An interview with Stuart O'Grady, March 31, 2006
With his Classics plans laid to rest after an unfortunate early season tumble, one of the peloton's most aggressive and experienced hardmen tells Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes his season ain't over yet.
This spring was to be a big one for Stuart O'Grady. At 32 years of age he has a strong blend of strength, experience and results, and his move to Team CSC last autumn was expected see him move to a new level as a Classics contender. In the past he's taken podium placings in both Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders; motivation boosted by his change of team, he was all fired up for good performances in both.
However, the Australian has been forced to change those plans, his Spring campaign being foiled by a bad crash on stage two of Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this month. O'Grady broke his collarbone and five ribs when he hit a pothole and is only now returning to training with some sessions on an indoor trainer. He's worked with a chiropractor to try to get moving again as soon as possible and, motivated to bounce back from this misfortune, he's now aiming to hit peak form this summer.
"It wasn't a normal hole, it was a crater! My front wheel basically just caved in, the forks snapped in half and the handlebars just pushed right into my chest." - Stuart O'Grady recounts the crash at Tirreno-Adriatico which put an end to his Spring Classics campaign
"I guess one thing that comes out of this is that although I will miss the Classics, I'll be fresher and hungrier and angrier than ever when I get back on the bike," he states. "You have got to take the positives from this kind of situation.
"I was programmed to have a break after Paris-Roubaix with four weeks off. But instead of having that time off after Roubaix, I will just have an enforced break now. In hindsight, I guess another benefit is that I will have had my break so I will be raring to go, [doing] full training when I would have been resting. So hopefully come the Dauphiné and the Tour, I will be going very well."
O'Grady's first race back is likely to be the Tour of Catalunya in May, although if his recovery is coming along well there may be the chance to do some one day racing in Denmark before the Spanish race.
His recent crash is the latest in a series of frustrating experiences in the past few months. Last Autumn he was forced to scratch from the team for the world road championships in Madrid due to injury, losing out on what he feels could have been a strong medal opportunity. Around the same time, he discovered that his signing with Giancarlo Ferretti's new Sony Ericsson project was a no-go when the planned team had collapsed before it even started, leaving him without a ride for 2006.
It was an extremely stressful time, but a positive twist was in store. "Luckily I had already spoken to Bjarne a few years ago," he told Cyclingnews earlier this year. "He had shown some interest and CSC have always been a team of choice, that is for sure. Fortunately he still had a spot left on the team so I could fill a void they had in the team for the Classics. We came to an agreement very quickly; at the end of the day, I guess that everything happens for a reason. I am bummed about the deal with Ferretti but now I am with the number one team in the world, so that is fine."
The change has also coincided with a re-think on his career. Although O'Grady has gone close to winning the Tour de France maillot vert, finishing second twice and third once, he has said that he will no longer target the classification for best sprinter.
"I think if I was going to win the green jersey, it would have happened by now," he says. "I have had enough close calls. It is just a tiring classification to go for - you put so much energy into it and that takes your edge off winning stages. You kind of become content with seconds, thirds and fourths as they all give you points. You lose that hunger for winning."
Instead, his new direction will see him play a team role in the Tour, aim to get into breakaway groups when the opportunity presents itself and chase big results in Classic races. He is happy with this shift in targets. "I have had big talks with Bjarne and management. I have told them that if it takes sacrificing going for the green jersey, then I will do it. If it means being part of the winning team in the Tour de France, then for me it is a big challenge, a big step.
"It would obviously be difficult, not being up there getting involved in sprints, but I have never won a bunch sprint. It is not my forte... I have won in breakaways. That is where I do it. I think that my experience in riding nine Tours will probably play a big part, being able to give something to the team. But also getting into breaks with Jens and Jakob Piil and whoever."
O'Grady's Tour plans are just one of several topics he speaks about. His impressions of Team CSC, his rivalry with Robbie McEwen, missing last year's world championships, his contentment to move on from Cofidis and his hopes and targets for the remainder of his career are all discussed.
Cyclingnews: Hard luck, first off. You had a pretty major crash on stage two of Tirreno-Adriatico.
Stuart O'Grady: Yeah, it was pretty big. I suppose if you're going to crash, it is best to do it properly!
Normally you have a slight millisecond to lift your front wheel, it is part of the sport. You can usually see something coming and take action. I was pretty well positioned, I was about 20th wheel at the time. I said to my team-mates that morning that I was going to stay right up the front and keep out of trouble, the first couple of stages had been pretty dangerous. But the guy in front of me just swung at the last moment, and all of a sudden my front wheel just went down into this hole. It wasn't a normal hole, it was a crater! My front wheel basically just caved in, the forks snapped in half and the handlebars just pushed right into my chest.
CN: It was reported that you broke a collarbone and five ribs - is that correct?
SO'G: Yeah, that's right.
CN: The team seem to have been pretty unlucky as a whole, lately...
SO'G: It is incredible. A lot of guys have had problems, I guess in one way things happen in bursts. As my big friend Magnus [Backstedt] says the other day, it is not falling off that is the issue - we are all going to fall off - it is just how hard you fall and how much damage you do. Anyway, we are just going through a bit of a bad moment, but we will hopefully get it out of the way now and be okay later in the season.
CN: How have you felt since the crash?
SO'G: Things have really come along in leaps and bounds today. I think it has been about 12 days since the crash; I am getting myself dressed and have quite a lot of mobility, having taken the brace off. I have been seeing a chiropractor everyday for the last few days and that has really helped make a huge improvement.
CN: Do have an idea as to when you will be back in action?
SO'G: I will be on the home trainer in the next four to five days. It is not the collarbone at all, that is not actually giving me any pain. It is the bottom part of the rib cage that is the problem. But I can breathe quite normally now without any pain, as long as I am not puffing and going over the top with it, I think I will get on my bike sooner than expected.
CN: What about your plans to get be back racing?
SO'G: Well, I have a programme. I will definitely be doing the Tour of Catalunya, and maybe a few one-day races up in Denmark a few days before that. I might start off up there, but definitely Catalunya.
CN: Does that mean the Tour is still on for you?
SO'G: Yeah. I guess one thing that comes out of this is that I will miss the Classics, but I'll be fresher and hungrier and angrier than ever when I get back on the bike. You have got to take the positives from this kind of situation; when I think back to 2004 I missed some of the Classics but had the best year of my life. Riders who miss the start of the season seem to really kick on well at the end of the season, so that fact is an inspiration and a motivation at the moment.
CN: You were aiming for the Spring Classics; have you thought about new targets that you will aim for now?
SO'G: Well obviously all that is gone now. There is no way I would be able to ride over a cobble. I was programmed to have a break after Paris-Roubaix, with four weeks off. But instead of having that time off after Roubaix, I will just have an enforced break now. I guess another benefit is I have had my break so I will be raring to go, full training when I would have been resting. Hopefully come the Dauphiné and the Tour, I will be going very well!
CN: Did you watch Milan-San Remo or did you opt to give it a miss?
SO'G: Well, you wouldn't have wanted to be around me that morning! It was really disappointing, I had spent the whole of the off season training towards that race. Milan-San Remo was a major objective. Flanders and Roubaix are objectives but it is a bit more complicated to win those... Milan-San Remo is my real, preferred event. I ended up going down and watching it in Italy and caught up with the team and actually had a good time. It was a fantastic race, it was great to watch, actually!
CN: Looking back to earlier this season, you competed in Qatar and the Tour of California, taking placings in both. Were you happy with your form at those races?
SO'G: Yes and no. The form wasn't too bad. We had some pretty hard training camps so I definitely wasn't peaking for those races, that's for sure. But yeah, I was happy to get a number on my back and get some racing under my belt.
CN: You were third on a stage in California, so I guess you were gunning to get your first win of the year...
SO'G: Yeah, of course it would have been nice to have pulled off a stage win. But as I said, we spent the first couple of months either in training camps or racing, so it was pretty intense preparation for the Classics. Unfortunately that didn't work out, but hopefully there will be benefits later in the season instead.
CN: You have been with the team now for a couple of months; what are your impressions of CSC?
SO'G: It has been everything I have thought it would be, and probably a little bit more. It has been really good, the team is definitely extremely professional and at the same time, it is a really good group of people. They dot their 'i's and cross their 't's - Bjarne is a bit of a perfectionist, plus he has a lot of experience and a lot of time for the people around him. He is just a pool of knowledge.
The team works hard, but they all know how to enjoy it and make the best out of it as well. So it has definitely been good so far.
CN: Looking back to last year, you ended the season injured and missed the world's as a result.
SO'G: Yeah, I had a haematoma in my leg due to a training accident. I was fine riding along at 40 kilometres an hour, I could do that all day, but I just couldn't get out of the saddle. So there was absolutely no point... my intention was to go to the Vuelta and ride through that, but in the end that just wasn't an option.
CN: The autumn must have been very stressful for you. You supposedly had a deal with this new Sony Ericsson team but then that fell apart.
SO'G: Yes. When I went back to Australia, I had a signed two-year contract which involved my friend Matt White and young CJ [Chris Sutton], who ended up going to Cofidis. I went home a happy man. I had a good couple of years with Cofidis, I have no regrets. I had the year of my life in 2004 and the riders were really supportive, they gave everything they could, but I just found the last year that I didn't get enough support in the Classics. I was struggling for motivation, coming off 2004, such a big year.
Then I was questioning my future for the first time [in 2005], and realised then that I needed to move on or, if I stayed, it would have been the last contract that I would sign. So that is why when searching for a bigger team and bigger challenges out of France. I wanted to wipe the slate clean and start again. I seemed to have found that with Ferretti, he was very motivating and very professional, but unfortunately the person involved [in arranging the deal] wasn't.
CN: Do you think that the person he was dealing with was someone who meant well but got things wrong, or if he was a fraud? Did you ever find out?
SO'G: Well, I found out through the grapevine that this person wasn't the most reliable source. You just don't expect that kind of stuff to happen these days. I am not pissed off with Mr. Ferretti, I am just disappointed that it went to that level. I have got written, signed contracts but at the end of the day, you can chuck them in the fire. They were no use. That was disappointing.
CN: How did you find out?
SO'G: Well, I was holidaying in Fiji at the end of the year. I turned my phone on just to make sure there were no emergencies back home and then I found out that I was unemployed. So you hit the panic buttons - it is November, teams are pretty much full up. I could have got a ride somewhere for free, that is for sure, but you've got to look around and find what is left.
Luckily I had already spoken to Bjarne a few years ago, he had shown some interest and CSC have always been a team of choice, that is for sure. Fortunately he still had a spot left on the team so I could fill a void they had in the team for the Classics. We came to an agreement very quickly and, at the end of the day, I guess that everything happens for a reason. I am bummed about the deal with Ferretti but now I am with the number one team in the world, so that is fine...
CN: Did you find out at the beginning or at the end of the holiday?
SO'G: It was after four days, so we still had a week to go...
CN: That must have put a dampener on the trip, to say the least. Looking back at 2005 as a whole, what is your opinion of the year?
SO'G: It was a very frustrating year for me. Like I touched on before, 2004 was special... the Tour, the Dauphiné, the World Cup [the HEW-Cyclassics-Cup in Hamburg - ed.], the Olympics and even the Worlds... but last year it was really difficult. You hear about it a lot, people say if you have a big year, then the next year you go into a kind of slump, and I experienced that first-hand. It is not something you do on purpose; I know that commitment, dedication, health and everything - including a little bit of luck - fell into place in 2004 and it was just hard to keep motivated, to do that same kind of work in the team environment that was there.
I felt a lack of 'want,' I guess. The troops seemed a bit content, really. There was an attitude of, "we will go to the race and see what happens," there was no direction in the races. I don't mind taking responsibility and a challenge, as long as everybody else does their bit and gives 100 percent. But in the end, after a few months of giving, giving, giving, you kind of say, 'okay, hold on a minute, no one here gives a sh*t', and you can't help but take that mentality on.
CN: Some people have described French cycling as being a little bit too comfortable, that there isn't the same hunger as with other countries. Do you think this is the case?
SO'G: Yes, for sure. I have spent my whole career in French teams, like I said I have got no regrets - everything is a learning experience and my years with Credit Agricole were fantastic. But then, looking back, after seeing how this team works, it is just so different. There is a real science behind what we are doing, we are not just doing 36 kilometres an hour into a headwind for six hours. There are people here who understand training and are really calculating everything for a reason.
CN: I guess that must be exciting for you as a rider... you must believe that there is going to be a knock-on effect on your performance.
SO'G: Yes, it is fantastic. When I was at the training camp and looked around the dining hall, it is not just myself and one or two others who are the team leaders. There are many guys on the team and 25 of them are bloody good bike riders. That makes a very big difference as well. French teams kind of in general have maybe two or three leaders and the rest are just worker ants. That is okay for a little while, but in a long season - especially with the ProTour now - you have young riders doing the Grand Tours and they just aren't prepared or aren't ready to do that. And there is a lot more pressure put on the leaders to get results.
CN: Last year's Tour saw you place second on stage 13, and go also pretty near to winning the fight for the green jersey. It much have been pretty frustrating to go so close in both cases...
SO'G: Yes and no. I think if I was going to win the green jersey, it would have happened by now. I have had enough close calls. It is just a tiring classification to go for - you put so much energy into it and that takes your edge off winning stages. You kind of become content with seconds, thirds and fourths as they all give you points. You lose that hunger for winning.
CN: Does that mean a re-think from now on?
SO'G: Yeah, that was my whole reason for moving from Cofidis. With what happened a few years ago with the big scandal and everything, we were just being content with being bike riders with jobs, we should be happy to be here, this is a great life. But I have been a pro for too long to just ride my bike through the French countryside for fun. And it isn't fun! So if I do it, I want to do it properly. I want to get that winning feeling back.
CN: What is the situation with the Tour this year?
SO'G: I am on the shortlist of riders from which the final team selection will be made I had big talks with Bjarne and the team management during the winter about it. I have told them that if it takes sacrificing going for the green jersey, then I will do it. If it means being part of the winning team in the Tour de France, I will do that. For me it is a big challenge, a big step.
It would obviously be difficult, not being up there, getting involved in sprints, but I have never won a bunch sprint. It is not my forte... I have won in breakaways. I think that my experience in riding nine Tours will probably play a big part, being able to give something to the team. But also getting into breaks with Jens and Jakob Piil and whoever.
CN: You have ridden well in races like Milan-San Remo in the past. Are you hoping that being part of CSC will enable you to win a Classic?
SO'G: Yeah, I think being with a strong team could make all the difference. With good team-mates around you, it is possible. I was hampered a bit in that area before but that shouldn't be the case now.
CN: In saying that this team is more professionally run, that the training is better and it is more scientific, can you expect to go into those races with the bit more form?
SO'G: Yes, that is the plan...
CN: When you talk about going to the Tour, I guess working for Ivan Basso will be the goal there...
SO'G: I think if I am selected, then firstly it will be on my ability to get into breakaways during the Tour. It takes a lot of pressure off the team, not having to ride behind. I think that riders like Jens [Voigt] and Jakob [Piil] and Lars [Michaelsen] and myself all know how to get into breaks, and win from there. Secondly, it will be my experience and knowing that I can get to Paris without any drama, and thirdly, to help Ivan and whoever on the team is in the best position to win the Tour.
CN: When you first rode the Tour, you seemed to be more of a breakaway rider...
SO'G: Yes, I have never said once in my career that I am a pure sprinter. I never have been. I am somebody who is fast at the end of a long, hard race and I know how to put myself into a good position, but I don't have the explosive power of Boonen, Petacchi or McEwen. But in a race such as the stages of the Tour, where it has been hard all day and a hard couple of weeks, that suits my physique.
CN: Have you looked down at what races you will do after the Tour?
SO'G: Yes. From memory, Hamburg, the Tour of Denmark, although that is still uncertain... we will look at everything after the Tour and decide then. Plouay, Poland, maybe, I am not really sure.
CN: Considering the way the world's turned out, not being a pure sprint but being a gallop for hard riders, was it frustrating to miss that?
SO'G: Yes... Everybody was saying all year how easy this climb was; I am sorry, but show me a climb that is easy after 260 kilometres! I will be lying if I said that I was not disappointed. I was pretty happy with how things panned out the year before with the Vuelta and the world's... I think you need to have two leaders. Okay, if it came down to a sprint, then I would work for McEwen, but I needed to have the opportunity to have a crack myself. And that opportunity wasn't available.
CN: Was that the problem then - was it less to do with the argy-bargy in the Tour [with McEwen] and more to do with being given opportunity?
SO'G: Ah, it was nothing to do with what happened in the Tour. Robbie and I have been going head-to-head for years. We are both going for the same goal, so... like I said back then, I respect Robbie for his bike-riding ability. He is one of the best in the world. But I was pretty motivated to do the Vuelta and have a proper crack at the world's. When I look back at the results, I am definitely sure that I wouldn't have got past Boonen, but a medal is a medal...
CN: How are things now with Robbie - are they sorted out?
SO'G: I don't hate Robbie, it is just that the moment we start getting along, something silly happens and it does get blown out of proportion a little bit. We speak about things face to face, and try and sort it out and be grown-up about it. We don't send each other Christmas cards, but I definitely don't hate the guy.
CN: Have you looked at the profile for the world's this year?
SO'G: All I know is that it is in Austria, so I don't like the sound of that (laughs). I will leave that one for Cadel!
CN: But is the world's one of your long-term goals?
SO'G: Yeah, again it would depend on how things pan out this year. It depends on how tough the course actually is. I mean, Verona was a very hilly course. There was an eight kilometre climb, but it wasn't actually steep. I would say in Austria it will be different; I haven't had a climber win the jersey for a few years, so it is probably going to be a pretty hard course...
CN: But a further down the line, it is on your list of must-target goals?
SO'G: Well, a rainbow jersey is a rainbow jersey... I can't see me getting one on the track anymore, so it is time for me to try that. I would love to win a road world's all right.
CN: What about other aims? Milan-San Remo, Flanders....?
SO'G: Yes. My dream races are San Remo, Flanders, Hamburg, Paris-Tours. Any of those big races are dream races for anybody in the world...