Philip Lavery is a 20-year old Irish cyclist currently riding for the An Post-Sean Kelly team. For a number of years now he has been talked about as a future star of Irish cycling. Having seen success in domestic races such as the Tour of the North and the Tour of Ulster, he was given the opportunity to ride as a stagiaire for the An Post-Sean Kelly team towards the end of last season. He impressed sufficiently to be offered a contract for this year.
Lavery has been riding plenty of the Belgian semi-classics this year but could not take part in the An Post Rás due to illness. He has refocused and is now gearing up for the Irish national championships road race which take place next Sunday. I had a chance to talk to him earlier this week:
Philip, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to me, whereabouts are you now, are you in Ireland or Belgium?
I’m in Belgium
You’re staying with Sam Bennett are you?
Yeah we’re staying in the house, Ronan was here until today, he went home today.
You seem, judging by twitter, to have a good bit of banter with Sam Bennett, is that a good friendship you’re after striking up there is it?
To be honest it’s a childhood friendship because we’ve been on teams since we were 14 or 15. I’ve been on holidays in his house and he’s been down to my house. I think at home people think there’s this big rivalry built up between us but we actually get on really well.
So in that case, would there be a bit of slagging each other off? Like the way he’s got the Irish Under-23 Champion’s jersey at the moment, would he be poking fun at you that you haven’t won a national championship?
Not really. Well, we’d joke about some things but there’s a good bit of respect between us as well. But there’d be the usual kind of banter between lads, we’d be taking the piss a bit. He might say something about the nationals and I might say something back about some other results. But there’s always a bit of a laugh between us, we don’t take each other too seriously.
And for the nationals coming up then, you’re both taking part then obviously are you?
Yeah, every Irish rider on the team, myself, Ronan [McLoughlin], Sam and Mark [Cassidy] will all be riding.
And will you have a designated leader, or are you just going to see what happens on the road? Have you worked out some kind of tactic for the race?
No. Well I mean, the nationals can be a bit of a lottery in one sense…even though there are high level riders like Nicolas [Roche] and Daniel [Martin] and Matt [Brammeier] and then ourselves coming home, on the day you can only ride to you’re own level and we can never underestimate or think we’re above any of the domestic guys.
There’ll always be home-based riders there on the day and they’ll always feature so there’s no real secret to the plan. We’ve got to make the break pretty early on and expect to have all four guys in the break. We’ve got to try and whittle it down early on and then we’ll have got a lot of variables out of it. Roche and Martin are always going to be in the break, and Brammeier.
So the less riders there, the better it is for us because we’re one of the only strong pro teams as such that will be there. There’ll be other home teams but we’ve got to make the racing.
And ideally, would you be aiming to win both the jerseys? The Under-23 and the Senior title? [The Under-23 jersey is awarded to the first rider under 23 years of age to cross the line in the Elite Men's Road Race]
Well the U-23 jersey will take a back seat because for us to have the senior championship is the important one. We were just saying today, myself and Sam went out training and he put on his [Irish Under-23 Champion's] jacket because he needs to get as much wear out of it as possible. Because of the races that we’ve been doing this year we don’t actually get to wear the under-23 jersey in the 1.1 category races or the top competitions in Belgium.
So on the day we’ll just go for the senior title and if you ride well enough going for the senior title the under-23 title should follow. But it’ll be in the back of our minds, it’d be a lie not to say that personally, me or Sam don’t want to win it but we also have to look at the bigger picture. To have the senior national championships again as a team is the main goal.
So just looking back to the Rás then, in the run up to the Rás you were sick, you had some kind of illness?
Yeah well I had two months off after Dwars Door Vlaanderen, I was at home sick. I did some blood tests and it showed up that I had glandular fever. I was actually over the glandular fever when I had the tests but my body was still run down, just fatigued so I took basically seven weeks completely off the bike. I did a little bit of work in the gym with my trainer, just low heart-rate stuff. When I came back I did the Tour of Ulster and the Lincoln GP and I had said to Kurt [Bogaerts - team manager] that at the Lincoln maybe if I did a good ride…
At the Tour of Ulster I was quite strong [he finished 10th overall] but I think I underestimated the level that I was trying to come back to. I came back to Belgium, the first race went OK, I finished in the bunch, the next race I got dropped and the next race I finished in the break [23rd in Belsele-Puivelde]. But it was obvious to me that on those days Kurt had given me a free reign. I wasn’t given any specific job to do on the team so I didn’t have to really focus on riding for Niko [Eeckhout]. I was just kind of hovering around trying to get into the break.
So in the end, I wasn’t very surprised, I was slightly relieved actually to get left off the Rás team because of the way the lads rode to defend [eventual overall winner] Gediminas [Bagdonas] for the six days that they had the jersey. I think my condition at the time, you could have got two or three days really good out of me and then I could have been hanging on for the rest of the Rás and it could have been the difference.
When you see the day that Sam did a great ride into Tramore. And then Ronan [McLaughlin] and Mark McNally, the day that they had to spend on the front for the jersey, you know, that could have been the difference. If I went because Kurt was under pressure to have another Irish rider there, I could have been the weak link in the chain.
When he said I won’t be going, initially I was disappointed but as the week went on in the Rás, when I saw the weather first of all, how hard it was and then I had my own training out in Belgium I just came around to accept that it just wasn’t for me this year and that’s the way it rolls you know?
But then recently then there was a race where you did put in a good bit of work defending the lead of Bagdonas in the Tour de l’Oise. How did you find that, chasing down breaks and defending the leader’s jersey?
Yeah, I was very happy. It just confirmed to me that I was back. It gave me a little bit of a confidence boost because I’d been hit and miss the other weeks. You know it was kind of just ‘quit the race and wait and see’. Like I knew I was over the illness, I’d done some training at home but I wasn’t sure from day to day how I’d be and then in l’Oise we put out four days riding pretty hard.
And you know, I was fine on the front of the bunch. There were times I was riding even too quick. I was just trying to get back into the rhythm so I wasn’t pacing myself. So it was lucky that we had Niko there, he’s pretty experienced in that kind of thing.
It was quite rewarding to be part of that again. In a way like, after the Rás, as much as I was happy for the guys…it’s natural, like I’m competitive and I’ve got pride so I felt a little bit like the guys did a big ride last week and they accomplished something, so it was nice then to go to l’Oise and accomplish the same thing. So yeah, it was pretty rewarding on a team level and for myself having gone through a couple of bad months, to do a good ride and to be a valued member of the team again was a nice feeling.
I remember Seán Kelly once saying that he thought the Rás should be moved from May to later in the year because, maybe not so much for the An Post team, but for the county riders, they spend all their early season getting ready for the Rás and then that’s it; there’s no focus for the end of the season.
Do you feel that a little bit yourself? That maybe after the national championships that it might be hard to get motivated because the Rás and the nationals are over and those were the two big ones for you for the season?
No, not as such. Maybe on a county level. For us, obviously the fact that An Post were sponsoring the Rás this year it was no secret it was a really big goal of ours within the team. On a personal level I wanted to do very well there, but it wasn’t really the focus of my year if I’m honest, it was something along the way. It was something I definitely looked forward to – going home and doing a good ride. But for me, I was personally disappointed at the start of the year that I was ill for the U-23 classics.
My focus now for the rest of the year is some of the stage races in France in August like La Mi-Août en Bretagne. Hopefully then I’ll focus towards the Tour of Britain, which after going there last year and doing a good ride [he finished 24th overall] I’d hope to go back this year with a little bit more experience and see if I could emulate that or do better.
So you know, week in, week out we ride pretty hard races over here so you’ve only got to look two or three weeks down the line for a little bit of extra motivation to do well. As much as the Rás is big at home, it’s a 2.2 and you know, Geddy has won two 2.2 races this year which is a really good showing.
The team are not really interested in just one result in the year – a stage in the Rás or a top five in the Rás. They want to see you consistently at a high level. So in one sense, yeah it’s disappointing that those events will be behind us now, but there’s definitely still a lot to aim for in the year within the team and on a personal level.
Just about Seán Kelly himself, do you have much interaction with him? I know he spends a lot of time commentating for Eurosport but are there many races that he does go to and imparts his knowledge?
Seán’s input would really be kind of behind the scenes. On a day to day level we wouldn’t really have much interaction with him. Kurt would definitely be on the phone to him every day. And probably every second day, Seán doesn’t answer him!
But Seán comes to a good few of the races at the start of the year, the classics, where his experience really counts and for the nationals this weekend he’ll be in the car. But Kurt is probably even more experienced at a managerial level because he’ll know the riders week in, week out.
Seán’s definitely in the background getting us invites to races, liaising with sponsors and getting finance for the team. And definitely if you needed to talk to him about career advice or something else in particular he’d be there, but on a day to day basis we deal with Kurt mostly
And I know your Dad [Tosh] is very involved in cycling as well. How much of a help (or a hindrance!) might he have been, egging you on or giving you a hand?
Yeah he’s been pretty good. Both my Mum and my Dad have just kind of let me go and do my own thing. Most people in cycling in Ireland would know my Dad as being a pretty passionate guy, so they’re normally kind of surprised to find out that he just kind of left me to it. Actually, he normally complains that I don’t send him a text often enough to let him know how I got on.
I was never pushed, or never told, ‘do this or that’. But I know he’s there behind me and I know that they have the belief in me. Sometimes that’s all a parent needs to do and my Dad’s got quite a good understanding of cycling but he knows he’s never raced at this level or raced abroad so he gives me his input as far as needs be.
But yeah definitely over the last couple of years they’ve been a great support in terms of finance and everything. You know, when I was younger, when I needed bikes, or to travel, they were always there with the car. And when I go home now, there’s always a lift from the airport and they make sure my car has petrol in it when I arrive home, so they’re still there supporting me. So it’s definitely been a big help to have him involved in cycling.
Does it frustrate you sometimes, the lack of mainstream cycling coverage over here in Ireland? The An Post team could be getting big results and it might not get reported on the news or in the papers at all really. Is that a frustration or are you even aware of that side of things?
At times it can be. When you compare it to over here where every week it’s constantly being reported on. You know, it’s like football over here where riders would be making it into the tabloids. You see the support that riders get over here and you thing ‘wow, if that was at home that would be great’. But you see the other side of it then as well, the big pressure that’s put on young riders over here. So it’s kind of a double edged sword in a way.
You miss out potentially getting bigger sponsors at home or creating more awareness of cycling but day to day you’re just training, you’re not too worried about what the media are reporting on. If you do a good result and they report on it, well then you’re happy and it’s a confidence boost. But for the moment it’s not such a big worry you know?
It’s frustrating sometimes to see the negative press that seems to get reported more often than say, young riders doing a good ride. But that’s the nature of the interest, sometimes there’s people that just want the story.
Yeah, so in terms of the whole negative press thing, I know amongst my mates, they’re not really into cycling and they kind of look at me and go ‘Jaysus Cillian, cycling, sure they’re all on drugs’. Do you have friends that aren’t into cycling that don’t understand what it is that you’re doing and have this negative view of things because they way it’s slanted in the media?
It’s hard to know. A lot of my friends don’t understand cycling but they see me travelling around the world and are really positive towards me. Maybe some from the older generation would ask me a little bit about it but I think for the most part people tend to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. There is a lot of bad press, but I think that sometimes it’s overexaggerated, you know, that the next scandal is going to end the sport.
In any sport there’s cheats and there’s people who’ll do you wrong. Cycling just needs to get over this mentality that it’s all going to end in the morning. The fact of the matter is that they’re actively seeking out the cheats. They’re testing and people are getting caught. The fact that people are getting caught is also a good thing, it means that the system is working.
And it’s fine that the media reports on that but they also need to have a good balance and support even some of the juniors at home and just put a little more effort into promoting the good side of the sport. Even down to the level where people are using cycling as a means to raise funds for charity.
There’s always going to be cheats and it’s just a case of moving on, just keep moving through it. There’s always a new generation and it’s just going to get better with education and with people just coming around to the fact that there’s young guys like us out here and we’re forging our way and doing it clean basically.
I know on your twitter feed a while ago, you were outspoken about the document that was printed in L’Équipe about the rider suspicion index and that it would have been better off kept secret so as not to hinder the progress in catching the cheats. It’s encouraging that you’re vocal about this kind of stuff whereas in the past so many people haven’t been. So, how do you feel about Contador riding the Tour?
Well the thing is, the rules allow him to ride the Tour. People are saying he shouldn’t ride the Tour, but he’s allowed to, that’s what the rules stipulate. Nobody actually knows what happened or what the legal level is.
[Recently, five Mexican footballers were sent home from the CONCACAF Gold Cup after testing positive for Clenbuterol. It is being reported that seven others also tested positive for the drug but had a level of less than 500 picograms in their system so weren't considered to be doping. Contador tested positive with 50 picograms in his sytem.]
I’m definitely not condoning it…to be honest I don’t have a view either way because the UCI are allowing him to ride. CAS are pushing back the decision and I mean, it could be bad for the sport if it ends in a positive control but you know, they haven’t really given a clear guideline on this clenbuterol thing. So he’s allowed to ride the Tour, that’s the rules. We can’t pick and choose from the rules, that’s just the way it is.
There’s a lot of division within the sport I think, some people are supporting him, some people are going against him. I think for the most part, people want to see him there. So I don’t know what went on, I can only just accept that he’s going to be at the Tour and that’s his decision which is perfectly within the rules.
Just to finish up then, are you coming back to Ireland soon or are you going to race in the [Belgian one-day race] Halle-Ingooigem on Wednesday?
Yeah I’m going to race on Wednesday and then travel back on Thursday. I think Ronan is the only one of us doing the time trial. So I’ll just be keeping the legs ticking over for Sunday. I’ll spend Saturday night together with the team and I expect I’ll probably travel back out to Belgium next Monday. I won’t spend too much time at home. I’ll come back out, I’ve got some races on, and then on the 17th July is the European Championships which is another goal of mine to go there and to do a good ride.
So do you feel good coming into the weekend? Do you feel like you can put in a good performance and that you’re happier with your form than you were earlier in the year?
Yeah hopefully so. I raced yesterday and it didn’t go that great to be honest. It was down in the Ardennes, it was a climbing race [Flèche Ardennaise] and my legs were just a bit blocked from the weekend before having not raced. So hopefully Wednesday will go well. But I’ve no real excuses, I have been training and I’ve done some races so I’ll expect next Sunday that I’ll be able to do the best ride for myself and for the team to get the best result possible.
Philip Lavery and the rest of the Irish riders from the An Post-Sean Kelly team will be in action in the Irish national championships this weekend. The time trial is on Friday 24th June and the road race is on Sunday 26th June. Both are taking place in Co. Monaghan. The road race route is 175km which will be seven laps of a 25km circuit. Updates on how the team are getting on can be found on the An Post-Sean Kelly facebook page.
(All photos courtesy of www.seankellycyclingacademy.com)