Back on track: The other Bradley dreams of Olympic gold

An interview with Bradley McGee, April 3, 2008

Injury has hampered the recent career of Brad McGee, but it appears that the talented Australian may be on course for a return to top form. Cyclingnews Shane Stokes spoke to the 32-year-old and found him to be calm, confident and thoroughly enjoying his sport.

It's been a few years since Australian Bradley McGee displayed the kind of form which earned him prologue victories in the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and top results on the track, including Olympic gold and a world championship. Plagued by a nagging injury for the past few years, McGee finally found the answer to his medical woes this year, and went on to put in a solid showing at the world track championships in Manchester.

After finishing fifth in the individual pursuit and being part of the four-man squad which got bronze medals in the team pursuit, McGee was all smiles when talking the day after his final event. This was despite the fact that many might consider those performances to be a step back for a rider who has been world champion and Olympic silver medallist in the individual pursuit, as well as an Olympic champion in the team event.

"The worlds has been great," he enthused to Cyclingnews. "I knew I wasn't on my top form. But it is March, I had just a week with the boys in Bordeaux before coming here to do something on the track, and I really believe I got everything that was in my legs out in the competition. That's always a good thing. It has set me up with some good motivation for the next couple of months."

McGee's individual pursuit qualifying time of 4 minutes 20.43 seconds was over four seconds off the pace set by Jenning Huizenga (Netherlands), and saw him miss out on the bronze medal ride off. He's got over four months before Beijing, though, and is optimistic that he can raise his game significantly.

"It's definitely possible," he said. "It doesn't take much... a slight gain in power gives you a slight gain per lap, and if you project that over 16 laps then you are certainly going a lot faster. I know what to do, we are fine-tuning a plan that we have already set out, so we'll see."

British rider Bradley Wiggins has dominated the pursuit in recent years, winning world titles in 2003, 2007 and 2008, and overcoming McGee to land Olympic Gold in Athens. Not only that, he won three gold medals in Manchester (adding team pursuit and madison success to his individual title). He's consequently become the rider to beat, and will travel to Beijing as the firm favourite.

The obvious question is, does McGee feel intimidated in squaring up to an opponent like that, particularly one who is on a confidence high? His answer would suggest that he isn't. "Well, how can I put this," he responds, pausing to search for the best way to phrase things. "Let's say I am very happy with what I have seen here."

"From yourself?" we asked.

"With everything," he replied, smiling.

McGee has taken some excellent results in his career, both on road and track (see sidebar). However these tailed off in 2006 and 2007, with an on-off back problem flaring up again and making things miserable at times. Last May, he seemed resigned to going under the knife, even though there was a risk if the procedure did not go to plan. The frustration of suffering pain and a loss of power just when he needed it most - on climbs or time trials - made him desperate to get any resolution to the physical and emotional rollercoaster.

After abandoning hope of riding the 2007 Tour, it was ultimately decided that the surgery was not necessary when a nice twist of fate helped turn things around. McGee had contacted Eddy Merckx in late May and the Belgian told him to get to Brussels as soon as possible, as he was planning on going cycling with a group of some of the world's best specialists.

After heading out with a group of world best back surgeons, the unanimous response was that surgery was not the answer - that something else aside from a herniated disc was causing his symptoms. McGee headed back to his in-season hometown of Monaco and there he finally found a solution to the problem. "I'd been suffering with sciatica for a long time and it took two years to work out what was going on," he told Cyclingnews.

"I just never gave up, I traveled the world going from specialist to specialist and eventually I came across a guy at the Institute of Sport in Monaco. I worked with Stephane Bermon there and a colleague of his, Dr Pariseaux, works a lot with the football players down there, doing lower limb stuff. He gave me a five minute once-over and said, 'you have got a cyst in your knee.' We did a MRI and ultrasound the next day and it proved it…it was just amazing.

"We had thought it was my lower back causing a problem to go down, but in actual fact it was my knee causing the problems to come up! That shocked a few doctors and neurosurgeons and chiropractors and physios and God knows how many specialists I have seen. After two years of soul-searching and digging, it was great. It was almost all over at that point…"

To this day McGee doesn't know what caused the problem. "They don't know if it was as a result of a crash," he stated. "There is a scar there, there could be scar tissue underneath it, but I don't know. I never even asked, to be honest. I'm not looking back, just forward.

"What was happening was the cyst was filling with fluid and actually pinching the nerve. That would make my foot go numb and then I would lose function in my left leg. Over the two years I lost 3 cm off the diameter of my thigh, which is slowly coming back now. It just shows [the extent of] what was going on."

New body, new team

McGee's relief is easy to imagine. He went from being one of the sport's most respected riders to someone who experienced frustration after frustration. During the period before the diagnosis and treatment of the cyst, he'd had some races without symptoms but also others where it was impossible to do justice to his ability because of the problem.

Several times he and his doctors had believed that they had found the solution to his injury woes, but it would reoccur again and dash his hopes. When he was seen at the Institute of Sport in Monaco, the doctors there pinpointed a number of related problems.

The main treatment for these was relatively simple; sort out the problem in his knee. "It was just a matter of injecting a product directly into the cyst, which burned it out," he said. "It hurt like hell for 24 hours, feeling like my leg was going to fall off, but since then it has been sweet."

As a nice little payback, he gained a couple of benefits from the episode. The first is a physical gain, while the second is a psychological one, relating to his morale. Both should make a difference in the months and years ahead.

"During that time we thought it was so much related to the lower back that we did a lot of core strength work," he said to Cyclingnews. "I have continued that through until now and, if anything, I have come out better than when this all started. On top of that, I'm just happier than ever to be on the bike."

McGee's recovery came at a time when he was going through a major change in his professional career. He had spent a decade with Française des Jeux but he and Marc Madiot came to the mutual agreement that it was time to change his team colours. He signed for CSC and is, to say the least, enthusiastic about the new setup.

"It's fantastic," he beamed. " I had ten years at FDJ, I had good memories, good times, some ups and downs, but I walk away with good memories. It was time to change anyway, regardless of injury, because I think it would be a mistake to go your whole career without a change.

"Now I am in CSC, I just couldn't imagine it being any better. It is the structure - not just talking about the bike - it is the philosophy, it is the mentality, it is the way they approach life and it projects itself into cycling and results. That is something you take away [with you] for the rest of your life."

McGee has a one year deal, but one which could be extended each season if things go well. He said that at 32 years of age, he's happier with that sort of arrangement. "I think it is a wise decision to keep yourself on your toes once you get to a certain age. Young blokes need stability, need to calm down and learn the system, but us old blokes need to keep dancing a bit!"

He welcomes the pressure that comes with needing to prove yourself, to justify the team deals, but would ideally like to remain with Bjarne Riis' setup. "I have already proved myself not to be the sort of rider to jump and change, so I don't intend doing that either with CSC. From what I've seen so far, it is something I want to be a part of as long as I am on the bike."

Season focusing

McGee's participation in the world track championships ended with the team pursuit. He wasn't scheduled to ride the other endurance events, although he stayed around for a while to support the other Australian riders. His considerable experience on road and track means he brings a lot to the squad, and so having him there was a chance for the others to learn.

His plan afterwards was to turn his focus away from the velodrome for a while, returning to his team and taking part in some big events with them. "I am going to go and build up again on the road to the next couple of weeks," he said. "I will do the Tour of Georgia and get ready for the Tour of Italy. The Giro will decide what goes on from there, whether I'm looking at the Tour or not."

Four years ago he was eighth in the Giro d'Italia, showing excellent stage racing form and proving he could also climb as well as time trial. However the following year he told Cyclingnews that he would no longer target the GC in Grand Tours, focusing instead on shorter events.

He sticks by this now. "I won't be a general classification contender for the three weeks," he stated. "Because looking at the way things are at CSC, I'm looking forward to playing a [supporting] role to a guy like Carlos Sastre or one of the Schleck brothers. I really am looking forward to that.

"But then I have also been strong in the Tour de Suisse before, I got a top 10 there, and won a four-day Tour and things like that. So if I can do the job for the boys in the big ones and then have the form for a Tour de Suisse or the Dauphiné, then that would be pretty sweet."

Should he perform strongly in either race, that would help secure him a place on the CSC Tour de France team. But whether he heads there or not, he is confident that he will be in top shape for the track events at the Olympic Games.

"If I am doing the Tour, I will back off in June," he explained. "Otherwise I will race hard through that month at the Dauphiné or the Tour of Switzerland and then, once the Tour starts, I'll concentrate on getting ready for the Olympics."

Either option is equally acceptable to him. "I am confident that the two pathways we have got mapped out will get me equally prepared for the Olympics."

McGee may have been some way off gold in the world championships but, with his injury problems now appearing to have been resolved, with a new team and a good race programme helping to build his form and with over four months to go until Beijing, he could have a very successful Olympic campaign. All going to plan, Bradley versus Bradley fighting it out for the gold medal is a real possibility.

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