Pedal Mettle - how Marcus Christie overcame his demons to get back on track
Rerouted into cycling by a running injury at 17, Marcus Christie soon found himself on a fast track towards the pro peloton only to find plenty of bumps lay on the road ahead. The Derry cyclist talks to Neil Loughran…
BIT by bit life, it feels, is returning to something approaching normal. Spain’s state of alarm, in place since last October, finally came to an end on Sunday and while the Balearic government is determined to tread carefully, cautious optimism crests on the sea breeze.
Hemmed in by the Tramuntana mountains on one side, the beautiful blue Mediterranean on the other, Puerto Pollensa is picture postcard stuff.
You won’t find nightclubs thumping into the small hours like other hotspots down the road, nor revellers stalking the streets after dark. The pace in this tiny town, nestled in Mallorca’s northernmost tip, is more sedate.
Young families and middle-aged couples fill a fair part of the demographic, their sporadic laughter and the clinking of glasses from the terraces that line the picturesque promenade a sign of re-emergence and renewal.
Marcus Christie’s restless soul feels at ease on the island.
Now 30, he is fast approaching the other side of a cycling career that promised so much. Rated among the top young talents in the country after his teenage breakthrough, Christie demonstrated his considerable potential early on, narrowly losing out to Sam Bennett in the 2008 junior Tour of Ireland.
When the fork in the road came, Tipperary native Bennett would go on to become a household name, a green jersey winner in the Tour de France, the fastest man on the planet by common consensus.
Christie’s career went a different direction, debilitating injuries, crippling insecurities and an eating disorder eventually taking an irreversible toll.
A lot of unpacking has already been done as he reflects upon the path that took him here, but the worries and what-might-have-beens no longer nag as they once did.
Reaching that state didn’t come easy. There was the 9,000 word dossier, written in the early stages of lockdown, which detailed every painstaking moment.
Then there was the soul-bearing first person podcast recorded in collaboration with respected cycling journalist Daniel Friebe last year. Even after it went public, Christie was unsure whether he had done the right thing. Part of him still wonders now.
Over time, coming to terms with his past has proved central to glimpsing what the future might hold – mistakes made along the way, he hopes, serving as a cautionary tale for aspiring athletes embarking on their own journey.
First, though, there is some unfinished business to attend to; his own race not quite run just yet.
THE World Cup, a month long extravaganza where dreams are realised and shattered in equal measure. Zidane’s ’98, the Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo show four years later and the penalty kick final drama of 2006 as Italy claimed the crown, all etched into Marcus Christie’s memory bank.
The Tour, the Giro, Lance, none of that was even near the radar then. Football was the only show in town growing up in Bready, right on the Derry/Tyrone border.
“I ended up in the academies with Derry City, Institute, playing in the Foyle Cup, but I could never really nail down a settled position.
“One day I was goalkeeper, the next centre half, striker… and eventually I realised I had a real ability for running. I enjoyed the aspect of being good at something, instead of sort of fitting in wherever I was told.”
At 16, his focus shifted from the beautiful game to the track. The signs had been there already.
School sports day, third year, Christie was loosening up before the start of the 800m race when he overheard a conversation that turned his stomach inside out.
A girl, the long-time object of his affection, had been asked out on a date by another suitor. Heartbreak, rage, frustration, they all bubbled up inside as he approached the start line.
“I’m a bit of an introvert… that day, the only thing I could think to do was to try and use the race as a way to communicate with her. To channel what I was feeling.”
By lap two of four no-one else was near him. When he crossed the line at the end, the school record had been annihilated.
The power Christie possessed was already a game-changer. Dreams, long turned from the World Cup, switched to earning a scholarship.
Any of the top athletics-centred universities would surely be happy to have a young man blessed with such gifts - until disaster struck.
A pain developed in his left foot that simply would not go away. He tried running through it, tried pretending it wasn’t there, tried everything.
Yet still it remained, gradually getting worse over time.
“I went to see a specialist and it was diagnosed as an extreme tarsal coalition – three metatarsals fused together, which means the ankle joint has no range of motion or flexibility. It’s an extremely rare condition, I still get pain from it now.”
Before it had even properly begun, his athletics career was over.
Despite receiving a premature curtain call from the doctors, Christie went ahead with the final race of the season – a 3,000m youth athletics league decider at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium. He finished first.
“And that was the last yard I ever ran…”
The hitherto unknown world of cycling offered a natural transition at a time when he was searching for something. Irish coach Tommy Evans, a former Ras Tailteann winner, instantly liked what he saw.
The more technical aspects of the sport, they could be coached, but what Christie was packing under the hood provided a God-given edge as they got to work in the Sperrins and around the hills of Donegal.
That powerful engine, though, would prove a blessing and a curse as harsh realities of the road were learned.
“I was very rough.
“Ideally, if I had been wanting to hit the ground running at 18, I’d have been cycling from 11 or 12 and getting those basic skills in place. That very much wasn’t the case.
“My bike handling was absolutely atrocious to begin with and that’s one of the mistakes Tommy and me made. It was a baptism of fire, and the result was a few years of bad crashes, both in training and races.”
One, in particular, sticks out – a training session in torrential rain, a misjudgment coming off the main street in Claudy and a near miss that could have gone very, very wrong.
“There was a left hand turn that took you down this descent, I’d worked up a bit of a sweat and wanted to get down to the bottom as quickly as possible before I started getting cold again.
“I started sprinting and went over a little crest… the next thing the road just dropped, it went round in a sweeping left hand hairpin on a stone bridge. I was doing about 40mph and I started touching the brakes but the water ran right through them.
“You’re just thinking ‘what’s the best line to take through this bridge so you don’t hit the wall’ when a Vauxhall Corsa appears, I’m slamming on all I can and no response, so you know then what’s coming…
“I brushed the car and next thing I’m somersaulting into the air. There’s two fishermen over the wall of the bridge and I’m flying over their heads like ET on the bike, just missing the buttress of the bridge and landing in the water…”
Normally there is only rocks and mud where he touched down. With a 30 foot drop on the other side of the wall, serious injury or worse would have been unavoidable had the heavens not opened so spectacularly.
Christie can laugh about it now, but he is well aware just how lucky a break he caught that day.
“If there hadn’t been a flood I was dead…”
Shaken but undeterred, Christie borrowed a bike and entered a race in Buncrana the following night. No matter how many times he fell, he always got back up again. Nothing, and nobody, was going to stop him.
RAW talent identified early by Cycling Ireland, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) offered Christie a place at its centre of excellence in Switzerland following a series of impressive performances on the domestic circuit.
All of a sudden, with London 2012 just a couple of years away, the Olympics felt like a realistic proposition. Then it would be on to the big time. Everything was falling into place, life couldn’t have been better.
Except that’s not how his story played out.
Instead the pressure that came with his potential began to weigh heavily on young shoulders. The culture inside the centre was cut-throat, every man for himself, only the strong survive.
Physically Christie was stronger than them all, but when stage fright started to strike on the big days, it messed with his mind. Confidence sank through the floor as anxiety ramped up through the roof. Frustrated team-mates no longer wanted him alongside them on the start line.
“This 18-year-old kid can’t mess this up for us – that was the feeling…”
Self worth evaporating, even the music that pumped him up to incredible heights in training a fortnight before would take on a sinister guise when race day rolled around.
“It would start really freaking me out, feeding into the whole sense of anxiety.
“It just feels like you have no control, you’re completely on edge. Whatever it is you’ve been working up to, you’re just looking for an escape rather than executing it.
“Your body’s tensing, shaking… you just want to disappear into a vortex. It was frustrating because I knew I had the capabilities but that fight or flight thing, I wasn’t controlling it. I was so afraid to fail.
“So much of the focus is on physical so that side of it wasn’t seen as a high priority. I dunno… I’m probably just not that normal to be honest. It’s the difference between being a success and not.”
Away from the bike, his bigger frame was becoming the subject of ridicule among coaches and other, skinnier riders. And what began as gentle ribbing would soon evolve into a form of institutionalised bullying that left Christie believing there was only one option left to succeed – if you can’t beat them, join them.
Within six weeks, he had dropped 13 kilos, purging his diet completely as he unwittingly wandered along the road to self destruction.
“I was basically a walking zombie.
“You end up treating the eating like you’re out on the bike training; like it’s a competition with how much you can underfuel your body and push it to the absolute limit. It was a dark, eerie time.
“Everything was becoming a competition then. Like, I had to be the first down at breakfast every morning. I’d have to beat these Korean people down there, that was my goal.
“You were going to bed early, closing the shutters, I didn’t really recognise it at the time but I was just isolating myself more and more.”
Ultimately it would come at a major cost to Christie’s career too, with UCI director Fréd Magné – among those who had made regular barbs about his weight – suggesting he go back to Ireland and “sort yourself out”.
When Christie returned home, his loved ones were shocked by what they saw.
“My family knew very little about cycling. We’re from a farming background, I wasn’t speaking to them that much, there was no FaceTime or anything then.
“When I went back I was able to fit into my sister’s jeans. They were all gobsmacked… that was the first they really realised, like ‘what the f**k have you done Marcus?’”
Christie didn’t return to Switzerland, and so began a battle with body and mind that would persist throughout his career. Why am I still doing this? What else can I do? When you’ve invested so much in something, the prospect of life without is bewildering.
An injury-ravaged couple of years followed after he joined the pro ranks with Irish team An Post, the struggle to rediscover previous form a clear consequence of those final few months in the Alps.
“The injuries that followed were definitely, in my mind, a consequence of that mad diet in Switzerland because they were all tendon related… your body’s just completely depleted.
“It took a good few years to get back to normal function after that, in every way. It was by far the biggest mistake I made and it’s painful to see young athletes repeating those mistakes now. It’s so damaging, and it costs you so much more than you realise at the time.”
Christie would go on to represent Northern Ireland at the 2014 and 2018 Commonwealth Games, and in 2019 - riding one of Bradley Wiggins’s former time-trial bikes – set his sights on the four-time Tour de France winner’s world hour record, considered among cycling’s most prestigious accolades.
However, having travelled to Colorado to step up his training, that bid was on life support as bike sponsors failed to buy into the project before a disastrous Irish nationals back home in Derry sorely and swiftly put that ambition to bed.
“I’d shot the bolt with that six months training in America.
“I was getting ready for the time trial at the nationals but at the same time everybody was just talking to me about this hour record, which I knew probably wasn’t actually going to happen. It was embarrassing, I didn’t even have it in me to say it.
“I had big backing at the nationals, being in Derry, a lot family and friends all there to cheer me on, but it was an absolute disaster. The training at altitude was just too intense… there’s a thing called altitude hangover and the body just decided to take a dip.
“I felt lethargic, sluggish, where altitude should have given me a boost if anything. It was a really hot night and as soon as the race started the heart rate was through the roof… I’m not used to those kind of feelings.
“It wasn’t anxiety, it was purely physical this time, I just felt completely useless. The one time you’re praying for good legs and then for it to go the way it did…”
That was July 2019. Ryan Mullen finished top of the pile with Christie once more left wondering what the sport had to offer him. At that stage, it felt as though he had run out of places to turn – the end of the road had been reached.
“Very much so. You’re not wanting it to be the case but it’s hard to see how you move forward from there.
“Then you’re meeting people and they’re asking you, you’re trying to pass it off. It’s not a nice place to be, to be honest. It’s like banging your head off a brick wall, because you’re not willing to accept it when really you probably should.
“That started creeping in after An Post, you’re sort of lost then because you don’t know where you’re going to go after cycling and you don’t want to accept that cycling’s not working out.”
When he first headed out to Mallorca last December, it was to work with young Irish rider Aaron Wade in a coaching capacity. Fate, though, was not done with him yet.
A chance meeting in Pollensa brought him together with Shane Sutton, the Australian former technical director of British Cycling, as well as former restaurant owner and cycling aficionado Tolo Llompart.
Now talk of a renewed attempt at the world hour record has been mooted, while other avenues remain open too - the end of the Marcus Christie story on the verge of being rewritten once more.
“Shane definitely sees me having the capability of attacking the world hour record but there’s been no date set as of yet and we’ve been exploring other options too.
“He has reignited my fire for the sport, my numbers have never been better, I’m feeling strong and healthy… it feels like I’m not finished yet.”