There is a poster of the 2006 Rabobank team still hanging on the walls of the Blanco service course. One by one, the faces have been crossed off as the roster has ebbed and flowed. Just one rider is free of a black cross - Graeme Brown. He is the last man standing.
Brown has seen a lot during his time with the Dutch squad. When he joined Rabobank after four years with Panaria in 2006, he had already fulfilled a dream of becoming an Olympic Champion on the track but he described those years with the Italian squad as "wasted" for the most part.
"Over the last eight years with Rabo I've developed more and more and more." Brown told Cyclingnews. "I feel like that every year I become a better bike rider. If I could have done that four years earlier I might have actually been good.
"I don't regret the situation at all but it could have maybe been better."
Brown is almost an enigma. 2013 marks his 12th season as a professional, his eighth with the outfit who as of this year is known as Blanco. In all that time, he's been offered just one two-year contract, living from year-to-year, management keeping him "on edge". It's been said that Brown is the luckiest man in the peloton with little in the way of results to his name.
"People who say that don't know shit from clay," he snipes. "That's almost an old Brownie comment."
When he began his career with the Dutch squad he was a designated sprinter but in recent seasons, Brown has matured into the steady lead-out man. The trash-talking, aggressive sprinter has slowly disappeared as he grew into his new role. It wasn't an easy pitch for the team to make to the Australian, he says there was a bit of "tip-toeing around" from management who were looking for someone to guide Theo Bos to the sprint victories but for the man himself, it was a reasonably easy transition.
"For me it was a no-brainer," Brown explained to Cyclingnews. "He's quicker than me so it's about making sure he wins the race. It's not rocket science. There's no use him leading me out - I'm not quicker than him."
Last season was Brown's best, according the team. He went for one sprint and finished sixth. The rest of the season was dedicated to supporting the team's sprinters, Theo Bos and Mark Renshaw. It's the work that he does for the pair that Brown says people should be paying attention to before making judgements regarding his value to the team.
"I finished second last in the crit [the People's Choice Classic] but you can't look at the results sheet,” he explained. "Oh, Brownie's shit he got second last.
"My job revolves around the sprinters and with Theo is takes more than just going from 500 to 200 to go. I'm getting him bidons and looking after him. It's not exactly in my role to do that but he's comfortable with me doing that. He wants me to do different things. When Mark's there, there were a few races last year where I'm not even pulling him in the final; I'm just making sure they're in the right spot. Look after Mark who's looking after Theo. If at 2km to go, sometimes 1km to go, I'm not even there and I'm finishing five minutes behind."
It's the opening two years of Brown's time with the Dutch squad which coincide with a doping culture with is gradually being exposed with the veil of rumour and innuendo slowly stripped back. The revelations are not something that he's been keeping up with.
"I don't read the news," he admitted. "I know Lance has confessed but that was everywhere. You can't miss that. That was on 'the' news."
The events which took place within Rabobank are a different matter.
"I didn't see any of it," Brown told Cyclingnews. "If you're new and you're not in the A program, like doing Amstel Gold and Tour de France - I was doing all the small races - even if it is a fact, it wouldn't make sense to give it to the bunter," he argued.
"There was a lot of the right kind of testing in 2006, so if anyone was using EPO, they were the desperados.
"It's funny, I raced with probably one of the dodgiest teams now when you look at it and I never saw anything there. I guess I've been lucky actually."
It makes Brown the latest Australian rider, whose path has crossed with the murky depths of the sport, to deny knowledge of prevalent doping cultures within his team. It's a statement that is met with both assuredness and cynicism within the public domain back home and Brown understands the latter reaction.
"Of course but I don't hang out in the doctor's room," he said. "They can think what they want."
Brown rarely worked with Doctor Geert Leinders but he says he never had any indication of his methods.
"He seemed like a really nice guy to me actually. I don't think I ever did many races with him either; he didn't come across as a dodgy doctor or what everyone's saying. People won't believe that either," he said with resignation.
"I would always, even if they have a re-test, return a clean test. Unless they test for coffee."
Second-year, first-year challenges
The steady investment in the outfit's sprinting stocks culminated in the recruitment of Mark Renshaw at the beginning of 2012. It was a challenging season for the former 'world's best lead-out man' as he found his feet both in his new role while Theo Bos maintained that it was he who was the team's true number one sprinter.
Brown believes that the team is most effective when both men are in the train, but told Cyclingnews that when it's both Renshaw and Bos in the team, it will be the Dutchman who gets the number one position.
"At the end of last year we started to get it together at Rabo - Theo was sprinting unreal," he explained. "Mark bit his tongue and did awesome lead outs and was still running podiums. With Theo, Mark and I we were putting together some really good results."
The question of a power struggle is something that Brown finds difficult to answer.
"Mark's trying to establish himself as a sprinter. He really puts a lot of emphasis on the sprint train and he is willing to win and that helps Theo."
When Renshaw and Bos' schedules go their separate ways in 2013, Brown will go with the latter.
Change within the team management was in two parts last season with directeur sportifs Erik Breukink and Adri van Houwelingen moved on in September among the many changes within the structure, all with the aim for a more professional approach.
Brown was happy to see a new regime installed.
"Personally I think that's for the better," he told Cyclingnews. "We got a new coach, new trainer. I speak with him nearly every day."
The more personalised approach has gone a long way to the new and improved Graeme Brown.
"Now there's 100 per cent trust in me," he explained. "They don't question my ability. Last year was the year that changed. There's no more questions.
"I did 87 races. I was good in 87 races where there weren't hilly stages."
Then around a month later came the news that Dutch bank, Rabobank, would be pulling its sponsorship after 17-years citing the fallout from the United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation. The result was a very nervous 10 minutes for the long-standing team member.
"I had a real nervous 10 minutes," Brown told Cyclingnews. "I was like 'shit, what am I going to do?' My wife just said calmly, 'we'll go back to Australia.' I thought it could be worse. I don't have a job but, alright.
"I called the boss and he assured me that we still had money for next year. But for 10 minutes I was shitting myself then it was okay."
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As a sports journalist and producer since 1997, Jane has covered Olympic and Commonwealth Games, rugby league, motorsport, cricket, surfing, triathlon, rugby union, and golf for print, radio, television and online. However her enduring passion has been cycling.
Jane is a former Australian Editor of Cyclingnews from 2011 to 2013 and continues to freelance within the cycling industry.
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