An interview with Graeme Brown, June 6, 2007
Following an impromptu exit from the Giro d'Italia, Graeme Brown headed north-west to contest the Tour of Belgium. Steve Thomas caught up with the Australian sprinter to discuss his year to date.
A whole lot of personal hopes for Graeme Brown's season had been placed on performing well in this year's Giro d'Italia. Just a few days before the Sardinian start of the Grand Tour Rabobank's key sprinter had set his heart on clashing with the best in the Giro, and was hoping to walk away from the three week race with a stage win.
His Giro master plan was far from well executed, with his campaign going pear shaped just three days into the event. "I'd been feeling good before the race," he reflected. "Then on the second night I began to feel a bit sick, but didn't worry about it. We drove down to the race that morning, and I felt worse, but I figured maybe it was a bit of car sickness."
But carsickness it was not, and as the stage rolled on it was clear that he was in some distress. Teammate Leon Van Bon had reportedly already seen the Tour doctor to get some medicine for Brown, but things continued to go downhill. "I was kind of vomiting a little bit, and suffering," recalled Brown. "There were some solid climbs in there. I went off the back, and started seriously vomiting. I really wanted to get through the stage as I knew there was a rest day ahead, which would allow me to recover some."
Unfortunately it wasn't playing out his way, and he begun to struggle more and more, slipping further and further back; "I really wanted to get back, but I was slowing more and more," said Brown, whose Directeur Sportif, Adri van Houwelingen, described him continuing as being 'useless' at the time. "We took a time check and I was outside the limit, and with 50 kilometres to go I had to climb off, and then proceeded to throw up all over the team car: what a mess."
Before Brown had even had a chance to mix it with the other sprinters his Giro campaign was over. "I was really disappointed, and the team had put so much faith in me," said Brown. "The finish Robbie won was more of a small group than a bunch finish, and I was not there. I was really hoping to get through. I've seen the race on TV, and figure I had a good chance of doing well, but that's the way it goes."
Within a couple of weeks the Giro was behind him, so as his teammates were finishing up in Italy Brown was back on form and hitting the hot spots in the Tour of Belgium. "I took a few days off the bike, and am fine now," he said. "I feel pretty good, and Belgium [was] okay. But I'm not quite getting it all together yet - I could really do with another win soon."
This season is Brown's second with Rabobank, and in the Pro Tour, having joined the squad from Ceramica Panaria - Navigare, where he's spent the previous four seasons. Despite taking two stage victories in the Deutschland Tour and overall victory at the Tour de Rijke last season, Brown admits its taken some time to meet the expectations of his squad and the ProTour environment. "It's a whole different environment and a completely different style of racing," he explained. "The team expected me to start winning straight away, but it was something of a reality check for me - riding at this level. It took time, but it's coming together now, the team has faith in me and helps me a lot in the sprints, and results are coming."
Those results include stage victories at the Tour of California and Vuelta a Murcia, in February and March respectively, and no fewer than six stage second places. Additionally, Brown also finished overall runnerup at the Rund um Köln, Niedersachsen Rundfahrt and Ronde van het Groene Hart.
Brown's season got off to something of a turbulent start, with the memorable clash with Tom Steels in the Tour of Qatar, and his subsequent blackballing by his fellow riders. "At the time it really sucked," admitted Brown. "It was a mistake, an accident, and it won't happen again. I think he [Steels] wrote a letter to the UCI, but since that day nothing more has been mentioned about it."
The former BMX racer has long been known for his aggressive sprinting nature. It's a trait that has taken time to adjust to the ProTour way of sprinting, but Brown believes the work has paid off. "It's taken a while," he conceded. "I used to be really nervous when coming into a sprint, but Leon Van Bon has helped me a lot with keeping calm. Now I'm a lot more relaxed, which I'm sure makes a lot of riders in the filed much happier. Having team support also makes a big difference."
Winning is very much at the top of Brown's priority list, and he's been winning bike races of some kind or another since he was three years old, when he started racing BMX. But it wasn't until late '95 that he traded the BMX track in for the velodrome, and used his explosive power to attain almost instant success, and a track junior World title in 1997 in Cape Town.
The track remains a very important place for the Sutherland Shire boy. Brown's success in the discipline is extensive, with the trophy cabinet containing Olympic and Commonwealth Games gold medals accompanied by UCI World Cup and World Championship medals. "Even when I first came to Italy with the AIS I was still mainly focussing on the track, but also doing well on the road," he recounted. That earned him his first contract as a professional road racer, with the Italy-based Panaria squad.
Brown, with the support of his Panaria teammates, became a force to be reckoned with on the annual trip to Malaysia's Tour de Langkawi. In 2002 and 2003 he took two stage wins at the event, and while he could only manage a pair of third places in 2004 he came back a year later to claim five stage victories and the overall points jersey for the second time.
But injury also crept in during this time: "It was my Achilles tendon, but I'd had MRI scans and ultrasounds, they couldn't find anything," he said. "Every time things got hard it would flare up. I'd hardly ridden my bike for two-three months before the Olympics because of it.
"Finally a surgeon said lets open it up and take a look," added Brown. "There was a build up of scar tissue that hadn't shown up on the scans, he managed to remove some of it. It's made a big difference, so far."
Despite the disappointment of the Giro, there's still plenty of racing ahead of Brown before the end of this season. During the remaining months Brown's goal is simple: winning. "I've got about another 45 racing days ahead of me," he said. "Missing the Giro only changed things in that I rode Belgium instead. I won't be doing the tour, with Rasmussen and Menchov the team is fully committed to the GC, and not carrying me around. So, I just want to get winning some more races!"
Beyond 2007, well, Brown will worry about that as it draws nearer. One thing is for sure, he will be aiming to add a third gold medal to his tally at next year's Beijing Olympics and, like any Australian sporting pursuit, there's good motivation behind his goal. "I'd like to win the team pursuit again," he revealed, "not so much for the medal - more to beat the pomes!"