Dead Man Riding

Mercury rising...

Mercury rising... (Image credit: Peter Brentlinger)

An interview with Henk Vogels, October 8, 2004

"It was a near-death experience - the ankle injury, the broken neck... I shouldn't be here," he says.

It's a glorious spring day on Queensland's Sunshine Coast. The sun's shining hot and bright with not a cloud in view. Family and friends surrounds him, eating, drinking, talking, laughing. The remains of beer-battered fish and chips lie scattered in cardboard boxes. Just a few steps across the road, the sound of waves crashing into the shoreline can be heard every 30 seconds or so. Oh - and there's a stubbie of VB on the table. Quite clearly, Henk Vogels is here.

"[The accident] was definitely the lowest point. But I would have regretted it if I stopped and I want to give it a big shot, especially after this injury... from being almost dead," Vogels says of the accident that almost cost him his life 15 months ago, the long road to recovery, and his imminent return to Europe in 2005.

"Y'know, I think I would have regretted it if I finished my career in America," he continues in his unmistakably deep Aussie drawl. "I've always loved racing the Spring Classics and the Tour... and not to be there still eats at me."

It's been five years since the 31 year-old from Western Australia last rode a full season in Europe alongside his long-time buddy Stuart O'Grady at Credit Agricole. 1999 was Vogels' fifth year in Europe as a professional, and after winning the Australian road championship in January that year, most expected he would ride at least another five more.

However, an incessant knee injury saw him miss most of his beloved Spring Classics, and pride got in the way when it came to renewal of his contract, which carried a significantly smaller price-tag. And so began his adventure in the United States of America.

"I don't regret for a second going over there, at all," Vogels says without hesitation when I ask him if there's any regrets.

"I had a great five years there - it's not all fun sitting in the gutter in shit and mud and rain and wind and crap like that," he says defiantly. "It was great racing in bits of America, kicking ass."

No one can argue with that. Victory in both the USPRO road and criterium championship, two stages of the GP Beauce and the opening stage of last year's Tour of Georgia, not to mention countless podium places in America's lucrative criterium scene, all form part of an enviable palmares. In his last two years with the Navigators Insurance Cycling Team, Vogels was part of a squad that won close to 100 races a year. "I mean, we did races with 500, 750,000 people, criteriums with 30 to 50,000 people at seven o'clock at night under lights... it was a great experience," says Vogels fondly.

But having being part of the rise and demise of ill-fated Mercury squad since its inception in 2000 - a team that had high hopes of riding the Tour de France but never really looked like making it - it's been a rollercoaster ride nonetheless.

"I had some good results in 2000, rode the Olympic Games... Was the lead-out man for [Fabrizio] Guidi, [Jans] Koerts, [Gordon] Fraser in the Mercury-Viatel team, missed out on the Tour... Then with the team going bankrupt [in 2001] and being left high and dry for the 2002 season... It's been and up-and-down last couple of years," Vogels says in broken sentences as if he's reliving the experience, but the interruption's coming from his four year-old son Jett, who's decided to play a game of hide-and-seek - unannounced. "Nightmare, " he says, his eyes scanning the crowd. Though I'm not quite sure if he's talking about Mercury or his son.

Despite the inevitable implosion, Vogels remains positive about the experience (something fellow riders such as Peter Van Petegem and Floyd Landis have trouble seeing past) and expresses genuine sadness about leaving.

Says Vogels with pride, "Oh, I've had an absolute ball in the States!

"I mean, we did some excellent races over there; people categorise [the racing], but I've seen the Europeans come over and get their arses kicked, too. The level has gone up hugely - you can see by how well the Americans are doing in Europe nowadays.

"But," he's quick to add, "I've done both; I've had both sides of it, and I'm geed to get back."

"There's a lot of good things about America, but to get back, fully into the swing of things, is something I had to do before the end of my career - I want to get back into the Classics next year and make sure I'm at a good level before the Tour [de France]. That's something I couldn't do when I was in the United States."

So from hitting a guard-rail head-first at 100 kilometres an hour - to almost a month in intensive care - to hypobaric chamber oxygen treatments, four or five times a week with physiotherapists, magnetic therapy, massage, acpuncture and antidepressants - to being told that he'd have a 10 percent chance his ankle would be fully functional again (he still has six three-and-a-half-inch screws in his ankle) - to the birth of his second child Toby seven months ago - and now to step back into a Division 1 team in Europe - does it all seem a little surreal?

"Ab-sol-ute-ly. I mean, it was a near-death experience, but at some stage, though, it's been of bit of a defining moment, " he says, his burly voice drifting as his mind goes back in time.

Vogels' courageous comeback to the top level - at least in the United States - coupled with his pedigree as a top Classics rider and lead-out man, was enough to convince friend Robbie McEwen he would be an ideal part of the new Davitamon-Lotto set-up in 2005. In fact, McEwen wanted him two years ago, but with a second Tour de France green jersey in the bag, rockin' Robbie finally had the leverage to pull it off.

While McEwen is one of the few sprinters who is able to fight for wheels largely unaided, a by-product of his BMX background, brilliant bike-handling skills and bulldog-like tenaciousness, the addition of Vogels along with riders like Aart Vierhouten is certain to help the petite pocket rocket immeasurably. "I reckon there were some times [last year] where if he had a lead-out, he probably would have won more races," surmises Vogels.

"If he [McEwen] can have somebody put him in a great position with 7 - 600, 500 metres to go, where he doesn't have to fight to be in the top five and he can sit on my big fat drivin' ass," he grins, "then he's going to have an easier ride."

"Obviously, Petacchi's got the big top torque, the big top-end, but I think Robbie's as fast, if not faster than Petacchi; if I can come back to my previous level, I can be doing what [Guido] Trenti does for Petacchi. But I've got a fair way to go before I can get to that stage."

Asked what level he thinks he'll be at come the Classics, there's no delay before answering: "I want to be at 100 percent - otherwise there's no use for me to even keep racing."

Although he'll be racing the Herald Sun Tour in a just over a week from now, Vogels' season is obstensibly over. His major focus over the summer will be to regain all of the strength in his left calf muscle (which he claims is operating at about 60 percent) and build a big base of miles.

"Not racing, not riding - not even walking - was always something that's going to knock me 'round hugely," he says, sounding a touch nervous, unwilling to reveal any sign of frailty.

Though abruptly, his manner does an about-turn as his voice grows more confident: "If I can do six to eight thousand kilometres before the start of the season, then I'm already a step ahead of the last four seasons. I'm going to be building slowly, steadily until I get back to Europe next year. If I kill myself in the off-season, then I'm not going to finish [well]; there's a right way to do it and that's slowly and progressively, so I can have a full season."

Our conversation is once again interrupted. Although this time it's not by little Jett, who, as his name implies, is whizzing around Mooloolaba Esplanade like Astroboy, but the sound of motorcycle that wouldn't look out of place at the Moto Grand Prix. As it pulls up to the kerb, the rider parks his bike directly in front of us, flicks the kickstand out, takes his helmet off, and walks over casually to our table.

"Nice bike, man," says Vogels with a hint of envy as he leans over and give his mate a handshake.

"You got anything like that at home?" I ask him.

"No... 'cause I know how I race bikes," he says with a wry grin, before bluntly calling it a "widow-maker".

He almost did that without the motorbike, I say to myself. Don't give him any ideas, you idiot.

With 25 riders already signed up and more to come, the Davitamon-Lotto dynamic - much like the rest of the teams in the Pro Tour - will surely be an interesting one. However, with mandatory participation in all three Grand Tours and numerous other races, it appears they'll be ample opportunity to shine.

"I think it's going to be fine," says Vogels, sounding not in the least bit bothered.

"I think our team, and just about every Pro [Tour] team, there's going to be a minimum two programs going at the same time. Obviously, with our team, there's Steels, McEwen and Rodriguez as sprinters, so that's going to be interesting to see how that all fits in, who goes where, for what and for whom, but I don't think they'll be any selfishness at all."

To counter any egotistical behaviour, Omega Pharma boss Mark Coucke (who owns the Davitamon brand) will be introducing an egalitarian system of rewarding riders. According to Vogels, the bonus system differs to that of teams like Cofidis (which rewards riders for how many UCI points one earns) and instead remunerates based on team, rather than individual performances. "It's all how you fit in the team," he says, "and I think the guys are going to respond [to that] really well."

"If you're a wanker, you're not going to get any money; if you don't do a good job, then you're not going to get a bonus. Obviously, you want to get your own results, but money talks too - there's so many races during the year, and I think everyone's going to get their own chance."

Speaking of his own ambitions, Vogels says he really won't know until he goes back to Europe next year and steps "back into the swing of things". One thing he is sure about though, is that he wants to be a key member of the team for Roubaix, Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem - races he's previously been in the position to win.

Says Vogels with credence, "I don't want [the accident] to be something that I'm remembered by.

"Yeah, it's something bad that had happened, but I want to come back to a great level and I'm looking forward to it... it's going to be an awesome challenge."

Right now, the only challenge facing him is to find his son and take him for a swim down at the beach.

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