself many things to get there. Therefore, it was hard to admit to myself that all that did not excite me anymore. I lied to myself, but in the end, I could not escape it. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but … [pauses] I know many of my relatives live through my career, and I knew it was going to be really hard to tell them. A lot of people were counting on me and I was ultimately more afraid for the others than for myself. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, but at some point, I told myself “Just do your life”. I can’t forever live for others. I need to find what makes me happy.

“The fun really was gone”

Can you name some of the things that brought you to this point?

There are several of them. First of all, I never really felt I was fitting in the evolution of cycling. For example, specific training doesn’t particularly excite me, even though I knew I needed them to improve. The radio was fun 2-3 times a year, but I knew it wasn’t the way I saw cycling. I think I would have been happier in the ’70s or’ 80s. The hyper-professionalism wasn’t made for me, probably. I also noticed it last year. I wanted to put the odds on my side but doing so, I was not doing anything else. I was thinking about cycling when I was breathing, waking up, eating. My whole life was dedicated to it and I deprived myself of a lot of things. I moved away from close people, friends, because I no longer had the opportunity to see them, or even because I put barriers myself. With competitiveness nowadays, if you make one or two things wrong, you pay for it. The Covid situation didn’t help either, as I was never a fan of training. I was more excited about putting a bib in my back and racing. I fought against my nature, I did home trainer sessions during the lockdown and committed a lot. However, I stayed in this vicious cycle. The fun was really gone. I wasn’t blossoming at all. I know that this is the dream job for many, and I indeed felt guilty about it. I was like:  “You don’t have the right to feel this way”. Still, if I’m not happy, I can’t force myself to be. I got into a phase where my days would start when I got home from training, like I was going to the factory every morning. It wasn’t until I would get home from work that I could live, but I was so exhausted from work that I couldn’t actually do anything. Therefore, I was fearing the next day. There was physical fatigue, but also a mental one, as you put barriers to yourself. For example, I like going to the museum, walking around Paris, but I was like: “If I’m going to walk for 2 hours in Paris, I won’t be good at training tomorrow”. So I would decide not to do it. It’s a vicious cycle because you always wait for the time you’ll be able to do it, but you rarely have it. Of course you could do it still, but if you do, you are then falling behind others. I wasn’t a champion in the way I couldn’t tell myself: “I’m doing it 90% and I’m going to perform”. I might have had the potential for a small career, but even for that, I would have had to do everything at 110%.

Have you had any eating disorders?

Last year, I used my last dose of motivation. Without a doubt, I trained more than is reasonable, and thought I was paying attention to nutrition as well. Actually, it was malnutrition. I had learned a lot about it, and I thought I was doing the right thing but the thing is I ate well for a sedentary person, not for a cyclist. I lost about ten kilos. Great, I looked sharp… But mentally I was not doing well, and I was out of shape on the bike. Fortunately Lucas [Papillon, now the team’s nutritionist] was there and was able to get me back to the right track. To make you an example: at one point, my only motivation to train was to think: “If I ride, I can eat more.” It had become very serious.

“You should not be afraid of not being made for it”

What about the pressure in all this?

Jens [Blatter] and Nico [Boisson], who were there alongside me for the last three years, have always had a clear speech: “Don’t put yourself under pressure, we don’t put any pressure on you, it will work, you are there to learn”. I tried to escape from that pressure, but I couldn’t help it. I was putting pressure on myself because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I couldn’t fail to perform for the people who relied on me, for those who had made sacrifices. Yet, suddenly I was no longer doing it for myself, but I didn’t really realize it at the time. There is constant pressure to be better than the other. Even when you see a friend getting a result, you do put pressure on yourself because you also want to prove that you are capable of it. It can be a positive thing as it makes everyone better, but it necessarily generates pressure. Personally, it exploded.

When we did your feature on the team’s website back in December, you seemed very motivated…

I always managed to convince myself that this was what I absolutely wanted, and that I only had just a low motivation once in a while, which can happen. But these moments got more frequent, intense and longer. In December, I was already on the way down, I felt it was not ok anymore, but saying I was motivated on the team’s site was also a way of motivating myself. It kind of was a Placebo effect. I was completely honest at the time, but I realized afterwards that it did not match reality. I felt bad about it, because just like in the offseason interview with the team, I felt I had been being hypocritical. Actually, it’s just that I didn’t want to admit it to myself, and it couldn’t last any longer.

Do you think some may see it as a “poor mental strength”?

Well, maybe I didn’t have the right mindset. Maybe I wasn’t made for that after all. In life, everyone has their share of constraints and sacrifices. You just need to find the life that suits you best and that you are ready to accept. If some people want to think it’s a matter of the mind strength, good for them, but I know that my relatives don’t see it that way. I think I just was not ready to make the sacrifices expected of a top rider. It was too hard for me to do these ones, but I will potentially be able to do some others, which great champions of this sport couldn’t do… Anyway, now I want to think of myself. I want to fulfil myself. You shouldn’t be afraid of not being made for it. I think I wasn’t. I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.

“The hardest thing probably is to totally let go”

What would you like to say to the young riders?

I want to feel useful. I don’t want all of this to be wasted. If my little experience can help others, I’d love to do so. I don’t want to proclaim myself a spokesperson though. I’m only 21, I’m not a great champion and I haven’t had a great career, but I’ve had an experience. I want people to speak out, I don’t want it to be a taboo. Talking about it before would have helped me for sure. Maybe I wouldn’t have reached that point… That’s really what matters to me. If there are forerunners, if you start feeling unhappy, if you don’t have fun anymore, just talk about it. It’s nothing serious. You can bounce back in a different way, you can change certain things or completely choose another path. I was lucky enough to find back some clarity. Either I would talk about it, stop everything and try to be happier, either I would keep going, and it was not going to end well… It is much better though if one can talk about it before going through what I’ve been through. Personally, I was lucky to be on a pro team, where I had people to talk to, where we feel supported, but loved ones are also important. I also had a realization during the team’s presentation at the end of January. I was already in a hard phase and David was asked: “What advice would you give to a young cyclist who wants to make cycling his job”. David replied: “I would tell him to ride a bike for himself.” It echoed within me, and the mistake would have been not to listen to myself. I always was the first one to say, “I don’t see it as sacrifices because that’s what I want”, but you have to understand what you’re saying. Sometimes, there is a gap between what you say and what you think. Some will see my current situation as a sign weakness, but you can also see it as strength. It also requires courage to tell yourself that it is not right, that it is no longer working. It’s even better if you can tell it yourself before. The hardest part is not even speaking out about it around you, it’s just to totally let it go, and to accept it. Now, I will be able to move forward. I don’t need to hide anymore. The best advice I can give is that one should be in touch and honest with oneself. If I can help some to act before it’s too late, that would already be a small victory.

Do you still keep good things from your cycling chapter?

A lot! I have met a lot of great people and have come across wonderful persons along the way. Cycling has always been a school of life for me. I have acquired a lot of values ​​thanks to this sport. I had some incredible times, which I would never have experienced otherwise. There were certainly emotions, ups, downs, I went through ordeals that made me and still do me as a person. If I had to take stock, there would obviously be a lot more positive than negative, but I had come to a point where the negative was taking over and it was better to stop there. I’m still passionate about cycling, and if I can bounce back in this area in a different role, I will gladly do so. I didn’t like the practice as a top athlete anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’m disgusted with the sport.  

“I’m at peace with myself”

Do you have any regrets as we speak?

My only small regret is that I did not realize all this before, and to have signed a contract for this season. At one point, I also felt like all these years were a waste of time. But deep down, I just think that was my path and that it is an experience that I should be proud of, which made me and will serve me for the future. I have no regrets as it had become too serious to keep going like that, but still, I’m going back to zero. It’s a little scary, a bit exciting as well, but at least I’m at peace with myself. I feel like I came out. I took off my mask, people understand it or not, but this is who I am. I am at peace with myself. I no longer need to convince myself of something I don’t really believe in. I can look at myself in the mirror. Talking about it also helps me free myself from that weight.

Do you already have any plans for the future?

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. Once my decision is made official, I will be able to move forward even more and look more ahead. I am slowly making my own way, but I am grateful that the team has supported me that way. In another environment, I would have been abandoned for a few weeks already, and I would not necessarily have got finance help for an out-of-cycling project. I really feel privileged. When I spoke to Marc on the phone, I told him that I felt privileged to have been part of this organization, and that no matter what, I will always identify with this team. This team turned me on, gave me my chance, and everything that has been happening over the past few months is a proof that I was right to believe in their values ​​and to trust them.