By Brecht Decaluwé
A war of words has erupted between American Jonathan Page and his Belgian Sunweb-Projob squad, with the outfit saying the cyclo-cross rider can't handle the pressure of a professional squad. Page was signed to a two year contract after his impressive second place finish at last season's World Championships, but has come under increasing pressure from the squad in recent races.
The feud boiled over on the weekend with the squad sending its doctor around to Page's home in Oudenaarde to check if he was ill after the rider called in sick in the hours leading up to Saturday's GvA-trophy #3 in Hasselt. "Just a routine control," team manager Jurgen Mettepenningen told Cyclingnews of the reasons behind the visit.
Page, who has failed to achieve the results his team was expecting to see this season, however didn't appreciate the doctor's visit. "I feel like [Mettepenningen's] just looking for a reason to fire me," Page said.
The former American champion was hoping for a strong result at Superprestige #3 in Gavere on Sunday, but Page went home empty handed. After a reasonable start, he crashed into cushions while riding down a slippery and steep descent.
Mettepenningen met with Page in the rider's motor home after the race. "He never stops complaining and keeps going on about him being my boss, and me having to obey him," said Page. "The way he communicates with me is offensive. It's just ridiculous.
"I can't go on like this," Page fumed. "If this is the way it has to go, then that's not what I want. I'd rather ride competitively and happily than be mentally destroyed and underperforming because of him. I don't need his mobile home and money; I'd rather be just a happy man."
Mettepenningen reacted calmly when asked about the discussion and referred to a press release on the team's website, which states that Page can't handle the discipline of a professional team. "Not only are his results disappointing – Page never finished top 10 in a big race – also his approach has raised some questions," the release read, before going on to refer to Page's first race of the season where he had to gather his equipment and mechanics the day before the race.
"In Hamme-Zogge, Page was pumping a tyre himself... One call and our team mechanic would've supported him," Mettepenningen said. "The team's directeur sportif and Jonathan's friend, Mario De Clercq, tried to get him to be more serious about his job, but Page reacted that the team was putting him under too much pressure. These remarks and his feigned illness from Saturday were enough for the team to get together with Page after the race in Gavere. Five minutes later a ranting and raving Page left the camper with his wife, confusing the VIPs that were having a drink next to the camper."
"Presenting all of this as pester campaign against him is incorrect," continued Mettepenningen. "Our team doesn't need the budget from Jonathan to attract another rider. It's too bad Jonathan can't handle the pressure that is related to a top team."
The team's directeur sportif Hans De Clercq reacted on cyclo-cross.info in support of the team's decision. "Of course there's more pressure because of the team's poor performances," he said. "Only Sven Vanthourenhout has a valid excuse, so is it wrong to remind him about his obligations."
"For example, the day before the World Cup in Pijnacker, Page was spotted in a gala evening in Brugge," De Clercq added. "A pro shouldn't have been there the night before a race that is held 300 km away. On Saturday he only warned us about his absence two hours before the race! We have obligations towards our sponsors as well you know."
The team's other director, former triple world champion Mario De Clercq, declined to give a reaction.
Page believes he's not the only rider struggling with team management, claiming that team-mate Sven Vanthourenhout, who abandoned Sunday's race half-way through, was also suffering under management's psychological pressures. "Mettepenningen could have focused on the good things, like his two wins in the US, his podium finish in Switzerland and the fact that he's the team's only rider in the UCI's top 10. Instead Mettepenningen tends to point to all the negative points," Page lamented.
Despite the heated comments the team's media spokesperson, Kris Van Huynegem, said the team had no plans to dismiss Page. "He's aiming at a split, but that's not our intention," Van Hugynegem claimed.