Santos Tour Down Under defending champion not allowed to ride in 2023

Without a contract, without a team and now without a chance to defend his Tour Down Under title. Australia’s top endurance cycling event will be missing the 2022 champion who has gone from the top pedestal to the sideline in the latest blow to a career under threat of ending. Here is how he plans to resurrect it

Without a contract, without a team and now without a chance to defend his Tour Down Under title.

Australia’s top endurance cycling event will begin on Friday in South Australia, missing the 2022 champion who has gone from the top pedastal to the sideline in the latest blow to a career under threat of ending.

Last year the 26-year-old stunned much of the cycling world last year when he took off down the road on stage one of the tour to create a big enough margin to eventually claim the title.

Although the race was a different format due to Covid, Whelan proved to the world and himself he still belonged among the ranks of the sport’s best after a 2021 season that saw his World Tour contract expire.

After spending three years racing in the fluorescent Pink of EF Education from 2018-2021 Whelan was informed via a WhatsApp message to his manager that he would not be a part of the team moving forward, leaving him without a job in a foreign country.

Now a full year later Whelan is still on the hunt for an opportunity at the World Tour which has left the cyclist un-sponsored, unpaid and somewhat alone for this 2023 season.

It’s now left Whelan with a choice, continue to chase what he calls “the situation that never changes” and keep his dream alive, or abandon his quest for World Tour glory and settle with the fact he has done all he can.

He has chosen the former.

When one becomes unemployed it brings with it a whole range of emotions, that you’ve been let down or that you have no guarantee as to what the future may hold.

In the face of this adversity Whelan allowed himself to “feel the feels”. But only for a moment.

“I had to kind of step back a bit and realize my self worth isn’t based off what my employment contract said” Whelan said.

“When you have to deal with this stuff you have to be incredibly unemotional.”

Looking ahead at the end of the 21′ season Whelan quickly refocused his attention to two goals, winning the Nationals and the Tour Down Under.

If he could claim the win in both events he was adamant a contract and his job would come back to him, thus beginning the grueling stages of his hopeful redemption.

“You have to take the risk of moving your life overseas which is a big financial commitment,” Whelan said

“It’sa sacrifice, you leave your family and friends and lose relationships with people for this lofty goal of being a bike rider.”

This ‘sacrifice’ brings with it the reality of nearly 12 hour days that includes 7 hours on a bike, two in a gym and another two in a sauna just to be conditioned enough to match it with the best.

Left without a stable income, Whelan was forced to dive into his savings in order to continue living the life needed to live and train in a manner that would give him that shot at another contract.

Returning to Australia Whelan put on a performance of a lifetime at the 2022 nationals, almost stealing victory before being chased down by now two-time champion Lucas Plapp.

Leaving everything on the road Whelan won the hearts of the cycling community but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to get him a contract.

It was only a matter of weeks later that he took the win at the Tour Down Under. No contract beckoned.

Then faced with the harsh reality of being unpaid and unable to compete on the World Tour he faced one of the toughest decisions of his life, to chase the dream or pack it in.

The chase began.

Signing on with Pro Continental team Bridgelane Whelan took to Europe with high ambitions but would find it difficult to get his rhythm and find any continuity in his racing.

So often in these tales of redemption we are left to think the main character is impenetrable, that they only see the light when the darkness consumes them, but that’s not the case for Whelan.

In a non English speaking country thousands of kilometers from his friends and family he admits that “there’s periods where I wanted to punch a hole in the wall.” but they are only fleeting.

“It’s very mentally straining, it’s a lot of stress” Whelan Said

“I wouldn’t say I was depressed or anxious because I wouldn’t use those words as they carry a lot of weight … but it was a lot on your shoulders”

When asked about whether these moments of the deepest despair left him wondering if he would be better off packing it in and coming home, his response was simple.

“No”

“I will continue to chase that objective until I’m no longer physically and mentally good enough to chase it,” Whelan said.

“If I want a comfortable job i’d go get a job in what I was studying … At the end of the day I’ve chosen to be in this industry and chosen to chase this dream”

At the end of last season Whelan did not renew his contract with team Bridgelane and instead refocused his attention on his World Tour pursuit, opting to go it alone for the time being.

In a situation where the decision is dissected into whether you live a comfortable life or a passionate one it’s easy to realize Whelan is choosing what we would all hope to do but quite possibly never would.

Live in the pursuit of passion.

Sobering in his reflection of the past year Whelan offered sage reasoning as to his outlook on what lay ahead.

“My story has been told hundreds of times in cycling” Whelan Said

“Most guys would have given up at the end of 2021, maybe they would have given up six months ago but I’m still chipping away.”

One such story in the sport is that of Simon Clarke.

Just last season Clarke was left without a contract after being one of the world’s best, that was until he was offered a spot at the 13th hour.

Taking his chance Clarke went on to record the biggest win of his life as he crossed the line first during stage 5 of last year’s Le Tour de France.

Stories like Clarkes prove to Whelan that your life truly can change with just one signature acts and acts as fuel to an already ferocious fire.

Although committed to the chase Whelan is aware that although currently supported by some close to him his dream does have an end beyond his own control.

“I probably have another 6 months where I can keep chasing it.” Whelan Said

“At the end of the day it doesn’t become of if, it becomes a financial thing”

Basing his life out of his apartment in Girona, Spain Whelan may yet be forced to sell his European abode should he be unable to put pen to paper as the mid point of the year.

When asked how it would feel if at the conclusion of these six months he is forced to abandon his dream and find passion in a new aspect of life he was honest.

“At that moment I know I have done all the controllables and that in a way, I would have done everything I possibly could to be at the top level of sport again” Whelan said.

“The only thing that is going to change my life is if I get a contract and a race program”

“I know there’s more to life than bike riding and I’m lucky to have an amazing life back here in Melbourne … I will be proud of myself”

Whelan will board a plane back to his base in Spain in the coming weeks for what may be his final chance at reclaiming his position among the world’s best cyclists.

The question often comes down to what would it take for you to pursue your dream, how much are you willing to sacrifice or commit to something that may never happen.

One thing among many has become clear in my talks with Whelan and that is passion can never be quantifiable, only justifiable.

Mitchell Dyer

Mitchell DyerSports Reporter

Mitchell Dyer is a Sports Reporter for the Daily Mercury in Mackay. After spending time competing overseas collegiately, he returned to Australia to volunteer and work on contract in the media before being hired as a full-time reporter.

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