Yaroslav Popovych pulled the curtain down on his 15-year career at Paris-Roubaix last April, but little over a month later he was back in the thick of the action.
The Ukrainian made the instant transition to the role of directeur sportif at the Trek-Segafredo team, where he rode for two and a half seasons, and faced a baptism of fire at the Giro d'Italia from behind the wheel of the team car.
"The first few days – the first week even – I was like 'what am I doing here?' It was so difficult, I was dying every day!" he told Cyclingnews at the Vuelta a San Juan, his first race of the 2017 season.
"My first stage was in the middle of the Giro, from Campe Bisenzio to Sestola. It was up and down, no flat. I was in the second car – not the first one, fortunately – but I was completely gone in the last hour – I didn't understand what I was doing, I was like in shock."
But it wasn't just the stress and pressure of driving in the race for the first time, with the constant awareness required to safely pass riders and move through traffic coupled with the need to call the shots on race strategy.
"When you're a rider, everything is organised for you and everything is taken care of, but when you're the director you wake up in morning early, and got to bed really late," said Popovych, laughing. "There is so much planning, you have to decide on the programme and discuss with all the staff."
Popovych went on to do the Tour de Suisse, half of the Vuelta a Espana, and the Japan Cup and, like a young rider who's just done their neo-pro year, he now feels right at home.
"Now it's much easier," he said. "I already feel like a fish in the water. The mechanics give me a lot of advice – they say 'now you need to pass this car, now you need to go in the front'. You get a lot of help from those guys.
"I'm starting to enjoy it more and more. When you start to get some results, like a win or even a good placing, and you can celebrate, it's a really great feeling."
Popovych, who won a stage at the Tour de France and finished third at the Giro d'Italia over the course of his career, was the old roommate of Fabian Cancellara, who retired at the end of last year. Last spring the Swiss rider hailed Popovych as a calming influence and a confidant as thoughts and emotions swirled around his head ahead of his final Classics appearances.
"Do I miss him? Yes, because we spent a lot of time together," said Popovych. "The team is like a family – because sometimes we spend more time together away at races than at home with the family. For sure we miss each other.
"He hasn't been back with the team yet. He still has things to do with Trek – I think he goes to some presentations and expos – but we've not seen him back at the team yet. But for sure at the Classics and Giro, and at the Tour he'll be close to the team."
On a sporting level, the team has lost its talisman. Cancellara was not only a rider who not only delivered in terms of results but "He was a huge personality. One of the guys who takes control of the team. For sure we miss that big captain, that big champion," said Popovych.
"We are really strong for the Classics – let's not forget we have Degenkolb now, and we have Jasper Stuyven who is still progressing, and Edward Theuns. We have a really strong team. Now there isn't one 'leader leader', like Fabian was, but we have a lot of possibilities, a lot of cards, so we can play some different games."
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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