In swimming it’s the year of the comeback. In cycling it appears the at-or-near-40-somethings are losing none of their nerve or verve, some even enhancing their pizzazz. So, asks Anthony Tan, when is the time, then, to hang up the race wheels?
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM

On Monday night, tuning in to the ABC's
'7.30' program, I watched and listened to a report on Australia's
Olympic swimmers-in-waiting, who this week will face off against one
another in a desperate bid for selection to the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Normally,
I wouldn't really give a rat's about our swimmers, let alone comment
about them – they get far too much exposure as it is at the expense of
other sporting codes. But what piqued my interest was that four of the
London wannabes have come out of retirement, namely Ian Thorpe, Geoff
Heugill, Michael Klim and Libby Trickett.

"Retiring from sport is
not an easy transition for any athlete. When you retire for the wrong
reasons it can haunt you," Grant Hackett wrote in last weekend's Sydney Morning Herald, "and at some point you need to be honest with yourself."

Added Heugill: "I've never been able to simulate that sort of experience."

Said
diver Loudy Wiggins (no relation to Paris-Nice winner Bradley), another
on the comeback trail: "I haven't been able to replicate it in any
other aspect of my life."

Does Hackett not see the irony of his
words? That many of those who return aren't being honest with
themselves? That their expectations no longer match their athletic
ability?

Hackett's column revolved around his fiercest 400-metre
arch-rival when he was a swimmer, Ian Thorpe, the latter who, in case
you've been living under a rock the past few months, has decided at age
29 to make a return to competitive splishing and splashing.

"While
it's risky, you have to admire what he is putting on the line: nine
Olympic medals (five gold), 11 world championship gold medals, 10
Commonwealth Games gold medals, 22 world records.

"However," said Hackett, "the quest for Olympic glory is overwhelming."

So
far, Thorpe's comeback has been underwhelming and in all likelihood, it
appears the 'Thorpedo' will be lucky to make the team, let alone be a
medal contender come the Games in August.

"The most realistic outcome is… is that I will most likely fail," Thorpe admitted to Ten News this week.

Said
former swimmer Lisa Curry, who came back twice after having a baby:
"The downside is you think you're doing well, you think you're doing
good enough, you think you're on track until you get into a training
camp situation with everybody else, and all of a sudden you think, 'Ooh,
I'm not as fast as I thought I was."

* * *

The ABC
report, albeit very briefly, touched on another aspect of those on the
comeback trail: that the humble taxpayer is forking out wads of cash
attempting to get old-timers back on the podium instead of grooming our
next-big-things. Swimming Australia says that despite multiple reports
to the contrary, the elder statesmen in our cool-water coterie are not
apportioned more funds than their younger counterparts (the Sunday Telegraph
said $100,000 was awarded to Thorpe by SA to allow him to train in
Europe; Stephanie Rice was offered $12,500, presumably to allow her to
train in Australia).

At the recent Tour de Langkawi, I posited
the sentiment to Champion System's team owner Ed Beamon in relation to
his decision to recruit Jaan Kirsipuu, their sprightly 42-year-old
'sprinter'. (I placed the word sprinter in inverted commas because the
evergreen Estonian hasn't won a race since capturing the opening stage
of the 2009 Herald Sun Tour.)

"Our goal is to develop guys and
Jaan is one of the most experienced sprinters around. The fact that he's
still on his bike is pretty amazing, but it's also a great bonus and a
great benefit, and I expect Jaan will be with our program for many
years. But his role now is to not take someone's place, but to be the
talent pool to develop these [younger] guys, and to use his experience
to bring some of these younger guys along, and to put them on the
fast-track," said Beamon.

Kirsipuu pulled the pin midway through
the seventh stage in Malaysia. Champion System's best result all week
came via Malaysian sprinter Anuar Manan with a third and fourth place – a
far cry from two years ago when Manan became the first Malaysian rider
to win a stage (he also wrapped up the points classification in 2010).

On
the flipside, I would probably rate Lance Armstrong's comeback in 2009
as moderately successful, that year proving to be one of the most
intriguing Tours de France (if only for the infighting between Lance and
Alberto at Astana, denied all race long before being verified as true
as soon as the race was over).

And then there is a growing slew
of near or at 40-year-olds who not only remain proven performers but
remain effervescently popular, too: as I write this, 40-year-old Chris
Horner is on the precipice of overall victory in Tirreno-Adriatico; Jens
Voigt, also the same age and Horner's RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team-mate,
came within a whisker of winning the sixth stage of Paris-Nice; and
then you have 38-year-old George Hincapie, who this year embarked on his
nineteenth pro season and if he rides in July (which, based on last
year's performance, suggests he will) begins his seventeenth Tour de
France.

There's also been talk that Mario 'Lion King' Cipollini,
who holds the same birthday as yours truly and will turn 45 in just over
a week, will return to ride for Farnese Vini-Selle Italia sprinter
Andrea Guardini, the man who cleaned up six stages at the Tour de
Langkawi.

Horner, Voigt and Hincapie do not look like slowing down anytime soon so who are we to argue they should not be there?

There
is plenty of emerging talent in the Pro Continental and WorldTour ranks
but a dearth of personalities like the aforementioned trio. As for
Cipollini, who once bemoaned the absence of machismo in today's peloton –
"Machismo is disappearing, I can't find it in Contador," he decried to L'Equipe in December 2010. "Contador has the anonymous face of a surveyor or an accountant" – who better than 'Re Leone' to reinstate that with a capital V for Virility!

Still,
the question remains: when should one hang up their wheels, bin the
ascetic life of an elite athlete, and like you and I do as is our wont,
trudge off to the pub for a brew or two and a $10 steak?

"I honestly think it's when the enjoyment goes out of it," Lisa Curry told the ABC. "When it's cold and raining outside and you prefer to stay in bed than to get up, then it's all over."

Twitter: @anthony_tan