An interview with Brad McGee, October 19, 2008
Olympic Gold medallist Bradley McGee is turning a page. At 32 years of age, the Australian pursuit specialist has decided to end his career as a pro cyclist and become a directeur sportif with his present team, CSC Saxo Bank. Despite having scored many victories, McGee felt the time was right for a new challenge, as the 11th year of his career yet again provided more than enough bad luck for him. Hedwig Kröner sat down with the Sydneysider at the world championships in Varese to find out how he felt about the new chapter in his life.
A junior world champion and world record holder in the individual pursuit, Brad McGee collected his first Olympic medal in Atlanta in 1996, two years before turning professional. In 1998, French team La Française des Jeux put its money on him and wasn't let down; the track specialist was also a gifted road racer, which he displayed with stage wins at the Tour de France and the Dauphiné Libéré during his breakthrough year, 2002.
He scaled even greater heights by winning the prologues of two Grand Tours (France in 2003 and Italy in 2004, only narrowly missing one in Spain in 2005). Nevertheless, he had worn the overall leader's jerseys of all three of the world's most prestigious national tours.
"I see this job as a new tool to express myself, what I know about cycling and my passion for it." -McGee on his role as a directeur sportif next year.
On the track, McGee repeated his 1996 feat of a bronze medal in the individual pursuit four years later in Sydney (despite breaking his collarbone 17 days earlier), before claiming Olympic gold in the team pursuit in Athens in 2004. Australia's fourth place in Beijing meant the first Games without a medal for McGee, who didn't reach his full competitiveness after another bad crash and another broken collarbone in stage 3 of the Giro d'Italia this year.
Which takes us to the heart of the subject and the main reason for his decision to quit being a bike racer: too much bad luck and the resulting injuries. Broken collarbones seemed the least of his problems, as chronic back pain, caused by a cyst in his knee, annihilated his 2006 and 2007 seasons; just as he thought he was finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, he broke his collarbone again this spring.
"Even though I got myself back together from other injuries and problems – and things were going well – I crashed heavily during the Giro. I smashed my collarbone into four pieces and was back on the bench again for a few months. That was really hard on me," recalled a relaxed McGee at his national team's press conference in Varese. With 2008 being an Olympic year, it meant another setback – and no Tour de France – in his preparation for Beijing.
"After going through these last few years with crashing and injuries, and not being able to really fully express myself as a bike rider, it has just been so frustrating," he said, contemplating the reasons for his decision to throw in the towel. The deal to become a directeur sportif fell into place in September, with an agreement reached during the World Championships.
"I see this job as a new tool to express myself, what I know about cycling and my passion for it," added an excited McGee, full of hope the new position in the team car would be less risky to his health. Even though he was already acting as a director in Varese, he still had some races to do as a rider this year. "I'm in a little bit of a conflict right now," he said, adding that he managed to squeeze in 45 minutes of training before coming to the press conference. "I have the Herald Sun Tour in Australia, after which I will retire."
McGee announced his decision during the Circuit Franco-Belge, the Northern stage race proving a good time to quit European racing as it rained throughout the event. McGee eventually abandoned during the final stage, as he was dropped in terrible conditions. The Australian is now racing the Sun Tour in his home country as his farewell event as a pro rider.
"The offer and the decision to become a sports director came around pretty fast; it was only a matter of weeks," said McGee, recalling his talks with CSC Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis. "My difficulties [with injury] were evident when I was talking with Bjarne for next year. He knew I had problems and was considering stopping anyway. Still, he wanted to back me 100 percent to continue being a cyclist.
"In the meantime, a position had become available for a DS in the team, and it was also offered to me. 'Bike rider or directeur sportif – which one do you want?', they said. That was pretty incredible – an amazing situation to be in."
As of 2009, the 32 year-old will replace compatriot Scott Sunderland, who moved to the new Cervélo Test team. Sitting on the sunny terrace of the sumptuous 19th century Villa Andrea in Varese, where CSC Saxo Bank had held their press conference, McGee was still baffled by this new opportunity. "The fact that the job came from this team made it a no-brainer. It was almost an instant decision," he said, adding that he would have refused the offer from any other team. "Everything fell into place, and it just fits."
Still, the father of two knew that he would be away from his family in his home of Monaco as much as during his career as a bike rider. "Lifestyle won't change too much," he said, accepting the disadvantages. "I understand it's a tough job. I've kept my ears and eyes open all these years on what this job entails and I've had a mild experience at it already. That helped me make the decision quite fast, with the understanding that it was going to be hard."
McGee was hopeful his contract would be for three years, the same duration than the new sponsor of Riis Cycling. "At the moment, we have an agreement and both parties know that this can't be a short-term engagement. The sponsors are on board for three years, and that's a good time frame to work around. We'll then re-evaluate things to see what direction the team and myself are taking."
Being a directeur sportif of a ProTour team will see the Australian in many stressful situations, but McGee felt he had what it takes to be on top of his new position. "I know there's still a lot to learn. But still, I think I have the foundations to grow on," he said. "I have some knowledge of it, and incredible guys to work with. Some directors I've worked with on the bike, I've known them for many years in different capacities. That's going to be a big factor in my improvement."
Implementing his own ambitions for the team to the riders was the thing that he looked most forward to, McGee said. "You can have the best ideas and knowledge in the world, but if you don't know how to implement that on a daily basis, nothing works out. So that's going to be the biggest challenge."
Nowadays, many team directors have been bike riders in the past, and McGee hoped to build on that, too. "Cycling is a bloody tough job. Hopefully, because I'm fresh out of it, I'll respect that and won't forget it when I interact with riders. That's the most important factor."
A crucial point lied in the way he interacted with his riders, McGee said. "A director has to stand up, he has to lead and make decisions. But hopefully, I can remain with that touch and appreciation for how tough cycling is."
The importance of the 'human factor' was clear to him – but this didn't only apply for his new job. McGee said it was something that had helped him throughout his career in pro cycling. "Most cyclists – especially guys that have been around for a while – have to have that anyway. You wouldn't survive in the sport without that ability. You work with soigneurs, mechanics, directors, sponsors, other riders, your team-mates... if you don't have that ability to work human relationships and make them effective, you wouldn't last as a cyclist. For directors, the principles are similar, I'm sure."