Coaching maestro on the plan to make Russia a cycling powerhouse by 2016
Turn back the clocks 20-odd years and East Germany, together with Russia were the world leaders in sport but since the fall of both the Berlin Wall and Perestroika, their sporting identities have been in a tailspin. Now, with former East German coaching master Heiko Salzwedel at the helm of the largely Itera-funded RusVelo project, the challenge is to re-build the cycling program so it can rival both the Australian and the Great Britain equivalents, which have both borrowed heavily from his innovation.
The premise of RusVelo is unique. At the program's core for both the road and track, is its team pursuit riders.
For Salzwedel, who is RusVelo's General Manager the seeds were sewn at the UCI Track Cycling World Cup Classics event in Sydney in 2006.
"I have my dream team now," he told Cyclingnews. "There was a big Australian world champion team which had a total disaster, they had a special preparation, they over did it a little bit and finished fifth. Then the no-name Denmark, which was just coming from nowhere finished second and in the finals was the big Russians - Mikhail Ignatiev, Ivan Rovny, Alexander Serov, Nikolai Trusov - all these guys that are now in my pro continental team [with the exception of Ignatiev - ed.], but they're not interested in track anymore."
Salzwedel and the President of the Russian Cycling Federation, Igor Makarov are hell-bent on securing the nation's place at the top of the cycling tree by 2016. The UCI Track World Championships, held last week in Melbourne, Australia is the first major stepping stone towards that goal.
"I think we can be confident for London to be in medal contention – our goal is to win two medals – and if we can reach that goal we would be over the moon," Salzwedel explains.
Russia finished fifth on the medal tally, behind Australia, Great Britain, Germany and France. Anastasia Chulkova claimed gold in the women's points race while Ekaterina Gnidenko took silver in the women's keirin. The result is a huge improvement on the 15th that Russia finished at the corresponding championships in 2011.
Even to get to this point has not been an easy task. When RusVelo didn't show at the London World Cup in February, there was some suggestion that the team was running scared, content only to compete at events at Astana and Beijing where nations were not sending their top squads, and where RusVelo could win. This was not the case. Visa issues and red tape meant that the squad was stuck back in Moscow where it was minus 22 degrees, forced to use skiing and speed skating for their endurance training, with cycling out of the question. Salzwedel describes it as "a scandal" and that's as far as he takes it.
"We have several projects here under the Russian Global program – different projects, some are connected. I have the RusVelo track team, the pro continental road team and the RusVelo women's team," he explains.
"The three teams are completely under my control; in addition to that I'm the sport's director of the Russian Cycling Federation and sports director, track. It's very easy to get lost. And there were certain periods in this preparation where that took its toll."
The right people for the job
Salzwedel's project is still very much in the building phase, and he's still in the process of surrounding himself with the right people so that the project can be on the right path to reaching its potential. One of the people that the East German maestro has got on board is Victor Popov – Russian born-Australian sports scientist and physiotherapist, probably best known for his work with Robbie McEwen. Popov's role is sports science co-ordinator not only for RusVelo but for the Russian Federation. Popov worked with the Australian Institute of Sport from 1987 and was still there when Salzwedel set up the road and mountain bike program there in 1990.
Seemingly, Popov has fallen on his feet but when Cyclingnews suggests this must be his dream job, he laughs it off.
"It's not my dream job; my dream job was with the Lions," he qualifies, speaking of his role with Aussie Rules team, Brisbane. "This is a challenge. It's a really interesting opportunity."
Still basing himself in Brisbane, Popov will spend around 100 days with the team this year, including at the London Olympic Games which will gradually be phased back as his knowledge is shared. But there is a way to go.
"When the Wall came down people scrambled for position," Popov explains. "Amateur sport particularly had a very low position; there was no money, you couldn't work.
"I went to Russia to help pick the sports science team and everyone's either 24 or 64. There's a gap of people who never educated themselves in this field. There was no money for this. There was no job if you did a sports science degree. There is incredible knowledge though... It's just starting to pick up again now."
Salzwedel concedes that he has to do a lot of the day-to-day work himself, it's a 24-hour-a-day, seven days-a-week operation for him but at this stage he wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's the chance of a lifetime for me, that's why I'm putting 100 per cent in," he admits. "It's also my character – if I do something, I either do it or I don't do it, I don't do things by halves."
Given the success that Salzwedel has achieved in the past, most recently with Denmark where the men's team pursuit earned a silver medal at the Beijing Olympic Games, expectations are high when it comes to Russian cycling, particularly with the multiple funding streams of cash at his disposal.
"The big advantage in Denmark that I had was that there was only one coach, one opinion and one team," he says. "I had a very good relationship with the Federation so it was like a family business, it was very personal and I got a lot of freedom – not much money but a lot of freedom."
The Salzwedel stamp
Popov described the remnants of the Russian program as essentially "stone age" but while coaching systems can be re-invigorated, attitudes can be harder to shift. One of the first elements that Salzwedel insisted on as part of his regime was making the official language of the team, English. The purpose of the move is integration with the rest of the world cycling community, to put an end to the perception that 'Russia has no friends'.
"The key is, the things that really matter, they [the riders, staff] understand very clearly," Salzwedel explains. "And I speak a very clear language; it doesn't matter if it's in Russian or German, or in English."
The one thing that Salzwedel has always strived for is not to become the East German cliché. His focus is on the athletes, the coaching staff is merely supporting structures.
"I introduced a completely new approach – it was not the East German way, but it was my way," he says of his arrival in Australia now over two decades ago. "I was not typical for East Germany either. On the other hand, I was just thinking logically. East Germany was a very small country; we had to look after our talents. Australia was a very small country with 17 million people then, so we had to nurse the talent. Cycling was virtually non-existent. There was a very good track program but on the road, there was virtually nothing there. The British approach was practically identical, that's why when I went back to Great Britain, and it was a philosophy that I could identify with."
While his past successes prove that his is a formula which works, he still finds himself having to convince some of his Russian colleagues that he is acting in the best interests of the program.
The old systems, while successful, were also stigmatised by the doping methods that were employed during the Russian and East German systems while at the top. But they weren't the whole story.
"When you look back at that successful Russian and East German era, absolutely, there were issues but they didn't make a 10 per cent difference, they made a two or three per cent difference," says Popov. "Some of the bad stuff stayed and that's some of the battle, to get rid of the culture of taking things to make you go faster – it's not things that make you go faster it's the culture that makes you go faster."
It is early days for RusVelo, but there is a lot to get done by 2016, and Salzwedel maintains that this is not a short-term project. He doesn't put a figure on it but the 55-year-old maintains that at least 15-years down the track he has a vision, not for cycling but for himself.
"I'm going to be sipping my drinks on the beach on the Gold Coast," he says.
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