Mechanical engineering, advanced mathematics, and the joy of eating poutine once again. An interview with Europcar's (newly retired) David Veilleux.

Photo: Cyclingnews
2013 was an exceptional season for Canadian David Veilleux. During it, he was the first Quebec-native to compete in the Tour de France, while also winning a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné, wearing that race's leader's jersey, and taking the overall at Boucles de la Mayenne. But during what could easily be qualified as a dream season, one that clearly showed what he was capable of, Veilleux did something rather unexpected. He decided to retire. Still only 25, the Europcar rider stated that he'd chosen to focus on his studies in mechanical engineering, along with the prospect of starting a family. 

To some, Veilluex's retirement was perplexing. How could someone be at such a high point in their sporting career, and still walk away from it? Personally, I found his choice to be interesting, in part because it's indicative of someone with foresight. Someone who has been able to see beyond the world of cycling to realize that there will be a lot of living left to do after the sport (to quote Chris Rock "People tell you life is short. No its not. Life is long. Especially if you make the wrong decisions.") Speaking with Veilleux, it becomes clear that he loves cycling, but it's also obvious that the sport never swallowed him whole. This struck me as pleasantly unusual, in a sport where single-minded focus at the highest level is often a necessity, and usually comes at expense of everything else.

It was with all this mind that spoke with Veilleux, who now finds himself back home in Canada, attending school, and putting his bike aside for the time being.

How did you first become interested in cycling? You come from a family that was not devoted to cycling, and you are also from a part of north America that is not commonly associated with the sport.
When I was young, mountain biking was really popular. So from the time I was a young kid, I found cycling to be very interesting. I actually wanted to do motocross as a little kid, but my parents wouldn’t let me. Because of that, I started riding a mountain bike instead. When I was 13, I met a coach who introduced me to road cycling, which was not really common or popular around here. But from the start, I became very interested in it.

You first raced for Jittery Joe’s, and then Kelly Benefit Strategies in the US. How did the contract with Europcar come about?

I had contact with another team, but that didn’t work out. But I also had contact with the director Bouygues Télécom [Europcar today], and my coach spoke to him, and they wanted me on the team since they were still missing a few riders.

Photo: Cycling Archives

So they became interested in you based on your domestic racing results?

Exactly, I had raced just a little bit in Europe, but not much. So it was just results from US racing.

Did you have offers from any other teams in Europe?
No, but that was just my goal. Get that one contract in Europe, and get my foot in the door. I knew I had to take that chance to make it to Europe..

Was Europcar an ideal team for you to race in because it’s primarily a French-speaking team? Did that make you feel a bit more at home, and make the transition easier?

No, not really. I mean, yes, language was easier, but I think people from Quebec—from the way we look and the way we live—we are very different from the French. I think we’re a bit more Anglo…more like Nordic countries. The French are perhaps more similar to Spanish or Italian people.

How was the transition between a domestic team in North America, and Europcar for you?
It was a big transition. It’s a lot harder there, the races are a lot longer too. So I really had to increase my volume of training, just to be able to finish the races. So it’s different in terms of fitness, yes. But I also had to learn how to race in Europe. Races like the spring classics are their own world, and are just so different.


So how do you face something like Roubaix for the first time. You come from a background of racing in North America, mostly crits, and you are now lining up along Belgian and Dutch riders who have experienced that type of racing, to some extent, from the time they were kids.
It really is a unique experience, yes. You just don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. But you listen to the other guys, to all your teammates, and you try to learn very, very fast. You really just have to try your best. During that first season, every race was a learning experience. I mean, you know what you’re doing in North America, but then you go to Europe, and it’s like you lose your…your…I’m not sure how to say it in English…

Your edge maybe? In the sense that you’re also having to start from scratch almost, since the racing is different?

Well, even the way the race happens, the way it ends up and unfolds. You’re used to things happening one way, and then you get there, and everything in the race is totally different.

Photo: Velo News

Speaking with professionals, both active and retired, I’ve come to realize that racing in Europe at the top level is a bit like a fraternity. Those who have been there and done it, get it. Everyone else is a bit on the outs, and certain aspects of racing at that level are not discussed with outsiders. Does this ring true to you?
Well, maybe a little bit. But not that much. I guess it depends on what you were doing on your team, you know? I don’t think we’re hiding anything, I don’t have anything to hide. But it’s more like you do your racing, and that’s it. Out of respect for others who race with you, you don’t go and tell everything and talk about it. It’s more out of respect. Like if one rider is not feeling right, is sick, or something. It’s just respect for other riders, more than being a fraternity or a secret group where you can’t tell anyone about it.  

You mention not having anything to hide, which begs the question: during your time racing, did you often hear gossiping about doping? Is it a topic that is often discussed among riders, who tend to gossip a bit anyway? Like “oh that guy is doing this, and that guy did that”, or something like that?
Yeah, of course. It comes up. Like some of the things that come out in the news, we didn’t know about those things either. So like anyone else, we talk about it. And then sometimes a person will say they know one thing about someone, but who knows whether it’s true or not. So you can’t put much importance to it, because no one knows if it’s true or not.

Wait, so professionals talk during a race about so and so maybe doing this or that, just like amateurs on a group ride, who gossip and tell stories, but no one really knows what’s true and what’s not?
(laughs), Yeah, exactly!

During your time racing, were you offered doping products, or did it ever come up that you should take anything?
I’m very fortunate that during my time racing I never encountered it. I was never offered anything, and was never forced to take anything, no.

Stage 1, 2013 Critérium du Dauphiné

2013 was a fantastic year for you professionally, due in great part to your stage win at the Dauphine. During this last season, did you always know that you’d be retiring, or was there a certain moment or event that brought this decision on?
There wasn’t one moment specifically. Like everyone, I do a recap of my season when it ends. So last year, at the end of the season I decided I would do one more year. This season, after the Tour de France, I came back home. I was back, and I realized I had really achieved many of my sporting goals. So I asked myself what I wanted to achieve next, and I simply wanted to achieve goals that were more personal level, and not in the cycling world, that became more important.

Photo: Veloptimum

I think that’s admirable, since many professional cyclists perhaps don’t realize how much life they will have left to live once they retire. Even with that in mind, I suspect that you retiring at such an early age, was puzzling to some. I mean,  you’re retiring at your prime, at the end of what was easily your best season. Is that how some of your teammates saw it, that you were ending things too soon, instead of the fact that are actually getting ready to start a new life?
From a cycling point of view, yes, it came as a surprise. Some of my teammates were very surprised, that’s for sure. It wasn’t conceivable to them, to retire like this. But they respected my decision, and I think in the end they understood.

In North America, because the level of racing is so different from Europe, and the volume of training needed is much less, I found that here [in North America] pro cyclists do other things. They have other things they care about and learn about. For example, I had a teammate who was doing a doctorate in particle physics at one point.

Particle physics. Yikes. Who was that?
Reid Mumford
. [Mumford raced for Kelly Benefits, and his degree is high-energy particle physics, from Johns Hopkins]. But yes, in North America more riders have other interests, and are able to do two things at once in their life. But in Europe, racing is so demanding that it’s different. But another thing is that cycling is such a part of their culture in Europe, that it’s different for them. It’s the equivalent of becoming a hockey player in Canada, it’s a big deal. So for them, they just try to do the minimum amount of school, and just go into cycling. If they become professionals, they’ll just try to do that for ten or fifteen years. They don’t really think beyond that at all, its their life. And that’s one thing I really found to be very different between North American racing and European racing. They see it differently. So my Europcar teammates found out I was very different from them right away, because I would go to school and study in the fall after a season of racing.

David with Keven Lacombe (Photo: Pedal Magazine)

So you’ve already been taking classes toward your degree, during the time that you were racing for Europcar?

Yeah, I started my degree in mechanical engineering five years ago.

How were you able to fit in taking classes? Were you ever home long enough?
I always took classes from September to December. And then I would be in Europe racing the rest of the year.

And you arranged this with your team, that you would not race past September in order to go to school?

Well, because Europcar is not Pro Tour, we had a shorter calendar, plus they would have stagiaires coming into the team at the end of the season. But my first year, I did race until October, so I didn’t take classes that fall.

Photo: Straitstimes

Based on the type of dedication and singular focus that many European riders have, is it hard to talk to them about anything other than cycling?
Well, it depends on the person I think. Maybe it’s different in other teams, because I was just in one team, with French riders. So I only know how they see things. But it's hard. For example, when I was around guys like Christian Meier or Svein Tuft, they could talk about anything. They are very bright people who are interested in learning about new things, but that’s not always the case with other riders. I guess it’s just different based on the environment that you’re in, and how you grow up.

You mentioned having accomplished your sporting goals. What goals in particular were those? Winning at the Dauphine, and being the first Quebecois at the Tour have to be up there. But were there certain things going into European racing that you always wanted to accomplish?

For me, just starting any of the big races was a great thing. Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Lombardia, any of the big races. I didn’t specifically dream of getting to the Tour, because that race is so hard, that it seemed unachievable. So I didn’t even have that as a goal. But I wanted to race in Europe for two years, and go to the Olympics. But that didn’t turn out like I wanted it to, because only one guy got to go. But after two years in Europe, I realized that doing the Tour was something I could accomplish. Winning at the Dauphine was beyond my expectations. That wasn’t a set goal. But I’ve always done cycling to push myself, to see how well I can do. That could mean winning, or finishing 40th or 200th. But being there was a goal.

Photo: Louis Garneau

There’s a kind of beauty to that, to enjoying the moment and taking in the magnitude of what you’re living through. By that I mean that you seem to view the sport as a fan might, since simply being there, being in those races was very satisfying to you.
For me, it was already far fetched that I would ever race in Europe, and get to live that experience. I mean, not many Canadians have been able to do this. I remember discovering races like Paris-Roubaix from old video tapes that my coach had. So to actually be there, to be at the race, that was a goal for me. To just be there.


How has your daily routine changed now that you’re not actively training, and how do you think it will change as the holiday season approaches?

Not that different, except that I don’t have to think about training. Last fall I was taking four classes in school, this year I have five, so that part is similar. But I’ve maybe ridden my bike two times in the last month.

Recreational and amateur cyclists seem to have an obsession with looking like they are professionals, even though they don't get paid to ride a bike. People take this to heart, and obsess about the details of what to do, and what not to do, in order to look like a professional. Does that strike you as funny?

(laughs) Yeah, yeah. But it’s like this in life, for everyone. The grass is always greener on the other side. But, I have a saddle bag, and a frame pump, and really big water bottles (laughs), so I don’t think I’ll be worrying too much about this. But maybe I’ll just make sure not to wear pro stuff anymore, and I’ll just ride my bike and enjoy it.

People are interested in looking the part, though they would never, ever be willing to undertake the amount of massive training you did to even finish those races in Europe?
Yeah, exactly! 

So the last couple times you rode your bike, what did you wear? Still team kit, since you’re under contract?
Yes, team kit because of the contract.

David post-Roubaix (Photo: Veloptimum)

What will you miss most about being a pro cyclists?
Going to Europe and getting to see different countries and places around the world, as well as those big races, and getting to enjoy them.

What will you miss the least?

(laughs) Oh, eating vegetables! And trying to lose weight, which was one of the hardest things for me, so I won’t miss that.

Photo: Pedal Mag
Was there one dish or type of food in particular that you couldn’t eat while you raced, that you are now happy to be able to eat again? Or maybe something you missed from home?


I say “no” because it’s not just one type of food. It’s actually many! Too many!

Give me one example

Poutine! Do you know poutine?

Oh yes, yes. See, I originally even considered asking you if poutine was one thing you missed from home, but thought it might be a stereotypical thing to ask a Québécois.
Well, yeah, I missed it so much. I’m happy to be able to eat it now, but still only once in a while.
Fries, gravy and cheese curds = poutine
In moderation.
Yes, in moderation.

So when will you be done with school?

Two years, it’s a four year program, and I’m half-way through.

What drew you to mechanical engineering? Is there one aspect in particular that interests you or that you hope to work in once you’re out of school?

Not really, I’m just very curious, and this type of thing has always interested me. Next summer, it's possible that I’ll be working with Louis Garnau, they are close to where I live. So I could try to combine my passions for cycling and engineering, so that’s one option. I’ll see how things go, I’ll try it. But I’m not worried about this, I’ll find something I enjoy, and work in that area. I know that I’m interested in automation in mechanical engineering, so that’s something I want to go into.

Since you are still under contract to Europcar, and you are still technically a professional cyclist, would it be fair to say that you are perhaps the only pro road cyclist with an interest in automation within mechanical engineering who also enjoys advanced mathematics?

(laughs) Yes, yes, probably.

If you enjoyed this interview, you may also like this article, written by Adrian Cardenas for the New Yorker, about quitting profesional baseball, to finish his schooling at NYU.