By Bjorn Haake
Erik Zabel retired as a professional cyclist last year but has stayed close to the sport, becoming a coach for Columbia-Highroad. Focusing initially on Mark Cavendish, his role expanded soon, and he was literally behind Edvald Boasson Hagen's success in Wednesday's Gent-Wevelgem.
General Manager Bob Stapleton said that Zabel's close connection with the riders was essential. "He gets huge respect from the riders themselves. Everything he says is a gem of wisdom for them, and they hang on his every word."
Zabel started with a specific focus. "Erik's charter was to work with Mark tactically and specifically for Milano-Sanremo." But Zabel's role soon expanded to Boasson Hagen (who also still has his Norwegian coach) and Tony Martin.
"They were top young talents and could use a little extra guidance, a little extra push on how to expand their physical range, so they could do these longer and harder races. Erik could also give them more confidence what to do tactically."
But for Stapleton the tactical aspects weren't the most important. "It's the personal discipline and the volume of training he does, the focus on what he eats and how he looks after himself."
Boasson Hagen is eager to listen to the former professional who scored over 200 career victories. "He is interested in what Erik has to say, he pays attention and that's what a young rider should do."
When Boasson Hagen was in the final Gent-Wevelgem break with Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), he was almost secured the win already. "Erik was in the car with Brian Holm and that's a pretty good car to have behind you," Stapleton said.
Young talents to the front
The team puts quite an emphasis on recruiting young talent. "Edvald was on a really good programme with his Maxbo-Bianchi team. They develop the young talents patiently, they give them all the tools and not a lot of pressure. It's a team we constantly looked at to see who on the roster makes sense for us," Stapleton said.
The team put a lot of time and effort into the Norwegian. "He was hard to recruit. But we didn't push him in one direction and wanted to support him to explore whatever race he was interested in. We are patient." The lack of pressure could have played a role in edging out teams like CSC. "I think he wanted to get into a team on its way up. CSC would have been a huge jump for a young kid to make."
Timing was also on Columbia-Highroad's side. "We were more stable at the time. CSC was fighting to keep the sponsorship at the time. We were lucky to get our hands on him early. I think there will be a lot of interest in him going forward, obviously."
His contract expires at the end of the year and the negotiations have been going on since the middle of last year. "He has a good representative," Stapleton said. Boasson Hagen's lack of signing early has literally paid off already. "He sure did win much money [in Gent-Wevelgem for a new contract], and that will be our biggest challenge," said Stapleton.
Everybody will be after him, but Stapleton said that the team treated him well. " We show every bit of good faith and confidence in him," something that may play a role for the family-oriented man. " He is going to have a great career and hopefully with us," Stapleton said.
Things are easier with Martin and Cavendish. Martin has still two years on his contract left. Cavendish is bound to the team until 2011, even though there are always rumours of Cav negotiating. "Let me be very clear on this, until 2011 Mark is going nowhere."