This summer, Mitch Docker embraced the alt calendar spirit in a major way.
Thank you, Mitch
Mitch Docker talks about his last race, his career and life away from the WorldTour
Most people know him for his trademark mullet and moustache, his smile and friendly attitude at races. On the team, he is known for being a stellar teammate, friend and colleague. Last weekend, Mitch Docker took part in his last pro cycling race ending his 13-year professional career in the race he loved most – Paris-Roubaix.
Throughout his career, Docker has ridden in nine Grand Tours, countless cobbled classics, and has represented Australia in four world championships and at the Commonwealth Games. Along the way he has not only shared his love for the sport with his close ones, but also with everyone else through his podcast, good humor and openness.
We talked to Mitch about his decision to retire, the lessons he has learned while traveling as a pro, his love for UNO and what’s next.
We’re a few days removed from Paris-Roubaix, how does it feel now to have been part of such an epic race for your last outing as a WorldTour pro?
I didn’t enjoy it per say because I was so nervous about really hurting myself and crashing. In a way it was kind of nice because it confirmed that I’d made the right decision to retire. I think if I’d gone into that race and I’d found my groove, that I’d loved every minute of it and I rode into the velodrome and got a good result I’d probably question myself and my decision to retire. But actually the opposite happened. Getting to the race was probably a bigger challenge for me with the arm and everything that happened and when I got to the race, like a lot of guys, I was fearing that first sector a lot. I was relieved when I stepped off the bike as opposed to disappointed. On Sunday when I got to Arranberg, I was just so happy to be done. It was nice to realize that I had made the right decision to retire but it was also super cool to be involved with such an epic race. I think it was special to feel what those guys felt 20 years ago during the last wet Roubaix. To be on the stones in those conditions and actually being a bit surprised at how much control I had of the bike. I really thought the wheels were just going to slip away from under me and I was going to crash every second sector. I crashed in the race but that was on tarmac. Once we hit the stones it felt pretty good.
When do you first start thinking about retiring? Was there any one moment that led to the final decision?
It sort of happens 10 times before you retire. Five or six years ago, I had a bad period and I thought to myself “yeah, I’m out. I’m going to retire.” Then I went on, but by the time I got to the 10th time, I started to think “maybe this one’s real.” I had a bad crash in 2016 where I really easily could have walked away from it. It took a long time to come back and there were a lot of things to overcome but, I was in a different mindset then. I wanted to be back, and I didn’t have any kids. I still wasn’t scared of it, weirdly, but now I get so scared. You can never control a peloton but I felt so much more out of control in the last few years than ever before. It’s not that I don’t like riding, not at all. I love riding. I still love to ride my bike, but I just didn’t have the mentality it takes to be in the front of the peloton. Physically I think I still do, but just that mentality to take the risks isn’t there anymore. To those guys, they really aren’t taking risks in their mind, that’s just what you need to do, but in my mind it’s taking a risk. At the end of last year, things were pretty dead and I just wasn’t feeling inspired by anything. It was a tough year but I wasn’t sure if that was just because of the year we were having, or because of where I was in my career and I really wanted to give it another go this year. But then when I started this year, early in the season I did struggle at the Belgian races. I had already told myself that I would let Roubaix decide. I was like “okay, I’ll go to Roubaix. I’ll race the race and if I still feel these feelings after Roubaix maybe I’ll retire.” And then when Roubaix was canceled those thoughts were still there and it wasn’t like they would get washed away. So then I thought, “just make the call.” It was the best thing I ever did because I then had the whole year to sit with it, work with it, and then build up to this last race. You sort of give yourself no choice. You tell yourself you’re this style of rider and you should be able to handle that, you shouldn’t be scared of that but ultimately you just have to admit that sometimes. I’m actually just scared out here.
Thinking back over your career, do any particular highlights stand out in your mind?
Each team I was on was a real pinnacle in my career. The first team I started with was a Dutch team and that was really important for me to establish myself in Europe without any kind of comfort and really work out if I really loved racing professionally. There were a lot of hard and not very enjoyable times but ultimately that set me up for the length of my career and how to deal with hard times later. And then when I went to the Australian team – Greenedge – that was what I needed then. I needed some comfort, I needed some familiarity. It was also a WorldTour team which helped me step up as a rider. Then at the end of my time on that team I became complacent with my role there. And when I came to this team, it was just the perfect change. I was able to sort of morph into a new rider and this team allowed me to show my full personality. I always grew out of those teams eventually but they defined every moment of my career. I always wonder at how some guys can stay on one team their whole career. Anyone I speak to, I push for change. It’s good for you to develop as a rider, or even in all other walks of life or businesses. You should push for that change, see what you can do and that was the best thing for me with those three different teams.
What were some of those defining lessons you learned when you first moved to Europe?
When I became a pro I didn’t really set myself any goals. I had worked so hard for so many years to become a pro and then suddenly I was professional and I just rolled with it for a year. That’s when I got my head kicked in because I wasn’t really setting my own goals. I just sort of rolled with the peloton and it was hard. I barely finished the races and that’s when I started to set some goals. I reassessed my career and that’s when I started to put things in place for my future. Moving to Europe was exciting. I felt like I was leaping out and like I was going on an adventure. I was 22 then and I was doing all these things for myself. The little stuff was really hard. Setting up my own house in another language and paying my own phone bills and all that other stuff. I wouldn’t turn any of that back, because every year I used to come home and speak to my mates who had just left school and it felt like they were leaps and bounds behind. They didn’t have to push themselves. It forced me to grow up really quickly.
You were known on the team for being the originator of the nightly UNO games. Where did that come from?
On these long races and on Grand Tours, the daily routine can become a bit of a drag. All the cycles are pretty straight and rigid. You ride, have dinner, and then go back to your room, scroll on our phone. So I thought, I’m in this environment too. I need to create a fun environment for myself. So first and foremost, I kind of did it for myself. I wanted to do something fun that was going to make me happy. And then, ultimately, a game like UNO will make everyone happy. I thought about bringing UNO to the 2019 Vuelta a España because I was playing UNO with my wife and my mom when she was over. We had been playing it up in the mountains before the Vuelta and I packed the cards because I thought that it would actually be really fun to play on the road. So that’s sort of how it came about. I thought it would be nice to try to change the atmosphere at times. Usually, at dinner, we talk about the race for hours. Sometimes it’s just nice to talk about something that isn’t race related or do something that gets our mind off it. There has to be that moment of reflection on the race every day and I get that, I buy into that too and I like it at times. But sometimes you feel like you need to mix it up a little. Sometimes if you find another topic of conversation you can sense when everyone’s in it. No one’s leaving the table and you’re actually having fun and the cards were just another way to get our heads off the race for a sec and get competitive about something in a fun and different way.
Where do you think the future of cycling is heading? Where is cycling at the moment?
I don’t love what it’s doing to the younger riders. The pressure now these guys have, whether that’s exterior pressure, or the pressure they put on themselves is a lot. Tom Scully was telling me about this. He was on the national team for the World Championships and he said stuff the juniors knew more about cycling than he ever knew at that age. They just have so much knowledge available, which could also work against them. These young guys are probably better coaches than I am, but they have no experience. I’m not saying experience is everything but also knowledge and science isn’t everything. I feel like it’s tilting too much that way these days, to the science, data and that side. Years before it was more about experience. Old guys would roll away because they’ve been in the peloton forever and could sense things. That was sort of the trend when I entered cycling and now I feel like it’s swung the other way.
So what’s next for you now?
I’m going to be riding next year. I’m not done riding, that’s for sure. I still love riding my bike and I have some fun plans for the future. I am excited to keep the podcast going and I’m excited for the things we’ve got in store there. I will also continue on with Team EF Coaching and I’m actually looking forward to sinking my teeth into that properly because I’ve had two athletes and that was all I was able to handle this year but I wouldn’t mind actually giving that a real proper go. And I would love to do a little bit of media stuff, maybe some commentary or something like that. It hasn’t been lined up yet but that’s something I’m working towards as well. We’re moving back to Melbourne in November. It’s really going to be cool to move back there, because we haven’t been back for a couple years so it will be great to see family and friends. That was another part of retiring too. My wife’s pregnant again so we’re gonna have three kids. The kids are getting a bit older and reaching that point when in Australia they start school. My son’s turning five next year, in January and my parents are getting old. These are the glory days you know? We want our kids to spend time with their grandparents and I just don’t see there being too much left for me to achieve in the cycling world. Overall, I am really excited for this next step.
After spending so many years in Girona and Europe, are you going to miss it now that you’re moving home?
It’s certainly sad and I know I’m gonna miss it. I don’t know when, but at some point soon it’ll hit me. I’m sure I’ll see the guys back in Girona doing a great ride and I’m sure I’ll miss that. But for me it’s been 15 years since I’ve really been able to enjoy home and enjoy Melbourne. I was a different person when I left. I was a 22-year-old and I had just come out of university so I’ve actually got a chance to experience Melbourne in an all new way. It feels a bit like going from high school to university. No one knows who you are anymore, and you can just be who you are and who you want to be.
Chapeau on an amazing career, Mitch. We look forward to seeing you on the roads and trails soon.