An interview with Simon Gerrans, September 26, 2004
Second in Paris-Corrèze and the first out of a potential seven Australian neo-pro's in 2005, Simon Gerrans will realise his life-long dream with Ag2r Prévoyance, and becomes yet another successful graduate of the Australian Institute of Sport's under 23 cycling program. Anthony Tan caught up with him before what will be another first: his debut in the men's elite team at the World Road Championships in Verona.
Simon Gerrans hasn't had it all his own way. Unlike Bradley McGee, Michael Rogers or Cadel Evans, who were sought-after and signed up almost immediately, Gerrans left the AIS Under 23 program two years ago when the outlook for promising espoirs was bleak as a Belgian winter. At the end of 2002, teams were folding, experienced professionals were taking sub-standard offers, and only a handful of the very best young talent were finding employment in Division 1 or 2 squads.
However, convinced of his own worth, the former Under 23 Australian champion persisted doggedly for another two years, riding for Norweigan, Portuguese and French teams. This season, under the direction of former US Postal rider Pascal Deramé at French amateur squad Team U Nantes-Atlantique, Gerrans has blossomed, taking seven wins and as a consequence, a stagiaire role with Ag2r Prévoyance.
"It was a really difficult time with teams folding and things like that happening at the time, so the market for the espoir ranks wasn't so good at all. I had good results, but not outstanding." - Gerrans on his struggle in turning professional at the end of 2002
Then, less than a month into his apprenticeship, the 24 year-old Victorian found himself staring at the dotted line of his first professional contract. It appeared Lavenu, a former professional himself and one of the peloton's most respected directeurs sportifs, knew he was onto a good thing right from the start. "This is a perfect recruit for our team," Lavenu said after Gerran's second place overall at Paris-Corrèze, which finished today.
CN: Firstly, congratulations on your first full professional contract; when did you actually sign the dotted line, so to speak?
SG: Oh... I signed up about 10 days ago [Friday, September 10 - ed.] now.
CN: You've wanted to turn pro for a few years now, so in some ways does it feel like a while coming?
SG: I s'pose it does... it's something I've been working towards since I started coming to Europe with the Australian Under 23 program, so yeah, it does feel like it's been a long time coming.
CN: What clinched the deal do you think? Was a run of consistent results or a standout race that got you over the line?
SG: I think it was just having a decent season this year. I've had seven wins, a bunch of podium finishes, and in France, I've just been consistently up there all season. When I got some results earlier on in the season, I caught the attention of a couple of teams, and I've come up again later in the season and won another couple of races, so I think that probably clinched the deal for me.
CN: Was there a reason why you went with Ag2r rather than some of the other teams that were interested in signing you?
SG: Yeah - I sort of look at Ag2r as a really good development team for neo-pro's. I think they will have a really good race program for me next year, regardless of whether they do or they don't get into the Pro Tour. There's also a good mix of riders, both French riders and foreigners, and I think next year, it will be quite a young team as well... so all those things point towards working out really well.
CN: With your results, you could have easily turned pro at the end of 2002 or last year, but for one reason or another, it didn't happen. Obviously luck, timing and who you know have a big part to play in the whole process?
SG: Yeah, I think you're right there. Timing has a big part to play; at the time I was leaving the espoir ranks, it was a really difficult time for riders to turn professional with teams folding and things like that happening at the time, so the market for the espoir ranks wasn't so good at all. I had good results, but not outstanding, so in that respect it was quite hard at that point in time.
Whereas this year, my results have improved quite a lot - I've found in France, the style of racing suits me a lot more compared to where I've been racing in the past - and there's just a lot of guys turning pro this year. I was just speaking about this with Aaron Kemps [currently riding as a stagiaire with Quick.Step-Davitamon - ed.] the other day, and we were saying that there could be up to seven Australian neo-pros entering Division 1 and 2 teams next year... which is incredible!
CN: Tell us a bit about Ag2r's stagiaire program, in terms of how long it lasts, what races you do, and how they look after you.
SG: Ag2r has three stagiaires this year, and the team's running two programs: there's a team for the Vuelta and a there's a team doing the one-day races that I've been doing. So basically, I've been doing a string of races up in the north of France and Belgium, and they sort of test you as one of the riders in the team. It's straight into the program, and they see how you fit in [to the team] and the racing.
CN: It seems like you've were only riding as a stagiaire for a couple of weeks before Lavenu offered you a contract - what do you think inspired him to sign you so soon?
SG: I think it was my amateur results this year. As I've said, I won some races earlier on in the season in April and May, and then I was able to come back up again and win some races in late August, so I think it was my amateur results which convinced him to sign me - and the fact that I had some interest from some other teams as well helped things happen quickly.
As far as the team goes, I found the team to be a really good group of guys; I felt like I fitted in really well straight away, so it's fantastic.
CN: You also rode as a stagiaire for a Portuguese team at the end of last season, Carvalhelhos - Boavista, with another Aussie, Ben Day. How did that come about, and what was that like?
SG: Yeah, last year I got a chance to ride as a stagiaire with Boavista just for the Tour de L'Avenir; they were looking for another under 26 rider because they didn't have six under 26 riders in their roster, so they signed me up as a stagiaire just to do that one race.
Which was great - I was looking for the opportunity to race the Tour de L'Avenir, since it's obviously one of the highlights of an under 26 program. I'm not sure how to describe it, but the two teams were quite different; at Ag2r, they seem to look after riders really well, which I've been really impressed with.
CN: What goals had you set out for yourself at the start of the season - was the sole objective to get the results and the attention that would lead to a pro contract?
SG: That's exactly right, you hit it on the head. I was close to getting a contract at the beginning of this year with RAGT; they had some problems early on when riders left the team and it opened a place up and they were interested in signing me, but the sponsors wanted a young French rider instead, so I missed out on that place.
Then I ended up on this amateur team, Nantes Atlantique, and I sat down at the start of the year with the directeur sportif and worked out my goals and what I'd have to do to turn pro. Basically, I went about doing that, winning the races that I set out to do. And it came off perfectly; all the races that I aimed to do well in, I did.
CN: Just speaking about your directeur of Team U Nantes-Atlantique, Pascal Deramé, who was a rider with US Postal not so long ago - that must have helped a lot?
SG: Oh yeah, Pascal was fantastic. It's only been a couple of years since Pascal stepped out of the pro peloton, so he's had an enormous amount of experience and he'd just relate that into our team, giving us advice, showing us how it all works, all those kind of things... it was absolutely fantastic having someone like that in the race car. Even as far as signing the contract, he sort of guided me along the way, telling me what I should be doing as a neo-pro, so he's been brilliant.
CN: With your seven wins this year, racing in France obviously suits you. If you could chose anywhere to race, would France be it?
SG: Yeah, that's right. I'm quite comfortable living in France now; I've started to pick up the language, I've find the style of racing suits me more than where I've raced in the past, so yeah, to actually race with a French team and race next year as a professional, is a dream come true.
CN: Where are you living now, and where will you be living next year?
SG: This season I've been living in Angers, which is not so far from Nantes, just because it's close to the team and that sort of thing. Next year, I plan on living down in Nice with the little Australian group we've got down there with Brad [McGee], Baden [Cooke], Matt [Wilson] and Mark Renshaw. I think it's a really good environment to be in - being able to go out training with your mates every day is quite cool.
CN: Have you had a chance to speak with Vincent Lavenu about what you'll be doing next season and in what capacity?
SG: No, not as yet - we haven't really worked out a race program or what I'll be doing next year. At this stage, I'm planning on starting my professional season with the Tour Down Under, which would be great to start racing on home soil - all the guys seem to love coming to Australia and love that race, so I'm pretty excited to be going back to that again. But as far as my program in Europe, we haven't really discussed it as yet.
CN: You mentioned earlier on that no-one's sure whether or not Ag2r will be part of the Pro Tour next year. At the moment, it isn't, but in some respects, is that a bit of a blessing, in that they'll probably be slightly less pressure on you to perform?
SG: Yeah, I think you're right there; if they do get in the Pro Tour, they're going to have to sign some big-name riders pretty quickly, which will put a lot of pressure on everyone. But if they don't get into the Pro Tour, for a guy like myself entering the pro ranks, the race program will be really good; it will be an ideal step up - more so than if we did make the Pro Tour.
CN: It's also going to be your first year as an elite on the Australian team for the World's - how are you feeling about Verona?
SG: I suppose I am quite nervous about it... I'm chuffed to get selected in the Australian team. It looks like they've selected a real mix of riders this year - from the older, more experienced guys who could be in contention for the win, to a few younger guys who they're obviously looking to help out and get some experience racing at that kind of level. It's fantastic that I got a start and I'm really excited about racing - I hope that I'll be able to get in there and help Stuey [O'Grady], Cadel [Evans], Mick [Rogers], Scott Sunderland and all those guys out.
CN: Has Neil Stephens or Shayne Bannan spoken to you about what role you'll play?
SG: At this point, no, they haven't had a chance to talk about it all yet; I guess we'll discuss all that when we get to Verona.
CN: I understand your last race with Ag2r this year will be Paris-Bourges; will you be coming back to Australia straight after that, and do you intend on racing when you get back?
SG: At this stage, I plan on coming back to Australia as soon as possible after Paris-Bourges and racing the Sun Tour - hopefully, I come home with a little bit of form. Then after the Sun Tour, I'm having a rest.
CN: You lead the Sun Tour briefly last year - are you hoping to do something special this time around?
SG: Last year, I went into the Sun Tour hoping to win a stage, but I didn't do that - the best I did was finish fourth on a stage and fourth on the [overall] classification. But I proved to myself that I had the condition to be a contender for the GC, which really surprised myself at the time.
So this year, I'll head into the race with the same objective as last year, trying to win a stage, and if I'm still in contention after a week's time, then I'll think about the overall. But a lot depends on how I recover from the races that I have here and how I'm flying home quite close to the race - it usually plays a big part in it.