From the breakaway to a stranger’s living room

130 riders DNFed at Flèche Wallonne – but Jimmy Whelan's day was one of the most dramatic.

James Whelan at the front of the breakaway at La Fleche Wallonne.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 18.04.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos and @sprintcycling/Q36.5
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For the professional cyclist, there are days that just feel like work. The days where the route isn’t interesting, or the stakes are low, or the vibes are off. And then there are the days where the weather is foul, and a day at the front of the race turns to a DNF.

For Australian rider Jimmy Whelan (Q36.5 Pro Cycling), Flèche Wallone was one of those types of days, pivoting in moments from animating the race to huddled on the side of the road, circling a drain called hypothermia – and from there to a stranger’s living room, and then to an ambulance. 

The culprit: the weather, which turned mid-race and eventually forced the withdrawal of 130 riders, including entire teams (UAE Team Emirates and Ineos Grenadiers among them). These were not ordinary racing conditions, but a biblical shift in seasons, most dramatically portrayed in the footage of Andreas Skjelmose’s withdrawal. But Skjelmose was far from the only one with a story to tell: a tweet from Whelan tipped us off to an intriguing tale.

The rain pours down on the peloton.

Speaking to Escape Collective from his hotel room after the race, Whelan said that after getting into the early breakaway of six riders, he’d “ditched my cold weather gear before the circuits as it was starting to get quite hot and was sunny all day. I was in the breakaway and our race car was behind the peloton which meant that I didn’t have quick access to my jackets … my mistake.”

As the breakaway entered the finishing circuit, the temperature plummeted in the matter of minutes. “All of a sudden the sun disappeared, and it went from feeling like 20 degrees [68°F] – the real temp was 16 but the sun made it feel like more – to 0 [32°F]… the real temp was 2, but the wet snow made it feel colder than a -5 degree day in [his European base,] Andorra,” Whelan explained. TV pictures showed the rain and sleet coming down in droves, and Whelan trying to get a jacket on to warm up, struggling to get his arm in the sleeve for what felt like minutes. That battle forced him off the back of the breakaway, where he dangled for 20 minutes, trying to regain contact. Just as the snow started to fall he made the connection, held on for 10 minutes, before finally getting caught by the reduced peloton on the second lap of the circuit. 130 km at the front of the race for no result – but the worst was yet to come. 

“At this moment I had to get off my bike and was hunched shivering over my bike outside someone’s house,” Whelan said. “I was not responding very well to the people asking if I was ok, so the family of the home brought me inside and covered me in towels and a massive winter jacket on their couch.” Barely coherent, he was handed a cup of tea and tried to warm up. In moments like these, details tend to come back in fragments rather than a clear narrative flow, and for Whelan, there was one fragment that stuck. “I remember their dog looking at me with great concern … dogs are surprisingly emotional animals and I could feel the dog’s concern,” Whelan told Escape. “The dog certainly hadn’t seen a guest like me before …”

While Whelan had a moment with a worried dog, his rescuers waved down a race ambulance. “The nurse took me to the ambulance where I did a few laps of the circuit … [his hosts] kept the jacket, which was quickly replaced with less cool ambulance foil,” Whelan said. “The nurse was really nice and even found me on Instagram to see if I was ok in the end.”

After doing some laps, Whelan eventually made his way back to his team bus; it took him, he says, “two hours” to feel normal again; “I was shaking like crazy without control for one hour.”

A grim day at the front of the race, and the back.

At a point there’s only so far you can push yourself, even if you’re a professional cyclist with a high tolerance for discomfort. “It was the coldest I’ve ever been on a bike and also a strange feeling to just have to pull off the side so suddenly in such a big race from the front group,” Whelan mused. “I had no choice but to stop – that’s something that feels so weird, but I’m glad I did. I was refusing to accept how cold I was until there was a moment when my body felt so numb that there wasn’t a choice anymore.” 

For Jimmy Whelan, back in the pro ranks after a couple of years racing at Continental level, each race is an opportunity to demonstrate his value, and the athletic gifts that brought him, in the matter of years, from middle-distance running to victory at the 2018 U23 Tour of Flanders in his first European race, three seasons at EF Education, a podium at his national championship road race, a stage win at the Volta a Portugal and the GC win at the Santos Festival of Cycling.

Through all that triumph and adversity, he’s made a name for himself as a battler of the bunch, with more grit than his palmarès sometimes shows. Such was the case at Flèche Wallonne: a DNF beside his name, but more to the story than meets the eye.

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