An interview with Robert Hunter, February 4, 2008
Robert Hunter is entering his tenth year as a professional with Team Barloworld. The 30 year-old South African sprinted onto the scene in 1999 and has been going strong since – including his first Tour de France win last year. Gregor Brown of Cyclingnews spoke with the rider as he prepared for the new season with his team-mates in Bibbona, Italy.
"I did not really think of it, I thought I would do [race professional] ten years, and if I did that I could say I had a good bash at a professional career," Hunter reflected on his first win – a big one – in the 1999 Vuelta a España. We were sitting in the Hotel Marinetta lobby, but his mind was drifting all the way back to that day in Benidorm and then back to his current aspirations. "When I look at it now, I am keen to do another four years. However, I think it all depends on how you feel and the results you get."
He is in the right team to get those results; since joining Barloworld in 2007 he has stepped into the spotlight thanks to a win in La Grande Boucle. Under the wing of Claudio Corti, Hunter gave the Professional Continental team one of its two wins in the 2007 Tour de France and – likely – a free pass to return this year.
"I want to go for the green jersey, and it is a realistic objective." - Hunter aims to go one better than last year.
"Back in South Africa it is the one race that everyone looks up to and they think that 'that's cycling,'" he continued of his win in Montpellier, the first ever for his country. (Also read Robert Hunter: first stage win for Africa.)
"It was one of my goals to win a stage, and I would like to win more stages in the Tour. However, for me it is not the be all and end all of cycling. I can honestly say if I never had won a stage in the Tour, but another 60 or 70 races, I could still say 'I had a good career.'"
In fact that win in Benidorm still holds a special place in his heart. "It will always be a special win. It was my first professional win and it was also a stage win in one of the Grand Tours. There are not many guys who manage to get one of their first professional victories in that big of a race. However, I think that every victory is special, and they all give you something."
Reflecting back on the years
Hunter looks back on the years and the men he rode with, while hoping that the experience gained will help him in races like the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix and Milano-Sanremo. He started his career with Lampre and spent his third season with Mapei – teams where he got to know some big name riders.
"I think most of the stuff I have learnt has been from the riders I've ridden with – guys like [Franco] Ballerini, Oscar Camenzind, Zbigniew Spruch... those are the guys that have been around and done things, and won races. Or guys like [Paolo] Bettini, who are still racing. Learning from guys like them, and spending time with them at the races goes a long way in your own future."
He hopes that some of his positive aspects will rub off on the younger guys in the 2008 Barloworld squad. "I hope I am showing them something that works. I have been around for ten years and I think that I can show them one or two things – not saying that I do everything right."
Don't mislabel Hunter; he is not a soon to be retired rider on his last go around in the form of a maestro – he has goals left to be fulfilled.
"I still have a couple objectives for the Tour that I hope I can get in the next couple of years. ... The green jersey is the one big objective I would like to achieve," he continued. For 2008, the team brought on board Baden Cooke, who won the jersey in 2003.
"I think I am going to give it a proper bash this year. Last year, it kind of fell into my lap after a couple of stages but it was not an objective right from the start. This year, I want to make it a proper objective from day one, which could turn around and bite me in the ass. ... I think it is a possibility.
"The other objective is to race a Paris-Roubaix where I know I have given it everything, regardless of the result. Where I can walk away from a day on the cobbles and say 'that is the maximum result I will ever get.' Whether that is tenth or second. I think that up until now I have not achieved the best result I can get at that race.
"I have finished around decent before [31st in 2004 - ed.]. I have always been stuck in bad weather, or with stupid cramps, or something else going wrong. Be it training or whatever, but that is all a part of the race."
The race holds a special place in his heart even if he was not born and raised on the cobbles. "It was not really televised in my country; I started getting to know it once I came to Europe. Since I started, I have had a love-hate relationship with it. There is so much passion in that race.
"I did that in my first professional year. I made it past second feed-zone and that was it. I was there with a team that contained past winner Franco Ballerini, so straight away there were objectives for me in the race.
"There are so many small memories that you take away from that race. I remember one year when I was looking after Ballerini that he crashed, and I chased like mad to get him back to the front group, but when we arrived Johan [Museeuw] had just rode away. It is really a race that you like or you hate."
A well-oiled Barloworld machine
The team of Robert Hunter has made some solid improvements for 2007 with the addition of Cooke and Enrico Gasparotto, as well as South African compatriot Daryl Impey. "The team has a whole lot more depth," confirmed Hunter looking back on 2007.
"The team was all about getting results last year, and thank goodness I managed to get us some of these results I did. There was a lot of pressure but I think I managed to step up to the plate." As well as his Tour de France win, Hunter took second in the points competition of the Tour, and the overall of the Tour de Picardie and Volta ao Santarém (thanks to a stage win in each race).
"This year, there are other guys who can help spread the load, and this is good. It is nice to know that I can go to one race and a second group – whether it is Gasparotto or Baden – can get results in another race. There is less stress this year. The team has been strengthened in the right ways with guys who can sprint and climb."
He believes that the addition of Cooke from Unibet.com will be a bonus, and that there will not be conflicts when it comes time to sprinting. "Baden stepped up to the team and said he was ready to race. He had a few years where things have not gone his way. He won the green jersey before, and I think that he and I could both step up to the plate this year.
"The biggest thing for all of us is the Tour," he continued. "We can share in the Tour, I want to go for the green jersey, and it is a realistic objective. I think that both of us have the mentality to help each other out. I know that if I am not feeling 100 percent I would be more than happy to help Baden get the green jersey. I think that he would do the same for me, and we would still both have a chance for a stage. However, right now it is all theory."
Team Manager Claudio Corti has the experience to make the green dreams come true; the Italian was there with Hunter and Mauricio Soler in 2007 for their respective stage wins and has seen to it the team is ready to once again battle with the higher-ranked ProTour teams.
"I enjoy it here, and Claudio has managed to bring a real mediocre team – what it was last year – to a real professional team. Now this year, more depth has been added to the team. People now know that Barloworld is a full-on professional team."
Along the way, it could be argued that the team has lost some of its South African feel. Hunter believes that the quality of the team is a bonus for South Africans, even if it means it is harder to get a contract. "At the end of the day they need to show what they have before they can jump into a team. If some of these guys like Chris Froome [Kenyan - ed.] or Daryl Impey did not turn professional here, then they would have not turned professional. I hope the young guys that are knocking on the door now will come to Europe and race, they need to get out of South Africa and come here and race. It is about getting results and then the teams will look at you."
Hunter's programme for the early part of the season sees him back and forth between the African and European continents. He will start his racing on home soil with the five-day Super Challenge Series (where he won race 3 - ed.).
"I will head back to South Africa for ten days to do the Super Challenge Series," he explained. "Then I will be back up here to race [the] Giro della Grosseto, Algarve in Portugal, back to South Africa for the Giro del Capo, and I will probably return to do [the] Volta ao Santarém in Portugal instead of Tirreno-Adriatico for the Sanremo lead-up. ... Then Milano-Sanremo and then the Classics.
"I will be doing a number of the races with Baden, but then some of them we will split up. We will be able to chase our own results, however the most important events we will end up doing together. Maybe I will have young Daryl Impey with me quite a bit. I hope he ends up doing what we think he can do."