Non-identical in everything but surname and team, the Velits twins say that together they form “a complete package”. After a rousing end to their 2010 season, the brothers met Procycling in California to discuss their rise to date and how it might continue.
Peter Velits’s third place in the 2010 Vuelta a España was the first ever podium finish at a major tour for his team, and also one of the surprise performances of last season. And yet, this time last year, that team’s manager Bob Stapleton had already forewarned us that by luring Peter and his twin brother Martin Velits from Milram, what was then HTC-Columbia had pulled off one of the transfer coups of the 2009/2010 close season.
“Watch these guys take off next season,” Stapleton whispered. Meanwhile his team mechanics both marvelled and tittered at a riding position which had brought Peter an Under 23 world road race championship title and impressive results at Milram – but which was as unsightly, ineffective and unrefined as anything in the pro peloton.
Twelve months on, at HTC-Highroad’s first training camp this winter in California, Stapleton’s expression is that of the proud, rather than foolhardy or hopeful, father. He was right: the twins proved a win-win. Peter’s doughty display at the Vuelta garnered acclaim, but Martin’s toil for his teammates’ cause in the same race demanded respect.
Anxious and frustrated after a difficult first six months at HTC, the Slovak siblings now glide around the headquarters of new bike sponsors Specialized with the understated poise of a pair of Habsburg princes. or simply like two professional cyclists who have very much arrived…
Guys, can you kick off by telling us a bit about how you came into cycling?
Martin: Our father was a cyclist and our parents owned a bicycle shop, so it was in our blood from a very early age. Dad never rode as a pro because you couldn’t in those days, as Bratislava was under communist rule. He also had knee problems and had to quit the sport when he was about 25. We tried all kinds of sports. We played football, ice-hockey… then did our first bike race at age 14. Peter won and I was third.
Peter: Yeah, outside sport we always had and still have different interests – for example, Martin’s much more into music and I’m more into cars – but with sport we were always true twins.
There are studies which demonstrate how sibling rivalries really help budding sportsmen to progress. With hindsight, do you think it always helped to have a brother to aim at?
Peter: Of course, it makes you try harder and compete harder, but then you also benefit from the support you give each other. Practically, as well, it makes things easier: you can always travel together and train together. You also look after each other in races. If one of us isn’t having a good day, the other one is there to encourage him.
Has there ever been a period when your relationship hasn’t been so close?
Peter: No. I mean, there will always be fights – you can’t avoid that. it tends to happen when we spend too much time together.
Martin: It’s actually pretty good that we manage to stay so close, because we do spend a lot of time together. Okay, there are periods when we’re racing in different places, a couple of weeks here and there, and that gives us a bit of a break. I think that if I spent three months solid with Peter then he would probably start getting on my nerves, and vice versa.
Peter: As we said before, we keep each other going. There was a period of a couple of months when we were Under 23s, with Konica Minolta, and I missed two months of racing because of a torn muscle. Having your brother around at times like that is really helpful.
Has it ever occurred to you that you wouldn’t be here today, as pro riders, without your brother?
Martin: Actually, when Peter became Under 23 world champion in Stuttgart it might have saved the both of us. I don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t won that race, because it was a tough year to look for a pro contract. Peter winning that race put us in a position where we could tell teams they had to take both of us. Peter winning the Worlds was more important for me than it was for him…
Peter: Even for me, though, it wasn’t going to be easy to get a contract. I’d won the senior Grand Prix Fourmies, an hors catégorie race, just before the Worlds, and nothing happened. Then we went to the Under 23 world championships and I won there too. The Worlds was actually a much easier race to win than the GP Fourmies but it was the Worlds that sparked all the interest from the pro teams for us.
Martin: Stuttgart was the most beautiful race of my career. Peter won, our whole family was there… we knew Peter was in good shape, I was also feeling good, and with two laps to go we had to decide what we were going to do. Peter said he’d try to attack and, if it didn’t work, he’d go for the sprint. That’s exactly what happened: I helped to position him on the last lap and he won the sprint.
Peter, you’d always had a decent finishing kick, but even so, were you surprised to win that sprint, against riders as fast as Edvald Boasson Hagen and Wesley Sulzberger?
Peter: I wasn’t really thinking about who was in the group. We also didn’t know many of those guys because we’d raced for Wiesenhof that season and done mostly pro races. We’d raced the senior Tour of Germany and Amstel Gold race.
Martin: Two weeks earlier, at the GP Fourmies, he’d also beaten Baden Cooke, Manuel Quinziato and Daniele Nardello, all fast guys.
But, as you said earlier, the offers from pro teams didn’t come until after the Worlds…
Peter: No, and Milram was the only team that wanted both of us.
And we know that it wasn’t an easy two years for you at Milram, It seemed that, in the second year particularly, they used you almost to make up the numbers at certain races.
Peter: Looking back now, I can say that it was a good experience. Of course there were problems, especially in the second year, but we can’t really blame anyone there.
Martin, it seemed harder for you. They seemed to treat you as a stop-gap at times.
Martin: Yeah, but I didn’t really mind them calling up at the last minute and telling me to travel to a race. it wasn’t a problem. It’s true that we enjoyed the first year more, when there was quite a big Italian contingent. There was also more experience in the team. after that the team wanted to make a transition and become more German, and I don’t think that was very successful.
So the second year was harder, but all in all it was a good experience, as Peter said. Every team has problems. If we hadn’t ridden for Wiesenhof, we wouldn’t have got our deal with Milram, and if we hadn’t done those two years at Milram, we wouldn’t have ended up here. Everything happens for a reason.
On the second rest day of the 2009 Tour in Verbier, [HTC-Highroad team manager] Rolf Aldag and Erik Zabel came to see us. Our manager is Tony Rominger and we talked with him, and told him we were also keen. But the really important thing was that straight away they said that they wanted both of us. we didn’t even have to set that condition ourselves.
Bob Stapleton says that what really impresses him about you, and what really impressed him about you Peter in that 2009 Tour, was your fighting spirit.
Peter: I think that stems from our junior days, when we’d be up against strong teams of Dutch or German guys, and it would seem like us two against the rest. we always had to rely on each other and fight for each other at the end of races.
Is there still a ring of truth in that old stereotype of the hard-working, über-professional Eastern European athlete, even though guys of your generation never really knew communism?
Peter: You’re right about communism but I still think it was harder for us to make it than a lot of our peers. If a rider from the eastern Bloc wants to turn pro he generally has to win a world championship or something like that.
Martin: There’s no real structure for guys like us to get to the pro ranks, not like they have in France or Holland or Italy. even in Great Britain. Slovaks and Czechs, they have to do something special. For example, our teammate František Rabon only got a contract with T-Mobile because he won the European Championship. That’s just the way it works.
Slovakia is also quite unique, though, in terms of what you do in winter. you actually work harder than in the summer. you go for winter training camps in the high Tatras where every day you go out for six or seven hours either hiking or cross-country skiing. or you’ll do three or four training sessions a day with running, swimming, skiing and other activities. When we turned pro, we actually realised that it was probably too much and we learned to rest in winter for the first time.
Peter, this time last year, you came to your first HTC training camp and the team mechanics were practically laughing at your position on the bike. How big were the changes you ended up making and what effect did they have?
Peter: We raised my saddle two or three centimetres, which was a huge change. I’d been riding in the old position all my life. Now I look at the pictures and ask myself how on earth I could ride like that – while also thinking that I was doing really well to be that effective. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about how powerful or aerodynamic it was – it just felt normal.
When we changed it, I found it really hard at first but now I can’t imagine moving the saddle back down by three centimetres. I think my results last year prove that it was the right decision.
Nonetheless, after all the excitement about your move from Milram, and Bob Stapleton saying that you were going to “take off” at HTC, last year didn’t start too well for either of you. After your crash and broken collarbone at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, Peter, were you beginning to think that it was all turning sour?
Peter: The thing is, we were very motivated at the start of the season, very keen to prove ourselves here. Maybe we were a bit too motivated…
Martin: Not maybe. We definitely overdid it during training. We did a training camp at altitude in South Africa in November 2009 and we were already doing long rides, going full gas. Then in January, when we started racing, we didn’t feel bad but we had nowhere to go from there in terms of fitness.
Peter: The start of the season wasn’t bad but…
Martin: We expected more.
Peter: Exactly. It wasn’t what we wanted. I then crashed at the Dauphiné and started to think that it was turning into a bit of a shit year. The only consolation was that we had a two-year contract. Almost straight away, though, we started thinking about the Vuelta. We knew that we would be riding there together and that it could be a really great opportunity.
Martin: We also had to learn from the mistake we made at the start of the year, so we had to stay focused while not getting stressed or overdoing our training.
Peter: In a way, the injury helped because it made me rest. For once, I almost rested too much and Martin did the same. Our coach, Thomas Schedewie, is a big believer in altitude training, so we went to St Moritz and started up again doing long training sessions at low intensities. We got slowly back into racing without really getting any results, then we gave it everything at the Vuelta.
You arrived at the Vuelta and immediately found yourselves riding with Mark Cavendish in a team time trial that he was, shall we say, very motivated to win. Had you ever experienced anything like Cavendish’s energy and… exuberance before that stage?
Peter: We’d practised really well the day before and tried every combination…
Martin: …because it was a pretty new experience for us, unlike for guys like Cav and Bernie Eisel. They knew exactly what they wanted and what we needed to do.
Peter: We’d probably never experienced anyone motivating his teammates quite as vocally as Cav did that day but we all know that he’s special… in a good way. He really fired up the whole team. He instilled the belief in us that we could really win.
Martin: I don’t think we’d have won that day without him firing us up like that. With all the races he’s won, he could have just gone through the motions on a stage like that. But we know that’s not Cav’s style.
Cavendish said that he really gelled with you two at that race…
Peter: The whole team did. There were some great stories going around the bus. Lars Bak, Bernie, Cav… we were all having good fun.
Martin: They were three special weeks.
Cavendish said that the team time trial win was his most satisfying win of the season. Peter, your win in the final individual time trial, beating Cancellara, was one of the most surprising…
Peter: It was amazing. I felt really good that day, very well rested, and everything just clicked.
You very often see five or six HTC riders in the top 20 in TTs. Is that purely due to the team’s focus on technology?
Peter: They really focus a lot on small details. we’ve been to the track in Büttgen three times to work on our position, to try to save a few watts.
Martin: You get the best technology but also the best advice on how to use it.
Peter: We have a time trial bike at home to use for training, which not all riders on other teams do. If you’re doing a lot of work on your position, it’s only logical that you also need a lot of time to practice.
Peter, having finished third in the 2010 Vuelta, how high can you go at this year’s Tour?
Peter: I don’t really want to set a specific target. Anything can happen in a three-week race. Now I’ve proved to myself that I’m capable of contending in a three-week tour, so I just want to make sure that I’m prepared and ready for the Tour. I’ll go to San Moritz in May, like I did before the Vuelta, last year, and try to make sure I’m still fresh for the Tour. after that, we’ll see.
Martin, are you on the shortlist for the Tour?
Martin: I don’t know yet but that’s my big target. To do it, I have to earn my place with good rides early in the year. I’ve done the Vuelta three times but never the Tour, so that’s the logical next step…
Final question, guys – is there any feature or characteristic, on or off the bike, that you envy in your brother?
Peter: I think that we’re better together. Then we’re like a complete package.
Martin: It’s good because we learn from each other all the time. I watch Peter and see how he’s more relaxed in certain situations, and I realise that I should be more like that sometimes. At other times, he can learn and benefit from my ability to focus.
It’s the same on the bike – I might be the one wanting us to extend our training sessions by an hour, whereas Peter will be the one wanting to add more hills. The more time goes on, the more we also realise how important it is to be on the same team.