An interview with Victor Hugo Peña, May 13, 2006
Much talk has been made of Floyd Landis’ chances of winning this year’s Tour de France but before then, the Phonak team are seeking a strong performance in the Giro d’Italia. Their GC rider in Italy is the affable Colombian Victor Hugo Peña, who won a stage in this race back in 2000 and finished 15th overall. Cyclingnews’ Shane Stokes spoke to Peña about last year, the team, plus his goals for the Giro and the Tour.
During his time riding for Lance Armstrong on the US Postal team, the high point of Peña's career came in the form of the Tour de France yellow jersey, which he wore on his 29th birthday in 2003. Following another season at US Postal the Colombian decided it was time for a change, and moved to Phonak for the 2005 season.
Peña’s targeting of a strong ride in the Giro follows encouraging performances at the end of last year. In April 2005 he fell heavily in Paris-Roubaix and fractured his seventh vertebra, taking two months to recover before getting back on the bike and riding the Vuelta with just a month of racing in his legs.
"It was nice during the winter, relaxing with my son." -Pena speaks about his young son, Matteo
The injury meant that he was under-prepared, but nevertheless he performed solidly, slipping into several good breakaways and taking sixth and seventh places in the two long time trials. His efforts saw him go into the final stage 23rd overall. Despite a crash which saw him break a rib [and slip down five places in the general classification], he rode the world championship time trial less than a week later, finishing 10th.
Nearly eight months later, he’s had a much smoother buildup to his latest grand tour, the Giro, and heading into the race keen to explore his potential. He’s the clear leader of the team and will have full team support during the race, something which he hopes will help him achieve a top ten finish on general classification.
Cyclingnews: Victor Hugo, you're leading the Phonak team here at the Giro. How are you feeling?
Victor Hugo Peña: Good, I've been training well. This season I have done Tirreno Adriatico and then the Tour of Romandie. Between the two, I spent about 20 days training at home in Colombia. Things have been going well and I feel good.
Last year I was coming back from injury and rode the Vuelta while still building back up. I think that I am going better this time - my form is more solid but, that said, it's hard to compare the two races and know how I will do. The field is very good here, too; it's a different level [to the Vuelta].
CN: Who will be the big guns in the race?
VHP: I think the main riders on other teams are going to be Savodelli, Basso, Cunego, Simoni, Scarponi and one or two others. They will be the guys going for pink.
CN: What are your plans?
VHP: Well, my tactic will be just to try to stay with them. I think in terms of goals I would like to go a good GC ride, maybe aim for a top ten place. I am a stage race rider...I am not a one day rider, I never do well there. Three-week tours are what suit me.
This race is very, very hard near the end, the mountains are very tough. That might suit me but it all depends on my form. If I am going well and feeling strong, then the tough last week will be good for me. But if I am tired or not going as well as I would like, I could lose it all and slip back. It's hard to know. I think the long time trial should be good for me.
CN: You had a bad crash at Paris-Roubaix last year, breaking a bone in your back. You then returned to racing and did the Vuelta, which showed you were coming back well after your injury. How do you feel about your performance there?
VHP: I think I did as well as I expected at the Vuelta. I didn’t expect any more after two month’s training since my crash. I was trying to go well in the mountains and I did that, and did two good time trials. I probably expected to be closer to the front – I was seventh in the first one and sixth in the second, but the top guys in those races were the guys who were fighting it out for the overall.
In the end it got me going again and helped me to go home with good motivation to train during the off-season. That's what the Vuelta did for me.
CN: Were you happy with your winter training?
VHP: Yes, the winter was no problem. Ok, the last day in the Vuelta I crashed and broke my rib - I had 20 days of pain, but that passed okay. I had no problems after that and was able to train well.
CN: You targeted a good ride in the world championship time trial and ultimately finished 10th. Did the crash in the Vuelta affect you in Madrid?
VHP: Yes, it made me feel bad. I probably would otherwise have been between fourth and sixth place. I think that the fracture I had maybe cost me 40 seconds, but not the one or two minutes I needed to be on the podium. But these guys were going very well.
For me, top ten in the world's was not bad. For me, it was my first good world's, especially when I was coming back from the injury I had.
CN: You have an addition to the family now, a new son…
VHP: Yes, his name is Matteo. He has the same name similar to that of Matthew Rendell, the English writer [who wrote Peña’s biography, A Significant Other]. It was nice during the winter, relaxing with my son. That is another big motivation for me…I don’t know why, he can’t see me doing races, but it gives me strength to train and to try to do good things in the last years of my career. I know I am in the last few years so I will do my best.
CN: You say he motivates you – is that down to the thoughts of how much his education and upbringing could cost?
VHP: [Laughs] Yes, that's it!
CN: Do you have an idea of what races you will do after the Giro?
VHP: Well, after the Giro, I would normally be down to do the Tour. It will depend on my health, how I am feeling after this race. But I should be doing it. Floyd is going very well this year, but people are forgetting about Santi Botero. He has been working hard and is also coming into form.
I will race here, then probably do the Tour de France. After the Tour, I think I will just do do the Tour of Poland to increase my condition for the worlds'. Then I will probably do the Tour of Lombardy.
CN: Do you know anything about the time trial course for the world's?
VHP: I saw it on the internet, it looked quite hard. We will see.
CN: The Phonak riders knew their racing programme before the start of the season. Do you think it is an advantage to know that in advance?
VHP: Yes, this is really important with this team. They are really organised; all the directeurs are working together with the riders, giving them time to work out things. Every rider had their programme at the start of the season and in about 60 or 70 percent of the cases, the riders are going to do what they want. It's not easy to please every one, as everybody wants to do the Tour de France and not everybody can go. But more or less, everybody has their races.
CN: There was a training camp at the end of last season to organise some things. Is that when the programme was finalised?
VHP: Yes, it was in Malaga. We had meetings where they asked riders what they wanted to change, what they liked and what they didn’t like. They had time to discuss all that.
CN: Is it only this team who does it this way?
VHP: I don’t know. I'm not sure what it is like in the other teams. Probably for the big guys, they can decide, but the new guys or the workers have to do what the directeurs want them to do. But in this team, everyone can decide. Everyone can say they want to do this, this, this and this. I think this is one of the really different things in this team.
Sometimes when people ask me who is the leader in the team, immediately I can think of Floyd but if you look at the other guys on this team, everybody is like a leader. Everyone has a nice road bike, everyone has a nice time trial bike, everybody has meetings with the managers and the directeurs. Everybody can feel like he is a leader. There are no differences. Okay, the differences are in the race, but not for training or for meetings or things like that.
Sometimes teams make you feel bad, but in this team everyone is treated equally.
CN: Some directeurs on other teams are said to have a very dictatorial style, saying ‘you must do this, you must do that.’ Is it different here, is it more relaxed?
VHP: Yes. I don’t know why, but here it is okay. The directeur has to be the boss, but here it is not like this. Everybody is relaxed, everybody does their job and everyone is happy. Nobody feels bad. Everybody feels good, the directeur asks them to do something and everybody does it. Nobody complains, and that is nice. This is one of the things that is good about this team.
CN: What are your targets for this year?
VHP: The Giro. I want to see what I can do here. It will be my first time [riding the Giro] since 2000 - I was 15th then. We can see if I can do better or if that was my limit. In years to come I will be able to say that I was 15th in the Giro, or I was fifth, or whatever.
I chose the Giro early on, I said to the directors that I wanted that and then I could go to the Tour to do whatever they want; to pull on the flat or ride in the mountains. We will have Santi [Botero] there and Floyd [Landis], we know that those two can be top ten or top five in the GC. They need help, they need a really good team and I want to be one of those guys that will help them.