In part two of our interview with Rob Arnold attention turns to Australian cycling, sprinting through the years of ‘Oppy' and Mockridge, racing past Peiper and Anderson and looking at the role played in recent years by the Australian Institute of Sport and Heiko Salzwedel. We look forward to London 2012, when Australian and British cycling will once again go head to head. We also talk about Robbie McEwen and Cadel Evans. We close by looking forward to the future of Australian cycling.
Podium Café: Let's go back to 1998, when you first started publishing RIDE Cycling Review. Australian cycling at this stage was getting pretty organised I guess, but this would have been more on the track and off-road.
Rob Arnold: Track was the big thing when I started following cycling. Road racing has always been part of the scene here in Australia but it's really blossomed in the years that I've been involved. For various reasons the increase in interest has been steady.
PdC: Australian road racing seemed to happen in fits and starts - you had Oppy in the thirties and Mockridge in the fifties, then along came Phil Anderson and Allan Peiper in the eighties and it really began to take off.
RA: Oppy was racing in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a superstar for exploits of all kinds. He contested the Tour de France in 1928... and he went on to be the federal Minister for Immigration during the long reign of Robert Menzies as prime minister.
Mockridge was around in the 1950s and his story is a remarkable one that deserves far more coverage than it now receives. His death in a race accident - he was struck by a bus that crossed the course - could be seen as a catalyst for the decline in interest in competitive cycling in Austalia for some time. He was a superstar during his time as a racing cyclist and, from my understanding of the subsequent years, it was hard for followers of the sport to come to terms with such a horrible end...
But yes, it was Anderson and Peiper and guys like Neil Stephens, Stephen Hodge and Scott Sunderland who started to get things moving again. They were racing the Tour when SBS took over the broadcast rights at the start of the 1990s and they helped attract people to the sport around the time I started working in cycling.
I remember meeting all these guys and being thrilled. They've since become friends and we've watched the evolution of the sport together. The first time I went to see the Tour de France live was in 1992 and Anderson, Hodge, Stephens and Peiper were all riding. They were a large part of the reason why I went to the other side of the world to watch a bike race. It was a great experience and one that I remember fondly even if it was done on an absolute shoestring budget and without the opportunity to work on the race.
It was that trip in 1992 that helped bring me closer to cycling. I caught up with the national road team managed, at the time, another good, long-term friend in cycling Heiko Salzwedel. His influence on the sport in this country should never be underestimated; it was his vision that helped make road cycling more popular than track racing... much to the chagrin of Charlie Walsh (who was in charge of the cycling programme at the time and insisted that the track was - and always would be - more important than the road).
PdC: For Australians, the sport seemed to really get in gear when guys like Robbie McEwen and Stuart O'Grady and Cadel Evans came along. Was the Australian Institute of Sports the key to this, the surge in talent being a natural dividend from the investment on the track and off-road?
RA: This is where the influence of Heiko Salzwedel is most significant. Yes, O'Grady was a product of Walsh and the track programme (as were many others early in the 1990s) but McEwen wouldn't have become the rider he was without the help of Heiko.
The AIS was established after a poor showing from Australia at the Seoul Olympics and the Olympic sports were the ones that received the most funding from what was (and still is) a government owned entity.
In the first edition of my magazine, I profiled Salzwedel and the influence he had on the development of Australian cycling. We had worked together in the years before starting RIDE Cycling Review and I'd published a newsletter for his Giant-AIS-ZVVZ team from 1995-1997. This was Giant's first sponsorship of a road cycling team and although the AIS was strongly associated with the venture - providing most of the budget and many facilities (in Australia and abroad) - it was an international cast.
Salzwedel sold sponsorships on the back of coverage that cycling received because of events like the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic, but also international competitions like the Tour DuPont and Tour de Langkawi. This was the time when (former UCI president) Hein Verbruggen had started to push globalisation in cycling but it was just a dream concept back then. Eventually it started to happen but in Australia the focus was still on the Olympics.
I've looked up a passage that I remember being part of the Salzwedel feature of RIDE #01 which sums up the feeling at the time:
'The focus of the OAP (Olympic Athlete Programme) funding was perfectly summarised - with a touch of naiveté perhaps - by Geoff Strang, the director of management for the Australian Sports Commission,' I wrote in that feature. 'While watching the opening stage of the Tour de France [in 1997] - the prologue in Rouen - Strang told me, 'I'd prefer to have two Australian Olympic gold medals on the track, than for an Australian to win the Tour de France.' Just to confirm what I heard, I pointed around us at the tens of thousands of spectators in our line of sight and asked, 'More than an Aussie winner of the Tour's final yellow jersey?!' 'Yes.''
That attitude would eventually change but it would only come once Walsh was gone. To continue to tell this story would be to explain the complete evolution of Australian cycling. Needless to say, Shayne Bannan was Walsh's replacement. Salzwedel would soon be sacked (during the 1998 season) but his legacy remains. He's since been part of the British cycling program (briefly), guided the Danish track team through to - and including - the Beijing Olympics, returned (briefly) to the UK as a coach, almost joined the US federation only to be picked up by the Russian system mid-way through another quadrennial Olympic cycle. He's now the head coach of Russian cycling.
On the roster of the Giant-AIS-ZVVZ squad were the likes of McEwen. Also part of the team was the first-ever individual time trial world champion, Deane Rogers, brother of Michael, and winner of jersey with a V-shaped rainbow stripe on the front after the TT in Quito, Ecuador in 1994, months before Chris Boardman won the senior title.
In the years that Heiko had that team - created to supplement the competitions he could attend with the national programme - there were riders like Henk Vogels, Matt White, Jay Sweet, Marcel Gono, Josh Collingwood, Kelvin Martin, Brett Dennis, Peter Rogers, Damian McDonald, Nick Gates and many other Australians on the line-up. But there were a few foreigners as well, most prominent of them was the winner of the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic in 1993, Jens Voigt. Ah yes... 'Jensie' got his start with the help of a German manager of an Australian team. Don't forget it; Jens never has!
Anyway, rather than getting bogged down in the many stories that could come of your question, I'll continue with the progression of how things worked back then...
As part of his duties at the AIS, Salzwedel was encouraged (forced) to establish a mountain bike programme as MTB had become part of the Olympic programme. Although he was reluctant to do so, he got the support of some from the mountain bike scene and before long he realised there was potential to exploit the situation. Damian Grundy was recruited as the MTB coach and he brought with him a list of riders to the programme that included Mary Grigson, John Gregory, Paul Rowney, Rob Woods and some teenager called Cadel Evans.
At the time, cross-country racing was a big deal in Australia... largely because this was the discipline that was going to be part of the Olympics and technology hadn't quite created the great divide that now exists with downhilling. But I'm not going to try and comment on the progression of mountain biking because, once the 1996 world championships were over, I effectively stopped following the scene.
I started RIDE Cycling Review thinking that I could incorporate all elements of cycle sport but soon realised it was better to focus on what I was most interested in - and could, thus, cover best. But as early as RIDE #03, I published a piece titled 'The Importance of Being Cadel'... the intro read:
''As the reigning MTB World Cup champion, Cadel Evans has become one of cycling's superstars. Just how did he get there, what's next for him to achieve and how does he plan on doing it?'
That was one of the last MTB articles in my magazine. But it was just the first of many features I've done on Cadel Evans. We met in 1996 on the day when the course for the 2000 Olympic MTB race was first unveiled.
PdC: Given the competitive relationship between Australia and the UK - particularly in cricket, but also in rugby and cycling - how was the rise of Britain as a track cycling nation taken in Australia?
RA: I've enjoyed watching the evolution. Of course I was filled with pride in 2004 when the Athens Olympics started off well with Sara Carrigan winning the road race followed by the track team's domination, with five gold medals won by the Australian team - including Anna Meares' 500m TT world record, Ryan Bayley's double gold (sprint and keirin) and the world record in the semi-final of the team pursuit... but I've gotten to know Dave Brailsford fairly well over the years. I'm impressed with his ability to live up to his own expectations. To see his programme develop and then succeed has been a highlight of my time in cycling.
I never got involved in cycling to follow the sport from a parochial standpoint. I find nationalism - even in sport - ugly. The chest-beating, anthem-singing, flag-wearing crowd makes me squirm, particularly when its my compatriots who are doing it... loudly and in an ugly, alcohol-fuelled way. Cycling, to me, was great from the outset because I found myself cheering performances - as artificial as some may have been in my formative years - not necessarily nations. Yes, Australians winning makes me happy but not always happier than if a nice person with good qualities wins.
As for the reaction inside Australia from other Australians... the 2008 Olympics was a chance for Great Britain to be proud and offered a moment of reflection for the Aussie cycling team. To a certain degree 'we' were humiliated but the Brits - with their 3:53 pursuit, their Pendleton, their Hoy... their conviction and execution - it was an amazing display by the British team! If anyone here (Australia) thought it wasn't impressive just because it wasn't Australian, that would embarrass me.
PdC: I suppose there must have been some pride in Team GB's rise - imitation is the best form of flattery, after all - and I guess there must have been some satisfaction in the role played by Australians in the Team GB set-up. At the same time, it seems to have spurred Australian cycling on, encouraged a refocusing of efforts. Are you looking forward to seeing how it's going to go on the track in London next year? Or are you not an Olympics person?
RA: Personally, I think the Beijing Olympics were a bit flat. I'm not a big fan of the Games anyway but to see the clinical way that it was organised - at least that's how it looked from a distance - made it seem even less interesting to me. I don't doubt that it would have been wonderful to be in China and absorb the whole experience. I wasn't, so like so many others I watched on television.
I've spoken to many riders who have given me their account of the road events and it's best I don't repeat their reaction too often. Let's just say they cite the lack of spectators and fizzle of atmosphere as something rare and, on the whole, as rather forgettable. But that was almost four years ago. London is surely going to be incredible.
I remember the build-up to the Sydney Olympics well. My brother was one of many who booked a fare out of town and ran away just as the party started. Fool! He missed out. It was simply the best two weeks I've ever spent in what has been my home town since 1989. All the kafuffle that surrounded the build-up - the whinging about construction and the nuisance of everything being based around the IOC's whims - vanished about three days before the opening ceremony... and then it was wonderful to be here! The transport worked. The vibe was upbeat. People smiled everywhere they went. Sport was part of it but it was the uniting spirit that surprised me.
That doesn't mean I'm a fan of the Olympics; I was a convert to the experience that happened in Sydney. A good friend of mine is Scott McGrory and I said before the Games that I thought he'd be the only Australian to win a gold medal; I can't explain why but I published a piece stating that. When he teamed up with Brett Aitken to win the first Madison at an Olympics, it was a career highlight. He lost his young son Alexander only a few months before the Games because of a heart defect that had seen him in and out of hospital a lot during his short life. Scott and his future wife Donna battled their demons and he managed to maintain focus on bike racing - albeit in a different way to what he'd done before suffering such a horrific loss. I was proud just to think that he could make the Australian team; he was never considered one of 'Charlie's Angels', the chosen few who were given all the support they could ask for from the federation while others just rode in the wayside. But he had helped Australia qualify the place in the Madison after riding a large percentage of the preceding world championship on his own, as Aitken had started but crashed and was knocked out cold for quite some time. And thus McGrory earned his selection. That in itself was great. The race itself was also stunning. It was in the final lap that the Brits crashed and came close to ruining the only victory the local team could conjure in their home Olympics.
It was a great win. Something that made me jump with emotion and feel as though there was more to sport than sport alone. A few weeks later Scott and Donna invited a bunch of friends to a 'thank you' party in Melbourne. Mid-way through the evening, she waltzed out in a wedding dress and, unannounced, they exchanged their vows. And there was much rejoicing. It was a great time!
This year, during the Tour, after the time trial in Grenoble when Cadel took the yellow jersey, I sat on a rock near the finish and wanted to be alone for a moment. I was overcome by all kinds of emotion and, thankfully, Scott walked past. He stopped and asked if I was okay. 'No,' I told him. 'It's not meant to be like this. The Madison was much better.' I was talking about Sydney in 2000. I meant it.
I've had a lot of great experiences on the Tour, more than at the Olympics but when it came to relating a win with a 'friendship' the experience in Sydney with McGrory was something to cherish, a moment that has been burned into my memory as a good one. But Cadel's victory in the Tour de France didn't have the same impact. By that time, our friendship had faded into nothing. I'd always say that the Tour is more important in cycling terms than the Olympics but here was an example - on a personal level - of it being the other way around.
For all that Cadel and I shared from when we first met in 1996, through to his world championship win in Mendrisio in 2009 and all that unfolded in between, he shunned me in Grenoble; walked straight past me as though I never existed. We have shared a lot of experiences, he's been particularly generous to me throughout his career. When he first wore the yellow jersey, in 2008, the third LCL lion that was presented to him was handed to me behind the podium and he said, 'This is for 12 years of hard work'. It was a gift for my son, Louis, and it's one of many things he's actually given to show that he has respect for me and my family.
I've given him a lot of my time; consoled him in the moments when he was at a low ebb, listened to his complaints, offered advice, answered his many calls at all times of day and night, and was always there for him like a friend ought to be. But at the highlight moment of his career I was nothing to him... not worthy of any acknowledgement - not even a nod of the head, let alone a handshake. He has his reasons, I'm sure, but he has not expressed them to me so I cannot say why he behaved the way he did.
But that doesn't necessarily relate to the question. It's a digression and perhaps some of the answers to Cadel's reaction to me in 2011 will be explained before the end of this interview.
Even though the Tour is the biggest thing in cycling, and I believe it will always be, there are going to be these occasional moments in the quadrennial cycle that will conjure beautiful competition. I don't remember a more exciting time for cycling in Australia than now, as we approach the start of the 2012 season. The fact that the GreenEDGE team is about to make its debut is huge, but that it happens in an Olympic year when the Games are in London... every ingredient is there to make this a very special year. Australia versus Great Britain - that's a great rivalry and now it's happening in cycling. We saw it in Rudersdal, Denmark in September in the elite men's road race. But that was one competition... in London these two teams will be bold forces in a range of disciplines with oodles of motivation.
Add in the fact that the New Zealanders have just ridden a 3:55 in the team pursuit (at the Oceania championships, November 2011 - with only a few weeks of training) and that Salzwedel is now in charge of a resurgent Russian track programme, they only add to the anticipation. I think everyone is expecting a team pursuit of Brits vs Aussies but surprises can happen and Russia and New Zealand are going to be very, very competitive. Like I've said, it's not about parochialism for me, it's about seeing good racing. That's going to happen in London and it's going to be great... despite the best efforts of the IOC to kill track cycling.
A recent discussion with Cameron Meyer reminds me of what I've noticed in recent seasons: the track world championships are, in reality, a far better contest than what the Olympics have become. It's a shame to see the IOC do what it has to the programme of racing. This is a topic that gets coverage once in a while and all the obvious sentiment has been aired but it's never likely to reverse the situation.
And yet, somehow, we still find ourselves - as cycling fans - referencing the Olympics. We do so in advance of a Games and also on reflection, so they must have an impact. They certainly did in 1984 when the Aussies won the team pursuit: that is a another highlight of cycling for me. And then, 20 years later, a host of athletes I've come to know achieved remarkable things in the Olympics in Greece.
But still, with an event-only consideration, the world championships - with the Madison, the 'kilo', the 500m time trial, the individual pursuit, etc - are far more compelling than the abbreviated programme that is, alas, going to be on display in London. Still, it's the intensity of the competition that draws us in... and that's what you raise in your question about London: the anticipation of the great contest between two traditional rivals.
PdC: Looking at parallels between Britain and the UK, it's tempting to look at Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen and think of Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, and the difficulty of marrying green and yellow ambitions in the Tour. Do you think there's a lesson there Team Sky should heed? Do you think it's possible - in today's peloton - for one team to support both ambitions?
RA: The situation is similar to how it was with Robbie and Cadel on the same teams for a couple of years but the personalities are vastly different so I don't think it's a fair comparison. Ego is part of what makes many successful cyclists the way they are. There is also the single-minded focus and the propensity towards being narcissistic; this is certainly the case for Cadel, and I don't say that simply because of his treatment of me in recent years. I still have plenty of admiration for him - particularly as a bike rider - but he will happily blame anyone else for any hiccup rather than accept that he also plays a part.
Robbie is also very driven, successful, determined, and ruthless... it's hard to judge which of the two is more popular, at home or around the world. Each has their followers, some admire both. Evans has certainly taken cycling to a higher level in terms of popularity in Australia than any other rider, but it's hard to say if that would have happened without the contributions that McEwen made earlier.
As for how the pair worked together at Davitamon-Lotto (2005-2006), Predictor-Lotto (2007), and Silence-Lotto (2008), each year offered a different reason for their respective status on the team. I know both these riders well and have followed their careers closely, while my contact with Wiggins and Cavendish has been far more sporadic, even if I got to know both the Brits before they reached their primes - and have thus paid close attention to their progression.
All four are very particular people with strong characteristics, bold views - of the world as well as themselves - and all are part of a new generation that may not have enjoyed the same levels of successes if they raced only a few years earlier.
It's a good question and I cannot isolate exactly why I don't think it's a fair comparison but it has a lot to do with their personalities as well as the environment they are in.
Robbie was most accommodating for Cadel when the pair started riding the Tour de France together. The elder was in the prime of his sprinting days and yet he accepted that the team had to divide its priorities and also set aside some forces to support a 'rookie' GC rider (which is what Evans was - at the 2005 Tour - even though he was already 28). Back then, Davitamon-Lotto had essentially been rescued from obscurity, certainly in terms of results at the Tour (and Giro d'Italia), by a rider who the team picked up at the start of 2002 essentially because he was willing to sign a contract where his pay was determined largely by bonuses. After he was signed up, stage wins and the green jersey victories were achieved regularly.
Meanwhile, all Evans had was the chance to show that he had potential. As early as the first true mountain in the 2005 Tour - Courchevel in stage 10, won by Alejandro Valverde - Cadel proved that he was a worthy recipient of the faith his team had put in him. For Hendrik Redant, the DS following on the climb, it was a new experience. Talking to the Belgian about this day fills one with optimism; he tells stories well and he explains the ride in the Alps with colour, wit, and admiration.
That day effectively changed how Robbie was treated in the team... but his status remained as it should have been. He was - and still is - a very good leader of men. He has the personality that might put those who aren't on his side off-side but those who are part of his inner sanctum are never left wondering if they are appreciated or not. The same cannot be said for Cadel. He has good intentions, there's no question about that but - certainly during his time on the Belgian team - he had trouble expressing himself. At BMC it appears to be different. He is confident, accomodating, grateful and humble. Clearly he's found the right environment at this team. He has wonderful support and the victories he was always capable of achieving have now come. I think it's great to see him prove he could do what he - and many others - always knew he was capable of. And he no longer has to worry about the hurdles that he had to jump when he was part of the ...-Lotto teams. It does upset me, however, that he would ever suggest that some of the people involved in his former team - Redant and Roberto Damiani in particular - were not always doing absolutely all they could to help him realise him ambitions.
A large part of professional cycling relates purely to commercial transactions. If one rider is going to sacrifice themselves for another, they need to know it's going to be worth their while. Early in his career Robbie had a reputation as being a bit of a scrooge, but he soon learned how to make friends and influence people. He didn't always manage himself perfectly and there were certainly times when his offers of pay were well below what was expected but, like Cadel, he ultimately honoured his word - only Cadel took longer to do so. And when he did, the actual transaction wasn't always handled as well as it perhaps could have been. I'll refrain from actual examples but I'm confident that team-mates of both will concur with my appraisal.
As for Cavendish and Wiggins and how the pair will work together at Sky, it's hard to say. The season relates to a lot more than the Tour de France alone but this is where both have their main objective. It may differ slightly in 2012 as the lure of London will perhaps be a little stronger for Cavendish - who still doesn't have an Olympic gold medal, but is already being touted as a favourite for the road race. Wiggins seems to accept that he can afford to lose some of his TT power in favour of adding to his climbing ability but he demonstrated his versatility in Denmark this year with his time trial medal and then laying absolutely everything on the line for Cav in the road race.
Yellow and green for Team Sky? If ever there was a pair capable of chasing this double in 2012, I'd say it's Wiggins and Cavendish on the route that's been announced for the 99th edition. But this is said in December 2011 and a lot can happen before the end of June 2012!
PdC: McEwen's green jerseys must have been pretty special to report on. How would you rate him against the best sprinters, before and since?
RA: I had a lunch only a couple of weeks ago with Robbie. Our careers in cycling have been conducted, essentially, at the same time. I knew him before he was a professional and then only a few weeks ago there we were reflecting on his pending retirement. Most of the time we have gotten on well but there were instances in the late-1990s when neither of us had much time for one another. But it was impossible to ignore how good he was at racing his bike.
I now believe he's one of the finest cycling exports Australia has ever produced and I have a lot of respect for what he's achieved. To me, it's a shame that his contribution has almost been overshadowed by what Cadel has done since Robbie was in his prime. But I allude to that in other answers.
What I've always liked about Robbie is how verbatim he is: when it comes to an interview there are few riders as interesting as he is. He can recount a sprint in such detail that it astounds me. His powers of observation in the rush of a bunch finish are remarkable! And it's not just on the day of the win: 10 years after the event, he will be able to tell you whose wheel he was following before he started his jump, who was to his right, who was to his left... and other elements. It seems bizarre that he can keep all the information in his mind. I've tested him a few times and then re-watched the footage to confirm his statements and it's spot-on. He confirmed that this is how he sees it but, he told me, that when it doesn't relate to bike racing he's not so good with the details. If it's something that happened socially, he can either forget about it entirely or not be too keen to commit to the date or actual sequence of events. 'Off the bike,' he said, 'I'm not so good with my memory.'
We laughed about this at the luncheon and it's one of the reasons that I'd urged him to get involved in commentary once he stops racing for a living. (This is a topic that I've also got a lot to say about and it was interesting to get Robbie's take on it. He said that he's had discussions with several broadcasters and it's possible that he'll call a race here and there... but not make it his vocation. 'I don't want to keep on living out of a suitcase going from one race to another,' he said. 'I've done that for 20 years...')
In 2003 my friendship with Baden Cooke was very strong. Conversely, this was the time that Robbie and I didn't speak a lot. Needless to say that the competition for the green jersey at the Tour de France that year was an epic and interesting one. Remember, it was McEwen who held the advantage most of the way even if he didn't win a stage that year... and Cooke won in Sedan, his only victory at the Tour. Remember, it was McEwen who trumped a bloke called Ullrich and another called Armstrong in an intermediate sprint of stage 18 when it seemed possible that time bonuses could still determine who would win the overall title of the centenary Tour. Remember, it was Jean-Patrick Nazon who won the final stage and did so ahead of Cooke and McEwen who were literally tangled up battling to be ahead of one another. Openly, I didn't care which of them won, but secretly I hoped it would be Baden. And I'm not really sure why.
The green jersey with the zipper on the rear that he was presented on the Champs-Elysées is one of few cycling souvenirs I truly covet (along with the LCL lion that's occasionally gets pulled out of Louis' toybox). Baden's jersey hangs framed in my office. It was given to me during a gathering of mates in hotel room in the 17tharrondissement on the final Sunday of the 2003 Tour and was still soaked in champagne. On it, barely legible for it is written with a ball-point pen, are the words: 'Thanks Rob, couldn't have done it without you.' Not sure why he wrote that. But it makes me smile to this day.
This is a reminder that there are many who have flown the Australian flag in the pro peloton in the time that I've been involved. Not only winners but genuine blokes who have done a lot to raise the profile of the sport in their home countries. But you ask about the sprinters and how McEwen compares with others before and since. Naturally this would beg for a comparison with Cavendish and rightly so. But we could go back to Cipollini, or Zabel, or Tom Steels, or Jeroen Blijlevens, or Fred Moncassin, or a whole host of names that finished ahead of Robbie when he first started racing in the top league. And you could compare others like Cooke and Hushovd and Freire, who were there during Robbie's prime years. And then there's those who have beaten him regularly in his latter years but for me to comment on each would take too long.
I will say this: I believe Robbie was the finest sprinter of his generation. But perhaps Cavendish is the finest sprinter I'll ever get to see race. I'm not sure if you were asking for a head-to-head review. But that's my appraisal for now...
PdC: Let's turn to Evans. The idea for his biography, that came about when Norman Mailer died in 2007. Five years earlier, you'd given Evans a copy of Mailer's boxing book, The Fight. Mailer was obviously a very special writer, one of a gang of writers who brought a passion for their subject and a fresh way of writing about sport. What was so special about The Fight for you, that you gave it to Evans and that talking to him about Mailer's death led to working on Close To Flying?
RA: You've taught me a lot with your questions for this interview. Really this is how a sporting biography could be created: a proper line of questioning and the chance for someone to answer key points. That should have been the formula for Close to Flying. But the process of writing that wasn't so simple... for many reasons.
Ultimately I was pleased with what I'd submitted, not happy with the final edit; by then there was no turning back. It was time to sign over the manuscript and let the publishers release it no matter what format it was in. The book I wrote is different to the one you've read but many elements remain. Many, yourself included, don't like the only book I've written. Personally, I don't like the book that was published, but that's like a tradesman blaming his tools for a result that wasn't perfect. I had to work within the parameters of what I was given. That included no say in the final edit and a publisher who said upon meeting the subject, Cadel Evans: 'It's a shame you didn't have a terminal disease.' (For that would have made the story more... compelling? Apparently. Weird, but the quote is real.)
You tend to insinuate in your review that I was somehow comparing the work Cadel and I did on Close to Flying as being equivalent to The Fight. That's wrong. The reason for explaining the gift was that this helped establish a connection between me and a most aloof individual who was on the precipice of making a major contribution to Australian cycling. He was particularly private and distrustful of the media. He believed that no one could ever fathom what he actually did on a bike enough to be able to write about it properly. Perhaps that's still his take on things but I wanted him to understand that there are times when a writer can convey the meaning of a contest even if they're not in the ring themselves. Mailer did this very well, and I believe Cadel understood the purpose of my gift. He's done a lot since that exchange and I'm so proud to have been one component of the large ensemble that has helped explain his story.
To be honest, the commentary I've done on Cadel in RIDE Cycling Review is more pleasing for me than the book I wrote with/for him.
PdC: I'd say that this whole interview has been instructive for both of us. And I think you've just answered the question we've been building up to, about what went wrong with Close To Flying and how you, though credited as the author, didn't really write the book that was finally published. Let's wrap up the Evans part of this with the most recent Tour, which you've already mentioned in passing, Evans seizing the maillot jaune in Grenoble and blanking you. Things have kind of gone wrong between you two since the book and I guess it would be fair to say that the 2011 Tour is one of bittersweet memories for you?
RA: Let's be clear about this: I've always been a believer in Cadel Evans. That's one of the reasons why we had such a long, friendly relationship. From the outset it was clear that he was going to have an enormous influence on Australian cycling. He never took a backward step throughout his career - save for the decision to join Telekom/T-Mobile (and that was largely made because of advice given to him by his manager Toni Rominger) and the Tour in 2009.
That 2009 Tour was a turning point for a lot of people in whatever you want to call it, 'Project Yellow Jersey' (a working title given by Roberto Damiani to their years together) or, really, 'Project Cadel'. He had the form to win the Tour in 2009 but it didn't happen the way he wanted it to. The team failed in the Montpellier time trial and from that moment onward he was chasing his tail. Still, at the end of that race when he and Chiara and I ate lunch together and - in keeping with Cadel's request - we didn't talk about cycling at all, I reminded him that I was proud of him. After that lunch in Paris, as he walked one way and I the other, I yelled out to him from across the street: 'Hey! Well done.' 'What for?' he responded. 'Finishing the Tour. A lot of people would be proud of that.' He gestured, 'whatever'. For him it was, is, and always will be, a failure. But it was a lesson for him. It acted as a catalyst for him to get out of his contract with the Belgian team and start his successful partnership with John Lelangue and the others who have helped at BMC.
What upsets me the most is that when I confronted him at the end of 2010 - on the evening of 3 October, just after the world championships had been contested - he listed a range of reasons for him shunning me. It was a two-and-a-half minute spray and although it was his appraisal, many of the elements he listed as being the reason why he had stopped corresponding with me were, quite simply, incorrect.
Amongst a number of other insults, he suggested I didn't show his family any respect, and that I was lazy. It was particularly upsetting because I'd been close with both Helen Cocks and Chiara for several years. We all worked well together to produce what became Close To Flying but then something went awry. It coincided with him opening his Twitter account, joining BMC and also an encounter with the Dalai Lama. Until then, when he wanted to correspond with someone on something - get something off his chest or just talk to someone who understood his plight - he would call, text or email me. But in Twitter he found a large audience of people who cheered his take on life as much as his achievements on the bike. And I got shunted out of the picture, probably because I'd been part of the equation - like many others - that ultimately ended in the failure of the 2009 Tour. He has his reasons and he expressed them in haste in Geelong in October 2010, but without the opportunity to retort I'm still only able to speculate on what it was that ended our friendship. I could guess many reasons but this is not the place to dissect it.
I've been told by some close to him that they expect our relationship will one day be repaired and I'm absolutely open to that. In the meantime there are millions who are there to listen to him now and few of them would dare stand up and tell him what they thought when he did something that could have been handled differently. I was prepared to do that and maybe the shun in Grenoble is all part of him teaching me my lesson and him putting me 'into place'... whatever the reason, I would still only say that 2011 was a high point of my days in cycling.
An Australian winning the Tour de France is great for my business. That it happened to be a guy who I always believed would be the first Australian to win the Tour makes it a confirmation. That it was a guy who has been very good to me over the years - and vice-versa - means it should be something to celebrate. But that it happened the way that it did, without the necessary exchanges to ensure understanding, is what also made it an upsetting year.
Personally, the Tour in 2011 was the best I've been involved in. Louis Doucet and I travelled well together, we ate great food, enjoyed a few embarrassingly long nights because of bad decisions relating to GPS input (but even then, correct to our policy of 'automotivation,' we laughed about it immediately). We wrote lots of material and had huge traffic on the site. We got good interviews, saw great racing, visited amazing places, met interesting people and generally lived life the way it ought to be lived.
But as this took place, another Australian who I once knew well was taking on the world and beating every other bike rider. The race itself was great. The course design by Christian Prudhomme was excellent - the first week was compelling, the second offered numerous highlights, and in the third week we saw epic racing from the likes of Andy Schleck, Pierre Rolland, Alberto Contador, Thomas Voeckler, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Thor Hushovd, and a bunch of other super nice guys. Ultimately, however, a socially awkward rider stood on the top step of the podium. That triumph has made him a better person: a more satisfied soul, a rider who now understands that he 'can', not just 'might'...
When Cadel appeared on the stage in Melbourne during his homecoming parade, you could see genuine satisfaction. Rightly so. He had hordes of fans cheering his name and recognising his achievements. If, like he often does, he was only thinking about what else needed to be done then it would be a great shame. But it was clear to me that he was taking in everything and relishing that his time had, in fact, come. He has set precedents along the long road he's ridden and it's not hard to write nice things about a guy with his traits. But, like all of us, he also has his foibles. It took almost 9,000 words to sum up my emotions after the Tour in the feature (part 1 and part 2) I published in the post-Tour edition of RIDE Cycling Review and I believe I did so without listing the fact that he and I had ended our association. He has his yellow jersey now. He has found some satisfaction. And I'm happy for him.
PdC: Let's end this on a positive note. The future, the Australian talent coming through. Jack Bobridge is the main guy to watch, yes? Who else is there, waiting in the wings?
RA: This is a question which is fun to write an answer to, but it cannot be a quick one for there is a glut of talent at the moment. I'm going to assume you mean I should select from the group of young Australians so that's the approach I'll take and I'll try to be concise. Of course, we rule out the likes of Matt Goss for he's already a star. He's our second winner of a Monument of cycling and so close to world champion it's like there's shadow of a rainbow on him... and there are so many others already in the top league so I'll make a (very) short list of a lot of contenders.
Are we talking GC? If so there are a few names I'll nominate:
• 'Jacky Bobby'. Of course, I agree. He's amazing. His pursuit world record was done in virtual anonymity but I was told the day before that something special was going to happen. The environment - his physical surrounds - was exactly right for a fast time and fast he went. That's bigger than what he did with the national championship win which many I know say was one of the finest rides in Australia for a good few years.
• Luke Durbridge. I'll go on a limb and say he has huge potential to win big races. But I won't go further because I've raised that with him before and he gets a little squeamish if he hears how far I think he can go in cycling. This kid is a talent! A true star with all the makings of a big-time TT winner but much more than that. His scope is large and he could excel on many levels.
• Dale Parker. Again, this is a guy who hasn't even come close to showing what he is finally capable of but the start has been amazing. He was a junior world-record holder in the pursuit, he can climb, he can ride time trials, he's small, got attitude, has support, and wants to prove himself. We have published material by him which tells a story you wish never happened but the progression - if it continues as it could - is one people should follow. [Alas, only a week before this interview edit was complete, Parker declared that he was going to leave the cycling world behind. Retired at the age of 19, it would seem. After some prompting to find out if it would, in fact, be a definitive decision - that he'd never return to cycling - he told me: ‘Never say never.' My hope is that he does get back on the bike, race it, and prove what he's capable of. But I also respect that, sometimes, cycling isn't everything to everyone.]
• Cameron Meyer. Seriously what is the limit? He is class. It's been great on the track but now he knows it's time to move on. He should be the star of the Olympics. Had the Madison still been on the agenda, things would be different. But it's not. He's a genius at that discipline. He can time trial. He can't yet climb with the best and he's not faired well in the GT he's done... but he finished the Giro - the 2011 Giro, ie. the race many declared the toughest route of the season - and was seventh in the final stage, a time trial in Milan. That doesn't mean he can one day win the Tour... but he's still 'coming through'.
On the other fronts...
• Caleb Ewan. That's a new name for you to consider. The junior omnium world champion is a versatile young sprinter. He's very young but is being guided well and - like Bradley McGee, Simon Gerrans and host of other Australians - has the help of Jean-François Quenet at the start of what promises to be a promising career. Watch him. Understand he's young - but there's a lot more to come!
• Michael Hepburn. Surely you've heard the stories of his exploits in Tour de l'Avenir this year? If not, that's a yarn for another day but he is good. He sprints. He time trials. He is third in the world but could have been champion in the TT. He is a pursuit world record holder. A fast man in many ways. A true talent on the bike. And an interesting guy off it.
• Lachlan Morton. We've recently profiled him in RIDE. It's a good story of a rider who has done things a different way to others who have eventually turned up in Europe and gotten paid to race a bike. But this kid is the real deal. He can climb, he can look cool on a bike, he can lead a crit for 25 of 30 laps 'just because I know I won't win the sprint but I may as well get a work-out'. He is good. Watch him go!
These are just a few names that spring to mind but there are hordes of others who I believe will keep cycling in the mainstream in Australia for years to come. They will do so at the Tour de France and the Olympics and other races on the road, velodrome and trails of the world. I'll be paying attention, writing a few stories, editing others and enjoying the fact that riding is part of my life.
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Our thanks to Rob Arnold for taking part in this interview.