Why Timo Cooper retired at 25 (made the tough decision)
10 December 2016
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Gerald de Kock: Welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast. All matters mountain biking, what we’re about here. As you probably know by now. Hope we can keep you interested for the next 10 or so minutes as we talk about the sport, to a young man who is involved in the sport of mountain biking.
He was deeply involved as a rider, but no longer. The journey started and ended perhaps a little earlier than he was hoping as a professional biker. But that’s the nature of the world nowadays, as a professional mountain biker. It is very difficult to make ends meet. I’m joined by young Timo Cooper, born and raised in Wellington.
Timo Cooper: Yes, Gerald, I was born and raised in Wellington. My neighbour was Pieter van Wyk and he’s the guy that puts out the route for the Epic and builds all the single tracks there. He told me one day I must go and ride with him. From there is just escalated to riding more and more and more and then professionally for about three years. Then an opportunity came along and for the past two years I’ve been working with USN, and the rest is probably history.
GDK: You’ve chosen a different path, we’ll come to the reasons why. But let’s go back to your original choice of mountain biking. You said Pieter van Wyk, is that how it started? Were you involved in other sports at school or how did it all start?
The Godfather of mountain biking in Wellington
TK: I’m not really good at any sort of ball sports and I figured that out at a very young age. So when cycling came along, it was just quite small in my area. But it came along and Pieter was like the Godfather of it all. he knows my parents very well, so he just said: Here’s a bike, go and ride. From there it escalated and I really enjoy it and it suits me because I’m quite a skinny guy and I have no upper body, so the sport really suited me and I sort of escalated in the sport in terms of results, quite quickly compared to other people and then from there I just enjoyed it. If you do well at something and you put in the effort, it’s easy to put in the effort if you start doing okay at something and then it kind of took over for about five years.
GDK: At school when you were a youngster, were you doing it predominantly then?
TK: I actually only started in matric, so I didn’t cycle before that. I cycled to school and back, but not really mountain biking or competitively. Then matric I started and then first year, second year, third year I rode and then for two years after that I rode.
GDK: There’s cross country and marathon and you’ve done particularly well at marathons in the past. Was cross country ever a focus for you?
TK: Not at all, I think because I started at such a late age, my technical ability wasn’t good at all. So the cross country races I always lost so much time on the downhill and also my build, I’m tall and lanky. So for the longer races I’m fine, but for the shorter races I don’t have that explicit power.
Making the decision to go pro
GDK: So you decided to take it seriously and ride and race as a pro. What was the process in terms of making that decision to say right, this is all I’m going to do. Was it a difficult one?
TK: At that stage it wasn’t a difficult decision because at that time I thought that’s what I was going to do with my life. I thought I was going to ride until I was 30 or even older. That’s where I was going to make a living for 10 years. Then if you make that decision, it’s quite easy. Because that’s what you have to focus on, that’s what you put all your time on. You have to make ‘opofferings’ –
TK: Yes, lots of it. I didn’t go out with my friends, I only ate some stuff, not ice cream or sugar. But like I said, with all of that the sacrifices are easy because you know what you want to do. That’s your path and you just know you’re going to cycle.
GDK: Your first year as riding full-time and with that commitment, were you getting results. That gave you the feeling that this is going to work?
TK: Yes, I think the year I decided I want to ride professionally was 2012. It started off quite slow because I didn’t really understand the format and how you need to race. Who you need to learn from, who’s wheel you have to sit on. Nutrition I was still trying to figure out.
Then by the end of 2012, the Pioneer Trek, everything sort of fell into place when I rode solo. I won solo category there and I won two stages overall. From there everything fell into place. After that I knew this is what to do and this is what I’m going to do. After that I got even more serious, I got my first big sponsor which was Bridge Capital. They were actually sponsoring the Pioneer back then, so they gave me a good deal for 2014. 2014 was a good year and 2015 as well was not too bad and then I stopped, sort of.
GDK: You got to the end of your pro career quite quickly, you mentioned the sponsorship and making ends meet. Perhaps as a young man your overheads aren’t huge, were you existing or were you making some money?
Getting sponsors to understand the benefit of MTB coverage
TK: I think for me it was actually a bit different. In 2012, my first year, I wasn’t making any money, someone was covering my costs and giving me a bike. Then 2013 when Bridge came on board, I think it was one of the biggest deals of that year. I also think that’s why I stopped so soon. But for that it was a good deal. But that happens once in a decade maybe.
For mountain bikers and road cyclists in the country, it’s very difficult and being on the other end of the spectrum now I know how difficult it is. Now being on the other end of the spectrum and people don’t see the benefit in riders. They don’t see how they can benefit a brand or how riders can build a brand.
GDK: How do you think we change that perception?
TK: To be honest, I think it’s going to be quite difficult with everything that’s happened in the past. We can’t really overlook that. That’s why big companies are sponsoring events because there’s no risk. Then you target 2000 people on one day and you get TV coverage out of it, etc.
People talk about an event, they don’t always talk about the rider. Me being on the other end of the spectrum now, I also see that. For me it’s very difficult to think back and how hard it was to find sponsors. You always thought the sponsors were the ones that were making the wrong decisions.
GDK: Going back to your career, how old are you?
GDK: We’re talking about ‘going back to your career’ but perhaps there’s more time still, we’ll wait and see. Can you pick a result, was that Pioneer result your best result?
TK: The Pioneer result was definitely one of my highlights, but my ultimately career highlight was not the Baviaans victories or any of that. It was racing the Epic with Stefan Sahm, that was unbelievable. I think anyone that rides a mountain bike would want to do that. I got the chance to do it and we had some problems but it actually went very well. That week I’ll never exchange for anything.
GDK: That came last year?
TK: Yes, last year, before I started working, I did Epic. Then I went away for a week, actually to Mauritius and then I started working the next Monday.
Are there regrets on ending so early?
GDK: So the last race as a pro was with one of the all-time great stage racers, which you would have learnt so much from him. So you’ve got all this mountain bike experience, the know-how, the skills and yet you’re not putting it to work. Is there a degree of disappointment, regret about this?
TK: There is definitely a degree of disappointment, but I was also at a point in my life where I knew I had to make a call. It was probably the most difficult decision I’ve ever made. Do I want to continue riding and see where it goes or do I actually take the opportunity and start building a career? Could I say – a proper career. It was definitely the most difficult decision. I do regret it, but I knew I made the right decision.
GDK: There are a lot of people out there who push on, gone into their mid and late 20’s, eking out and maybe scraping it together. Keeping going, for the passion of it I suppose, that’s about it.
TK: Yes, I know a lot of people that are riding and looking for sponsors that want to make a living out of it. Not even make a living out of it, just get their costs covered. The strongest riders like Ben and David, lots of guys, they don’t even have sponsors that cover their entry fees or their bike maintenance. I really hope that something comes along, a programme.
That’s actually what I’m working on in my spare time is to use the knowledge of all the riders that I know. Someone like Waylon Woolcock, Darren Lill, Karl Platt, Stefan Sahm. So that we can build the databases where everyone can put on their information.
Sponsors can just log onto the website and see riders information and what they want to do, I want to do this race. then sponsors can see, okay, maybe I’ll sponsor this team for this race and get some coverage out of it. I’m trying to work on that and it will probably be up and running by the end of the year or next year Feb hopefully.
GDK: There’s goals and ambitions and fantastic drive, but let’s get back to the bike. You’re 25, we know that mountain bikers can ride deep into their 30’s and some into their 40’s. So somewhere in you there’s an itch that needs to be scratched. When you’re 30 or 32 you might find the ideal partner to take on Epic or something like that.
Hours are well down, but still riding
TK: That’s definitely, definitely on the cards. I think the idea was to work for X amount of time and then when I think I’m at the right age, you just need a year’s block of training because I’m still riding my bike. Then I want to do something like that, 200%, it’s definitely on the cards.
GDK: You’re still riding?
TK: Yes, I’m still riding. I used to ride about 25-30 hours, now I’m riding about 2.5 to 3 hours a week!
GDK: The working life is tough!
TK: Yes, but trail running sort of took over as well now. Because I get home, put my shoes on, go run for an hour, come back and it’s the same amount of effort as going to ride for two hours. Not the same amount of effort, but the same amount of result.
GDK: And you’ve got a close partner to ride with as well.
TK: My girlfriend Nicky, we ride on weekends, so that’s the goal for us. On Saturday’s I get up early as well, she struggles, but it’s fine for me. Then we go and ride on Saturday’s and Sunday’s, it’s really cool for our relationship to share something like that.
GDK: You’re positive about this, that you’re not riding anymore, you put that aside?
TK: Yes, I think it took me three months to really handle, not handle, the decision I made and then after that, I started seeing opportunities to still be part of the sport and trying to help other people to make the decision I made. To see if they can find specific opportunities.
Because I’ve spoken to so many people that own big companies and they want to bring athletes into their company in some sort of way. Because they know athletes are very driven. When they put their mind to something, they actually do it. That’s very good for the sport, so that’s also something I want to look at. All athletes are very driven and they all have a lot of talent.
GDK: You’re very driven, you’ve got a mature approach to your young life already. Timo, thanks very much for chatting to us.
TK: Anytime Gerald, thanks for chatting.
GDK: Timo Cooper who at 25 is a retired professional mountain biker, he current works for USN, one of the premier supplement nutrition suppliers and sponsors in the world. Perhaps that’s a topic for another conversation around the sport of mountain biking. Until next time, thanks for downloading, take care, cheers.