An interview with Graeme Brown, November 28, 2005
After a promising first year as a neo-pro that saw him contest Grand Tour stage victories with Mario Cipollini and Robbie McEwen, Graeme Brown's career on the road has fallen off the pace. An obstinate Achilles, internal rivalry within his trade team and a poorly planned race schedule all contributed to his lack of success, but a chance meeting with a fellow Australian has led to a new team and new hopes. Story by Anthony Tan.
Driving is often the perfect distraction when interviewing bike riders. For a variety of reasons, but above all, the setting provides a more relaxed, less staid environment to talk, particularly if you need to ask some difficult questions. So when Graeme Brown and his wife Hayley - who was at the wheel, mind you - were on their way to a wedding in Margaret River, Western Australia's most famous wine-growing region, it was a good time to chat.
The last time I saw the 26 year-old sprinter was at Malaysia's Tour de Langkawi in February this year. On the final day in Kuala Lumpur, he sailed across the line to claim his fifth stage win for his Ceramica Panaria-Navigare team, the orange-clad outfit also winning another two stages courtesy of their Argentine sprinter Guillermo Bongiorno. The team's domination evoked headlines that included 'Brown leads orange crush', 'Panaria's B1 and B2 unstoppable', 'Panaria rules, OK!'... the list went on.
"I think they lost faith, just didn't think I could do it anymore." - Graeme Brown gives his reasons for a fall-out with team management at Panaria
However, it was three years since Brown left his mark in Europe. As a neo-pro for Panaria, the Sydneysider backed up two stage wins in Malaysia with an excellent first-week performance at the 2002 Giro d'Italia, narrowly missing out on victory against none other than Mario Cipollini on the opening road stage and finishing fourth four days later. His promise set up a potentially interesting match between himself and Robbie McEwen, even though the Queenslander was well ahead of him in the performance stakes, McEwen coming off his best-ever season that saw him grab two stage wins and the points jersey at the Tour de France.
Unfortunately, the rivalry turned out to be more verbal than physical, because after that, no-one saw much of 'Brownie' when racing in Europe. Ongoing problems with his Achilles, balancing track commitments and bickering within his team never saw him reach his best. So it was only natural to ask him what he expected to do after his best start to the season this year.
"I really don't think I'm even close to my top form," he said in KL, brimming with confidence. "I'm sprinting really well here and I'm feeling good in the sprints, but still not at 100 percent, so I've got a lot more things I can work on for the Giro."
The thing is, Brown didn't even get to the Giro.
"Yeah, well, my Achilles has been my Achilles, you could say. I started off well, then I had six weeks without a race after Malaysia which is obviously a problem; you've got to keep training hard without racing, and being so cold and that, you'd like to get in a few races. When I finally did get to race, it [the Achilles] all flared up again."
Brown says he managed to contain his Achilles problem and got himself going again before the Giro start on May 7, but it had been almost three months since he had a result. Panaria decided not to take any chances, and sent their Italian sprinter Paride Grillo instead. Brett Lancaster was to act as Grillo's lead-out man, but before duties called, Brown's tall, blonde Aussie team-mate - who is normally his lead-out man - and goes by the nickname 'Big Bird' won the opening prologue in Reggio Calabria and spent an enjoyable day in the maglia rosa.
Grillo equalled Brown's best result from the 2002 Giro, finishing second to Cipollini's successor Alessandro Petacchi on the twelfth stage. Apart from Emanuele Sella finishing the tour tenth overall, that was about the extent of the Panaria's achievements in the team's most important race of the season. "If you're taking a sprinter, you should try and help the sprinter a little bit and take another lead-out man, and not seven mountain climbers," Brown says.
It wasn't his only point of contention, though. After spending a week with his sister Katie in Germany who was involved in the crash that killed Australian national team member Amy Gillett, Brown vowed to himself that he try and make up for lost time with a good ride at the Tour of Denmark. However, his team manager and director, Bruno and Roberto Reverberi, had other ideas.
"I trained just for this race, I spent the last two months training for it, I knew I could do well. They said: 'Bad luck, you're leading out Grillo.' That's not very fair. I think they lost faith, just didn't think I could do it anymore. Plus they got a new Italian sprinter and they were like, 'Alright, we'll ride for him', whether I was good or not."
Brown ate his words, and after Ivan Basso dominated the first three stages, Grillo won the fourth in Odense. "Roberto said to me, 'Brownie, that, for me, is like you winning three stages.' And I went: 'We'll, those three stages in your head won't get me a contract for next year, unfortunately.'
"And at that time, I had absolutely nothing as well; I was going: 'Well, what am I going to do here?' They're an Italian team and they try and really look after their Italians - that's the way it seemed, anyway."
A week and a half later, Brown showed his team he still had what it takes, finishing second to Danilo Napolitano and beating Petacchi at the UCI 1.1-rated Coppa Bernocchi. "They called me up a couple of days later and said: 'You have to ride for Grillo the next race.'
"I said: 'Why?', because it was almost certain it was going to be a bunch kick and it was reasonably flat. They said it's an Italian race and we have to have an Italian win. I said: 'Well, I don't think that's very fair; I'm going well and he's just coming off a break where he's been sick' - they said: 'Oh, if you don't want to help Grillo, don't bother coming to the race.'
The Giro di Romagna did come down to a bunch sprint and Brown did as he was told, Grillo glued to his wheel 800 metres from the line. But a couple of hundred metres later, the Italian decided to launch himself off Brown's wheel. "I went, 'Alright, obviously I don't need to lead you out.' He [Grillo] started his sprint at fourth wheel, I started my sprint at 14th wheel and I needed another couple of hundred metres for the win. Grillo got fourth, I got third and I didn't get to do any more races.
"I think the problem there is that nobody makes good money; they don't pay a very good wage and everyone's trying to win to get a bonus for next year, where you get a few dollars extra on your contract. So nobody wants to help the other person."
Around the time of his penultimate race with Panaria, Brownie had a spot of good fortune, although back then, he didn't even know it.
Australian Rabobank rider Matt Hayman and his girlfriend Kim Shirley, a former national road squad representative and a close friend of Brown's wife Hayley, visited the couple at their Italian home in Pistoia a few weeks before Hayman was to compete at the upcoming Vuelta a España.
Before their stay, Brown really didn't have much to do with Hayman, a quietly spoken guy from Canberra who made his way into the sport through sheer hard work rather than oodles of talent. "I never really knew him, I just thought he was a bit different," he says, "but still, I thought he was a nice guy." By the end of the week, Hayman and Brown were carrying on like dorm buddies at university.
"We had a few wines, a few pizzas, a few jokes... and I completely changed my opinion of what I originally thought of Matt. I mean, he's very serious about his cycling, but he's fun to be around. I dropped him off at the airport and said, 'Mate, when you're at the Vuelta, if your team needs a sprinter, do you want to drop my name?' He said: 'Yeah, alright.'"
Hayman kept to his word and dropped the name of Graeme Brown in front of Theo de Rooy: 26 years old (tick), Australian (tick), member of world record-breaking teams pursuit squad from Athens and madison gold medallist (tick), sprinter (tick), unfulfilled potential (tick), looking for new job... tick.
"They called me with about a week to go [from the end of the Vuelta] and said: 'We want to arrange a meeting with you. We'll fly you up to Amsterdam.' I met with them, they offered me a contract. I went, 'Yep, no worries, done.'"
And that was that. While it was no means his last chance, one can tell how much this opportunity means to him. Brown knows it's the closest thing to a gift he'll get in a sport where Lance Armstrong has said there aren't any.
"Earlier in the year, I was a bit down in the dumps. I was injured, spending all my time and money on physiotherapy trying to get myself right, and basically I thought I was going to be struggling to get a ride for next year. And then Rabobank comes along. They've heard what I'm capable of, they know that I'm fast and it's possible that I could become one of the better riders.
"That said to me, 'We'll offer you a year contract; if you prove to us that you're worthwhile, we'll resign you.' It definitely sounds like a very fair team; everything with Rabobank sounds like it should. Every word that comes out of their mouth is exactly what I wanted to hear and exactly they way I thought it should sound... it just sounds like such a professional outfit. I'm really looking to it."
When we spoke, Brown had only been on back on the bike less than a week, but already he feels different. Six kilos lighter than he normally is at this time of year obviously makes a difference, but that's not the only thing. He says his Achilles problem is sorted; he's already been over to Europe and back for team photos with his new team; and he's seen biomechanics about his riding style and cleat set-up, as well as reviewing his training program over the summer.
"Everything's pointing towards a good year, everything's falling into place, everything's working well, and it's great. I'm just going out and rolling the legs over, y'know, 25k an hour, doing an hour and a half to two hour rides and really, really enjoying myself. I'm so geed for next year, because I know I've got to such a big opportunity to prove myself," he says.