Tales from the peloton, November 24, 2008
It's a bit like a job interview, only it lasts for months rather than hours... Daniel Friebe of Procycling heads to the Tour of Portugal during stagiaire season to talk to four up-and-coming hopefuls looking to make an impression on their prospective employers
23, Canadian. Contracted to Symmetrics, stagiaire with Garmin-Chipotle
As a professional athlete, there are worse habits to have than coming first, so Christian Meier can sleep easy. First in the Madison at the Canadian Track Championships in 2006; first on the road as an espoir a year later; first in the elite national road race championship in 2008; first Canadian pro, we imagine, to grow up in a German-speaking household, with parents who uprooted from Europe to New Brunswick in their teens; first Canadian pro to make a cameo on a German cookery programme currently airing on YouTube...
That's right, we said "cookery programme." Apparently, Meier is a dab hand in the kitchen – at least that's the conclusion the Symmetrics team owner and his wife drew one day after Meier had whipped them up a six-course meal. The impressed dinner guests duly informed their friend, the host of a cookery show aired on Canadian television, and the rest is history.
Christian Meier the cyclist travelled to Girona and Garmin's Spanish colony in August, ready to begin his three months as a stagiaire and mindful that those three months would be "a bit like a job interview, when you're on your best behaviour at all times." Fortunately, his new team-mates would soon make him feel at home – climber Lucas Euser laying on a spare bed, David Millar some tasty barbecue food and the rest of the Garmin clan a friendly reception. "The riders and staff are just so nice – they can't do enough for you. I just hope it goes well. I really, really like this team," Meier tells us at the Tour of Portugal, his first race for Garmin, sounding like he really, really meant it.
If first impressions count for anything, Meier was certainly pressing his case for a full-time deal with Garmin in Portugal. Having already "covered about five moves" on the road out of Portimão on stage one, Meier would finally latch on to the right group and spend 130km in an eight-man break, surrounded by unfamiliar faces and jerseys from Spain and Portugal. "We communicated in the international language of cycling," Meier laughs. "Some of the Garmin guys did this race and stage last year, and they knew that, at around 130km, you make a slight right-hand turn, and that's where the crosswinds start. I just wanted to make it past there, and we did, so that was cool. It was a nice day."
Meier would finish the Volta well down the general classification but with his morale still riding high, not least because his team-mates agreed that it was "probably the hardest race [he'd] ever do." A glutton for punishment, no sooner had he returned to Girona than he was quizzing Garmin directeur sportif Johnny Weltz about how
he could fill a window in his racing schedule. Weltz suggested a few Belgian kermesses, and Meier duly set up camp with relatives based near Brussels. He expected the GP Isbergues in September and the tours of Piedmont and Lombardy in October to be his final chances to impress.
"I don't want to ask too many questions about a contract for next year," Meier says in Portugal. "I've talked to one or two teams in North America, but it's hard to get talking to teams in Europe as I don't have many contacts there. Europe's where I want to be though. The grand tours, the Ardennes Classics – those are my dreams."
Update: Meier will be riding for the Garmin-Chipotle team for the next two seasons. He signed for Garmin in September.
23, French. Contracted to Nogent-sur-Oise and stagiaire with Agritubel
Brice Feillu looks just like his older and more famous brother, Romain. Or rather, he would if he lopped a large helping of shin off both legs. A 14cm helping, to be precise."I don't know where I get my height from," the younger Feillu brother tells us at the Tour of Portugal. "It's not the only difference between us, either; Romain's a sprinter and I'm a climber. Bizarre, non?"
Bizarre, indeed, just as you might think it's a little strange that Feillu is riding as a stagiaire in Portugal, when his future with Agritubel beyond 2008 is already assured.
But really there's nothing unusual about the arrangement; under International Cycling Union regulations, pro teams are allowed to employ up to three riders on a stagiaire basis from August 1, but there's nothing in the rule book that states whether the period is more trial or induction to the life of a pro cyclist. In Feillu's case, it's very much the latter.
"I've signed for two years with Agritubel," Feillu explains. "Both Romain and I were in contact with Ag2r about next year, but then he decided to stay with Agritubel and that made my decision even easier. Agritubel's a good little team. I was already in their feeder team, which meant the directeurs sportifs on the pro team were keeping tabs on my results, and I've gone pretty well this year..."
Feillu is clearly a master of understatement. His performances this year have marked him out as one of the most promising young riders in France. In the mountains, and on one fabled mountain in particular, he's excelled. "I've won twice on the Ballon d'Alsace," he says. "There are three roads up it and I've won on two of them."
His first victory on the first mountain ever climbed by a Tour de France peloton came in the Tour de Franche-Comté in May. His second followed in the Tour d'Alsace at the start of August, just days before he kicked off his Agritubel career with second place at Paris-Corrèze. "Now I need to win on the third road to the Ballon. And I've heard that's going to be on the Tour route next year..." he grins.
In July, when he wasn't racing for his Nogent-sur-Oise amateur squad, Feillu had been watching the 2008 Grande Boucle on television. Like the rest of us, he gasped and gaped through the final 2km of stage three to Nantes as his brother looked to be closing in on a maiden tour stage win.
"We're both a bit impetuous on our bikes. It's like the other day [on stage four to Viseu]; I attacked, and it wasn't much use because it was likely we'd get caught, but I just get this urge," Feillu tells us. "Romain's a sprinter, so at the Tour, when he went at 800 or 900m from the finish, if a tiny gap had opened up and the others had looked at each other, they'd never have caught him. Maybe he should have just sat on the wheel, but at least he put on a good show."
The second member of this budding French dynasty may yet be competing alongside his brother at next year's Tour. The parallel with the Schleck brothers at CSC would then be as inevitable as it would misguided. As Feillu stresses: "We get on well like they do, but they're both climbers whereas we're totally different as riders. Also, aren't they also roughly the same height?"
23, Ukrainian. Contracted to Feralpi, stagiaire with Lampre
To debunk the myth that Ukrainian sportsmen are unsmiling, unspeaking, marble-eyed identikits of their Russian neighbours, all one really needs to do is spend a few minutes in the company of one of their professional cyclists.
Take Yaroslav Popovych, whose grin is as broad as the disparity between his €700,000-per-year pay packet and his abilities. Or Dmytro Grabovskyy, whose smile is as wide as his Ullrich-esque waistline. Or Vitaliy Buts – the latest rider off a Ukrainian production line that has provided countless stars to the Italian amateur scene, none of whom have quite delivered on their promise in the pro ranks.
Buts may yet be the exception. He shares Popovych and Grabovskyy's sunny disposition and glowing amateur palmarès, right down to their victories in the prestigious Giro delle Regioni. Crucially, though, he has not been the subject of nearly as much hype, hence the fact that his stagiaire's arrangement with Lampre carries no guarantee of a full-time contract for 2009.
We meet Buts in the vast, minimalist lobby of the Hotel Montebelo on the rest-day of his first race for Lampre, the Tour of Portugal. "They've already spoken to me about next season. They say that if they like me in these races, they'll offer me a contract after the World Championships," he tells us in the mistake-strewn Italian he learned from "looking at books, talking to teammates and buying groceries."
"I like it here," he continues. "The organisation, the riders, the mechanics, the directeurs... I like it all!"
Buts was born in Nikolayev, a shipbuilding city inland from the Black Sea, the son of a female doctor and a chauffeur. Like many of his countrymen, he played football before discovering cycling as a teenager and following the well-beaten path through Ukraine's state academies and junior teams.
This is now his third year in Italy. "I first came to Italy for the Junior Worlds in Verona in 2004, then as an under-23. I got spotted by the manager of the Feralpi amateur team at a race in Poland," he explains. "The Feralpi manager contacted Vladimir Duma, who rides for the Flaminia team, who then contacted my amateur team directeur sportif in Ukraine. Not long after I was riding in Italy for Feralpi."
Buts' first year with Feralpi would see him renew what appears to have been a longstanding rivalry with Grabovskyy. He admits the pair don't talk and is scathing of the 2005 U23 world road race champion's efforts in his first two years with Quick Step.
"He's a bit strange," says Buts, no doubt referring to Grabovskyy's erratic recent record both on the bike and off it. "Grabovskyy's been on that team for two years, and if you don't get results, it could be hard to get another contract. When I saw him win the World Championships and the European Championships as an amateur, I thought he'd win loads of races as a pro. But I don't know what goes through his head."
Even before securing his future with Lampre – or, failing that, perhaps with the distinctly Ukrainian-flavoured, brand new ISD-Danieli pro team – Buts wants to improve on his ninth-place finish in the U23 World Road Race Championship in Stuttgart last year. In his own words "a fast finisher who goes well uphill on any climb up to 10km", the 23 year old could well find this year's Varese Worlds course to his liking, just as he could thrive on the emerald hills of the Ardennes Classics before too much longer.
Update: "Buts will race with us starting in 2009. He signed a contract for two years and will make his pro debut with Team Lampre," said Lampre's press agent, Andrea Appiani.
24, Polish. Contracted to Norda Atala, stagiaire with Lampre
Say the name Jaroslaw Dabrowski to most Poles and their eyes will flicker in vague recognition. If they were around in the 1970s, they might remember Dabrowski's as the face that peered out of 200-zloty bank notes; if they're keen scholars of 19th century revolutionary leaders, they might even know what he did to earn that distinction.
What all but the most avid students of Polish cycling wouldn't know is that Jaroslaw Dabrowski is also a cyclist who this year enjoyed his first taste of elite pro racing with Lampre at the Tour of Portugal.
A wiry, tenacious climber who's performed well for the Italian-based, Polish-backed Norda Atala amateur team over the past two seasons, Dabrowski was recommended to Lampre by their own Polish mountain ace, Sylvester Szmyd, with whom he regularly trains.
At 24, Dabrowski is older than your average stagiaire. His palmarès is also less stellar. Alarm bells might therefore have started to ring when, 130km into stage one in Portugal, on Dabrowski's first full day in Lampre colours, the peloton turned face-first into a headwind and the Pole came unhinged.
"I got dropped straight away," Dabrowski tells us a few days later. "That was when, on the radio, I heard, 'Everyone on the front to pull for [Danilo] Napolitano.' At that point, all I could think was, 'Mamma mia!'"
Sheer force of will would haul Dabrowski back to the peloton. Lampre's directeur sportif in Portugal, Brent Copeland, was impressed, as he would be throughout the 10-stage Volta, which Dabrowski finished in 27th place, the third-best rider not hailing from Portugal or Spain.
"We were impressed with his climbing," Copeland tells us at the end of the Volta. "He has amazing grit. He really hung in there in the mountains – he was only getting dropped on the summit finishes in the last kilometres. It's such a tough race for a stagiaire to do – a really good test. In Portugal, they simply don't let the breaks go. On some days, the average speed was around 50kph in the first two hours before someone could actually get away."
Copeland's description of the racing in Portugal makes Dabrowski's performance there all the more laudable. By the rider's own admission, he "hates the wind and doesn't like it when it's fast on the flat." He's also painfully shy, though Copeland says this may be due to the language barrier. "They say they're happy with what I'm doing. I'm fetching bottles, pulling on the front – I'm happy too," Dabrowski tells us in his broken Italian on the Volta's rest day.
He grew up near Torun, in the north of Poland, watching the Tour de France on television and idolising one of a handful of Poles to make an impact on the European pro scene in recent years, Dariusz Baranowski. When we ask whether he fancies himself as the next Baranowski, he giggles, then replies that he "just wants to win some races in the mountains."
Polish riders are now rare in the upper echelons of pro cycling. Dabrowski points out that there are now just two: Szmyd and Maciej Bodnar of Liquigas. This relative under-representation sits curiously alongside the plethora of Polish Continental division teams and riders. "It's always a mess," says Dabrowski. "Last year, the directeur of one team just didn't pay his riders. Money's always a problem – more so than doping. There are lots of strong riders, but no money..."
It sounds like Polish cycling could do with a revolution. Just the job for a man named Jaroslaw Dabrowski...
Update: "We are already up to 25 riders and we are near complete. It is very likely he will sign with us mid-season. He is a great climber," said Appiani.
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