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Like a fine wine

An interview with Scott Moninger, September 19, 2005

At 38 years of age you’d expect most pro riders to have retired, and at least considered it. But after a strong 2005 NRC campaign with wins at the highest level, Health Net’s Scott Moninger doesn’t look like slowing down in a hurry. Cyclingnews’ North American Editor, Mark Zalewski, took some time out with Moninger to see how things are at the moment.

After winning the International Tour de Toona stage race this year, some of Scott Moninger's younger Health Net-Maxxis teammates took the liberty of adding a few captions on the picture of the 38-year-old rider in the local paper hanging in the men's room of the Altoona Don Pablo's - "Team AARP." Sure, Moninger is no spring chicken, but the leading winner among active American racers and current NRC leader is still showing guys fifteen years younger that age is merely a state of mind.

"I don't know how much longer I can go," Moninger says. "I thought at this point I'd feel some drop-offs by now in my physical abilities, but it just hasn't happened. Maybe that's due to having a year off? Last year I felt like I was busting out some cobwebs - I had some good results, but this year has been a lot more solid and consistent - winning some big races like Altoona, Cascade, Joe Martin, San Dimas, and I'm currently leading the NRC."

The year off Moninger refers to was a mandatory "vacation" handed down after the USADA declared a positive doping violation that just about everyone in North American cycling agrees was an unfortunate result of rule over-enforcement. However, Moninger was not ready to let his career end on a sour note, and he used his time off to rethink his approach to the sport, the first major training overhaul in fifteen years. "Being away from [cycling] made me realise that maybe I had been taking it for granted. I had been in the sport for so long and every year I would follow the same pattern - take a little time off, start training, go to the training camp - and that has been my regime for fifteen years or more. It gave me a chance to spend some time at home and rebuild my body physically - I spent a lot of time in the weight room rebuilding my core strength and some areas that tend to get neglected."

Another key aspect of his time off was not having to worry about a contract for the next year. "I was given a great opportunity by Health Net-Maxxis to sign a contract then for 2004 and 2005. That made that off season much less stressful. I went over to Australia and got some good racing in, then had more of a traditional off season." And after the season he has had this year, the team was eager to renew his contract for another year in 2006.

Speaking of this season, Moninger has won many of the major domestic stage races, including San Dimas, Tour de Nez and Joe Martin, along with the Tour de Toona - and on a team as stacked as Health Net-Maxxis that's no simple task, with just about any of the team able to win on any given day. Yet he attributes much of his success to that fact - the idea that the better the people around you the better you will perform. "It's been a great season, and some of it is due to guys on the team stepping up a notch, and you don't want to be left out! Chris Wherry at Redlands showed that with Chris Horner out of the picture there is somebody who could take over and be the dominate guy. It inspired me - we've been similar in our abilities and we've both have had a good year. We can play off each other at races like Altoona."

The other significant aspect to Moninger's success also comes out of having a deep team - the opportunity to be selective and target specific races. "It may seem subtle, but the difference this year has been the ability to pick and choose which races I do. By having such a strong team with a lot of depth, I've been able to look at the schedule and say that it doesn't make sense for me to do Philadelphia week - it was a mutual decision between myself and management, so I wasn't at Lancaster or Philly."

Even though Moninger knows that his days as a professional will not last forever, he remains focused on the task at hand - and right now that's racing. "I'm sort of a one-track guy - as long as I am doing something that is my focus. I've been doing cycling for so long, it's been my focus with everything I do - how can I do my job better and how can I get the most potential out of my body? I don't think that will change until the day that I hang it up."

Cyclingnews: Do you ever get tired of hearing that you are the most winning active American racer?

Scott Moninger: No, it's a title that sort of defines where I'm at and what I've done over the last 15-20 years. Another person might be a multiple national champion, another person might have world champion in front of their name, and I don't have any of those titles, so it's a nice prelude being called to the line. I've been hearing it a lot more the past three or four years, even if it's been true for five or six years. It's been a running joke because it's ongoing.

CN: You've been on fire this year, winning a lot of some of the bigger races like Cascade, San Dimas and Tour de Toona. What is different with you this year?

SM: I think the reserves in my body for Cascade and Altoona were better. A lot of guys let their guard down after Philadelphia because it's the pinnacle of racing here, but as a stage racer there are still a lot of events like Tour de Nez, Cascade and Altoona that were pretty high on my list.

A sequence of timing that allowed me to come into races more fresh than my teammates and my opposition has been the biggest difference. Last year I just wanted to race as much as I could, coming off a year of not racing - so I wanted to get the leg speed going and kick-start things. It was an unknown factor with my age coming back to racing, but this year I was more selective.

CN: There are a lot of changes in store for the team next year, losing Tyler Farrar to the Pro Tour and other guys like Wherry and Dominguez switching teams. Do you think the team will be able to come close to matching this year's results?

SM: We've got eleven guys this year, and it's never possible to hang on to everyone. We're losing Tyler Farrar to Cofidis, which is something we would never try to roadblock. When somebody gets an opportunity to go to a Pro Tour team, much like Jason McCartney last year with Discovery, it's a nice feather on our cap - to produce a guy each year to go on to a Pro Tour team, it's a nice gesture. We're a stepping stone.

As for other guys, yeah, there are going to be some changes - there is only so much money to go around. When everyone has had as successful of a year as they are having, everyone wants a raise. It's a good thing for the sport that there are now other players out there and there are other teams offering big salaries. If guys start to get overpaid in the sport that's certainly not a bad thing, to make up for a lot of years of being underpaid!

CN: How did you spend your suspension time in 2003, training or rethinking things?

SM: I took some time off in the spring when things were still being sorted out and I didn't know my fate. I didn't get my decision back until about the first of May and I had written off the first part of the season. I didn't have a team either, so it was easier to focus on 2004.

CN: Did the suspension change your outlook on cycling, life or both?

SM: I wouldn't say I was reaching burn out, but the end of 2002 we lost the Mercury sponsorship, everyone started scattering and we no longer had the band together. I was at a crossroads, and in hindsight maybe it wasn't a bad year to be out of it.

CN: What do you think was the best outcome of the situation?

SM: I feel like I came out of it pretty strong and I didn't feel like I had anything to prove coming back. A lot of times people come back from suspensions and they are trying to prove they can be as competitive without drugs. But I didn't take drugs before it and I didn't take drugs after - I was the same person I was before it. I really wanted to beat Father Time and go out more on a high note - that wasn't the note I wanted to wrap up my career on. So things have worked out really well in that sense.

CN: With your experiences with drugs in cycling what are your thoughts on the current state of testing and sanctioning?

SM: I definitely applaude the efforts of USADA and WADA, separating themselves from the individual federations. I think that was well overdue and needed, because everything was in-house and a lot of things taken care of internally are now being discovered as not necessarily a good thing. At the same time, they have tried too hard to prove their existence by going after some really miniscule things, whether it be cold medicine or supplements - there are some pretty obvious cases to me that are not true doping offences. I think we need to separate those. Obviously if somebody tests positive for EPO they didn't get that from eating a hamburger or a protein shake! It's premeditated cheating as opposed to a lot of things which are accidental. But in their mind, failing a drug test is failing a drug test, there is no grey area, and I don't agree with that.

As far as the state of it, they are certainly pushing hard doing a lot of out-of-competition testing. I've been tested by those guys twice or three times every quarter. I don't know how effective that is - I think they need to do more in-competition testing. There are two schools of thought; most people come to a race expecting there to be testing. But I think for the sporting aspect of things it would provide a greater sense of fairness seeing [testers] at every major event we do, and some of the second tier races we do that still have good prize money too. I don't know if it sends a good signal that [the testers] don't show up at all. Even being there one day would be enough to deter people.

CN: Having been a US professional for so long, you have seen the sport change and grow here in the States. Do you think it will continue to grow post-Lance?

SM: Honestly, I don't. There was a lot of talk after the 1984 Olympics when the Americans had an amazing Olympics, on the road and on the track. Everyone was like, "Where do we go from here?" Same thing when Greg Lemond retired. There is always a void after. Obviously Lance is leaving a void than those two things combined, but it the grand scheme of things I think road cycling in the US is resilient. It doesn't follow the fads and trends like some other sports and you don't see the sudden influx either - road cycling is road cycling. There are always die-hard traditionalists that will keep it afloat. It's not going to make any giant leaps but it will continue to stay on the path its on. Until we can get TV coverage of races in the US it will stay right where it is.

CN: With such good results it was surprising not to see you on the roster for Philly week. Were you disappointed missing it?

SM: Seeing how the races went it would have been good to be a part of it, but it was a time where I got to sit back and work into my form more. I'm sure it would have been a great party! The only race of Philadelphia week that suits me is Philly. With the team limit and having an 11-man team, it didn't make sense. We're in a position where we are trying to groom young guys to take over for Gord [Fraser], [Mike] Sayers and [Chris] Wherry and myself, so any time a situation like that presents itself I don't have a problem bowing out and letting a younger rider take my spot. I've ridden Philly a dozen times and it's a race where you need experience to see how the race flows and evolves.

CN: When do you start thinking about what's next?

SM: I've been thinking about that for the past five or ten years - I never dreamed I would be racing at this level at age 38! When I first started racing in my late teens most guys would retire at 28 or 30 - Lemond or Merckx, that was the age. I assumed I would go into my late twenties, early thirties.

I've always been one of the youngest guys on the teams I've been on, like Coors Light and LA Sheriff. And it seems that over a short time I've become one of the oldest guys. There is sort of a turning of the tables. I've felt that in the last four or five years I've finally been able to put it together in terms of the data I've had over the years and the experience of doing the same races years after years. I ended up hiring a new coach in the middle of 2003 and started working with a power metre a lot more. When I look back at how I used to train ten years ago, I train a lot better now. I don't think I am physically as strong and I know I don't recover as quickly as when I was 25. But the knowledge I have of my own body and how I need to prepare for a specific event is so much more fine-tuned. I'm at a really good comfort level right now, with that and with the team around me.

I would like to stay involved with this team. There has already been talk with me and management. I don't see myself as a director but I would think I would stay involved in one capacity or another. I can turn a wrench pretty well! I've done some time in bike shops. But that is something I've been putting thought into. I think it would be difficult to quit cycling cold turkey.

On a more individual basis I would like to dabble in some coaching around Colorado, where I live. It seems to be something that is picking up some steam. It would allow me to stay home too - right now at this time of year there's a lot of traveling and I do get burned out at times. If there is a downside to the sport in this country, that is it, because everything involves going to the airport and flying.

CN: Do you think Health Net-Maxxis will be able to jump across the pond like Mercury and Navigators have done?

SM: Yes and no. This organisation is definitely going down that path. Health Net as a company has no interest in promoting their product outside the US, especially in countries with socialised health care. You can't sell health insurance in Italy! It's going to take a different cosponsor or a new title sponsor for that to happen. I know [Health Net] has signed a three-year contract with the team. But I do know they want to go to Europe, but right now the team is going up to what used to be division two, so we are making small steps towards doing races like the Tour of Langkawi and Tour of Britain and possibly Tour Down Under. It's something the management side is looking to do down the road, but it will certainly take a big influx of dollars.

Other Talking Cycling Interviews

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