The Bobby Julich Chronicles, March 9, 2009
I've recently returned from the Tour of California where I got to witness this wonderful sport from a totally different perspective. As a rider, one tends to see the race and everything that goes on around it with blinders on, but as an ex-pro it was an incredible experience.
My journey to the race, as the rider development manager of Team Saxo Bank, started at our second team training camp in Agoura Hills, California. From the moment I arrived at the team hotel I was busy from dawn until dusk, taking care of things that I used to take for granted as a rider. A rider's day revolves around eating, training and sleeping, but this is not the case for the staff members of any team. There are new challenges that come up every day and when the riders are chilling in their beds recovering or relaxing, it is still "game on" for the staff.
I must admit that much of my workload was of my own doing. As a rider, I was always looking for the best material, techniques and equipment and I figured that since I now had the time and energy to make it happen, I better put my money where my mouth was. It was a lot of work learning how things operate and of course I made some mistakes, but I learned from every one of them.
California, here we come
The build-up was unprecedented and the tension was very noticeable. This was not only obvious from witnessing and hearing about how hard some riders prepared for the race, but also the fan support and media attention that rivals the biggest races in Europe. All the comebacks, drama and back-stories of this race seemed like it could not be scripted any better in Hollywood and the racing was amazing.
The fireworks started at the prologue, and even though I was focused on my job preparing our riders for the event, I felt goose bumps as one big hitter after another filed past our team bus in search of the start line. As the best times continued to drop, our focus switched to Fabian Cancellara. A few days prior to the race Fabian was feeling under the weather and we were all hoping that he would come around on race day.
One hour before his start he was asleep in the back of the bus and not responding to our wishes for him to get on his bike. Less than 45 minutes before his start he stumbled out of the bus and got on the trainer. His face was pale and he pulled me aside and said, "I am feeling bad, but will try my best". This being my first race as part of the staff I felt like freaking out! I wanted to give him some inspirational speech, but all I could muster was a consolatory pat on the back. We gave him his space and just acted like we were not looking at him, but we all were.
He started to get some color back in his face as he entered the zone that only a double world champion and current Olympic champion can obtain. Just then I noticed a distinct odor. Was someone smoking around the riders? NO, it was Fabian's rear wheel burning up on the home trainer. I thought that we had just adjusted it poorly, but when it warped enough to almost send him crashing to the ground I had a feeling that something special was going to happen.
With all the best riders out on course lowering the fastest time by the minute, the anticipation of who would win was at its climax. After Fabian left for his start, I was like every other fan out there...GLUED to the Jumbotron! When he came in with the best time of the day it was such a special moment for the team.
Paris-Nice: A race I know well
Although there has been great racing all over the world so far this season, Paris-Nice is one of the cornerstone races of cycling and it falls into a perfect slot in the calendar to guarantee great racing. Up until now many riders have been taking the races as "training" but now those days are over. Prior to this teams have spread their riders around in different races, but at Paris-Nice you'll have the guys that will be gunning for the overall in addition to the Classics specialists honing their form for the upcoming important one-day events.
The race this year is a bit different with a longer prologue as well as a real uphill finish. The race has learned over the years that trying to go right through the Massif Centrale part of France can cause major problems due to the weather conditions, so they have attempted to skirt the region. No matter what, riders will have to be prepared not only for hard stages but possible extreme weather conditions, too. After all, there is only one direction to go from Paris to Nice!
With both the defending champion, Davide Rebellin, and Levi out, it will leave the door open for others eager to take advantage of their early season form. Contador will be the man to beat this year, but Fränk Schleck could do a great race. I also expect there to be some efforts by many teams to make the selection in the crosswind sections of the race, so sitting at the back and chatting with friends is out of the question.
The first time that I raced Paris-Nice was in 1995 and I knew right away that it was a special race. I had good form and was feeling great until I crashed on the descent into Marseilles. In that particular crash, I lost my Oakley prescription glasses and didn't notice it until I reached the finish line. I always took extra care of my glasses not only because I needed them to race, but also because they were quite expensive. I had an extra pair for the next day, but my directors didn't know that and spent a good hour looking for them with flashlights later that evening. I got them back a few days later from a mechanic from Mapei.
As part of Team Telekom in 2002, I crashed at the start of the stage to Cannes and finished only 25 seconds inside the time limit. When we got to the feed zone many riders in my group decided to abandon because we were only one day from the finish in Nice. We had Vino in yellow and even though I was injured, I could not leave our leader isolated without teammates on the final stage. I was with two other teammates doing a three-up team time trial all the way to the line, but we made it and were able to help Vino win his first Paris-Nice.
Winning Paris-Nice was the highlight of my career along with a medal in the Olympics. That year was very difficult because of the weather, narrow roads and crashes. I knew that I was feeling great, but I needed my share of luck to win the race. Perhaps it was the efforts that I made for my teammates in the past that allowed the cycling gods to shine upon me.
I have many memories from winning and they'll remain with me forever. I remember Lance coming up to me at the start of an important stage that was shortened due to the weather and saying, "What the hell are you doing here at the back with me? You are supposed to win this race!" When someone like Lance says something like that you better listen, and I did. Another memory was seeing for the first time the sheer power and talent of Contador on the climb to the finish on Mont Faron. He attacked so hard that the teammate that he was working for yelled at him to slow down causing him to get so annoyed that he just pulled off the front. The feeling of starting the final stage with teammates like Jens Voigt, Fränk Schleck, David Zabriskie and Carlos Sastre turning themselves inside out for me was unbelievable! On the final climb up the Col d'Eze I had my best friend and wingman Jens Voigt beating down attack after attack from the likes of Valverde, Pellizotti and Evans. When I crossed the line in my adopted hometown of Nice surrounded my by teammates, wife and young daughter, all those painful crashes and suffering through the years just went away.
Now that I am on the other side of the barriers, you won't have to worry about me running along the peloton putting the safety of the riders at risk, but I will be watching every day with the same enthusiasm!