Pro life beckons

Australian riders have traditionally a good record of mixing road and track. Bradley McGee, Graeme...

An interview with Aaron Kemps, November 13, 2004

Australian riders have traditionally a good record of mixing road and track. Bradley McGee, Graeme Brown and Stuart O'Grady are just three current professionals who have grown up on the boards but have also found success out on the road.

Aaron Kemps is the latest product of that system, the 21 year-old former track rider turned road sprinter earning a pro contract with Liberty Seguros in 2005. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes found out a little more about yet another Aussie success story, as pro life beckons.

Kemps first came to international prominence when he rode on the Australian junior team at the world track championships in 2000 and 2001, taking a fine bronze medal in the points race at the latter meet. After leaving the junior ranks he began to concentrate more on road racing and in 2003 found success as part of the under 23 AIS national team. The-then nineteen year old Kemps won two stages of the Tour of Regione, an under 23 world cup race, and then followed that up with a stage win in the Baby Giro. His strong sprinting led to offers from some division one teams but he made the wise choice to wait another year before making the big leap to the paid ranks.

"I think the AIS setup is the best development programme in the world for young riders." - Aaron Kemps on the Australian Institute of Sport's (AIS) U23 road program in Italy

This season, Kemps got things underway with a fine second place in the Australian national criterium championships, the performance securing him the win in the under 23 classification. After a number of top ten placings in Italian competition he sprinted home first in the Coppa Citta di Asti under 23 world cup race, attracting the attention of directeurs sportif at teams such as Liberty Seguros and Quickstep Davitamon. This interest was further compounded by performances such as his sprint jersey win in the Tour of Japan, where he also placed third on a stage, and his runner-up position on a stage of the Baby Giro.

‘I had a pretty consistent year,' he tells Cyclingnews from his home in Bundaberg, Queensland. ‘Being a sprinter and racing in Italy, there are not to many opportunities for a bunch sprint but I just try to take them when they come. I guess I did enough to get the attention of a couple of teams.'

‘Quickstep first showed their interest when they saw me at the first stage of the Tour Down Under this year, even though I was sick and didn't finish the Tour. They offered me a stagiaire place with them after I won that World Cup race. Michael Rogers had been helping by trying to push for another Aussie and this helped me considerably. I did a trial with them, riding races such as the Tour of Britain, but in the end I signed for Liberty Seguros. I will be with Allan Davis there, a good friend of mine from back home. I train with Allan and his brother Scott all the time in the off-season, and it will be good to help Scott next year.'

Cyclingnews: First off, well done on the contract with Liberty Seguros. That is great news. How did it come about?

Aaron Kemps: Liberty have been interested since earlier on in the year, when I won that one day World Cup race in Italy. I had been talking with them for a while but as I had already organised with Quickstep for September, I went to them for the month. I was a stagiaire there but also kept in contact with Manolo (Saiz) at Liberty.

He said if things don't go right with Quickstep, to give him a call and he would see what he could do. A little bit of politics came into it then with Quickstep so I gave Manolo a call through Neil Stephens and we worked out a deal there. I was very happy to get the contract.

CN: Had you been happy with the trial with Quickstep? How did that go for you?

AK: Yeah, yeah... I really enjoyed myself with the team, the staff were great and the riders were really nice and friendly. I did a lot of races with them, and I was pretty happy with the way I went. It just worked out that the Liberty deal happened instead of the one at Quickstep... there are no grudges there, it is all good.

CN: You are mates with Allan Davis? I believe you train with him and his brother Scott...

AK: Yes, Scott, Allan, and I have been mates for a good while. His dad was my coach when I was younger, and we have trained together ever since. We live in the same town together, in Bundaberg in Queensland. We see each other all the time, we train every day together and so are really good mates. I will be going to his wedding in a couple of days, we had his Buck's party a while back. It was pretty wild.

CN: Was he part of the deal coming about? Had he put at word in for you with Manolo?

AK: Yes, Allan mentioned my name to Manolo after I won at couple of races this year. Manolo got in contact with Neil Stephens. Our coach at the AIS programme in Italy, Brian Stephens, is Neil's brother. Brian is the head of the AIS under 23 programme in Italy, which Allan came through and Michael Rogers came through, with Mapei. I came through that system as well.

I think was pretty hard year this year to sign, so I am pretty happy to get a contract with teams shutting down and everything.

CN: I guess that it is also very good to get a ProTour contract as well?

AK: Yes, definitely. I am happy with that.

CN: You are clearly a good sprinter, looking at your results...

AK: I am a sprinter, although this year, I am developing into a little bit more of an all-rounder. Not as good as Allan Davis, I can't climb as well as him, but I'm starting to get a bit better over the climbs. I did some one-day races with a few hills in them, and was going okay.

I did a lot of work on my climbing this year. When you are racing in Italy, you have to work on your climbing a lot more. I am just going to work on my sprinting from now on. I will be helping Allan as much as possible next year, the two of us will work together in races, I suppose. I will be working for the team, letting them know what I can do. My first race with them will be the Tour Down Under in January.

CN: So do you see yourself as being a lead out guy for Allan next year?

AK: Yes, that'll probably be one of my roles, to take Allan up to the front and to lead him out. I will be working for him and hopefully he can get a few more wins next year.

CN: Tom Boonen won a stage of the Tour of Britain this year - were you part of the train for that?

AK: Yeah, three of us spent a lot of time at the front, swapping off to bring breaks back, so we were all part of that effort. Stefano Zanini was his last man but we were all there, helping him out.

CN: Did that kind of work give you an insight into what your job will be like next year?

AK: Yeah, it did.

CN: How have you found Manolo Saiz so far?

AK: I have had a few talks with him so far, and he seems like a really nice guy. I am looking forward to working with him; it should hopefully be a good season for me next year.

CN: You had some good results this year. Can you tell me a bit about your season?

AK: This year was pretty good. I had a lot of top ten results. I won the under 23 World cup race in Italy, I got second in the stage of the Baby Giro this year. I also did well in the Australian criterium championships. I was first under 23, and second overall. I was pretty happy to get a result like that early in the season, I was very pleased with that as it is good for the morale. I also won the sprints competition and was third overall in the Tour of Japan this year as well.

CN: You were saying that you consider yourself a sprinter, who is morphing into a bit of an all-rounder. Your past history was on the track?

AK: Yeah, when I was junior I did a lot of track racing. I only started doing road full-time when I was first year under 23. When I was in the under 19s I did track - endurance track events. Individual pursuit, team pursuit, points score. It is funny - when I went to the junior worlds I actually rode the team pursuit, points score and the Olympic Sprint, so was a bit of a different combination.

CN: There seems to be a real Aussie tradition of track, of guys going from the track and becoming really good road riders. Is that the because of the way the AIS programme is set up, or is there another reason?

AK: Well, for me, I got into track because the national track championships were before the road championships. So I got selected for the junior worlds for the track. As we were juniors they kind of made us concentrate on the one discipline, instead of trying to do track and road. There is an overlap so most riders are only selected for one or the other, the road team or the track team. I think in the last year, some guys have been going to both, because I think there is a bit more time between them now. But back when I did them they were a bit closer together, and I think they had had bad experiences in the past when guys tried to both. So they just concentrated on one or the other.

But yeah, a lot of good track riders do end up doing the road, especially those on the endurance team. Now the track programme is mainly road-based, so a lot of track endurance guys spend most of the year on the road. They only get together for a two-week training camp, and just ride to train on the track until the event. Like, two or three weeks before the worlds, they will get together for track training, but they don't spend all year doing it.

CN: There seems to be more and more Australian riders racing in Europe now, there seems to be a real community. Presumably that is very good for your motivation, as a young rider coming up, having these role models. For example, when you see Allan, a guy you know from back home, doing well in pro races that must be a real inspiration...

AK: Yeah, that is all good for the motivation. As you can see, most of the Australian guys who become pros are good pros. So when you see guys like Michael Rogers doing well, it motivates you to get up there and try to be the best you can, you know?

CN: Do you think there is a certain Aussie mentality that works well with the bike game?

AK: I think the Aussie mentality comes from the fact that we have to do it that much harder - instead of going home after every race, we have to spend from February until October away from home. You're away from your family, your friends - you are there to do a job. You don't go home in between races, back to your house. You are going away just for riding, you know? It is harder, but it makes you want more (success) if you have to spend that much time away from home.

CN: How do you find Europe? Do you enjoy it?

AK: Yeah, I spent the last couple of years in Italy, getting accustomed to the Italian lifestyle and the Italian food, and everything. I think Italy is great. But next year I will be moving to Spain, obviously. I went there for 10 days to check it out for next year, before I came home, and it seemed nice.

CN: You competed with the AIS programme - how did you find that?

AK: I think the AIS setup is the best development programme in the world for young riders. It teaches us everything, both on and off the bike. Even things like having to cook, clean and look after yourself - that becomes essential as you are away from home for so long.

They don't put pressure on us to get results which is better for our development. All the staff are highly qualified and motivated which makes a really good environment to work in. If I had my time again I wouldn't change a thing. I'm very grateful that Brian Stephens and Shayne Bannan (AIS coaches) gave me the opportunity in the first place. There are always lots of young talented riders coming through so it's hard to get a spot there.

CN: This is now the off-season. It is obviously a little different in Australia, because you have some big early races. But what are your plans for the next couple of months?

AK: I have just had five weeks of the bike, so I am starting back training. I had originally been down to do the Tour of Queensland but with the new team's programme, it was in my rest period and I have been instructed not to do any intensity work until after Christmas. I have been to the gym for the past week and I will start training full-time again on Saturday, just slowly building it for the first week. I will try to get a good base in before the Australian champs and the Tour Down Under. I don't want to be absolutely flying then, but I want to be going pretty well. Hopefully, Allan can get a stage win or two in the Tour Down Under, which would be great.

CN: What is your programme like for next year?

AK: I am not sure yet. Manolo is very good at developing riders so I don't think it will be packed. I don't think I will be doing a lot of races. I think during the year when the Tour de France is on, I think I will get six weeks off. I will just have to wait and see. I think I will be doing the Tour of Majorca and races like that, early on, but don't really have an idea of other races beyond that yet.

CN: So what are your emotions? Are you nervous, excited?

AK: Of course, yeah! I am sort of anxious, I just want to get in there and start racing, and also to meet all my team-mates. I only met a few of the guys in the team so far. I am not sure yet who is finalised for the team for next year or anything. It will be good to get in there, just meet everybody and start doing my job, you know.

CN: I guess knowing Allan already is a bit of a head start?

AK: Yeah, it is a big bonus. I would be living in the same place as Allan, in Spain - he lives 10 kilometres from San Sebastian, in the same town as Neil Stephens. I will know two people there, so that be very handy anyway.

CN: What sort of guys are Scott and Allan, what they like?

AK: Ah, they are great guys. They have helped me out since I was young, always asking them for advice and everything. They are really easy guys to get along with... top blokes.

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