I first encountered Timothy Austen when he was 13 years old, racing cyclocross every weekend with his father, Ian. Ian and Timothy were up before the sun every Sunday, in the van driving to the day’s OBC Eastern Ontario Cyclocross Series race. Ian was responsible for course design, and played the role of crew boss alongside Bob Woods each weekend for course set-up. Without fail, Timothy would be up and in the van. Meanwhile, most of his friends were likely still in bed for hours longer. His dedication was impressive.
Years later, by chance, my family and I moved across the street from the Austens. We got to know everyone a lot better, and it slowly became evident that Timothy was looking to nordic skiiing as his athletic path of choice leading into University. After a concussion on the bike that saw Tim in isolation for over a month, it seemed cycling had lost some of its lustre for the young man. He finished high-school, moved out West, and skied. He struggled to meet his own expectations. He got lost.
Timothy is back. This is his story.
Three years ago, at age 17, I stopped racing my bike. I gave it up in “pursuit” of cross country skiing. I did pursue cross country skiing, as well as other things that I can’t really discuss here in the public domain. I took a few years off of bike racing, and I am now racing once again with the hope of continuing into the future. Let me tell my short story of coming back to bike racing: a confusing journey from the start.
At the time it was the easy thing to do. It made sense coming off of my last season of bike racing, with a concussion, a string of knee and joint injuries, and some poor training choices. Besides, the local ski club had many more athletes my age, something important to every teenager.
As such, I began the spring of 2013 not on the bike, but rather the roller skis. Thoughts of December filled my head every day as I got ready for the approaching races. Preparing in what I deemed a studious manner, with lofty goals, thinking my performance would somehow change my life. I filled my life with the idea that in that success somewhere I would be able to find myself.
I set myself a performance benchmark: I told myself train hard now and you will make a training center, be able to leave Ottawa without attending university and live the dream. My teammate a year older than myself who I looked up to was in one such program. Anything is possible if you train hard: “work in July for December”. Everything will work out.
December of that year came around.
I raced horribly, all winter. I admit to never having been the best skier or bike racer but nothing compares to the depths I plummed that season. Most days I was drained just getting to the finish line. I would wake up exhausted; racing stressed me beyond belief. My relationships with my friends deteriorated and I fell into what was at times depression; my life lost all meaning. My dreams of moving away dissipated. Everything didn’t go black, but went grey.
After a very dark day for me in Corner Brook during a race that typically would have suited me, I finished 10 minutes down from the leaders. In my grand plan this would have been the race where I confirmed myself as a top level talent. I accepted my fate: my ski career was over. How could it be any different than that? Look at how you failed, Tim. You put your mind to it and tried, but you failed.
The next month was spent deciding what to do with the china pieces of my life. I spoke with my mother and father and friends and my coach. All my ambition in skiing and life in general was lost. I thought I had failed and my life was now to be a normal one. I would go to university, get a job, get married and then, well, die. A life without passion was the one for me now. For the second time in just over two years, sport had taken me, chewed me up and spat me out. I was dejected again.
Thankfully for me, I have two coaches who would not give up on me. My coach in skiing at the time, Kieran Jones, explained how and why I had failed, by doing too much instead of too little. By racing to achieve success and not racing because I love it. He told me that there was a program interested in keeping cross country skiers in the sport in Canmore, Alberta. It was not a selection based on performance, but more one of passion. I fit the bill.
Eric De Nys, the coach of the program called me a few days later and came to visit me a few weeks after that. After smoothing out the details, it was decided. I would move to Canmore and pursue skiing for a year before going out to university and living a normal life. More importantly however I would move to Canmore and train hard in skiing not for success of ski racing. But to prove to myself that I could do something I put my mind to.
Moving to Canmore was the best choice I ever made. With the support of an amazing billet family, the Hicks; thank you again. A wonderful job at Beamers Coffee Bar and the power to train every day, I made massive progress in all parts of my life. I went on many a great adventure, shared many laughs and had so many great experiences.
Winter arrived and though I was never close to being crowned a national champion or anything silly like that, I proved to myself that I could be a ski racer, I could compete and I could do something if I put my mind to it. It was a powerful feeling, one of confidence, something that had become sparse in my life over the last few years.
My ski season was so great that I switched my life path; I was to go to school part time and pursue skiing. I would juggle two balls at once but be equally motivated in both. Skiing would be a major part of my life for the next five years. I could improve and one day become a successful ski racer.
I returned to Canmore for the summer and began training again. I worked hard every day for one or two months. I told myself I could become a better skier in December if I worked hard in May.
It dawned on me one morning.
It was happening again. I was skiing for results and not for the love of it. Though I was going on the same adventures, I was always trying to better myself. Not doing things as experiences. I wouldn’t say they stopped being fun, rather I stopped being fun. The strain I placed upon myself had become just that, a strain.
One day, as I was on a training ride on my bicycle, which was now firmly downgraded to a tool for skiing and not a tool for freedom, I mentioned skiing was losing its appeal to my friend Marc Dupuis. The lack of passion in the sport had turned me off of it. Marc who was racing on the provinical circuit casually, almost jokingly, suggested I take out a bike racing license again and join the local club. I was very hesitant: “A bike race? I don’t know, I thought I proved I wasn’t any good at that. It might affect my ski training. I can’t compete, I’ve already failed at that.” I thought to myself.
But once something is said, it’s viral. The implication of a return to racing was a means to return to freedom. To me it means a whole world again ready to be discovered by bike. I was so excited when I applied for my license, I didn’t sleep for three nights. Like a kid before Christmas, the world seemed to have colour again. I sprang out of bed in the morning and jumped on my bicycle.
The opportunities, they were boundless. There are so many paths in bicycling, which one to take? Where do I ride today? It was all the challenge of the preparation of skiing but with this indescribable feeling of freedom. There was something about riding a bike: the open road, the adventure.
It triggered me more than skiing and it has taken me this long to realize. I get the side of the sport where I try to improve and get better every day. Bicycling, however, causes me less stress and is more a journey to me. I don’t have a favourite bike workout, I simply love every bike workout.
I truly realized I was back to bike racing at the Tour of Bowness, not because I made a triumphant return and stomped to victory. Instead because I saw the peloton leave me behind. It triggered so many bad memories and I felt I was back to square zero. I was defeated again. I felt like I was having déjà vu.
But, faster than usual it washed right over me, because I now realize, the only times I was defeated were in the races I didn’t ride. The ones where I was too scared or busy or distracted to start. I’d tried racing to win, I’d tried the other side of life. Now I was here for the long term.
Bicycling is who I am, not cross country skiing. I may never be the best, I may never change the face of international or national or heck even the provincial cycling scene. I will however change my own life and try my hardest to become the bike racer I can be. Riding a bicycle is who I am and I will not be defined by the races I didn’t ride. I will be defined by the races I do ride.