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The former Irish international rider who this week opened up about his depression

Daniel Stewart has walked away from the sport for now.

Image:  An Post 

ONE WEEK AGO, one of the country’s most promising up-and-coming cyclists walked away from the sport, citing an ongoing battle with depression.

In a brutally honest post on his personal website, Daniel Stewart, 21, from Belfast, recounted the depths to which he had sunk throughout 2015 and into the early part of this year.

In March, he decided he’d had enough of the sport and before his career really began, he announced it was over.

We caught up with him this week to find out a little more about how, in a week where he should be preparing for the An Post Rás, he’d rather be anywhere else than at a bike race.

To provide some context to his story, Stewart was second to Eddie Dunbar at the Under-23 national championships last year and was awarded with his first pro contract by the An Post Chainreaction cycling team in Belgium.

It’s a school that has produced many top quality riders, some of whom have gone on to sign lucrative contracts with multi-million operations like Team Sky, Bora-Argon 18 and Dimension Data.

“I’ve always loved riding the bike,” he says, recounting a time when he was three years old, riding around his neighbourhood without stabilisers.

“I took them off as soon as I could and I rode around my block every day. When I was 10, I was still riding around the block. I’ve ridden a bike all my life, the 14 years I went to school I rode it every day so to me, not riding my bike would be a big change.”

It wasn’t until Stewart was in his teens that he actually raced but as soon as he pinned on race numbers he knew he had talent.

“I remember like it was yesterday; an Under-16 open race that doubled as the Northern Ireland Championships and the North Down GP.

“I knew nothing about cycling at the time. Robert Anderson was first, Cormac Clarke was second and I was third. I was chuffed and I knew I needed more.”

As a first and second-year junior his talent really became apparent and he was winning races against guys with 10 years’ experience.

And when he won one of the biggest one-day races on the domestic calendar as a teenager, the Connor-Coombes Memorial in Drogheda, he started to believe the hype around him was not without foundation.

“I really appreciated that win. I remember is so, so well, who I travelled to it with, the craic we had, every little detail.

“I remember I went in the break and my legs just felt great.

“Looking back, I wasn’t the most experienced or the strongest there but I had that ultimate self-belief that I’d win and I managed to pull it off.

“Though I had a lot of other days after it that win was my favourite moment in sport. In all the races I won in Ireland I never felt like I was the strongest but I wanted to win the most and that’s why I won.”

Winning races as an amateur was fun and it was a weekly occurrence.

But racing abroad in the bear pit of Belgium or France was a different story.

There were Daniel Stewarts everywhere. There were guys who had that exact same self-belief and that exact will to win.

Stewart knew he had to find another gear so he moved to France to train and race full-time.

It was then when the downward spiral began.

“I was in France, on my own, isolated, not a cent to my name, staying in bed until 4pm, getting up to eat something measly, go out training and lie in bed again. I’ve never had a phase of not wanting to do it but this was one. I thought it was a phase, but it persisted.”

To his credit, he battled on throughout 2015 with the highly-regarded AC Bisontine squad. He even managed to get a brilliant result which had managers of pro teams enquiring as to who was the baby-faced Irish boy.

“I remember getting third in this big elite national race and looking out at the people in the crowd afterwards thinking ‘that wasn’t good enough, Daniel.’

“Being honest, it wasn’t as enjoyable as that third in the North Down GP. That’s when it really hit me. I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I used to. It was a massive result but I didn’t see it as a massive result. I saw it like I made a mistake and do as well as I could have.”

That unbreakable self-belief he had as a junior was now replaced by self-doubt and it crippled him.

“It was really bad, to be honest. It came to a point where it was atrocious and I wasn’t in control of myself.

“I was just in a state of paranoia. I remember being so hyperactive about what other people thought of me; the slightest thing that you wouldn’t even notice now but I’d think I pissed someone off for doing something stupid and I’d beat myself up.

“The way the sport is, you deal with a lot of failure and every time I overcame failure it was like ‘right you didn’t do this properly, this is how you confront it for the future’. I’d build on that but it got to the point where you think every single thing is a failure and if you’re thinking every single thing is a failure it becomes uncontrollable and it takes over your life.”

While he displayed admirable courage and toughness on the outside, inside he was broken. He was fooling himself when he signed a pro contract with the An Post Chainreaction team, a move which hastened his downward spiral.

“There were days when I was unable to get out of bed,” he said.

“I was always committed, I went to all the An Post Chainreaction training camps, I was really focussed and really wanted to achieve my best and I was the fittest I’d ever been.

“But I didn’t feel like I wanted to go there. I was the fittest I’d ever been but the thoughts I was having just weren’t the same as before; where I used to be thinking about winning the race all I could think of was how far off it I’ll be.

“So when it came to going to Belgium I just had an emotional breakdown and I couldn’t cope with going, knowing what was ahead.”

And just like that, he called it quits, stopped training and hasn’t raced for two months.

Heaven knows when he’ll race again, if ever.

He has sought professional help and he’s in a better place now.

And confronting the problem himself, via his blog post, was a key part of that process.

“It got a really good response and it was really reassuring to hear a lot of other people’s stories regarding depression and hard times in sport.

“It was unexpected, I didn’t expect it would have the impact its’ had. I think of all the blogs I’ve written it was the only one where I didn’t care how many people looked at it but ironically, it was the one with the most amount of views.”

Now, Stewart is in the process of building himself back up, step by step. He has plans to move to London and chase a career in journalism while running is now the preferred sport.

“I’m always going to ride my bike but as far as racing is concerned it all depends on how much training I can do. I plan to move to London for a college course but I know it can be quite hard to train there.

“I can see myself maybe doing open races next year but it all depends. I’m doing a lot of running now so that’s more likely.”

If you need to talk, contact:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Console 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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About the author:

Brian Canty

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