Ten years ago, Jens Heppner of Team Deutsche Telekom wore the maglia rosa at the Giro d'Italia for ten days. Now the German hopes to lead Team NetApp to the Italian race for its first Grand Tour. Giro organizer RCS Sport announced earlier this week that NetApp is in the final 14 candidates for wildcard invitations to the races it organises, including the Giro.
Heppner was an ageing veteran for Telekom when he was part of a breakaway group on the sixth stage of the 2002 Giro from Cuneo to Varazze. His former teammate Giovanni Lombardi won the sprint, but Heppner's seventh place finish was enough to propel him into a 3:33 overall lead ahead of Stefano Garzelli.
Taking pink was "for sure a surprise. For me too. But you have to be lucky at the right time, too and I was lucky at this stage,“ he told Cyclingnews this week. "Well, actually I already did a good race on the second stage arriving in Liège when I got on the podium. So maybe it wasn’t that much of a surprise at the end.
"The years before I was mostly charged with helping my captains. Now I had the chance to go on my own and it was perfect timing. Because wearing the maglia rosa while riding in Italy is indescribably awesome. It’s a very special feeling and it meant a lot to me especially because I kept it for ten stages."
During his time in pink, Cyclingnews wrote that Heppner "enjoyed another day in pink and another day on the podium, where his antics with the champagne bottle have surpassed compatriot and F1 driver Michael 'Schumi' Schumacher. 'Heppe' is relishing every moment on the podium.“
That brought a smile to the face of the man who Cyclingnews also described ten years ago as "a guy who rarely ever cracks a smile.“ He said, "Although I wasn’t on the podium as much as Michael Schumacher, I knew and still know very well how to open a champagne bottle and how to enjoy every moment. At that time I was sure those were once in a lifetime moments and I loved every second of it.“
Now a sport director at NetApp, Heppner knows exactly how he can help his young riders. "With this experience I am able to give better advice to our young riders regarding the course overview and tactics. Furthermore, I know exactly what the guys are going through while racing and I am able to feel what they feel. They know that I went through the same hell and appreciate my advice.
"Maybe it even helps with our application for the Giro wildcard,“ he continued. "The Giro is of course one of my favorite races and I would be happy to return, ten years after I proudly wore the maglia rosa for ten stages. Only today, I will return with our young riders who are desperate to race the Giro.“
NetApp didn't bring in any victories in its first ProContinental season, but got progressively stronger as the season went along. Numerous new riders this year should help change things in 2012. "I believe the team is much stronger than last year because we strengthened the squad for classics races and tour support as well as for wins,“ Heppner told Cyclingnews.
"Seeing Leo König racing last year, I count on him as our tour rider. He already showed his talent and I am sure he can build on his results. Also our new signing Matthias Brändle looks very good for the classics as well as Jerome Baugnies for the one-day races.“
And if NetApp is chosen for the Giro, and one of those young riders should happen to take the maglia rosa, Heppner can give him some very detailed tips on what to expect. "On the day when I got the maglia rosa I remember my mobile phone not being still. That day I received the most text messages in my entire life.
"Looking back to all stages, the biggest fight wasn’t to defend the pink jersey, as you might think, it was more to defend the mascot of the Giro which I received every day on the podium. Fans were desperate and crazy to grab it from me. All that's left now is only one mascot and one jersey. And those I will keep forever.“