An interview with Victor Hugo Peña, September 17, 2005
Phonak's Colombian rider Victor Hugo Peña has had something of a tough season in 2005, suffering a bad accident this spring which left him with a broken bone in his back. However, despite a lack of competition, he has put in a solid ride in the Vuelta. With two day's left in this Tour of Spain he is lying in 24th place overall, has been active in several good breakways and a good seventh place in the stage 9 time trial to his credit. He is now looking to end things well with a strong ride in today's race against the clock which, if achieved, will boost his morale before the world time trial championship next week. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes spoke with Victor Hugo on the eve of the time trial.
Peña moved to the Phonak team this year after several seasons supporting Lance Armstrong in the US Postal team. He comes from the same country as famous riders such as Lucho Herrara and Ivan Parra, both of whom rode with distinction in the Tour de France in the past, but two seasons ago he achieved something neither they nor any other Colombian has ever done when he took the yellow jersey in the Tour. The basis for that achievement was a strong fifth in the prologue of the 2003 Tour, finishing two places higher than team leader Lance Armstrong. When the Postal riders won the team time trial, he moved to the top of the general classification.
It was an incredible moment for him. "That was one of the best days in my life," the amiable 31 year old told Cyclingnews. "It is one that I can't forget, a memory that will stay with me forever."
Heightening the reward for Peña was the fact that his country is so passionate about cycling. "Colombia is the small Belgium in America," he says, with a smile. "Cycling is a big, big sport there. Taking yellow changed everything for me back home, the people all know me now! I have done several good things in my career, but the people know me best for that achievement."
Peña decided to leave US Postal/Discovery Channel due to missing out on being selected for the 2004 Tour. He describes that as a very big disappointment, but in joining Phonak he was hoping to have better opportunities in the future. Spring brought disappointment when he crashed heavily at Paris-Roubaix, suffering that injury, but he's now fully recovered and building form for the worlds in Madrid. After that, he's looking forward to returning home to Colombia and catching up with the latest addition to his family.
Cyclingnews: You won a stage here in the past. What were your goals heading into the race?
Victor Hugo Peña: I wanted to try to do my best in this Vuelta. It's my seventh Tour of Spain. My first two were learning about the race and building experience, while in the other ones I was working for US Postal. So I didn't really know what my capabilities were for a three-week race. Coming into the Vuelta, I wanted to find out if I am best suited to be a worker, or if it's in my ability to finish top ten or top fifteen. I am 31 but I really didn't have the opportunity before to show my true possibilities.
CN: So what has been your verdict?
VHP: Well, I am happy because for the first time I can do my own race. But I am probably more satisfied that after two months in my house with injury, I was able to return to competition with some decent form. It makes me think that if I can prepare well next year for the Giro, the Vuelta or the Tour de France, I can probably ride better overall.
CN: What has been your best stage so far?
VHP: It was probably the time trial in Lloret De Mar. I was seventh there. And probably also the climb in Arcalis - I was only dropped in the last seven kilometres. Now I would like to aim for the time trial on Saturday. I would like to win that. I know that there are many strong guys here but I can also hope to win that day.
CN: You had a bad crash in Paris-Roubaix earlier this year. Have you got over that okay?
VHP: Yes, I feel okay...no problems. It was a bad crash, a stupid crash. I had a bad injury. That has healed okay but I am a little afraid of crashing again.
I crashed before kilometre zero in the race, going down hard. I broke my seventh vertebra. It was painful and also dangerous. It took more or less two months of recovery before getting back on the bike, and after that I had a month and a half of training again. I got in a month of racing before the Vuelta; not very much, but it's great to be racing again.
CN: You are best known for wearing the yellow jersey in the 2003 Tour de France. What was that experience like?
VHP: Incredible - it was one of the best days in my life. It is a day that I can't forget and one which will stay with me forever.
CN: That must have gone down pretty well at home - Colombia is very passionate about cycling, after all…
VHP: Yes. I always say that Colombia is the small Belgium in America. Cycling is a big, big sport there. Taking yellow changed everything for me back home, the people all know me now! I have done several good things in my career, but the people know me for that achievement.
CN: It was particularly notable because although your compatriot Lucho Herrera and other well known guys competed strongly in past Tours, you were the first Colombian to get the yellow jersey.
VHP: True, it was a real honour for me. There were many guys before, but with that achievement, I became part of a special group. Colombia has had many riders doing well in GC in races and in taking the first yellow jersey, I am part of this group of people.
CN: You moved to Phonak from US Postal at the end of last season. Was that change linked to that of Floyd Landis, who went the same way?
VHP: It was more because I had better opportunities there. Economic opportunity, a good mental change and also because last year, I was very disappointed to hear that I was being left out of the Tour de France team. That made me feel very bad because I was working for Lance, and trying hard to make the team for the race. The day the director told me that I was being left out of the Tour team, I felt like an amateur. I felt that nobody saw the work I was doing. Perhaps I wasn't in good shape, as they say, but I am sure that I was good. That made me change my mind [about the team]; I no longer wanted to stay.
CN: So is the atmosphere on Phonak very different?
VHP: No, it's a very big team too. There are professional people and everything like that. I think the only difference is that Lance Armstrong isn't not on the team. With him, everybody was working, looking at him and every day learning things from him. There were too many people around the bus - we were the team that everyone wanted to see. But inside the teams, both work the same.
CN: What is the plan for next year? Phonak has said it will stop its sponsorship of the team at the end of 2006, and as a result there is talk of some riders leaving to find a new deal.
VHP: Well, there was a big fuss made about it. It was a little blown out of proportion. Oscar Pereiro will go from the team, but Floyd [Landis] will stay here as will Santi Botero. The team management spoke with Floyd recently and he has said that he is going to stay with us. So the management is happy now; it's good for the team that he stays and there will also be some other strong riders from this season remaining. In addition, Axel Merckx will come from Davitamon Lotto and Koos Moerenhout arrives too.
CN: How do you think things will go with the team as regards the future?
VHP: The situation is that we have another year to run with our ProTour licence. I signed for two years so I know that I have a contract for next year. The riders have to have a good season next year to find a new team - either getting a new sponsor to back the current squad or to get a contract with a different team. We hope that Andy Riis and John Lelangue can find another sponsor; they say that they are going to have important meetings soon. This is something to wait for.
We will probably have news at the end of the year, so we'll have to cross our fingers until then. It would be great if this team can continue after next season as there are strong riders, a nice atmosphere and also some good staff working on it. So we will see.
As regards my race programme, we will have a training camp on October 16th. At the moment I'm trying to decide what I really want to do next year. I am thinking about the Giro, debating if I am going to do that and the Tour de France or, probably, the Tour and the Vuelta. I don't know yet...I still have to decide one way or another, because I like the Giro also! But I can probably make a decision by October 16th.
CN: Before then, what are your goals for the rest of the season?
VHP: The world championships, for sure. I don't know what my power will be like after the Vuelta but I will give it a shot. I'd really like to come out of this race in good shape for the TT in Madrid.
After the worlds, I should be finished. I want to see my boy, he was born a month ago. So I would like to go back to Colombia after the world championships. I was there the day he was born but the next day I had to fly back to Europe! It's time to catch up with my family.