An interview with Thor Hushovd, February 16, 2009
Thor Hushovd is getting his season underway this week in the Tour of California. The 31-year-old Norwegian has won Tour stages, the maillot vert and Gent-Wevelgem, but in 2009 he has another big goal. He tells Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes that becoming Paris-Roubaix champion is top of his wish-list.
Professionals such as Sean Kelly, Eric Vanderaerden, Eddy Planckaert and Johan Museeuw became well known thanks to stage wins in the Tour de France, but then went on to become big Classic winners a little later in their careers. With time and physical maturity came increased strength, and this saw each of them eventually topping the podium in Paris-Roubaix.
New Cervélo signing Thor Hushovd hopes to join this group in 2009. When asked if he'd rather win a Classic or take another Tour de France maillot vert, he opts for one-day success, pointing out that he's won the green jersey before. And of those Classics, Paris-Roubaix is the most important prize.
"Roubaix is something special... I'd love to win there." -Paris-Roubaix has a special place in Hushovd's heart.
"I have been third in Milano-Sanremo, and ninth is my best in Roubaix," he tells Cyclingnews, referring to the 2005 editions of both events. "In Flanders I have taken 14th in the past. Of those races, Roubaix is something special... I'd love to win there."
In 2008 Hushovd snagged several important victories, including the prologue and points classification in both Paris-Nice and the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, plus a stage in Catalunya, the Tour of the Mediterranean and the Four Days of Dunkirk. More significantly, he triumphed on day two of the Tour de France and finished second to Oscar Freire in the points classification.
The big Norwegian is now in his 10th pro season but, rather than becoming weary or complacent, he's motivated by the possibility of taking some big races this season. "My condition is not yet at its peak, of course, but I have been training hard this winter," he explains. "I have a few kilometres in my legs already, I feel myself getting better and better. I hope to be on top from the middle of March, for Milano-Sanremo until Paris-Roubaix.
"Those are my two main goals. I will also do Flanders, but Milano-Sanremo and Roubaix are my two biggest targets."
Affection for Roubaix aside, his characteristics as a strong sprinter plus his past result in the event means that it is - on paper at least - more likely that he could win there. He feels that to improve from that third place will depend on his legs in the sprint rather than a leadout from his team. "Last year the race was so hard," he says. "You need a good team until the Poggio, then it is up to if you can follow on the climb. When you turn around at the bottom of the descent and see who is there, it is hard to have a team-mate or two left at that point. So it is really up to you as to what chance you have."
Moving to a new team is always a big transition for a rider. The most noticeable difference to observers is the kit and bike, of course, but for the competitor there are a host of issues to deal with, including new team-mates, directeurs sportive, support staff and sponsors.
For Hushovd, this change is particularly pronounced. He has only ever raced for Crédit Agricole, riding as a stagiaire in 1999 and remaining with the French team until the end of last year. He might well have stayed longer had the team not been forced to stop due to a lack of sponsorship.
He was taken aback by how things turned out with Roger Legeay's search. "I knew it was hard but I was sure that he would get something," he says. "So I was really surprised. Roger seemed confident and I knew that he knows a lot of people. Maybe I was hoping too much. It was certainly a hard time with the financial crisis and the [drug] problem in cycling. It was just bad timing for the sponsor to stop, I think."
As a multiple Tour stage winner and past winner of the maillot vert, several established teams were interested in Hushovd. Eventually he opted for a new, unproven squad, and several factors influenced his decision.
"I heard rumours about the team quite early on," he says. "I didn't know how serious it all was. But then I started to get into dialogue with the team and I really liked the idea of the setup and the mentality, how they wanted to run it. It seems quite serious and a clean team, which is important.
"I then heard it was English-speaking, which was a big change from my French Crédit Agricole background. When I first thought about changing teams I knew I would like to go to something different... and why not a new one? So I ended up here."
Having spent such a long time with Crédit Agricole, such a big change could have been difficult. Yet it's all worked out quite comfortably due, in part, to familiar faces. "I know many of the guys from before," he explained. "There are already five of us who came from Crédit Agricole, and some others I know from various races. Of course there are some new riders too; some Americans, some Spaniards I don't know... there are actually some guys I have not seen racing before. But the mood is very good."
With Hushovd and Sastre as clear leaders of the team, they were able to have an input into the riders Cervélo signed. Hushovd has several strong team-mates for his leadout train, including Roger Hammond, Olympic pursuit silver medallist Hayden Roulston and Brett Lancaster. The latter played a similar role for Alessandro Petacchi and Erik Zabel at Milram. Hushovd feels that they will prove to be a successful combination.
"Lancaster is a fantastic leadout man," he says. "And with the other guys we have, I think we have a great team. I am really excited about our chances on that point. We just have to work at it in the smaller races, get used to each other and then take it from there."
They will of course be up against other leadout trains, including those working for Tom Boonen, Petacchi, Daniele Bennati, Robbie McEwen, and the rider who emerged as the fastest sprinter in 2008, Mark Cavendish. "We will see how it works with Columbia and Cavendish," he says. "It is quite exceptional what he did last year, but we will just focus on our job rather than thinking about what the others are doing. We can't change anything so I think it is better that we just focus on our job, on what I have to do."
A Classic preparation
After months of preparation and planning, Hushovd finally pins on a race number and gets his season underway in the Tour of California this Saturday. He will then ride Het Volk, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix. He'll have a short break, then head to the Giro d'Italia to chase a stage win.
"That is also a goal for me this year," he said, referring to a Giro stage victory. "I am missing a nice stage win in the Giro."
Being on form from Milano-Sanremo to the Giro is a long space of time; most Classics contenders back off in May, but he'll keep plugging away. However it's not certain he'll finish the Giro, and he'll certainly back off after Italy.
"I'll have to let my form drop a bit then have a small break and build it up again. It is still a long time until the Tour. We will see how far I go [in the Giro], because it is really hard this year."
Last year, Hushovd netted that stage win on day two, then took eight other top-ten placings in the race. Fourth on the stage to Châteauroux and fifth on the Champs Elysees were the best of those; he finished second in the points classification but he says he could be better in 2009.
"I was really good at the beginning of the Tour, but when it was going fast I was missing a bit of power," he said. "This year, I think I just have to work on the high-speed sprints, that is where I was missing a bit last year. That is the plan."
So does he think that there is room for both a yellow and green jersey contender on the Cervélo team? "I think it is possible," he answered. "I have spoken with Carlos about it and I really think it is possible. I need two or three men while he doesn't need eight guys. If he has three or four guys who can be with him in the mountains, and if there are two or three guys who can do some work for both of us, then it is okay. If the team is together and working well as a unit, I think it is possible to go for both green and yellow."
Before then, Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix beckon. ot every fastman makes the transition from Tour stage win to victor in the 'Hell of the North' but, as riders such as Kelly, Vanderaerden, Planckaert and Museeuw showed, it's sometimes possible to be the fastest over 200 metres and 260 kilometres.