Roos Hoogeboom: from breakdown to bike pro

     Roos Hoogeboom is a wonderful woman to talk to. She’s confident, passionate, interesting; someone who you would presume has always sailed through life with a smile on her face. After chatting to her recently about her retirement from professional cycling, I was motivated to do whatever I could to support the journey she was on with The Cyclists’ Alliance to improve the women’s peloton. Her warmth and enthusiasm was undoubtedly infectious.

     A couple of days after that chat, I received a message from Roos saying she wanted to tell me about how she got into cycling in the first place. It was a story she had never shared before, but whilst reflecting on her career, she realised now was the time to confront her demons and be honest about her past.

     Shockingly, Roos’s journey into cycling, a sport filled with athletes we revere for their toughness, actually began with a complete physical and psychological breakdown.

Life does not always pan out how you thought 

     In 2009 Roos went to Maastricht University to complete her PHD in Marketing Finance. Her role was to research and teach. It was her first job, and the beginning of a whole new chapter of her life. She had designed her own studies and had a fantastic professor who was motivating and stimulating. As a highly intelligent, and extremely driven individual, what lay ahead of Roos looked completely within her capabilities.

     However, things started to fall apart, and fast, when she began to struggle with data collection.

     Roos tells me about the start of the downward spiral, “For the whole summer I struggled and tried to reform my research. I asked a lot of other people for help including a great professor from the US, but at the same time I was losing my belief that I could do it, and that the research would work. I was thinking, is this what I want? I was determined to stick to it as I wanted to succeed, but I was completely losing who I was.”

     Roos persevered, trying to work in the University when there were no students, and therefore no distractions. But her concentration had completely vanished. She tried to read during the night when everywhere was quiet, consequently severely disrupting her circadian rhythm. She tried to go on a sailing holiday with her mum, hoping that the break would help, but she had developed RSI in her wrist from continuous use of her computer mouse so was also in a lot of pain.

     Her tiredness got worse and worse to the point where she couldn’t even imagine driving her car. Roos was going out of her mind trying to figure out whether she had a physical illness. But she still kept going, telling me, “I thought I have to go to the office, but I felt lost. I just went because I had to.”

     Finally, she broke. Roos explains, “One morning I just felt ‘no I can’t’, my body was just too heavy to drag to the office. I felt like I was 80 years old. I took a week off and said I was sick. I thought on Monday it would be better, but it wasn’t, and on the next Monday it wasn’t, and the next Monday it wasn’t. I was under pressure because they kept asking when I would be back, because I had to teach. But I just couldn’t. It took me two months before someone told me it was a burnout and that I was completely screwed up.”

     Following this realisation Roos spent a horrendous ten months resting, but feeling no more rested.

Bike back to life

     Roos finally started to see a doctor, who she formed a great bond with. He helped her start to listen to herself and set boundaries. She tells me, “my doctor was having meetings with my boss at the university because I was so weak that if they told me I had to work, I would just do it, no matter what the consequences.”

     But perhaps most importantly, he helped inspire her to ride. Roos explains, “he was a big fan of cycling. He kept saying to me ‘you have a brilliant bike, you have to get back on it. You just have to take it in stages. So maybe you go walking for an hour, and then you go cycling for half an hour. These are the things that are important’.”

     Roos had bought her first road bike when she arrived at Maastricht University, but it had become completely redundant when she started to break down. Thanks to her doctor’s advice it became her salvation as she gingerly started to ride again and feel the pleasure of pressing down on the pedals. Riding quickly became the only thing she wanted to do.

     Getting back to her former self was not however an easy transition to make, after spending so much time barely able to move. Roos struggled with fitness, taking around two years to get back to her previous levels. She also grappled with guilt, feeling bad she was out on the bike, doing something everyone would love to do, whilst they were stuck in the office.

     The challenges continued as Roos suffered a huge blow when her wonderful doctor died of a heart attack (ironically whilst he was out riding). Psychologically she was in a very difficult place, telling me, “I was disappointed in life and in myself.”

Push through pain  

     Day by day, with admirable perseverance and determination Roos started to build a new life. She still struggled with concentration, but began reading again and started working part-time in a running shop. Most importantly, she met her husband to be, Peter. He is a runner and was hugely supportive in getting Roos back fit, both physically and mentally.

     Incredibly, Roos made so much progress on the bike, she got her first racing licence in 2013, at the age of 30. The start of a new chapter, which took her racing all over the world.

     Roos didn’t feel entirely comfortable with this at first, explaining, “it was like a big taboo, I didn’t want to tell people that was what I was doing. I felt guilty I was cycling so fast. I was like how? Why can I cycle fast but my head is not working?”

      It was a time of deep reflection to try and understand herself as a person. Roos realised looking back that she, like all driven people, doesn’t like to give up, and could be seriously stubborn in trying to reach a goal, no matter what personal damage was occurring as a result of it.

     Roos tells me the most important thing she learned was to listen to herself and to continually reassess her goals. She told me how she realised “if it’s not something you want anymore then it’s not going to work and it’s not healthy to continue.”

Put on a brave face

     Roos joined her first professional UCI team, Bizkaia-Durango in 2016. She didn’t tell anyone about what had happened to her, explaining to me “as a cyclist you have to be tough, so you can’t say I’ve had a burnout.”

     It seems to be a non-negotiable fact that as a sportsperson, you can’t be seen to be flawed in any way.

     Thankfully, now is the time when Roos does feel comfortable talking about what happened to her. She tells me, “talking about it is a way to accept it. It’s important to share. I learned that if you’re vulnerable, then other people are too. If you share your story then there’s an opening for other people, and you can all be understanding of each other. I think that’s maybe one of the things I missed the most. You know, I kept thinking, nobody knows what I have. I think if I had talked about it more, I would have understood it more, and you learn as well from others stories.”

     Revealing the depths of your soul, what you have been embarrassed about, what’s really been difficult for you, and being truly honest, is undoubtedly one of the most difficult things to do. But, as Roos shows us, it’s also one of the best, as it frees you and allows you to move on. Sharing is ultimately rewarding because it will help others.

Embrace the dark side

     Roos goes on “I think you have to accept yourself and your dark side. That’s what you learn when you get older, unfortunately. I wish I had known all this when I was younger! But that’s the process of learning, you have to have those experiences. Without the lows, you don’t have the highs.”

     Now Roos is on a mission to share her wisdom. She is helping to reinvigorate The Cyclists’ Alliance mentor programme, helping to support young athletes entering the sport. She knows this group in particular can benefit from hearing about her journey, telling me, “it’s good for the young kids in sports to know about this, so if it happens to them then they don’t feel weird. If you only see the competition on TV, you don’t see what’s behind it and that’s not great.”

     She wants people to know it’s nothing to be ashamed of to get help from a specialist. Roos talks about her old team, Biehler Krush Pro Cycling, and its sports psychologist. She reveals how her teammates were afraid at first, believing that seeing her would make them seem weak. They wanted to be clear that they didn’t have any problems. However over time they relaxed and realised she was significantly improving their performance and stress levels.

     Roos explains, “in sports everything is extreme and tense, you’re in a fishbowl. In everyday life, if there is a little problem, you just continue. But in sport, it’s so extreme, it’s so performance driven and intense that if there’s a little problem, it becomes huge.” In that high pressured environment talking about your challenges, and being open and honest is more important than ever, even if it seems counterintuitive due to the nature of competition.

     We all need to be more realistic and give breathing space to problems. As Roos says, “some people will just go through those terrible periods. For some people that will be at 15, others at 50.” We are luckily in a world where people are talking about mental health a lot more. However, it is still not enough.

     We need to bring back humanity to sport. The more people like Roos that share their story, the better this world will be.

Words of wisdom

     Roos’s powerful story can teach us many things. These are what stood out to me.

  1. Be compassionate towards yourself. Listen to your body and your mind. 
  2. Be flexible with goals. Accept that as time moves on, what you want can change. 
  3. Be vulnerable. Give others the courage to share so you can help each other.
  4. Be honest with yourself. Make peace with your flaws.
  5. Be open. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, that’s not weakness, it’s strength.

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