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By Julien Pretot
CARCASSONNE, France (Reuters) - Two days before Christmas last year Theo Nonnez went for a training ride in the rain. Half an hour later, the 21-year-old was sobbing on his bike as his world came tumbling down around him.
The Groupama-FDJ reserve rider had just realised he could not put up with the mental charge of being a professional cyclist anymore.
"I was wondering which goals I could have in life, what I was doing on this earth," Nonnez told Reuters.
His parents and his team's doctor and sports psychologist, Jacky Maillot and Jean-Luc Tournier, helped him "put words" on his distress.
"In cycling, you can't show your weaknesses and especially if you're a rider from the reserve team, because if you admit that you're struggling with motivation, someone will take your spot," Nonnez explained.
Delphine Cartier, who worked with French team Cofidis as a mental coach, told Reuters the need to find a new contract every couple of years, and the fact that professional cycling is "such a men's world", make it hard for riders to admit failure.
"I've worked with tennis players for instance. They don't play for their contract so often," she said.
In April, Nonnez quit cycling for good but says he still cannot ride a bike, "unless it's to take my fixie to go shopping.
"I'm not out of the woods yet but I feel I'm not far from being happy," said Nonnez, who has taken up communications studies and works as a community manager for Groupama-FDJ.
Nonnez is not the only professional rider to break down.
Before him, 2017 Giro d'Italia champion Tom Dumoulin took a break from cycling for over three months, while former British champion Peter Kennaugh said in 2019 that he was interrupting his career, citing mental health reasons.
The rapid increase in the demands of life as a professional cyclist - from weight obsession to repeated altitude training amounting to two months a year for some - have put tremendous pressure on riders.
Four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome believes the pressure is also coming from social media.
"There's a lot of cases around the peloton, if you look around, of riders struggling with mental health issues," Froome told Reuters.
SINK OR SWIM
"With the world becoming so much more online and social media becoming such a big part of the media presence in this day and age, I think a lot of younger guys who probably aren't used to being in the limelight haven't really learnt to deal with potential criticism.
"Just one example, I found it incredible the amount of pressure and scrutiny that has been put on to (Belgian prospect) Remco Evenepoel coming back from his injury... he hadn't raced for over half a year and the Giro was his first race back and everybody expected him to win it."
The 20-year-old Evenepoel's debut on the Tour de France has been delayed and he will not take part in the world's greatest cycling race next year, his Deceuninck-Quick Step boss Patrick Lefevere said this month.
Froome has dealt with high expectations but they came later in his career.
"Fortunately for me it's nothing new. I've dealt with criticism over the years and it doesn't bother me anymore what people say, but for people who are new to it, it can drive them out of the sport," he said.
The older generation believes cycling has always been a tough sport, maybe even harder a generation back.
A former rider and ex-sports director, who spoke under condition of anonymity, told Reuters: "Cycling is just now doing what other sports have been doing, optimising every detail.
"Then there was a short cut, which was doping. But riders would have 120 days of racing a year while now it's about 60."
He also believes it is now easier for riders to open up about their problems.
"Back in the day it was sink or swim," he added.
"But at the end of the day, it's down to the same equation: those who win or survive are the ones who deal with everything the best, those who find the right balance."
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ken Ferris)