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Simon Gerrans Q&A: On his comeback, Gilbert and GreenEdge

Australian Simon Gerrans kicked off the 2012 season by winning the national road championship and the Santos Tour Down Under, immediately putting his new GreenEdge team on the map. It was an illustrious start for Gerrans, 31, who first won the Tour Down Under in 2006 as a second-year pro. He’s since made a name for himself as both a stage hunter — winning stages at all three grand tours, all from breakaways — as well as a man for the Ardennes classics, with top-10 finishes at all three events.

After a 2010 season marred by injury and illness, in 2011 he finished on the podium at the Amstel Gold Race, won the overall at the Tour of Denmark and finished second at the GP Ouest France-Plouay.

On Saturday, Gerrans took the biggest win of his career at Milan-San Remo, following Vincenzo Nibali’s attack on the final climb, the Poggio, and then outsprinting Fabian Cancellara from a three-man group for the win.

Below are excerpts from an interview Velo editor Neal Rogers conducted with Gerrans prior to his San Remo win.

VeloNews: You started out the season by winning the national road championship and the Tour Down Under, two of the biggest races an Australian can win, for a new Australian WorldTour team. What was that like?
Simon Gerrans: It was a huge thrill to be a racing with GreenEdge in the opening races of the season. There’s been so much hype surrounding the team in Australia and it’s just fantastic to be involved with it all. There was quite a lot of pressure on the team to win the Australian championships, so I think everyone at GreenEdge was quite relieved when I won. For me personally it’s a real honor to be Australian champion. Cycling in Australia is going through a massive boom at the moment on all levels so to be at forefront of it all is just great. To win the Tour Down Under was a great way to not only thank the Ryan family and everyone for their support in getting GreenEdge off the ground, but it was also a great way to show the Australian public and the world of cycling that we’re here and we’re fair dinkum.

VN: How would you grade your 2011 season?
SG: It was a good year. Not an outstanding year, but a good, solid year. I came up really good for the classics, though I came up quite late. I wasn’t feeling fantastic at Pais Basque, but obviously I had a great result at Amstel Gold Race. I felt probably the best of the Ardennes at Liège, but the race didn’t pan out how I was hoping, and I missed the guys when they went.

The Tour de France was a bit of a rollercoaster. Obviously we went in with high expectations with Wiggo, and to lose him after a week of racing it was a huge disappointment for the team. But we refocused and I think we raced really well. We had a rider in the breakaway at every opportunity. Edvald Boasson Hagen had two stage wins, Rigoberto Uran spent some time in the white jersey, as did Geraint Thomas. All in all it was pretty successful.

I was feeling pretty good at the Tour, but I missed opportunities. I really tried on the days I knew the break was going to stick. Because there were so few opportunities, the guys that were in those breakaways were super strong guys. There were no lucky breakaways that went all the way to the finish. Thor won two of the breakaway days, and Edvald won one, and they are two of the strongest guys in the peloton running for the breaks. It makes it hard for opportunists to get into those breaks and win.

I kept it rolling after the Tour, for San Sebastián and Denmark, before I had a bit of a break. And because I got through the Tour in good shape and in good health, without really going deep in any breakaways, I was able to use that form to get some results afterwards. The result I was most proud of is winning Denmark. I felt on top of things. I was time trialing really well, I was sprinting well, and I raced from the front, and aggressively, on the stage that counted most. It was my first win since the Vuelta stage win in 2009, so it was a bit of a monkey off my back. The 2010 season was my only winless season since I turned pro. It was a super tough year with quite a few setbacks. And you do get these lingering doubts. Winning in Denmark, and to attack the race in the final at Plouay and get second place, that was another confidence boost for the end of the season. It took an average year to make it a good year.

VN: When did you decide to sign with GreenEdge?
SG: I didn’t make the final decision until after the Tour de France, although I closely followed the progress of how the team was coming together. I’m quite close with all the senior management — Gerry Ryan, who is backing the team, he’s a close friend of mine, and I’ve had long relationships with Shayne Bannan and Neil Stephens. From the beginning they’d told me they wanted me involved. But I hung out until after the Tour to give Sky the opportunity to offer me a deal, because I felt like they’d done everything right for me since I’d been with the team, so I at least owed them that. Sky was coming together, but with the riders that were riveted to come to GreenEdge, and the structure of the GreenEdge project, it just looked like GreenEdge was going to be a much better option for me.

VN: What was it like racing with Sky once you announced that you’d be leaving?
SG: Everyone at Sky was fantastic. I’ve had really good relationships with my teammates, the staff and the whole team. I received several quite flattering emails and messages when it was announced I was going with GreenEdge, saying congratulations, but we’re sad to see you go. You see time and again when guys are leaving, even if the team gets a hint of it, their race program turns to shit and they don’t get any support in the races. I’ve been fortunate with Sky and other teams I’ve left; they’ve understood.

VN: It must have been hard to resist being a founding member of the first Australian WorldTour team.
SG: The only reason I was hesitating from the start was because the last two teams, with Cervélo and Sky, were both brand new teams. And you’re going to have some teething problems, now matter how big your budget is, no matter how much experience is there, no matter how good your riders are. It always takes a little while for a brand new team to find its feet. You could see that with the improvement at Sky from 2010 to 2011, it was just everyone finding their place. However GreenEdge has some really good, experienced people involved with the team, and a great group of riders, so I think any problems will be sorted out quickly. We should have a fantastic season.

VN: Your skill set, and the classics you’re most suited for, are similar to Philippe Gilbert. What’s it like competing against a rider like him?
SG: It’s tough. Philippe’s a mate of mine. We hang out every now and then in Monaco, and do some training rides together. So when he tells me his training program, and I realize that’s exactly what I’m doing, you know the race is going to be difficult to win. But I’m happy for him that he’s done so well, he’s such a fantastic guy. I’ve known him since 2005, when I turned pro, and he hasn’t changed a bit. When someone raises the bar like he has, it definitely motivates you to train harder. It’s tough to race against him, but it improves you as a bike rider.

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