Grand Tour Legend Stephen Roche on Life After Racing, The Dominance of Team Sky, and the World Championships ‘in a desert’

The 15th anniversary of the Cycle Show in Birmingham was the biggest yet, with over 300 of the UK’s brightest and best cycling shops, clothing designers, equipment manufacturers, coaching programmes and purveyors of energy bars, gels, powders and drinks converging on the NEC for what was essentially a three-day festival of the bike.  ITV’s Ned Boulting held court on the Protect Your Bubble stage throughout the weekend, interviewing Grand Tour legend Stephen Roche on Sunday afternoon.  Roche’s interview proved to be warm, witty and entertaining, and offered insights into the Tour legend’s thoughts on the current state of World Tour racing, the up coming World Championships in Doha, and his son’s move from Team Sky.

Ned Boulting introduced the two-time Grand Tour winner to the stage during the afternoon session on the final day of the three-day event.  Roche, who won the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the World Road Race Championships in the same year, now runs successful cycle camps in Majorca, which have become increasingly popular with Brits following Bradley Wiggins’ winning performances at the Tour de France and London Olympic Games.

For the former pro, the bike is clearly still a hugely important part of his life.  “If I don’t ride my bike it’s like a pressure cooker…it builds up, then I ride my bike and it goes down again” explained Roche.  “When I was young I learned to enjoy cycling, and then I was lucky enough to become a professional.  Now I’m back enjoying it again.  I participate now – I don’t compete”.

Asked whether retiring his racing wheels to “re-join the human race” had been a difficult process, Roche was keen to stress that they key to feeling content in that decision is to change the way you think about your relationship with the bike.  “Lots of guys have difficulty turning that corner.  But it’s impossible to stay at that level, you shouldn’t keep thinking ‘it wasn’t like this before’…”  Roche was quick to accept that retirement would have an effect on the way he rode.  “I had 9% body fat then, now I have a lot more!  The age is there, and I’m a granddad too…you should be happy cycling, and not keep the past in the present.”

Whilst Stephen can now ‘participate’; it is his son Nicolas who does the competing.  For the past two years, the younger Roche has been an important member of Team Sky, riding in support of Chris Froome.  Prior to that, Nicolas was a member of Tinkoff-Saxo, working as a domestique for Alberto Contador.  Roche was brought into Team Sky “with the potential to win small stage races, take stage wins, and be a good team mate to Chris Froome” explained Stephen.  Nicolas was identified as a key rider to get into breakaways, and was a huge asset to Sky due to his exceptional race craft.

Two years on however, and Nico has made the decision to leave Sky for the BMC Racing Team, once again working alongside his friend Richie Porte.  Both Porte and Nico Roche are riders with excellent palmarès and potential, however with Chris Froome so dominant on the road at present, the only way for talented riders of their calibre to fulfil that potential is to move away from Team Sky.  Ned Boulting, questioning Stephen Roche on his son’s future, conceded “Sky target the Tour de France” and the pair agreed that, with the current crop of riders led by Froome, there’s little opportunity for a “Plan B” to flourish on the Grand Tours.  Sky, it seems, may find themselves as victims of their own success as riders like Roche and Porte move on to pastures new.  Once Froome loses that dominance, Stephen Roche is concerned that there’s “no one there to take up that role”.

Asked whether situations like that at Sky are a result of the modern pressures upon the sport, Roche agreed.  “Racing is totally different now.  There are totally different commercial interests…we have Race Radio and power meters, which can make the race a bit boring.  In my era, nobody jumped up and down for third place.  Now everyone’s racing for a top ten finish.  A top ten placing in the Tour could mean a good contract, more money…”  On the subject of power meters and other in-race technology, Boulting enquired as to what Roche would change to bring back the sense of excitement associated with his own era of racing.  “Abolish car to rider contact, have rider to car contact only. Race Radio damages the spectacle.  We have riders too concerned with power meters, detailed data and calculations.  We do need to move with technology – don’t just throw it out – but make it better.  Otherwise we have riders, tactically not knowing what to do by themselves”.

In the current pro peloton, Roche is impressed with a number of young riders coming up through the ranks.  “A Grand Tour rider survives the time trials, the climbs, the wind, the rain, the crashes…one good thing to come out of the Tour de France are the skilled young riders – Quintana, Bardet, Yates, Alaphillipe…”  His son’s former team mate, Contador, also impresses.  “He is a great asset to cycling.  He is tactically good, he doesn’t wait until the last climb, he throws down the gauntlet.  We need riders like this”.

In view of the upcoming World Championships, Roche was asked which recent World Road Race Champion has impressed him the most.  “Certainly Sagan, but it would have to be Thor Hushovd.  He was 90 kilos, so he had to get points ahead of the other sprinters, going away on mountains for the intermediate sprint points.  He was a great sprinter, an intelligent rider.  A nice guy, with tactical sense”.  As for the upcoming World Championships in Doha, Roche didn’t fancy the course much!  “It’s totally flat.  In a desert”.  So who does he back to win?  “A sprinter.  But I’d like to see Tom Boonen win, he could climb off his bike and say he stopped on a high note, but it will be very difficult for him.  The wind could blow sand across the road.  It’s a sprinters day”.

Roche prefers the 2018 course, when the World Championship comes to Austria.  “It’s a very hard circuit” he explained, and could possibly see the rainbow jersey conferred upon a Tour contender once again.  “People are wishing for it to happen”.  On the subject of jerseys, Ned Boulting asked which was the most prestigious in the cycling world – the World Champion’s rainbows or the maillot jaune?  Peter Sagan, taking both the yellow and green jerseys at this year’s Tour de France  – whilst simultaneously being the World Champion and entitled to wear the associated rainbow jersey – famously quipped “If I lose yellow, I have green.  If I lose green, I have rainbow”.  Roche, debating the merits of each, revealed one of his greatest career regrets.  “I regret not being able to wear my rainbow jersey much due to my knee injury”.  Like Roche, Sagan hasn’t been seen in the stripes too often, although this has been due to the number of points and leader’s jerseys he has accumulated in his World Championship year.  “If I were him, I’d have been frustrated to have to wear the green jersey (at the Tour de France).  You only get one chance to wear rainbow”.

Before it was time for Roche to go, Ned Boulting asked if the audience had anything they’d like to ask the Tour legend – “it’s not every day that you have Stephen Roche answering your questions!”  After answering a number of questions from the floor, Roche was asked “what’s your least favourite mountain?”  Spinning the answer in a more positive light, Roche replied “there wasn’t one I didn’t like – but some didn’t particularly like me!”  Relaying the story of his first ever attempt at Alpe d’Huez on the Tour when he was a new face in the peloton at 23, Roche told the Cycle Show “I forgot to eat.  It was lights out at the foot of the Alpe!”  The mountain may have had other ideas, but the 23-year-old Roche wouldn’t have dreamed of giving up.  He rode on, finishing almost twenty minutes down on the bunch, but crossing the line none the less.  “Alpe d’Huez is an incredible climb…it has to be treated with respect”.

It’s a story which sums up Roche’s entire interview – peppered with humour, humility and honesty, whilst showing the reverence with which he held – and still holds – the sport he loves.  A story of the bike, of the road, and above all, of humanity – le Tour in microcosm.  And with that, Stephen Roche leaves the stage, to greet fans clutching pens and programmes, autograph ready.  Almost thirty years on from his golden 1987, Stephen Roche is still a charismatic champion with the ability to inspire, one of the greats, and a fantastic ambassador for the sport.  Chapeau Mr Roche, and also to the Cycle Show – same time next year?

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30 Seconds With……Jasper Bovenhuis of An Post Chain Reaction!

We grabbed 30 seconds with the Tour of Britain Yodel Direct Sprint jersey winner Jasper Bovenhuis to ask him the Freewheeling quick-fire questions…

What was your first ever bike like?  A white MBK, with tube gearing and toeclips.

Books or Movies?  Movies

What’s on your MP3 Player?  All kind of music, listening a lot from the top 40 hit-chart.

If you could go for a café run with any cyclist from history, who would it be? Mario Cipollini

If I wasn’t a cyclist I’d be… Ice-speedskater

Freewheeling Friday: EXCLUSIVE Jasper Bovenhuis Interview

Main photo: http://www.anpostchainreaction.com

Billed in the Official Tour of Britain programme as An Post Chain Reaction’s ‘One to Watch’, Jasper Bovenhuis had a great week riding his first edition of the British race, taking home the Yodel Direct Sprints jersey, and racing the streets of Bristol as the Most Combative rider of the previous day.

We caught up with him to see what he thought of the 2016 Tour of Britain….

Congratulations on winning the Yodel Direct Sprint jersey at this year’s Tour of Britain! When you started the race was that one of your aims?
Thank you, yes for me it was a goal from the start of the Tour of Britain, trying to win the Yodel Direct Sprint jersey.

What was your most memorable moment in this year’s Tour of Britain?
The last stage was the best of all, riding in big crowds through London.
And winning the last point, so I could bring home the jersey.

How do you prepare for split stages like the Bristol stage at this year’s Tour of Britain?
Riding 2 stages in a day always costs a lot of energy. For me, I just make sure I have enough fuel in the body during the day, and take as many  rest moments as possible in between the 2 stages.

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Jasper Bovenhuis wears the Yodel Direct sprint jersey at the 2016 Tour of Britain, Stage 7b, Bristol.

How does riding the Tour of Britain compare to racing on the Continent?
Racing in Britain is totally different than elsewhere. The roads are really grippy a lot of the time, and besides that the road is never flat, that makes it really hard to race on.

Were you surprised by the level of support for the Tour of Britain when you came to the UK?
I didn’t really know what to expect, because I don’t race that often in the UK. But it was great to see that there is a lot of support for the Tour of Britain itself, and that there is a big amount of cycling fans!

What did winning the Yodel Direct Sprint jersey mean to you personally, and to the team?
For me personally it was a great win, especially because it was racing at the highest level I have ever done, 2.HC. For the team it was also really good, getting a lot of media attention and TV minutes.

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Bovenhuis, third wheel, after riding across the Bristol suspension bridge during the 2016 Tour of Britain

How did you become involved with cycling at a professional level?
When I became a first year U23 rider I got a contract at the Rabobank Continental team and stayed there for 4 seasons. I’ve already been racing for 7 years on the ‘continental’ level of cycling.

What do you hope to achieve next season?
Hopefully I can keep developing myself, and get some nice victories next season.

Finally, what would you say to any young riders just starting out on the road?
Make sure you keep having fun riding your bike, that’s the way you can make the most out of cycling. And the most important – stay safe on the road.

Thanks Jasper! We wish you all the best for the 2017 season and really hope we see you back to defend the Yodel Direct jersey at the next Tour of Britain!

Don’t forget to check out Jasper’s 30 Seconds With…. answers on our Café Run page!

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Jasper Bovehuis in the Yodel Direct Sprint jersey

Frank Schleck Says Goodbye to 15 Years on the Bike at Il Lombardia

As the season drew to a close with the final World Tour race of Il Lombardia last weekend, Trek-Segafredo said goodbye to two riders who have become mainstays of the peloton over the past decade and a half.  We take a look at the careers of Frank Schleck and Ryder Hesjedal in this two-part end of season series…

Trek-Segafredo End of Season Special, Part 1

Frank Schleck – Crashes, Climbs and Doping Control. 

Turning pro in 2003 for Team CSC, Frank Schleck closed out fifteen years in the professional peloton at the Race of the Falling Leaves on 1st October 2016.  Growing up, Schleck was something of a racing thoroughbred in his native Luxembourg; his father Johnny having spent nine years as a bike racer and his grandfather Gustave a competitive rider in the 1930s.  Together with his younger brother Andy, the two Schlecks formed part of the generation of riders who turned pro as the Armstrong era was drawing to a close, their obvious talent and potential marking them out as Grand Tour contenders alongside the likes of Alberto Contador.

Although Andy was eventually crowned as Tour de France winner in 2010 following Contador’s positive clenbuterol test and subsequent stripping of the title, both Schleck brothers seemed destined to suffer dramatic crashes in greater number than dramatic victories; indeed, it was a serious fall at the 2014 Tour de France which ended his brother Andy’s career in the saddle.

Early in his professional career, before crashes and scandals had taken some of the gloss off Schleck’s squeaky-clean image, the older brother took a number of notable victories which only increased the belief that Frank would one day win a Grand Tour.  In 2005, two years after signing with CSC, Schleck won the National Road Race Championships in Luxenbourg.  A third place at the Giro de Lombardia, 4th at the Tour de Suisse, and 7th at Paris-Nice rounded out a successful season.  The following year, Schleck won the biggest race of his career thus far, the Amstel Gold Race.  A top ten placing at the Tour de France followed, earning 10th place by virtue of solid climbing performances including an impressive win on Stage 15, when the race scaled Alpe d’Huez.  Schleck, aged 26, was well aware of the legendary status of the Alpe, uttering “it will take me a while before I realise that I’ve won here”.

Two years later, in 2008, the Tour returned to Alpe d’Huez, with another memorable stage.  Schleck, wearing the yellow jersey, was attacked by a member of his own team, Carlos Sastre.  Speaking about Sastre’s attack earlier this year, Schleck downplayed the incident.  “Can I be disappointed?  Yes…but the team comes first”.  It had been Sastre’s own decision to attack, stated Schleck, not a planned move under direction from the team car.  “We knew we had to do something, but it was not planned that he would attack at the beginning…what matters is that we won the Tour…everyone congratulated him, and so did I”.  Whether Schleck could have won the General Classification we’ll never know, although his team were certainly strong enough, and Schleck himself finished 5th after three weeks of hard racing.  2008 was a strong season for the elder Schleck brother, as he once again won the National Road Race Championships, and returned a 2nd place in the Amstel Gold Race, with 3rd at Liège-Bastogne- Liège.

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Image: Wikipedia

Scandal was just around the corner however, and in October 2008, Schleck was forced to admit having made a payment of €7000 to a Swiss bank account associated with the disgraced Spanish doping doctor Eufemiamo Fuentes in 2006.  Bjarne Riis, director of Schleck’s Team CSC-SaxoBank, released a press statement confirming that the Luxembourger had been temporarily suspended until the rider could ‘clarify his position’.  CSC-SaxoBank explained that they had ‘received a thorough briefing’ from Schleck, and awaited the ruling of both the Luxembourg anti-doping authorities and the UCI.  Schleck provided his team and the anti-doping agencies with full bank statements dating back several years in order to prove that no further payments had been made to Dr Fuentes.  Detailed blood values were also supplied, as proof that no tampering had taken place.

Schleck claimed, in a statement released through CSC-SaxoBank, that he had ‘never used or attempted use of a prohibited substance…or method’.  The transaction had been made in exchange for training advice from ‘experts who presumably worked with some of the biggest names in sport…there was no suspicion…of any unlawful action’.  It was claimed that Schleck ‘interrupted’ the contact after speaking with his father and friends, and realised that he had made a ‘serious blunder’.  The Luxembourg anti-doping authorities examined the evidence and cleared Schleck of any doping offences, with CSC reinstating him when the investigation was resolved.

After returning to a full race schedule in 2009, Schleck won his home tour, the Tour de Luxembourg, also crossing the line first place on Stage 3.  A stage win on Stage 8 of the Tour of California was matched by claiming the Most Aggressive Rider in the same stage, whilst Schleck secured 2nd place at Paris-Nice, and retained his 5th place in the Tour de France with a stage win on Stage 17.  Whilst attempting the Amstel Gold Race, Schleck suffered one of the many crashes that haunted both his and his brother’s careers, and was taken to hospital with concussion.

His 2010 Tour de France attempt was also affected by a crash.  After winning the Tour de Suisse, Schleck started the Tour de France in good form.  Whilst attempting to ride on the cobbles on Stage 3, a surface he’d never enjoyed, Schleck crashed heavily and fractured his clavicle in three places, causing him to retire from the race.  Fans had grown used to watching the Schleck brothers launching twin attacks and working together to ignite the race; this time younger brother Andy was forced to compete without fraternal support.  At the end of July, both brothers announced their intention to leave SaxoBank, heading instead to a brand new Luxembourg based team, eventually confirmed as being called Leopard Trek.

After recovering from his Tour de France crash, Schleck took 5th place in the Vuelta a España as Vincenzo Nibali won the General Classification.  2011 saw the Leopard Trek team competing for the first time.  Schleck had a successful season, winning the National Road Race Championships, the Critérium International, and 2nd place at Liège-Bastogne- Liège.  In July, Frank stood on the Tour de France podium in 3rd place, with brother Andy in 2nd; the first time in the history of the Tour that siblings had shared the overall podium.  Looking back on his 15-year career, this moment proved to be his proudest.  “I could mention a lot of moments that have stood out, but finishing on the podium at the Tour de France has to be my proudest moment as a bike rider – that memory will never be far away”.  At the end of the season, both brothers joined the RadioShack-Nissan team.

If 2011 had produced his proudest moment, 2012 brought Frank down to Earth hard.  After crashing on Stage 6 and losing two minutes, Schleck’s Tour de France chances looked remote.  Things got much worse on the second rest day, when RadioShack-Nissan removed Schleck from the race after an A sample taken by doping control during the race tested positive for the diuretic xipermide.  Xipermide is banned by WADA for its use as a masking agent for performance enhancing drugs.  Schleck asked for his B sample to be tested, stating that if it came back positive, “I will argue that I have been the victim of poisoning”.  RadioShack-Nissan spokesman Philippe Maertens claimed “the team is not able to explain the adverse findings at this point”.  When the B sample tested positive, Schleck voluntarily attended Pau police station.

He was later handed a 12-month ban, back dated to the time of the positive test.  The anti-doping authorities accepted that Schleck had ‘not ingested the substance intentionally’, which meant that the standard 2-year ban was reduced to 12-months.  Weeks before his ban was due to expire, RadioShack-Nissan terminated Schleck’s contract, leaving him without a team.  Later that month, Trek Bicycles bought out the team’s World Tour license, announcing that Schleck had once again been awarded a contract.  Returning to racing after waiting out the agonising 12-month ban, compounded by the stress and drama of being unexpectedly dropped by his team, Schleck never quite regained his form or fulfilled his early potential.

His 2014 season saw Schleck once again win first place at the National Road Racing Championships.  An 8th place at Grand Prix de Wallonie, 9th in the Tour de Luxembourg and Milan-Torino, and 6th at the Critérium International were his best results, with a 12th place in the Tour de France.  Schleck did not take part in the 2015 edition of the Tour, and finished in 34th place at his last ever attempt at the race earlier this season.  His final win was a stage victory in the 2015 Vuelta, on the mountainous route from Luarca to Ermita del Alta.  Saturday’s Il Lombardia was the last time that Frank Schleck competed as a professional rider.

“Everyone told me that I need to enjoy the last kilometres because it’s going to be something special, and I was waiting to feel this special moment, but nothing really happened…I just felt really tired like I normally do after a race!” exclaimed Schleck after he finished the Monument.  “But then when I came to the bus there was a nice reception from the boys, the team, the fan club, and some family, my kids, my wife, and they reminded me that this is it!”

Schleck had announced his retirement at a press conference in Brazil during the Rio Olympics, having previously indicated during the spring that he intended to continue. “Three years ago when I couldn’t race wasn’t nice, so I enjoy it even more, racing my bike, and working even harder”.  It appears that the efforts of the season took their toll on the rider however, as he confirmed his retirement prior to Saturday’s race.  “There is never an easy way to stop doing something you love to do…I’ve always wanted to retire at a level where I was competitive and fit”.

After completing his final race, Schleck found it difficult to imagine that he would not be racing his bike again in 2017.   “I think it will come in the next days and then I will realise it’s finished”.  Looking back on his 15-years as a professional, Schleck reflected on what he called a “long journey”.

“I am happy with the decision…I’ve had many highlights and some nice results…I had some bad periods also, but that’s where you build character…you have to get over those moments, and you fight back, and you keep going, and I am proud of that.  I am proud of my career and I have nothing to regret”.

Team mate Ryder Hesjedal also ended his career at Il Lombardia, although unfortunately he was not able to complete the race, abandoning on the mountainous section which took in five successive summits.  Read the Freewheeling overview of his career in part two of our Trek-Segafredo end of season special.

Weekend Races End in Controversy

Both the final Monument of the year, Il Lombardia, held on Saturday, and Sunday’s Tour de l’Eurometropole finished with an air of controversy surrounding the podium places of each race’s top two riders.

Saturday’s Il Lombardia, won by Orica-BikeExchange’s Esteban Chaves, saw Astana’s Diego Rosa attack twice in the final kilometres, although both surges proved fruitless as his closest rivals, the Columbian pairing of eventual winner Chaves and Cannondale-Drapac’s Rigoberto Uran, were too strong for Rosa to break.  After the race, which saw the Astana rider take second place, Rosa’s Directeur Sportif told the press that he felt ‘truly sick’ at the outcome, claiming that his rider ignored orders.  “If Rosa had listened to me, he would have won”, explained Giuseppe Martinelli, DS for the Astana team.  “I’ve only been this upset a few times in my life…you can’t throw away an occasion in that way.  You can’t lose like that”.

Martinelli told reporters that Rosa should not have expended energy in his two fruitless attacks, and should instead have sat in the wheels on the last two climbs, and made sure he was second wheel in the finishing straight.  “It was clear the other two would help each other, it happened at the Giro d’Italia…instead, he went through first”.

For his part, Rosa admitted that his attack “at 1600 metres was useless”, but claimed that, as Chaves would outsprint him, he had to “play my hand, a surprise.  I believed. I knew that curve at 250 metres.  Uran obviously closed the gap to me, but I don’t want to cause polemics…if I had made it through with two metres on them then it would have worked”.

Sunday’s Tour de l’Eurometropole also finished with the second placed rider at the heart of a controversy.  IAMCycling’s Oliver Naesen claims that LottoNL-Jumbo rider Dylan Groenewegen deviated from his line in the final sprint, causing Naesen to be pushed towards the barriers and therefore become boxed in. He even had to hop over an obstacle on the road surface before crossing the line in second place behind Groenewegen.  Similar circumstances have seen riders disqualified for their blocking actions, however on this occasion the race jury deemed Groenewegen to be the winner regardless.  Naesen was clearly unhappy with the decision, claiming to be the ‘rightful winner’.

Under the UCI rules, riders are ‘strictly forbidden to deviate from the line they selected when launching a sprint’.  The regulations have seen Boudhanni disqualified for cutting into Caleb Ewan’s race line at Cyclassics Hamburg, and Andre Greipel famously fell foul of the rule at the 2015 Tour of Britain.

Naesen, clearly outraged by Groenewegen’s actions, attempted to confront the LottoNL-Jumbo rider in the finishing area, but was blanked by the Dutchman.  Groenewegen told the press “that was chaotic as the leading group was caught in the final metres…I certainly went to the left but I left enough room to pass”.

Naesen’s team later posted a video on their Twitter feed from CyclingHub, showing Boudhanni’s disqualification from Cyclassics Hamburg, adjacent to the Tour de l’Eurometropole finish, highlighting the similarities between the two incidents.  No official statement was made on the social media page, however the CyclingHub retweet made the team’s feelings clear.  Naesen is certain that he is the ‘rightful winner’, but the official results still show Groenewegen’s name.