Neil Stephens: New plan of attack

An interview with Neil Stephens, Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Neil Stephens is a former Tour de France stage winner but is preparing to take a season away from the Euro scene. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes discovers that among Stephens' options for 2007 is a gig with an Australian pro team.

Neil Stephens has been a part of the European professional scene for many years now, first as a rider with the Once and Festina and more recently as a directeur sportif with the Liberty Seguros and Astana pro squads. Next year will see a change of plan, with the friendly Australian heading home for the season in order to concentrate on family matters and carry out his work as professional cycling coordinator with Cycling Australia.

When Cyclingnews first spoke to him during the Vuelta a España about his plans for 2007, he said that he intended finishing out the contract he had with Manolo Saiz as a directeur. He was also offered a similar role with the Swiss-based Astana team, but will now take up neither post. His decision is not based on the uncertainty surrounding the teams, who both named the same backer as their sponsor while applying to the UCI to compete in the ProTour, but rather because he wants to dedicate more time to his wife and children next year.

"I was meant to have gone to Australia earlier in November, but my little fellow was sick," he told Cyclingnews in recent days. "We had to wait around and do some tests...they had to run some checks on him to make sure he is alright. So far, so good...things look okay. Luckily the people in the Federation understood the situation and they let me stay here and work things out at home. I will head over for the start of January, going back for the Tour Down Under and catching up with my work then."

"I've decided that I am going to take a year away from the pro cycling scene. My little fellow is physically challenged so we dedicate a fair bit of time to him. My wife just became pregnant and we are expecting in April. We only just found out a while ago, and I made a decision then...we will need to have someone around the house to help out with my little fellow and general stuff. Because he has special needs, I will try to support my missus as otherwise she will have a real struggle on her hands."

"I am lucky enough with my situation that I can stand back from things for a year or so and dedicate myself to my wife and kids. So that is what I am going to do."

Stephens is clearly passionate about the sport but taking some time away from the European scene does not mean he won't get his fill of bike racing. His role with Cycling Australia will enable him to keep working in this area and, at the same time, help the country's up and coming riders.

"Since I stopped [racing] I have been what is called a professional cycling co-ordinator with the cycling federation," he said, when asked to explain his role there. "It is a job which is part-time and has always allowed me to do other things as well. It is a position which doesn't take me away from home that much. I was meant to have done a trip in November, going back to Australia, but I will catch up on that work in January."

"During the season, I will have a couple of trips to Italy, but they are only short periods away. So it is not like a pro directeur sportif role where I would be away from home for longer periods. That would be a bit more of a struggle for the missus. But hopefully things will work out well with my wife and kids and I will be back working with the pro peloton from 2008 onwards."

Aussie ProTour plans

When Cyclingnews spoke to Stephens during the Vuelta he talked about his dream of helping to set up a ProTour team made up of Australian riders.

Even a quick glance at the list of those racing in Europe underlines the quality such a team could potentially have; after all, any lineup which would boast riders of the calibre of Robbie McEwen, Cadel Evans, Mick Rogers, Stuart O'Grady, Bradley McGee, Baden Cooke, plus up and coming talents like Aaron Kemps and Will Walker would gather quite a healthy chunk of UCI points and cash.

Currently most of those riders are competing on different teams - with the exception of McEwen and Evans, who raced with Davitamon Lotto this season - but if it was ever possible to bring them together, Australia would have a formidable force riding in the same colours.

"There have been talks in the past and it is something that we have to go back, reflect upon, and really work on it long-term," he said back in September. "There have been several attempts to try to get an Australian team, but I feel you have to think about it in the long-term. It is a very, very serious project [to have a ProTour team] and so if we can take it step by step and do things properly, that is the best way."

"Maybe we take the opportunity to assess the situation now, trying not to make the mistakes that other people have made. This whole last couple of months has been really good for me as a director. I have been able to sit back and think, 'wow, here is Kazakhstan trying to build a team,' which is fantastic. It is the whole Asian part coming to cycling. So why can't Australia do the same as well?"

"If you look at the competitors we have and the history of development in cycling, you have to ask why we have so many good bike riders? It is because we have got a good foundation there. We have got the juniors, we have got the national programme, we have got the team, which is doing some fantastic things. And if we can create a bit of interest in the business world, we can really go about making a significant step forward, I think."

When asked about this again in recent days, Stephens said that 2007 will give him a chance to develop the idea and see if it is feasible. "As I am going to be at home a bit, we will try to put our heads together over the next year and investigate possibilities. We will try to see what is out there. There is obviously interest around but it is time to see how serious it is; it is one thing for people to talk about it but another to actually put something on the table."

"For us as an Australian federation, the ideal timing of that would be post-Olympics, from 2009 on. That would basically coincide well with my planning and the federation's planning. Next year, while based at home, I can explore that possibility. If that happened, well then 2008 might not be back with an [established] pro team as such, but might be spent working further on the Australian pro squad idea."

When Cyclingnews published his thoughts on this subject in September, there was quite a bit of positive reader response. Many sent letters enthusing about the idea, believing that such a team would be both very successful and also enjoy a lot of support in Australia. Stephens said that some initial discussions have been made, but that it is still very much at a theoretical stage.

"There has been a bit of talk...a couple of companies are talking about it and that is obviously very exciting. The Australian coaches and cyclists have just had their awards and without going into details, there were quite a few conversations going on there."

"That said, one thing is conversation, talking about it, while another is going off and doing it. It has been brought up in the past so we try not to get too excited by simple comments. But the more interest around, the more talk there is about it and the more I hope it is going to be something that happens soon."

"Okay, if it ultimately doesn't happen, it is no big deal...we will endeavour to improve what we are doing within the federation and if in doing that we can get a pro team, then that is great. The main thing is that we want to help cycling in Australia."

Astana vs. Astana

Later this month, a final decision is due from the UCI as regards ProTour licences. In October, Manolo Saiz was told that he could retain his licence, despite the fact that he was heavily implicated in the Operación Puerto scandal. He insists upon his innocence, that case is ongoing and as long as nothing has been proven against him, there is nothing to stop him running a ProTour team in 2007.

Except, of course, the matter of financial guarantees. The UCI named this as a necessity for the licence to be granted and he had until late November to provide proof that he has backing for next year.

Despite earlier rumours that he was in talks with the Tinkoff team, it has emerged that Saiz has lodged the Astana conglomerate of Kazakh businesses as his sponsor for 2007. However, General Manager Marc Biver has made clear that Astana has no intention of backing Saiz, and has stated that they consider an earlier contract to have been rendered null and void by the after-effects of Operación Puerto. There is consequently quite a bit of uncertainty about what will happen next.

Stephens has worked with both groups, spending a lot of time with Saiz as a directeur sportif and then being part of the new setup which helped Alexandre Vinokourov win the Vuelta in September. He doesn't know how things will work out, but says that he is saddened that things have become so complicated.

"I've had contact with other directeurs [on the team], although not with Manolo himself, and we don't really know a lot," he said. "We are hearing that Manolo is going to go on, we are hearing also that the sponsor that he presented for 2007 was Astana. We also heard that Astana are not interested. I hope it is not the situation, but unfortunately it looks like it is going to end up in a legal battle, which would be a real shame."

"If there was any way that two teams could happen, then that would be great...Manolo's team and the new Swiss team. That would be fantastic. But if Manolo presents Astana as his sponsor and they are determined instead to go off and set up their own team, then there could be a legal that case, who is going to be right and who is going to be wrong? The bad thing is that I think a lot of times people lose sight of something...when they say that this person should do this and that person should do that, they forget that they are talking about families. The masseurs, bike riders, and mechanics are all involved and, at the end of the day, all they are trying to do is feed their families."

"People say 'this person should do that and that person should do this and that staff member shouldn't be employed because he is a friend of Manolo's.' But there are guys involved in all this and all they want to do is keep their kids in school and to be able to feed them. I feel very sorry for them. My situation is different - I am walking away because I want to, for a period at least, and am lucky that I can do so because of the money I have saved, but all these other guys just want to put bread and butter on their tables. They should just let them get on with their jobs."

"I hope that it is not going to end up in the courts, working out who is right and who I said, there are families there who are going to get caught up in it all. And that would be a real shame."

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