An interview with Bernhard Kohl, February 8, 2007
Bernhard Kohl showed last year that he is one of the grand young talents in pro cycling. The Austrian road race champion recently talked to Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes at the Gerolsteiner training camp near Palma de Mallorca, discussing his strong 2006 season, his goals for 2007 and what he hopes to achieve further down the line.
2006 was a breakthrough season for Bernhard Kohl and now, older, stronger and more experienced, he is hoping to go even better. Last year he showed his ability with results such as an unexpected third in the Dauphiné Libéré, fifth in the Tour of Austria, 12th overall in the Tour of California and 12th again in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. A win was also in store, with victory in the Austrian road race championships enabling him to wear a distinctive jersey for the next 12 months.
The climber has now transferred from T-Mobile to another German team, Gerolsteiner, and has set a big target for 2007. Providing everything goes well in his build-up, he will make his debut in the Tour de France and aim for the white jersey of best young rider. That will require holding back in some of the races he did well in last season, but he is happy to adjust his training and racing in order to be as fresh as possible for the Grand Départ in London on July 7.
"It will be a good fight for the white jersey." - Kohl on the 2007 Tour de France.
"I will start in the Tour of California," he told Cyclingnews. "That is my first race. Then Paris-Nice. After that, Pais Vasco, Romandie, and then, if all is going to plan, the Dauphiné and the Tour de France.
"It was important last season to be going well for California but this year I will start a little bit easier. The season is long and with the Tour de France as a possibility... Well, that is an important race for me. Hopefully I will be in good shape by the Tour of Romandie. They will be the first big mountain stages that I will do. After that, I will keep building and hopefully go to the Tour de France."
If Kohl can show a good progression of form in the run-up to the Tour, there is every chance that he will make his debut at 25 years of age. He has a clear ambition there. "It is my first Tour so it will not be easy. But I think the white jersey is possible to target, if everything is good. I will be up against [Linus] Gerdemann, [Janez] Brajkovic, [Thomas] Dekker... It will be a good fight for the white jersey, I think. For this team that classification is important; Markus [Fothen] was leading that last year. So it would be good to do well."
Both riders are now together at Gerolsteiner and Kohl is happy with things thus far. "I started talking with the team about joining after the Dauphiné. That was a good race for me and I spoke with Hans Michael Holczer; I then signed a contract a week after the Tour of Germany.
"The team is different to the way T-Mobile was last year but it is very friendly, everybody is very nice and in a big team, that is important. It is also much younger than T-Mobile was; there were many older guys and just some young guys there, whereas in Gerolsteiner, most people are 18 to 24 or 25. The feeling in the team is better, because of that five or six years age difference between the two.
"I think having such an atmosphere is a big thing. The feeling must be good. If you're not feeling good, then it affects the result in races."
Surprising even himself
Kohl headed into 2006 hoping to do well, but didn't really expect to reach the level he did. "I didn't really do anything different during the winter, just got in some good training. I did cross-country skiing which is a very good training for me. It works well. I do it every year.
"Anyway, the team said the first big race for me was going to be California, which is quite early. I trained for this event so it made the beginning of the season easier in that I was already in good shape.
"I had a good beginning to the season, I was with Levi Leipheimer and Floyd in the mountain stages and then suddenly I thought, oh - I can ride with the best riders. Pais Vasco and Tirreno [Tirreno-Adriatico] was also good and then Romandie, the Dauphiné. I was with the top guys in all the races in the mountains."
Despite that, taking third in the Dauphiné exceeded his expectations. "I was very surprised with that," he admits. "For me, I was thinking last winter that perhaps it was possible to get into the top ten in some big races, but to end up in the top three was unbelievable. It was nice to see that I can go with the best. The whole season was very good for me and taking the national championships was also nice; it is great to have been Austrian champion at least once in my career, and being able to ride with this jersey for a whole year."
T-Mobile went to the Tour de France hoping to take the overall, little knowing that Operación Puerto would put paid to Jan Ullrich's chances. As a result they had built a team around the German, opting for experience rather than allowing riders such as Kohl to make their debut. It meant he would sit it out that race but aim instead to hit form again in another Grand Tour.
"Looking back, maybe the Tour de France would have been a good race for me, after being strong in the Dauphiné. But with T-Mobile it is not so easy to be on the Tour team. The Vuelta was going well, though, up until the crash on the ninth stage. On the two early mountain stages I was 10th and 11th, and I was eighth in the general classification before the big crash. That was not so nice.
"Basically, how it happened is that there was a left corner and I thought I had a flat front wheel. It wasn't, actually, but I went straight and ended up going over the barrier. I think I fell about 10 metres. I had some problems with my back afterwards - there was nothing actually broken but I was very sore."
Despite the fact that it was soft tissue damage, he had to pull out of the race and was affected for a few months. "It took quite a while to get over it. I felt it until November, December. But the World Championships were in Austria and it was important to start the race and ride for the team. Perhaps I was 80%, but for the team it was good to start.
"I felt okay for the first two hours but after that, it was not easy to ride. Now it is okay, though. That is important."
2007 and beyond
Looking at Kohl, it is immediately clear that he is a climber. He has a peculiar body shape, being very slight, and weighs just "59 to 60" kilograms when he is racing. His ability in the mountains is due to this build and to his genetics rather than a lifetime of training on high roads.
"It is really flat where I come from. I spent two years with Rabobank in Belgium and the Netherlands and it was also flat there," he says. "But you must train in the mountains when you are able be [ride] strong there... So now I live in that sort of terrain and it is better for me."
"Looking ahead to this season, the white jersey is the big target. As a result I'll do things differently. Perhaps I will be around 10th or 11th in the Dauphiné... I will hold back a bit. Last year I was in very good shape in the race and I could go for the result. But I think when you ride the Tour for the first time, it is not good if you are at 100% for the Dauphiné. So I will do it that way and see how it goes."
Providing he rides the Tour, he should have a better idea of his capabilities after that. At the moment, what does he think he can achieve in the sport?
"Pffffff. It is not easy to say," he answers. "Perhaps if you talked to me at the same time last year and said I was going to be third in the Dauphiné, I would have thought that was not possible. I would have said maybe in three or four years.
"So now I must see how things go. I will work hard and I will know in two or three years if I can go for the classification in the Tour or not. Perhaps it is possible, perhaps not. I must work also on my time trial. If I can do that, then maybe it is possible to do well in the Tour."