From lead-out man to leader

At the end of last year, Germany's number two, sometimes forgotten about sprinter decided to seek a...

An interview with Danilo Hondo, November 23, 2004

At the end of last year, Germany's number two, sometimes forgotten about sprinter decided to seek a new challenge after six high-class years as Erik Zabel's lead-out man. A certain kind of leadership he was naturally denied at Team Telekom, Danilo Hondo has flourished with Team Gerolsteiner, and as Cyclingnews' Hedwig Kröner writes, the 30 year-old has gone from lead-out man to leader - all in the space of a year.

When Danilo Hondo chose to step out of his teammate's shadow at Team Telekom at the end of the 2003 season, another German team, Team Gerolsteiner, was more than happy to give the 30 year-old a chance to prove himself.

It didn't take long for the trust to be repaid - which he kept on repaying right through 2004. As well as eight great stage wins, Hondo took points classification victories in no less than four stage races - including three in Germany, Gerolsteiner's main market - with his season ending on a high after victory at the GP Beghelli on September 26.

"In order to perform well at bigger races, you need the smaller ones to build up... It's a major problem for us." - Hondo on the difficulties created by the yet-to-be-confirmed ProTour calendar and reforms

After a relaxing holiday in Mauritius with his family in October, Hondo was back home in Ascona, Switzerland, before heading to Germany for a team meeting at the end of November. A good time to catch up with him on his preparation and goals for next season, the latest developments at Gerolsteiner, and the difficulties of setting up a race calendar with the UCI's road racing reform.

"Well, I'm back on my bike everyday now," a relaxed Hondo says when asked about his current exercise regime. "I'll try to keep fit by doing some muscle training, playing some tennis, things like that."

The temperatures at his home were still decent (around 12 degrees Celsius), but Hondo wasn't sure what he would do once winter really hit Switzerland. "In December, some of my teammates want to go to Mallorca, but I can also imagine travelling to the States or to South Africa to shape up. I might take my family with me and stay until the beginning of January to celebrate Christmas and New Year's in a place where it's summer now."

This year, he started his season early on the Six Day velodrome in Berlin with teammate Olaf Pollack. "It was an interesting experience, especially the high pedalling frequency. But it also bears its risks, as the racing takes place at night-time, the air is filled with cigarette smoke and lots of riders caught a cold," he says.

"So I think my first race next season will be the Tour of Qatar, as it is relatively flat and therefore allows for high frequency riding too. What's more, it's only a six hour flight, and temperatures are not too hot (around 25° Celsius), which makes it a good race to start out with.

"In February, I will be riding the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race to prepare for Milano-San Remo. Then, the Flanders Classics like the Tour of Flanders and Ghent-Wevelgem are definitely on my schedule. I'm not sure about Paris-Roubaix, although I rode it five times already. It's a risky race, and it extremely strenuous for your body, so it only makes sense to participate if you've got a real chance of finishing in front.

"The Giro d'Italia is also challenging, but I don't want to overdo it before the Tour de France. McEwen won the green jersey by far this year [Hondo finished fifth on the Points classification - ed.], but the next placings were tight points-wise, so it's not something impossible for me. I'm a pretty consistent rider, and if there's a chance to wear the green jersey, I'll definitely go for it. After the Tour, there won't be much time to recover, because the Tour of Germany, one of my team's major objectives, will take place in August next season."

Talking of racing schedules, the conversation couldn't omit the changes due to the UCI reform and the ProTour race calendar, where Hondo offered his own point of view.

Says Hondo, "For the teams participating in the ProTour, the reform is a chance of making the sport more popular, more commercial. Which means a greater income, not only for the riders, but for all of the team's members. But for the smaller teams, life will be more difficult, as race organisers that have seen the importance of their race diminish are going to have trouble attracting bigger teams, which in return attract sponsors."

With these changes come growing uncertainties, a concern not only to race organisers but also for the teams, as Hondo begins to explain: "As our race director Christian Henn and myself talked through the 2004 schedule the other day, various difficulties came up," he says.

"In order to perform well at bigger races, you need the smaller ones to build up. Apparently, races like the Ruta del Sol or Vuelta a Valencia have special rules now where they are only allowed to enrol 50 percent ProTour teams, including the Spanish ones. So if there are 14 teams, only 7 of them can be ProTour teams, and four of them will be Spanish. That leaves three places for the rest... It's a major problem for us."

Especially since other small but established race organisers are struggling, not knowing which top team will choose to participate at their event. "Hessen-Rundfahrt, Niedersachsen, Rheinland-Pfalz, all of these races in Germany have difficulties," Hondo bemoans. "Gerolsteiner sponsors the Niedersachsen-Rundfahrt, and I have won a lot of stages there, so we are trying to fit it in. But with so many uncertain factors, it is hard to plan ahead."

But there were also positive topics to talk about, such as the development of his team roster.

"I haven't met Levi Leipheimer yet, but I think he's a nice rider. He'll be heading Gerolsteiner at the Grand Tours with Georg Totschnig. Personally, I'm very happy that Frank Hoj will be joining us, as he is a good friend of mine and will fit into our team perfectly with his outgoing personality. As a rider, he's got plenty of experience, especially in the Classics, and he can be a real animal! He's a fighter, capable of putting his nose in the wind for a long time to stretch out the peloton, and I sure hope to take advantage of that in sprint finishes."

Meanwhile, his teammate and sprint rival Olaf Pollack opted to change to T-Mobile, a decision Hondo wasn't very convinced about. "Olaf rode a great Giro d'Italia, and was disappointed that he our team manager Hans Holczer did not choose him for the Tour. But will he get a chance to fulfil his personal ambitions at T-Mobile? Erik Zabel might be interested in riding the Giro d'Italia too, with all the talk about his Tour nomination going on. I was surprised at Olaf's move."

With Gerolsteiner's team meeting scheduled from November 24-27 at Phantasialand, Brühl, Germany, Hondo is excited about the prospect of a new bike equipment sponsor coming on board in 2005.

"With Specialized, we will have high-end gear at our disposal. Cipollini rode Specialized for years, so I think the bikes must be good for sprinters!" he says. "That being said, I was very satisfied with my Wilier too. They are both top brands, but in the end, you've still got to pedal yourself to make the difference!"

Any particular race in mind for 2004?

"On a personal level, I am eager to ride the World's in Madrid," he confesses, "because my end-of-season performances in Italy were very good this year and I've gained confidence after the World Championships in Verona."

Hondo was the last German in line to pull out the sprint of 34 year-old Erik Zabel, who finished second behind Oscar Freire. Let's see about the pecking order for next year.

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