Henderson, who crashed out of the Tour de France in July, spent the second half of the season returning to full fitness before he eventually re-signed with Marc Sergeant’s Lotto-Soudal for another year. Despite his age, and the new generation of riders knocking on the door, the veteran rider had no plans on retiring this season, and is as motivated as ever.
“You know people were saying ‘you’re getting old now so maybe you can’t be signed for two years’ and I understand that. That’s how it was in the old days but that’s not what you get from me. I enjoy the training and I enjoy the racing. I can still do both really well,” Henderson told Cyclingnews on Friday evening from his home in Spain.
Although he turned professional relatively late, Henderson has built up a vast amount of experience, riding for teams such as Health Net, T-Mobile, Highroad, Team Sky and Lotto-Soudal. He made a name for himself as a successful sprinter but he has redefined his role as one of the most accomplished lead-out men in recent years, having helped teammate Andre Greipel to a long roll call of wins.
What makes Henderson stand out, however, is his desire to remain competitive despite his advancing years. While most riders consider retiring during their early to mid 30s, Henderson has simply brushed such talk to one side. Even this year, when the easier option would have been to walk away after he crashed out the Tour, the New Zealander rallied and came back in the second half of the season.
“Essentially it was a milestone of mine to be racing my bike at 40 years of age. I know that there’s not many people who can do that. I proved this year that I’m still one of the best in the world at my job, I’ve not slowed down and my desire to race has not dropped. I’m super motivated and as far as I’m concerned you can race your bike forever as long as your mental capacity is right there. I love racing my bike and I’m lucky to be able to do it as a job.”
“Stopping never crossed my mind. Never. I never thought about quitting but I needed a rest and then I could set myself a goal to come back to. I did Eneco and I remember during Eneco I talked to Heinrich Haussler. He and I trained a bit in Colorado a while back and he suggested I go back and that’s when the penny dropped. I got through the race, and it was bloody hard for me because I rode on the front in order to help Tim Wellens win, and then the next week I did Hamburg and literally the next day I was flying out to Colorado to train at altitude.”
That desire to return to the top saw Henderson through to the final part of the season where her capped off racing the Canadian WorldTour races with two respectable rides at the World Championships – firstly in the team time trial and then in the men’s road race.
“I trained so hard there and did Quebec and Montreal – two super hard races but I had super condition and rode really well in the Worlds team time trial. In the road race in finished around 30 seconds down on Sagan. I was really proud of that ride as I was fighting on my own that day. It was a really important period for me because I got back to the top level and that was important for my mental state and to show people how dedicated I am.”
A final year at WorldTour?
Henderson will be 40 by the time he starts to wind down at the end of next season and with just a one-year deal under his belt there are no promises that he will continue racing beyond 2016. That said, the 39-year-old still has ambitions of having a successful campaign next season. He will start the year at the New Zealand Nationals before heading to Australia for the Tour Down Under and Cadel Evan’s race.
He will then return to Europe and race with Andre Greipel in a number of one-day and stage races. A return to the Giro d’Italia in May is a possibility but the main focus remains the Tour de France, where Henderson will be hoping to help propel Greipel to stage victories.
“We’ve known each other for so long and it’s a friendship,” adds Henderson, pointing to the fact that they both raced together at HTC before the New Zealander joined Team Sky for two years and then linked up with the German once more at Lotto.
“I can talk to him about family matters so it’s more than just a professional relationship. He’s one of the nicest guys in the bunch – on and off the bike. He gets upset at himself but not at the team and that’s what gains him respect from his teammates and the rest of the peloton.”
Who is the fastest?
The Lotto-Soudal team heads into the winter safe in the knowledge that Greipel was the leading sprinter of 2015 after a stellar Tour de France. Marcel Kittel had a washout of a season, while Mark Cavendish, although successful for long periods of the season, was put in second place at the Tour.
Henderson has ridden alongside Cavendish and Greipel during there time at HTC and is in a better position than most to answer the question of which sprinter is the fastest.
“It’s hard to say. At the moment Andre is but will he be next year? That’s hard to say because Cavendish was the fastest before. Last year Kittel was the fastest and if he gets back to his best then it’s going to be a showdown.”
Henderson pointed to the evolution of sprinting that has taken place in the last few years. Cavendish was unquestionably the best sprinter in the world for many seasons but in recent years his competitors have narrowed the gap and arguably pushed ahead. The British rider maintains that he has lost none of his speed – an opinion shared by Henderson.
“Sprinting has changed in the last few years and it’s the big powerhouses now. Everyone has the same aerodynamic advantage now. Cavendish, back in the day was super aero and had these little gains but now these big guys can do 2,000 watts and have the skin suit, the aero wheels and Cavendish doesn’t have the same advantage that he used to have. Having said that he’s one of the smartest sprinters on the planet. You don’t fluke nearly thirty stage wins at the Tour de France.
I don’t think Cavendish has got any slower. I don’t think he’s slowed down. I’m sure if you shot a radar gun at him he’s still doing 70kph. It’s not that he’s slowed down, it’s just that everyone else has become faster. If you ask him he’d say he’s not slower.
There’s no doubt that Lotto-Soudal hold an advantage over the other sprinters as the peloton heads into another season. Both Cavendish and Kittel have changed teams and must begin to find their feet and form with new lead-out squads. Greipel, on the other hand, has the comfort of tried and trusted system. Henderson knows that he and the rest of the team can not rest on their laurels, however, and the veteran rider is eager to help bring on the younger members of his team.
“I think we do have an advantage. There’s no doubt. I think it’s going to take time for Cavendish to build trust with the guys who are in front of Mark Renshaw. With us you know that once Marcel Sieberg takes off it’s go time. We’ve got guys like Jens Debusschere who I’m looking to put into my position. I can maybe guide him and if he learns that, once I retire, the role could be second nature to him. I’ll still guide the train but if he’s on my wheel he should be able to learn the role.”
There’s still plenty of fight in Henderson, and although time may not be on his side, there’s no doubting his hunger to keep on racing.
“It’s tough to say as to when I’ll stop. I think it will be the final year racing WorldTour in 2016. I’ll still be involved in cycling, developing and coaching but maybe in the future it will be to a higher degree. For now, I just can’t wait for next year.”