Greg Henderson has spent the better part of the 2013 season as the final piece in the Lotto-Belisol lead-out train dedicated to delivering Andre Greipel to the line. Having enjoyed much success, the Kiwi and the German have been likened to the one-two punch of Mark Renshaw and Mark Cavendish in their HTC-Highroad days.
On the lead in to the 2013 Vuelta a España, however, 'Hendo' finds himself with the rare opportunity to sprint for himself. There will be no Andre Greipel, no Mark Cavendish and no Marcel Kittel. Thus with the sprints very much an open contest, Henderson is a likely candidate to be throwing hooks, head-butts and hopefully his hands in the air.
The question is, does he have the speed? Is he recovered from the Tour de France? And how on earth does he plan to survive the Spanish saw-tooth profiles?
Cyclingnews: Coming into the Vuelta without Andre Greipel in the team gives you the chance to chase stage wins for yourself, is that the aim?
Greg Henderson: I wouldn't put a plural on it, just one would be nice! Absolutely I'd like to win a stage. There's obviously not too many chances for the sprinters so I'll give it a red hot one. The team objective is obviously a GC result for Jelle Vanendert and then of course we've got a lot of opportunists that can get in breakaways and win stages also.
CN: Backtracking to the Tour de France, Jürgen Roelandts told Cyclingnews that the Lotto-Belisol lead up to the Tour was focused on flatter races such as the ZLM tour and the Tour of Belgium. Looking back, do you think avoiding the traditional hillier lead in races was successful?
GH: Absolutely. For the sprinters, we don't go into the Tour already tired. It's a really big objective to turn up fresh. Just speaking to other guys that have done the Giro first or even Tour of Suisse -they're hard races- and the Giro is very mentally hard for three weeks.
For a sprinter to get over those mountains the Tour of Suisse, it's hard! By doing these flatter races it gives us the chance to train and gives us five or six chances to work on our lead out in a race situation. They're perfect, so in my opinion it's a really good build up for the Tour for us.
CN: By extension though, if doing the Giro before the Tour de France is too hard, can you say that you now recovered from the Tour in order to ride well at the Vuelta?
GH: Yeah, I think I've recovered quite well. I've had a good block of training. Obviously I didn't push it too hard in the first couple of weeks [after the Tour de France], the body's doing a lot of repairing. But in the last few weeks I've done some really good hours on the bike, but nothing super strenuous.
CN: The bulk of your races this year have been focused solely on delivering Andre Greipel to the line. Now, with the chance to sprint for yourself, does this change things for you in terms of motivation?
GH: Not very much actually. I haven't sprinted for a couple of years now so I know I'm lacking that top end punch. That real explosive power because I just haven't trained that for a couple of years.
But I also know that my top end speed –once I'm up and going- is fast enough so I'm actually really looking forward to it. There's no pressure on me so I'll have a go absolutely. I know where to be [in the sprint finishes], I know everything in terms of the psychological side of it as well. But whether I've physical side of it down, well that's a different story!
It's going to be a nice change with no major pressure because it's not like I'm riding with Greipel on my wheel, and I have to be at the right place at the right time. And the lead-out has to be done correctly. Because nine times out ten Greipel will win if we do it right ... so, frankly, I'm pretty excited about it.
CN: Although it's relaxing not having the pressure of having to perfect a lead-out for Greipel, do you think you may not push yourself to perform as well without that extra ten percent pressure?
GH: Naaaaah! I mean once you get within a couple of kilometres of the finish line -I mean we're professional athletes- it's race on. And when you're a competitive little bastard like I am, and the race kicks in … you give everything one-hundred-percent no question. I'll be pushing for gaps don't you worry.
I mean, when I'm riding for Greipel, you're sprinting for like a hundred kilometres before it really starts, and you're thinking 'god this is shithouse'. So with this, it's a different mindset, I'll just roll along until the final. Then it's business as usual.
CN: And who will you be watching in the sprints?
GH: None of the fast, fast, sprinters are there. Like Cavendish, Greipel or Kittel, and they're your really fast ones that are pretty much untouchable. So there's no else really. I mean, having said that, of course all the sprinters coming to the Vuelta are fast, but it's one of those three that you really look out for normally.
Because there is no headline sprinter I think we could see different winners every day, which makes it nice for a bunch sprint. Ones to watch will be Belkin who've got a dedicated train for Theo Bos.
You've also got GreenEdge with two really good sprinters in Leigh Howard and Michael Mathews and they have a train to go with it. So I'll be stepping around that sort of area and keeping an eye on the guys I know and try and use them as much as I can to get in position.
CN: And are you looking forward to the 11 hill top finishes or would you prefer not to think about it?
GH: Well, I've got a 34 [tooth chainring] and I've got a 29 plate so it will all work out!