Tales from the Peloton, September 2, 2004
Ashley Humbert FdJeux.com's newest stagiaire
Three years down the track, Australian-based development team McGee-NSWIS is still going strong, turning talented teenagers into wanted professionals. Cyclingnews' Anthony Tan reports on the newest member to earn himself an apprenticeship with FdJeux.com, Ashley Humbert.
What began as a pipe dream seven years ago is fast becoming a reality for an aspiring 22 year-old from Wagga Wagga, a smallish country town in New South Wales, with McGee-NSWIS recruit Ashley Humbert the latest member to offered a stagiaire (apprentice) position with Division I French professional outfit, FdJeux.com.
Bradley McGee's eponymously-named development squad - a set-up co-founded by McGee brothers Bradley and Rodney, the New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) and Division I team FdJeux.com - was considered a groundbreaking move at the time of its inception in February 2002. While somewhat following in the vein of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) under 23 men's national team program that was (and still is) partly-funded by Mapei head-honcho Georgio Squinzi, the then named NSWIS-FdJeux.com team had one notable exception: it was the only one of its kind ostensibly funded by a single rider.
Three years on, the name has changed (now known as McGee-NSWIS), but as assistant coach Rodney McGee explains, the ideology remains unchanged: "The philosophy is still exactly the same - all we're here for is to help young guys to hopefully become pro bike riders, and if not, into decent human beings, so they can get on with life away from bikes as well," McGee says in a fatherly tone, now with the latest crop of recruits in Victoria as they contest the Tour of Sunraysia.
"And that's probably the hardest side of it," he adds. "It's very easy to train full-time bike riders at 18 years of age, but we're trying to take it to the next level, where we're looking after them after the sport as well."
In fact, it was in that same state of Victoria almost three years ago where FdJeux.com's head of logistics, Fabrice Vanoli, came out to see the team in action at the 2001 Herald Sun Tour, and was suitably impressed by a 19 year-old by the name of Ashley Humbert. In a fiercely-contested race that perennially draws the cream of Australian talent and a number of overseas professionals, Humbert - who only began dabbling in the sport at 16 years of age - showed maturity and talent well beyond his years, placing fifth overall behind Austrian Peter Wrolich and finishing the race as the best Australian rider. Remembers Humbert, "After the race, they told me all about the stagiaire program, so I knew there was a possibility of me going [next year]."
His name wasn't forgotten. After a solid season with the AIS U23 program in Italy and discussion between the brothers McGee and Vanoli, Humbert was notified of his stagiaire role with FdJeux.com in July 2002. But no sooner had he told anyone who was willing to listen that he was diagnosed with viral meningitis - an illness which kept him away from racing for the next 14 months.
"His training program consisted of 30 minute training rides, and he had to carbo load for them, that's how far behind he was," McGee recalls about Humbert's slow road to recovery.
"That probably went for at least two months. The only thing that he could do a fair bit of - which I think helped him in the long run - was a lot of gym work, because he could only do exercises where the heart rate didn't go too high, so he did a lot of strength stuff in the gym. It was all about looking at the big picture, although when you're doing 30 minute rides but still someday thinking of getting a [professional] contract, it's pretty hard."
Down but determined, Humbert made it through the other side, his first serious race back the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under in January this year. Rejoining the U23 national team's European program in Italy shortly thereafter, it wasn't long before the Wagga lad found his legs again, taking a podium place at the GP Memorial Ballerini in late April - "that was pretty special for me," says Humbert - and another at the Palma La Spezia, which another aspiring Aussie, Gene Bates, won. (Bates will be riding as a stagiaire with Saeco for the remainder of the season.)
Coupled with a string of solid results (his best a stage win at the GP Tell coming last Tuesday), it was enough to earn him a place as stagiaire once again. Explains McGee: "The way we'd seen him ride the Sun Tour that year into fifth spot, and basically monitoring his results throughout this year, also knowing that he'd just got back from testing at the Mapei lab with the [national] under 23 squad, we saw he was back in the same position he was two years ago."
Humbert's first race with FdJeux.com will begin today, September 2, starting with the nine-day Tour de l'Avenir. Billed as the young riders' Tour de France, the race has provided a breeding ground for future Tour champions including Greg Lemond, Miguel Indurain and Laurent Fignon, with FdJeux.com directeur sportif Marc Madiot himself a former winner in 1987.
"I'll just have to see how I come out of the Tour de l'Avenir, which will probably determine what races I'll do afterwards," says Humbert, still unsure about his schedule of races over the next two months.
One thing he is certain about is the espoir world championships in Verona. This is Humbert's last year as an under 23 rider, so he's determined to give it everything he's got - although from going cold turkey to what will be more than 80 days' racing by the time he returns to Italy to contest the World's may prove a little too much for the young gun.
Whether Humbert, who has already shown the qualities of being a solid stage race performer, can follow in the footsteps of Lemond, Indurain or Fignon is yet to be determined, but McGee is convinced that he can.
"The good thing with Ash is that in the Sun Tour that he did, he showed he can climb and time trial as well, and basically they're two attributes you have or you haven't got. It's a big advantage to have that as a starting point - then it's just a matter of making both [disciplines] stronger.
"I think for Ash, this has obviously been a lifetime dream, and two years ago, he thought he had it swept away from him. But knowing Ash and the determination he's got, I think he can do anything."