Wellington cyclist shines a light on the other side of professional cycling
April 22, 2018
Jack Compton’s experience of European professional cycling cuts through the glamour, prestige and sleek image which is so commonly associated with the sport.
His story foregrounds the other side of the sport; the harsh reality and frustrating circumstances aspiring riders often find themselves in.
A talented mountain bike rider throughout his school career, Compton finished high school in 2013 and was faced with the daunting, existential question many 18-year-olds are forced to confront – what on earth do I want to do with my life?
Unable to come to any real conclusion Compton took his bike and jetted to Europe in 2014, electing to move to Germany and live with a group of local cyclists he met when they toured New Zealand.
Compton describes that year with a fondness, smiling as he recounts his innocence as he cut his teeth on the European mountain bike circuit.
“I just battled away” he laughed, “went to races, had no money and just ground through. It was actually the best years because I was battling so hard.”
2014 proved to be a more than a learning curve for Compton. His experiences and more importantly his minor successes on the European scene quelled any lurking doubts that he did not have what it took to be a pro cyclist.
Upon returning to New Zealand in 2015, Compton was already making plans for his return to Germany as he secured a lucrative spot on three-man New Zealand development team.
Compton returned to Europe in strong form, stringing together a series of satisfying performances which included a few podium finishes on the UCI junior circuit.
“The second year [was] when things came together, that’s when I thought I should look for a team, I should try and get my name out there are bit more.”
However, finding a team wasn’t as clear-cut as Compton would soon find out.
“The teams only come to you if you’re winning everything. Otherwise, you have to be like look; this is me, look out for me.
“It’s weird in cycling, actually, I guess it’s like any other sport, you need a manager, and they’ll do all that admin for you. But I couldn’t afford so I had to be my own manager.”
Eventually, Compton secured a contract with the Italian Sixs-Devinci Pro Team for the upcoming 2016 season.
“I knew a few guys on the team, so I talked to the team in 2015, and they said they had a spot on their roster.
“However, because the team was Italian the managers did not speak any English. I thought to myself, holy shit.
“They emailed me saying ‘start learning Italian.’”
“Of course, I didn’t learn Italian” Compton chuckled.
Though, when Compton moved to Italy in 2016, the language barrier was least of his concerns.
The laissez-faire approach from team management was a source of constant frustration as they could not be relied upon.
Compton could not help but laugh and sigh as he reflected on his team manager’s blasé attitude and complete disregard for being organised.
“The typical example is, we would want something for our bike and the team manager would tell you it is coming on Monday, but he wouldn’t tell you what Monday! So it could be next Monday, or the Monday after or a Monday in three months’ time.
“You’ll be like I need this man! And he’ll just say it will be here on Monday. It was like ‘Bloody hell!’”
“It’s so hard to deal with as an athlete,” Compton sighed again as he leant back in his chair, years of forgotten frustration started coming back up to boil.
“I am really structured when I train” Compton explained. “I use this and want that, and then when you can’t get that, you’re like well, I have no money to get what I want because they don’t pay me enough.
“It just becomes a nightmare.”
Compton was paid in a lump sum when he signed his contract, although he lived with friends on the team and had his food covered it was still difficult to get by.
“I had no money to go and do anything, well I could have, but then I would have no money at all after that. It was pennies pretty much.”
The composition of the team did not inspire trust either. “It’s funny; they weren’t great. I was the only guy who was like a pro-athlete. The [others] would work, live their life and then ride when they could.
“It was a weird dynamic in our team as well, because we had people who didn’t want to be on the team.
“2016 was really strange, it was me and some of the dudes I race with doing all the world cups, then all other riders would do little club meets and it made me think, is this a team or is it just a club?
“[These riders] all had kits, bikes and everything but never did anything! That money could have gone to us [who were racing], helping us get better races or taking us outside Europe to compete.
Come 2017, a number of changes were made to the team giving the illusion that management was sharpening up. This saw the team get cut down from 10 to four riders and a change in some sponsors.
However, one of the major issues that year was the equipment the riders were required to use in competition.
Compton told me he has always been very particular about what equipment he uses, bet it his frame, pedals, shocks or tyres.
The sponsors that were brought on that year were niche companies who were new on the cycling scene.
Compton struggled with the change in equipment, and it was a source of constant tension between him and team management.
“We had some sponsors I didn’t agree with. I kept on getting flat tyres like every race. I told my team manager at the time, ‘I can’t use these tyres, I keep getting a flat tyre every race.’
“I would rather buy my own tyres and not get a flat, rather than go to a race, do all this training for nothing, because I know I am going to get a flat. Like I may as well not train, because the result will be the same!
“It was frustrating, and it’s quite hard to get that across because you have to show the sponsors that you like the product.”
Compton would try to explain his frustration to his manager and the response he would get was “order it online.”
Compton got around this by paying for the equipment he wanted out of his own pocket and then he would black out the logo with a pen so as not to frustrate team management or alienate the sponsors.
Events never quite panned out in Europe. Compton ended up leaving Sixs-Devinci in late 2017. A combination of serious injuries and the inability to secure a contract with another European team saw him return to Wellington where he signed with New Zealand road cycling team, Team Skoda.
Compton has been taking it easy on the bike this year. His focus since he has been back in Wellington has centred around working at ANZ, studying at Victoria University, and trying to enjoy himself on the bike again.
As Compton relayed anecdote after anecdote, it was evident he took some delight as I could not help but laugh at how ridiculous his time in Europe was. For instance, his deadpan expression and colloquial laden recount of how he re-broke his collarbone in China (after doctors had previously warned him that if he were to break it again, he could sever his windpipe) nearly had me in tears.
Those frustrations from Europe have done little to dampen Compton’s shrewd optimism and enduring belief in himself. Europe taught him a lot he told me, about what professional sport can be like.
“I thought we would get everything we needed, get tonnes of money and it would be great. And you get [to Europe], and it’s not like that.”
Compton paused for a moment and reflected on what he just said then looks at me, and smiles once more.
“But I have a story to tell.”