An interview with Roger Hammond, November 3, 2004
At thirty years of age, after years of grinding out a living on a second division squad, Roger Hammond has hit the big-time. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes speaks with a man about to embark on a voyage of discovery in the company of six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.
Picture this. You are a former world junior cyclocross champion who has raced for years with a modest Belgian team. In 2003 you finish 17th in Paris-Roubaix, using that cross skill to good effect in dealing with the slippery, sliding cobblestoned mud-paths of northern France. One year later you are back again, confidence buoyed by a decent early-spring campaign, and you finish an excellent third in the race. Then, a little later in the season you gallop home a fine seventh in the Olympics, attracting the attention of the world's top bike rider and his new team.
Little wonder Roger Hammond is psyched.
"This year in Paris-Roubaix, I was in the front, desperate for a team-mate to be there." - Hammond on the benefit of a strong team for next year's Spring Classics
At this time of the year many pros are trying to recharge their batteries, mental as much as physical, after a draining, demanding season. Yet when Cyclingnews gave the British road race champion a call in recent days he was positively bubbling over with enthusiasm, sounding more like a giddy young newcomer rather than a seasoned, experienced pro. The thoughts of working with Lance Armstrong are, he says, already having an effect on him. His focus is partly down to the opportunity to improve, the motivation of a new challenge, the need to impress. And, in some ways, down to a little bit of fear, too.
'I guess, in a way, it is pretty scary,' he admits, when asked about his thoughts on moving to the Discovery Channel team. 'I keep having these cold sweats about being in a situation where Lance Armstrong is going to rely on me to win a race, and just wondering if I am going to be good enough to do the job! I don't know, in a way it is scary and in a way it is a fantastic motivation.'
'One effect is that I am more conscious of everything this winter. I am more conscious of weight, I am more conscious of training, and more conscious of my eating. I think it is an amazing opportunity. I haven't really met Lance yet, properly, yet part of his way of thinking is already rubbing off on me. I am hoping that is a good thing.'
'I realise now that is what the pro life is all about. Although I have been trying to do it (be disciplined) more in the last few years, it really brings it right home to you when you will be racing with the best rider in the world.'
One effect of this new challenge is that Hammond will be sacrificing his usual cyclocross ambitions. He was eleventh last year in the world championships, despite a crash, and also took his sixth British title. While he will do some cross racing this winter, both of those big events are off his schedule. Everything is geared towards 2005, towards helping Lance, towards his new beginning, his big opportunity. For Roger Hammond, it's Discovery time.
Cyclingnews: Roger, what have you been up to since the end of the season?
Roger Hammond: I have come back to the UK, just to have a bit of a break. I stopped about a week after the Grand Prix Isbergues, near the end of September, so I was able to recover quite early. I have already started training for next year.
I am just going out on my bike at the moment to try to keep ticking over, really. I don't want to get too out of condition. I think the older you get, the harder it is to get back into form. And motivation-wise, I am really enthusiastic so I don't have to worry about running out of motivation later on. I just thought I would keep fit, really.
CN: Was your decision to miss the world championships in Verona due to the nature of the course, due to being worn out after the season or the fact that perhaps you wanted to get back training a bit earlier?
RH: You have just mentioned pretty much all of the reasons, really. Pretty good going, that! (laughs) Firstly, for that sort of circuit I would have had to be really 100 percent. After the Olympics and the Tour of Britain, the season wasn't really going pear shaped, but I could feel that I wasn't motivated to train as hard as I needed to do if I was going to ride the world championships. Had there been nobody else interested in doing the race, I would have taken part, making do with the form that I had, but there were two young guys (Charly Wegelius and Tom Southam) who were each looking for contracts and who were both riding in Italy at the time. We only had two places available in the elite road race, so I thought it was definitely better if I gave them the chance to show themselves where they are based.
It was time for a break, too. Last year I raced right through to the end of Paris-Tours. I took three weeks off at the end of the season, but I wasn't ready to train after that. I was still tired and still mentally fatigued as well. I had to start training when I didn't really want to, so that was quite difficult. I didn't want to do that again this year. I wanted to start training on time because, obviously, next year is very important.
CN: What did you do to relax, away from the bike?
RH: To be honest with you, this year has been so hectic that a lot of my time off has been spent doing really mundane and boring things! I have bought a house in Belgium which needs a little bit of work done to it, so I have been concentrating on that. I also just wanted to stay somewhere for more than a week, to be able to recognise the bed I woke up in. That's quite nice..
CN: Recognise the bed... I presume you are referring to all the travel during the year, as a pro, rather than a wildly promiscuous lifestyle?
RH: Yeah (laughs)... I wish I could say it was the latter, but it is not like that at all! I did go up to Edinburgh for a weekend, so that was quite nice. Just to get away was good. I spent a few days up there in Scotland, relaxing... it is good place to unwind.
It is a different world up there, not cycling-orientated. There is nice countryside but it is almost home as well, which is good. My parent's caravan is up in the northeast of England, near the Scottish border. So being up there kind of reminds me of childhood memories, as well. Childhood holidays with no cares, just getting away from it all.
CN: You were eleventh in the cyclocross worlds last year and also won your sixth British cross title. Do you see yourself doing cross races this year and if so, what will your goals be?
RH: Yes, I would like to ride cross. Even if it is just to remember what it is like to have two wheels sliding again! I am sure that helps me in the spring classics so I would hate to stop now, just because of a change of team. I really want to ride well in those races next year, and so I think cross is a vital part of my training.
That said, my priorities do have to change now. In the past I have always been just left to my own devices during the winter. We had no training camps over the last seven years with my other team, so I had no other commitments. I was just able to get on with whatever I wanted to do, whenever.
With my new team now I will have a few more commitments, so that means I won't be able to defend my UK title. I don't think I will even be in the country for it. The world championships will also be out of the question as well as the road season is just around the corner. I will be too busy getting ready for that.
As far as ambitions go, it is hard to change my cross goals as in the past they are the only two races I have ever done properly. All the rest have just come at the end of a hard training week which was more geared around road riding, with just a bit of off-road riding to keep my eye in, really.
I think the important thing was not to get too carried away with doing anything else - I think if I really concentrate on doing a race it means I am going to be peaking in December, which is the only time I could do a cross race properly. But that is way too early to get form. So I will probably just approach cross now as a matter of surviving the races, getting through them ok, and just using them as technique training for the road. I will hopefully benefit from that. But for me, it is looking at cross in a very different way than before.
CN: You are joining Lance Armstrong and the rest of the US Postal crew at the Discovery Channel team next season. What are your feelings on that - the move, the opportunities...?
RH: Scary! It is very scary, I keep having these cold sweats about being in a situation where Lance Armstrong is going to rely on me to win a race, and just wondering if I am going to be good enough to do the job! I don't know, in a way it is scary and in a way it is a fantastic motivation.
One effect is that I am more conscious of everything this winter. I am more conscious of weight, I am more conscious of training, and more conscious of my eating. I think it is an amazing opportunity. I haven't really met Lance yet, properly, yet part of his way of thinking is already rubbing off on me. I am hoping that is a good thing.
As I said, I am more obsessed with racing, I am more obsessed with training and I am more obsessed with my way of eating. I have never been like that. Well, I was like that when I first turned professional, because that is what you are supposed to be, but I don't think I was really ready for that then. I definitely went the wrong way about it back then but I am old now, 30 years of age, and I have got more experience.
I realise now that is what the pro life is all about. Although I have been trying to do it (be disciplined) more in the last few years, it really brings it right home to you when you will be racing with the best rider in the world.
Over the past few years it has been a case that if I don't eat a slice of cake, it is for me and my chances in the Tour of Flanders or for me in Paris-Roubaix. Whereas now it is something else... it is for the team. There are going to be other people relying on me, which kind of changes motivations and changes my emphasis a little bit.
CN: Is it a question of impressing the new boss, then?
RH: Well, in a way, I suppose it is! But beyond all that is the fact that I have been with a small team for six years, but have now been given this opportunity. In the past I haven't been given a chance in a big squad but now the biggest bike rider in the world is giving me the opportunity to be on his team. So I don't want to disappoint him.
That is what it is about. I just want to prove that I was worth this opportunity.I am motivated to do that, and whether that is to help him win races or to win races myself, then it doesn't really matter. As long as I prove my worth, that is what is important.
CN: In the past, your programme was geared towards the Spring Classics and in that respect, you would have been up against George Hincapie, amongst others. Do you think that there will be any clash between the two of you in races.
RH: Well... (pauses). First off, I don't think I will be up against George. I see this as an opportunity to have one of the best spring classic riders with me, or next to me. I always get asked the question whether I am going to ride for George in the Classics. The thing is, if we are in the front with two riders, we have got twice as much of a chance to win a Classic. If I was in a position where I could open up a race so that George could win a Classic, that would give me as much pleasure as if George opened the race up and me winning a Classic. You can't win Classics any more on your own. This year in Paris-Roubaix, for example, I was in the front, desperate for a team-mate to be there. Even if it was just someone with experience, saying to me, 'this is how it is, this is what is going on, don't do stupid things', which is where I wasted energy in Paris-Roubaix this year.
I hope that with Johan Bruyneel, with Dirk Demol or with another sport director and George Hincapie that I will have a fantastic amount of experience at hand. Hopefully, with us working together, we will get big results. I hope it would be seen as a case of the Discovery team winning a Classic, not Roger Hammond winning a Classic. That is the way I want to look at things. I don't see any clashes at all. If Dirk Demol says I have to get on the front and ride for George, I don't have a problem with it at all.
CN: Is your programme likely to be similar to other years, with a big emphasis on the Spring Classics, or will there be a requirement of you to do any of the big Tours?
RH: I'm not sure yet. I am going to the first training camp at the beginning of December and I will get to know the programme a little bit more there. I have heard talk of a major Tour, with the new Pro Tour setup. But as I am not sure if that (Grand Tours being part of the new ProTour) is definitely going ahead yet. So I think it is a little early at the moment for me to comment on which races I will be riding.
At the moment I have been employed to concentrate on the Classics. I think I will know more once I have gone to the first training camp, sat down and had a good chat about it.
CN: Have you had any feedback from within the team with regard to the chances of Lance Armstrong doing the Tour or not doing the Tour?
RH: Honestly, I think I will probably find out after you guys do! (laughs) I have no idea at all, I don't know.
CN: There is some talk about the possibilities of teams in races like the Tour being reduced to eight riders, to enable more teams to take part. What is your view on this?
RH: Yeah... it is difficult to know because I have never ridden a three-week Tour. So I don't know what it is like to ride one. All I know is that in the smaller Tours we did, when you reduce from eight riders to six riders it massively changes how you can control a race. So I guess on a three week Tour, to lose a rider on a nine-man team is quite a big thing. It does give opportunity to other teams, though.
The Pro Tour is a very complicated setup at the moment. There are teams which have to invest a massive amount of money to ride in the Pro Tour, but if they open up the Grand Tours to teams who haven't made the same investment, you have to ask why the Pro Tour teams ever invested all that money in the first place? Then again, it would close up cycling a lot if you didn't let those wild card teams ride the Pro Tour (races).
Being on the receiving end of it for the last six years, it was always very frustrating not to be able to ride the World Cup races - especially the ones that suited you - just because you didn't get a wild card entry, even if the team deserved it. It is difficult to judge; there are pros and cons to both sides. I think somebody is just going to have to make a decision and say, 'This is how it is going to be.' I think everybody will then just have to make the best of the situation, which is how things were always done in the past.
CN: What is the feeling within the peloton - are most people for it, or unsure what it is all about? What kind of feedback are you picking up?
RH: Well, it totally depends on who you talk to. If you talk to the guys on my team this year and it is totally devastating for them. This year MrBookmaker has doubled his investment, he has brought in another sponsor, the Bio Tech people, and they are investing a load more money. But after investing two and a half times as much money as before, they are not even going to be able to ride the big races.
So for them it is devastating. On the other hand, I think for the riders in the Pro Tour it will be great, because you can predict exactly what is going to be going on all year long. It will make an elite club, which I think for the bigger teams is going to be more beneficial to them. It depends on which end of the spectrum you talk to with regards the response you get. The bigger team you talk to, the more positive the response.
CN: At least you are heading in the right direction, with regards to what team you will be on. Your timing has been perfect...
RH: Yeah, I guess that is true. At the start of this season there was a lot of talk about the Pro Tour and so that was an additional motivation for me this year, to make sure I had some sort of choice in the matter, really. If I had had the same season as last year, I wouldn't have had a choice with regards to what races I could ride. I would have ended up being in a non-Pro Tour team - then you'd just be in that situation where you don't know what races you would be riding next year.
Now I am in a great situation as I am in a team which is going to be doing all the big races. I just have to prove that I am good enough to be in the squads that ride those individual races.
CN: The season you just had must be very good for your morale. You had a load of good placings, you finished third in Paris-Roubaix and were seventh in the Olympics. How do you feel about your results?
RH: Well, to me it was a dream. It (Paris-Roubaix) was just so close. I got to the point were I was actually disappointed with third place there. Now, looking back, it is great to be able to take check of it, to say 'hang on a minute, you were third in Paris-Roubaix', but at the time, I was a bit disappointed. The funny thing is, a year ago, if I was third in Paris-Roubaix I would have been bouncing off the ceiling for the rest of the year.
This season has been an amazing, amazing experience. It has changed my mentality in races and given me a bit more confidence, too. Certainly, going into the Discovery Channel team after having that season means at least there is a chance I will be able to do my job within the team. I think if I had gone to US Postal last year, with just the results of the preceding season to my credit, I think I would have been worried wondering if I was going to be good enough. But if I can come back to that level (of this year) and be within the Discovery Channel setup, I think I should be good enough to be ride as part of that team in the Classics.
CN: You sound really motivated..
RH: Yeah. It was time for a change, as well. I mean, Stuart O'Grady was seven years or so with Credit Agricole and then changed to Cofidis. Even with all the problems they have had at Cofidis, he has had an amazing year. When you have been in the same team for a long time, I think that sometimes you just need a change. Even if it was not going to be a better team, the change is like a breath of fresh air. It gives you new motivations.
Now, not only am I changing, I am also going from a smaller team to one of the best teams in the world. I will be working with some very professional people, which makes you think in a very professional way.
You can always be more professional than you were. There are always things that you may have overlooked in the past. For example, now I am already starting to think about getting shoes and pedals in order for next year, whereas last year I used to just ride my cross bike until the end of January and then start thinking about my road shoes. I just want everything to be ready for next season.
CN: In the meantime, I guess you'll keep doing some work on your house while you are waiting for the season to kick off. Is it nearly ready, or is there still a lot more work to be done on it?
RH: No, it is a long project. I am just trying to get it into a good condition. The main problem has been that ruddy hole that I fell through the week before the Olympics. I got home from Dortmund in Germany on the Sunday and I was meant to be leaving for the Olympics on the Monday. I walked across the pavement in front of the house. With all of the rain, it had just washed away all of the earth underneath the pavement. So the pavement looked fine, there was no evidence of anything gone. But when I stepped onto it I went straight through!
That is why I had to stay in Belgium for another two or three days, to go and see chiropractors and doctors and all that. I didn't leave for the Olympics until the Wednesday because I could hardly walk on Monday. That hole is one thing I certainly have to get sorted out, to make sure it doesn't happen again!