Former South African road race champion Jay Thomson is extremely passionate. Not just about cycling – something central to his existence after 14 years in the professional peloton – but about mental health too.
He speaks about the importance of mental health and his happiness at returning to cycling while also discussing how his idea of a virtual platform that, amongst other things, could link riders to professionals in the mental health field.
Mental health in cycling
Thomson wins the combativity award for Stage 6 of the Tour of Guangxi, 2019. Tim de Waele via Getty Images.
‘Mental health is not spoken about enough,’ Thomson says, speaking from his home in Germany. ‘Both in general for the world, but also in cycling.
‘In the bigger cycling teams, those that have the budgets for it, they can employ mental health coaches or people that riders can talk to. But in general, it’s not something that every team has. Maybe that’s also why I’ve taken this role a little bit.’
The full extent of Thomson’s new role is to be revealed imminently. He tells me that he’ll be a head coach of an U23 Continental team.
‘When I finished cycling, I thought, I’m done. I don’t want to be back. I went to work in the normal world for a tech company over the last two years.
‘I’m not a qualified sports scientist, however I understand where these young riders are going to come from and where they’re going to go. While some still live at home, a lot of them are moving away and that’s a big step.’
Thomson was born in South Africa, something that is easily identifiable by his accent. Like many, he also had to move throughout his career while racing for the likes of Fly V Australia, Bissell, UnitedHealthcare and MTN-Qhubeka, even settling in the United States for three years.
‘I knew no-one. You don’t arrive in a country and instantly have a line of friends around the corner to go to a restaurant with or sit in the park and talk about life. It feels weird to talk to a teammate about an issue. What if you think the boss is treating you a bit shit?’
While not immediately impacted by the lack of friendships after moving to the US, he did struggle with the time zone difference that meant he couldn’t ring his dad in the middle of the day.
‘People don’t like to talk about mental health because they think it’s a weakness. Maybe we spend too much time talking about the good side of things and showing a different picture that we have, painting this lifestyle that we all live on planet Jupiter and it’s all beautiful and perfect.’
Life isn’t always perfect. He tells me that while living in North Carolina, he was awoken by a phone call at 3am. One of his best friends had died by suicide in their early twenties.
‘I was crying in a house by myself, not knowing what to do. I didn’t have enough money to go home for the funeral. There’s no platform that can ever help you with that. I was on the bike at five o’clock that morning. I didn’t know where I was going. That’s where I found my salvation. I did the same when my grandmother died, when my cousin died and when my grandfather died. I got on the bike and just disappeared.’
Physical and mental impact of crashes, retirement
Thomson and teammate Ben King at E3 Harelbeke in 2018. Tim de Waele via Getty Images.
Thomson admits he struggled with the impact of injuries throughout his career, something that can happen to many riders. He cites Julian Alaphilippe’s recent season as just one example of reaching good form only to be impeded by crashes and injuries.
‘When it happens just one year you can say ah, bad luck. But when it happens multiple years and you build up a whole career of having the same things happen to you, it becomes an issue. You start to think about it too much. These are the things that you need to get out of your system.’
After 14 seasons in the professional peloton, Thomson retired at the end of 2020.
‘I crashed four times in a Covid season where we only had 20 race days. I was on the ground more than I was racing. I was at my limit. I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I couldn’t take the disappointment and maybe if I’d spoken to somebody, I would have been able to build stronger through that. That’s where I started thinking about this idea of a platform to build for people.’
Throughout the interview, Thomson’s determination to start a virtual platform – to help mental health for all in cycling – is evident. He thinks this could give cyclists an opportunity to talk to a professional outside of their team, but also for those in the wider cycling community.
‘I don’t think it should come from teams; ideally it should come from above. Covid ended careers for a lot of people – riders, mechanics, soigneurs, bus drivers. We didn’t have anything as a sport to support that fall. We should build a platform for riders and eventually staff, journalists and race organisers that helps people, either mentally or even areas like dealing with retirement.’
He mentions a survey he conducted with the Cyclistes Professionnels Associ?s (CPA) on riders’ plans after their professional cycling career has ended. It revealed that not many riders were prepared to face a sudden end to their careers.
‘A lot of riders prolong their careers because they don’t know what they’re going to do after. They told me that they hadn’t thought about it. I know a lot of people whose careers ended through crashes. There was no preparation and there’s no support system in place. That’s the first thing I’m doing with the younger riders in the team. If they’re at school, they do not stop until they pass and have something in their hand.
‘You can tell potential employers that you’ve raced the Tour de France 10 times, but where does that get you? Seriously, it’s an issue. Not just for the Jay Thomsons of the world, but also the Alaphilippes, the Van der Poels and Poga?ars, they are going to have the same problem when they come to the end of their careers.
‘People will take more of a risk on them because they were the top of the sport, but what about people like Tim Declercq? What’s he going to do? If he studied and he’s got a degree, great. But if he hadn’t, what next? That links to the mental side too.
‘If we can help both men and women to gain a diploma in the off season, get a three-month plumber’s course or learn how to lay bricks, it would be great. They’re jobs that keep society together. When I was doing the survey and thinking about this platform, it was more ideas to help the women as men do have more opportunities. I want my daughters to have opportunities too.’
But of course, a platform of this kind requires money. He’s aware that this can’t be an immediate fix, so Thomson reiterates the importance of talking.
Future plans and the power of talking
Thomson is the proud father of two daughters – with a third on the way – and says he wants to be a person they can talk to whenever they need advice.
‘Our parents can be the best psychologists, no? They’ll always listen and give you sound advice. Maybe sometimes we don’t like their advice. But I hope I can be that person that my daughters can talk to and just listen to them. Sometimes all we need is an ear.’
As for cycling, he will continue to work as head coach for the development team, building training programmes around school times to give the best opportunity for riders to become professional and succeed in the ‘normal’ way of life.
He never shies away from the importance of talking for mental health.
‘Mental health is something that I believe strongly in and it’s something that is not spoken about enough.
‘Talk to people. Talk to a friend on Zoom if they live far away. There’s always somebody that wants to talk.’
UK and Ireland
Mental Health America: 24/7 on 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
BeyondBlue: 1300 22 4636
Lifeline 24/7 Helpline: 0800 543 345
Sneha India: 10am to 10pm on 91 44 24640050
Lifeline National Counselling: 0861-322-322
Main image credit: Justin Setterfield via Getty Images