Caught up with BMC Directeur Sportif John Lelangue last week during the team's training camp and media circus in Spain. OK, I wasn't in Spain, but he was kind enough to return my call and talk shop for a spell.
Lelangue is full of optimism these days, it seems. Sure, lots of DSs are smiling in February, before the season has given them any reason to feel otherwise. But in BMC's case, Lelangue's optimism may have an unusually solid foundation. Last year was a watershed experience, transforming a small Continental team into something more like a top-level juggernaut -- and it came with growing pains a-plenty. The most heralded was Alessandro Ballan's distraction (rumors of a doping ring among his former Lampre mates) which canceled his participation in Paris-Roubaix. In the end Ballan was cleared but his classics season was cut short.
Then there was the team-wide stress of pro continental status, not knowing if you can land a Tour invite, and the early season focus a number of riders engaged in to impress the cycling world that they were Tour-fit. It worked, they got their invite, but that's no way to go about your preparations.
Now BMC are officially World Tour, they have nothing left to prove as far as securing race invites is concerned. There's no rainbow jersey to defend and display. So they can focus fully on proving what they didn't get around to last year: that they are one of the top outfits in the world, on several different stages.
Settle in, grab a biscotti, and join me on the flip for our chat...
PdC: What was your approach to transfers in the offseason? You added a couple classics riders, was it a goal to improve the depth of the classics team or were you just looking for quality people?
JL: We were looking the whole year because recruitment was not only during the offseason. I will say from last year already April we knew who the riders were at the end of their contract. Our objectives were three different ones.
First, the classics team. We know we already had a really nice team for the classics with Hincapie, Ballan, Burghardt, Kroon, Mickey Schar, on the team. We wanted to add one or two more guys to the team on about this level who can bring a little bit more solidity to the team in the classics so we can play different cards and have different tactics in Flanders and the Ardennes.
My priority was Greg Van Avermaet because he is a young guy coming from Lotto, I saw him win a race in Tour of Qatar a couple years ago and I told myself then that guy can go far in the classics. Maybe this last two years his position was a little bit difficult, being in the same team as one of the best in the world, Philippe Gilbert. Of course I understand his management and his coach considered him more as a second leader. We wanted him in a position where from time to time he will be a teammate for George or Burghardt or Ballan, and other times we will play him as the leader, in some of the Flanders classics but also in Amstel, Fleche and Liege.
The second one is Quinziato. He actually has a lot of experience in the Classics, he’s like Ballan one of those Italian Belgian riders because they are totally integrated into the Belgian culture, they know every corner, every parcours from Flanders, De Panne, Gent-Wevelgem, Roubaix in France. And if you look at the results from the last few years he’s always there in the final, so he totally fits in the classics team for BMC.
The second objective was totally focusing on the Tour of France* and the Vuelta, completing the team around Cadel with some climbers, to go in the approach and the first part of the mountains, but also in the second part at the top of the climbs. So we’re looking at three guys, one Swiss guy Joan Tschopp, he had a really nice mountain stage in the Giro last year, and he was often in the breakaway on the offensive in the Vuelta. He was riding under my direction for two years before, so I know his quality as a climber.
The second guy we were after was Amael Moinard coming from Cofidis. Pretty complete rider, he was already 15th in the Tour of France om GC, so that proves his consistency. He’s a really good climber also, winning the last stage of Paris-Nice with the Col de la Turbie and all those climbs. He was also the polka dot jersey/best climber in Paris-Nice last year. And then we took also an experienced teammate, Ivan Santaromita, one of the top Italian riders as a teammate mostly in the stage races. He will surely be an important asset for Cadel in stage races like the Tour of France or Vuelta.
PdC: Do you think Mauro Santambrogio has the ability to make a run at the general classification in a grand tour?
JL: I think he will have some opportunity this year because we will go to the Giro this year without Cadel, so he will have some opening, but we know that he’s an explosive rider. So we will see his development during the first week of the Giro and if we should concentrate more on GC or on stage wins. We know that he can make a really good tour, he’s pretty regular (consistent), especially in the mountains. It will be a difficult Giro, but we will have a team around him and he will be in Italy at home. So for his program we decided to concentrate at first totally on the Giro and where he can play his card, and then he will come back as a teammate for the Vuelta a Espana. He’s also a rider we want to develop in the one-day races, he did the Tour of Lombardy. I think he also has some good abilities to figure in Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, so we will work him in this direction too.
PdC: What would you say is Greg Van Avermaet’s ideal race? Fleche Brabanconne, Gent-Wevelgem, other cobbled classics?
JL: He is good in the cobbles but he’s not a specialist for just the cobbles. I will skip him out of Paris-Roubaix, for two reasons. I think he’s more fit for smaller cobblestone sectors or cobblestone sectors alternating with little climbs like in Flanders. I think looking to the Flanders classics, the one which is corresponding to him it’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which is changing the parcours this year, and the Tour of Flanders. Those are the two where I really want to see him in the front with the leaders. And then he’s also a rider -- even if he doesn’t have the experience, I really think that, explosive as he is, we have seen him in the mountains and the selective stages he was always in the front -- I think he has the profile to be there in Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The Mur de Huy may be a little bit too difficult for him, a little bit too selective. But with a good program I see him stopping a little bit after Flanders and recovering for Amstel and Liege, maybe he can make a good result in those races also.
PdC: Marcus Burghardt has looked strong in the classics but hasn’t had a breakthrough result in a couple years. What do you think it will take for him to get that big result?
JL: I think, well, he didn’t have a really good classics season with us, maybe his peak was coming a little bit too early in the season. He was really good in Qatar and Oman in February and then he was... always there in those classics but never with the top guys when the selection was happening. He was always there, Het Nieuwsblad, Tour of Flanders, even Roubaix he’s still there, but he’s just missing the little selections. So we changed his training program so he’s a little bit more concentrated on this. But his second half, after his crash in the Tour of California, almost everyone expected that was the end of his dream for going to the Tour of France, but he got back on the bike training and went to the Tour de Suisse and won two stages, which was amazing. So at the end, we know that the preparation he has made and the training he’s made he’s going to be in even better shape this year and we know his objectives in March and April. So I really believe we will see him come back on the level he was when he won Gent-Wevelgem.
PdC: How disruptive was it for Alessandro Ballan to get pulled in the week before Paris-Roubaix? That must have been very disappointing for him and for the team.
JL: It was not really disappointing, it was a team decision, and then when we see that there is nothing happening in this affair. But I think it was a wise decision for the tranquillity of the team and for the organizer. It was a difficult moment for him, but he kept his confidence and we kept our confidence in him, so he came back, following his training, never really slowing down. He did a really good Tour of France and Tour of Poland, so his second part of the season was surely better than the first one. Now with with the results in the last week we see he is already approaching the top ten on the GC in the Tour Down Under, he was three times in the top ten of stages, this shows me he has made a really good, concentrated winter of training. He will have a light program with Laigueglia and Sardinia, building in Tirreno and Milan-Sanremo, and then going full-time in the Flanders Classics. I think his peak has to come really on Flanders and Roubaix also. I think if he can be in good shape there, I’m sure he wants to prove that the Alessandro Ballan who won the Tour of Flanders is back, and that he can go into the final of Paris-Roubaix. Those are the races where he really wants to make a difference.
PdC: I saw that Cadel has said things will be different this year because the team is now part of the World Tour and so you know the races you’ll be invited to this year. How has that affected your ability to put together the right schedule not just for Cadel but for a variety of riders?
JL: Totally -- Totally because we are starting the season... we had the first meeting at the end of September, early October, we had the riders sitting down for four days in Italy and the first training camp in December. From the first meeting since we knew that we were going to the world tour, we know exactly what will be the whole calendar during the season, which was not the case last year. Last year when we began the season we didn’t know what races we’d be invited to in April, whether we’d get a wild card for the Tour of France because the selection was happening in March. So for us we had to go step by step and we couldn’t make a perfect program not knowing what was coming in one month. Now that we know this, we can fix clearly the objective, and for Cadel clearly the objective is first the Tour of France, secondly the Vuelta. So we can make a real progression with some nice races in between, for example the Tour de Romandie, Fleche Wallonne, Vuelta a Catalunya, so that he will be coming to the Tour of France with let’s say 32 days of racing. Which means that he enter the Tour of France with some freshness and knowing that this is the main objective for the team and him personally for the season.
PdC: Now I want to ask about the goals you have outlined for the season for some of your youngest riders, starting with Yannick Eijssen?
JL: I think that for the three guys it will be a little bit the same, for Yannick Eijssen, Timothy Roe or Taylor Phinney on different kinds of races. But the most important thing for these riders in their first year with us is to make the step between the U23 and the World Tour. To gain experience in the races, during the races, knowing the parcours, riding with some of the older leaders and learning from them when they are riding as teammates for those guys. For them there is no pressure. If from time to time they get a good opportunity, why not try it for them, no problem. But there will surely be no pressure on them. For the development it’s more a chance to find out what is the world tour and try and find out about those races they will be riding in the future on a regular basis.
Jannick Eijssen is a climber, I think that he is maybe one of the best climbers that Belgium has created since Lucien Van Impe. He’s a pure climber, you can see his results in Isard, Pyrenees, Tour de l’Avenir. He’s a guy we’ll really like when we have climbs for more than 5, 6, 7km, the really long climbs, so we will build a program for him around this, mostly concentrating on the one-week stage races. He will have an opportunity to ride with Cadel a little bit and discover what is his job in the mountains.
The same for Tim Roe, who I discovered in the Tour Down Under. He’s also a climber and a stage race rider, so he’s here for learning also from his mentor Cadel Evans. And then we have Taylor, which is different, Taylor is focusing on discovering all the classics, working on the time trials, and trying to get experience working with Hincapie, Ballan, Burghart, Van Avermaet, Kroon, and so on. So for those three there is surely no pressure. If one day they are in a good breakaway they will have an opportunity for them to lead, but for the moment they are just there to have a good, really well-balanced calendar with enough recovery between the races, and to be sure that we can grow together.
PdC: And how about Brent Bookwalter?
JL: I think that Brent is a complete stage rider, if you see his results from riding last year with us. Which is a miracle because I remember Brent after his crash and from where he was coming, and beginning with me picking a program where he was only able to push a compact crank, a little gear. And looking at him now riding the Giro, finishing the Giro, making a podium there in the prologue, then going to the Tour of France as a teammate and finishing the Tour. We know that we have great expectations for him. He will have some really nice opportunities for himself in one-week stage races, elite races like, for example -- I believe that a race like Paris-Nice which is always an interesting race, with time trials, with elite stages, could be well fitted for Brent and could be one of the places where he can play his own card. Vuelta a Catalunya, even if we are going there with Cadel, that's a really good race with a nice stage around Andorra. He will be building for the Tour of California, he will be one of the leaders at the US nationals, and a teammate for the Tour of France.
PdC: Last question, George Hincapie's priorities are well known with the classics, but he's also nearing Joop Zoetemelk's record for most finishes in the Tour. How important a goal is this, seeing George finish another Tour and close in on that record?
JL: Yeah, I think George is more than this. He's first the real captain of the team, and having George on board, in the classics or the Tour, he's really the road captain in the field, and having him there I can be in total confidence in the team car. So I am really not afraid of what his decisions are, we speak a lot, he has a really good vision of the race, and he's really charismatic with the young ones.
On a personal level we have to concentrate first on Paris-Roubaix, that's the main goal of the first part of the season, so he will be building around this with a typical program -- Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-Sanremo, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, and Scheldeprijs as the last preparation in the week before Paris-Roubaix. After this he'll take a little break to re-concentrate on the Tour of California, the US nationals at home in Greenville, and then he will be building to be the road captain around Cadel for the Tour of France, with a participation for the Tour de Suisse. But he's first the real road captain of the team for the whole season and mainly for the Tour of France, he's really the guy that I trust and can make the call in my place if I am not there with the team car or if we cannot react exactly. I know that he is there and am totally confident that he can make the call.
* Lelangue is a French-speaking Belgian, who speaks flawless English but with a French style to it. It's funny to hear "Tour of France" from someone pronouncing "France" like a native speaker. I guess switching to English means "de" gets switched too. Anyway, he is a very friendly and forthcoming interview, even by cycling's generally friendly and forthcoming standard (compared to, say, dropping in on the Super Bowl).
As you can see, we mostly just checked in on riders. I can think of some additional questions now, but BMC are centered around veteran riders with well-known programs and strategies, so the team makeup is pretty straightforward and their task is to simply build on the new beginning that's now a year old. I have to admit, after talking to Lelangue, that I've been too quick to dismiss Cadel Evans' chances at the Tour. He has had two Tours of France in a row where he finished outside the top 25, but then small changes in form can lead to dramatic drops. It's inconsistent with what we know of Evans as a climber, cronoman, and fighter for him to plummet this way. OK, he'll turn 34 on Valentine's Day (can't wait for the tweets between him and Chiara) so pretty soon we will be talking of age limitations. But more likely he can turn things around with the right program and make at least one more serious run. An Accountant-free Tour in 2011 seems like his last, best chance.
Thanks to BMC's Sean Weide for his help in arranging this!
Photo by Bryn Lennon and Doug Pensinger, Getty Images Sport