He who won't change
Viatcheslav Ekimov is approaching the 2005 season as if it were his first, but in actual fact, next...
An interview with Viatcheslav Ekimov, November 16, 2004
Viatcheslav Ekimov is approaching the 2005 season as if it were his first, but in actual fact, next year marks his sixteenth season as a professional. With cycling about to embark on a number of significant reforms, Sergey Kurdyukov, Russian Eurosport commentator, spoke with the indefatigable, unwavering Russian about the significance of these changes and the psychology of a champion.
If the month on a calendar sheet is November and you happen to find yourself in Russia, there is a place in Moscow where you are 100 per cent sure to find Viatcheslav Ekimov.
The place in question is Krylatskoye Velodrome in the outskirts of Moscow. It was here that the indefatigable Russian's first major victories were achieved around 20 years ago, and it is here that he comes each year just as he has done this time, during the opening round of UCI Track World Cup.
Cyclingnews: I wish we could open this long-awaited discussion with something different, but I have to start with the question which is on everybody's lips. That is, what is the situation surrounding Tyler Hamilton's positive doping test and the prospect of Olympic gold from your standpoint?
Viatcheslav Ekimov: There's so much speculation on the matter these days that first thing that I'd like to make clear is the fact that there's nothing personal about this case. I don't feel like condemning Tyler or whatever. We are professionals and I don't think we should let emotions get hold of us.
Some of your colleagues try hard to set us against each other, to create a clench, saying: 'Just a couple of seasons ago you were friends in arms in the same team, now you're enemies, what a transformation!'
But that's rubbish - he's not my enemy in the least. We just have to keep different things apart; we have a situation where professionals take over - officials, lawyers, etcetera. Now, the Russian cycling federation and National Olympic committee have come to the fore, and I only want to be sure that the matter is sorted out properly.
If professionals in the sphere of law decide that the gold belongs to me, I'll be satisfied to take it. If the ruling is in favor of the opposite, but I have a clear picture of what happened, and by law the medal belongs to Hamilton, I'll be satisfied as well. The atmosphere of suspense and gossip is not to my taste at all.
CN: But right after the race when you learned you'd taken second; you looked a picture of clear disappointment. Now you've got a chance to finally get rid of this feeling.
VE: Well, when I cooled down after the race, I saw the positive side of it. After all, I planned a podium place and I got it. Frankly speaking, I was enormously surprised to get the information from first time checks that everyone was behind. The appetite comes with eating as they say, so it was natural for me to try and get the maximum out of that situation. But I got silver. Well, it's not such an underachievement 16 years after my first Olympic gold, don't you think so?
CN: Perhaps not for a perfectionist like you. You don't seem to change as years go by, and particularly in your approach towards the Olympics. You centered your preparation on the Games in 2004 just like four years earlier.
VE: Yes, I did. Maybe it's a heritage of Soviet epoch inside of me. When I was formed as a rider and a personality, the Olympics had no parallel to us; World championships, stage races - they didn't count half as much. A guy who sets his sights on a career in a pro squad as early as a teenager sees the reality in a different light. He's going to make as much money with his legs as possible, but the Games are not the highest-paid race in the world.
CN: Almost straight after your gold in Sydney you started talking about hanging up your cycling shoes. This time I was ready to hear something similar, but then I learned you were already mapping out your off-season and future races. You feel more like going on riding at 38 than at 34?
VE: The age is not the case. I feel completely in shape, so physically the situation is the same. Psychology here comes first. That victory in Sydney was such a storm of elation, a crown of a period of hard work and great doubts. I felt happy and devastated at once. In Athens it felt different. I was glad, a good job was done, everything went according to the plan. But life went on, and my life in cycling continued as well.
CN: With what aim in mind did you come here to the Krylatskoye Velodrome during the World Cup? It was an overnight drive from your home near St Petersburg. Was it to see old friends and revive the memories of younger days or you were interested in [track] races, too?
VE: I watched some races. We've seen quite a few good rides.
CN: You're a former star of the track, 4km world record holder and winner of multiple top-level races. What is your feeling on the new [track] calendar? Do you think it's a turning point or just an evolutionary measure?
VE: Actually, it's not so easy to predict. On one hand, it would be logical if top-class races like World Cups, having no direct link like road classics and Grand Tours, draw more substantial crowds. And the riders, particularly those who specialize in points race and pursuit, would in theory have more room to maneuver, combining track and road racing.
On the other hand, the Track World Cup today is spread all over the globe, while the most enthusiastic fans live in Europe. They can chase their idols in cars, traveling from a Belgian six-day to a German one, but what about a trip to America? You won't put it on your weekend schedule so easily. And as for points race riders, if they take the Cup's rounds and the [Track] World's seriously, they'll have to peak at least once more for the road season.
CN: Let's talk about yet another reform, the one called ProTour. Do you see it more in a positive or a negative light?
VE: Again, time alone will tell. In fact, I'm not a big fan of revolutionary changes in general. I know you'll picture me a retrograde bemoaning good old days, but a couple of decades ago things looked more clear: there were the most prestigious professional one-days races and tours and less prestigious races that occupied intermediate positions, and there were amateur races popular in their own right. In the latest changes put forward by the UCI, I see an attempt to bring back the best of this system, and it's positive. At the same time I'm worried by the prospect of the outflow of sponsors and losing good riders along the way.
CN: What can you say about the good rider Yaroslav Popovych who comes to your team?
VE: I know him as a rider, but not as a person as yet. Within the framework of the ProTour, he's going to be quite an asset as a good climber.
CN: Will you help him during the period of adaptation in new surroundings?
VE: I'm always open to those people who are open themselves. If he's a normal guy who happily evaded the disease of stardom, we'll surely find common language in every sense of this word-combination.
CN: How strong is the line-up of Team Discovery from the inside? Is it more or less solid in comparison with the previous successful seasons?
VE: I believe we are a well-balanced team. Now we have yet another leader's jersey contender for long stage races, a lot of experienced riders to support captains, classics specialists are here as well.
CN: What about your racing weapon, the bikes?
VE: I'd say that the Trek Madone is the machine that came closest to the notion of an optimal bike of all the bicycles I've ridden during my long career. It has practically no weak points. It's stiff while climbing, stable and agile while descending, comfortable on the flats. The clue, I guess, is the flexibility of the company; they accumulate the feedback from riders, Lance in particular, and react almost immediately.
CN: Do you ride this dream bike already, or are you still on vacation?
VE: The off-season is not over, of course, but I've always told you I'll never learn how to rest without a bike. It takes a great deal of effort to make myself put it aside for a couple of days, but it does me absolutely no good - I feel that something is missing, and small joys of life like fishing and the bath don't compensate for it.
CN: So you are lucky then to get back to serious training in Spain in a few days?
VE: I won't call it serious training, because the first 1000km I take it easy; after that I really start to work out. More climbs, putting speed up. Around Tortosa where my Spanish home is, you can find anything, all kinds of profile, so you don't have to venture out and drive for two hours to find a good training ground. By the time the team's first training camp in California in January, I'll have at least 4000km in my legs. I hope I'll be put on the classics line-up, and then we'll see. It's up to the management to decide, it's up to me to get ready.
CN: So here you've not changed either. Never looking too far ahead and yet ready to go on as long as you can. Is that the top secret of your longevity? What could be your advice to young riders who want to stay over twenty years in this sport?
VE: The main thing... let's put it as follows: you shouldn't run after immediate success. There are no miracles in real life. No pharmaceutical wonder will make you a good rider, but, having taken a short-cut once, you'll pay for that many times. If you plan a long life in cycling, be prepared for years of hard work and wait for your reward.
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By Barry Ryan