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Taming Talansky: ‘Pit Bull’ finds new composure

“Broadcast error reportedly spurs Talansky tirade,” read the VeloNews.com headline, and the story beneath was just as bad as it sounds.

After stage 5 of the 2013 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a 16.5-kilometer time trial up Vail Pass, NBC Sports posted a major error, albeit briefly, in its broadcasted results. Andrew Talansky was listed as the winner; the actual results soon changed to indicate BMC’s Tejay van Garderen had won by four seconds.

It was a bitter pill to swallow. Talansky was the champion, publicly, and then suddenly the runner-up. A bit of pouting was probably justified. But Talansky didn’t pout. He stormed off his team bus, walked over to BMC’s bus, and unleashed a profanity-laced tirade directed at BMC team staff.

There’s a reason Talansky was nicknamed “Pit Bull.”

When he cooled down, he apologized. “Look, I was frustrated that the timing had been reported wrong,” he told reporters after the outburst. “Losing a bike race doesn’t bother me.” The evidence spoke to the contrary — losing really did bother him.

“I’ve never got a good result riding off of anger. Anger is just a fleeting emotion.”
– Andrew Talansky

Garmin brass deflected questions about the outburst. “Everybody knows that Andrew’s got sort of a strong character,” said director Charly Wegelius. Team owner Jonathan Vaughters echoed the sentiments, explaining that his star’s outburst was due to his winning drive. “Andrew exhibits — more than any other rider I’ve seen in my lifetime — the true fire of a champion,” he said. “Perhaps he needs a little maturity, and a few lessons like this one, to temper that.”

The message from Garmin was simple: Boys will be boys. It was the odd sort of compliment, or defense, we tend to apply only to athletes and young children.

But Talansky’s outburst that day was hardly an isolated incident. A year prior, most of his Garmin – Sharp team crashed in the opening team time trial of the Vuelta a España. After the race, a reporter saw Talansky throw his helmet at the team bus. Then, at the 2014 Tour de France, Talansky’s fury reached a boiling point. Just minutes after crashing hard at the finish of stage 7, he was seen screaming at Simon Gerrans, with whom he had touched wheels. A year later, VeloNews saw Talansky again standing at his team bus at the Tour de France, yelling at no one in particular.

When VeloNews met with Talansky at the Cannondale – Drapac team camp in December, the Pit Bull seen in those previous episodes was gone. Though he was fresh off a fifth-place finish at the Vuelta, where he rode consistently during one of the most topsy-turvy grand tours in recent history, the pressures and expectations of race day felt distant. The Spanish beachside hotel that hosted the team was off-season quiet. He walked in from his room and sat down in the lobby with a smile and a handshake, as relaxed as the grey team-issue sweats that hung off his shoulders. His answers were thoughtful and mature.

His mood was consistent with reports from his friends and teammates who said that, at age 28, Andrew Talansky has become a mellower, toned-down version of his fiery old self. The man who stormed off the bus in Vail four years ago is gone. The outbursts have stopped. Talansky himself confirmed this shift.

“You get to a point when you fully recognize that emotion,” he says. “You realize it’s not working. It’s not something you can channel and race off of. It’s not beneficial to me, to my team, to my racing, to my training. I’ve never got a good result riding off of anger. Anger is just a fleeting emotion.” Getting married changed him. A family tragedy in early 2016 changed him. Age and experience changed him, as they do everyone.

More than anything, he gained perspective. What wasn’t clear, at the time, was that his prodigious Vuelta ride and the rise of Talansky 2.0 were so closely intertwined. It wasn’t clear, then, that his personal renovation might be the key to unlocking his talent in the future.

ANDREW TALANSKY HAS SPENT his career chasing perfection. It’s his overriding personality trait, for better and worse. It’s also a job requirement. In order to beat the world’s best, Talansky needs to be perfect. He doesn’t have the talent to overcome mistakes, the way Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, or even Alberto Contador can. Vaughters understands the limitations of his star. Everything has to go right when the engine is just a bit smaller than the best.

“Fundamentally, he’s very perfectionistic about every detail,” Vaughters says. “He has to be, because he is not the 95 VO2max rider. He’s not this massive, world-beating physical talent. In the races that he’s won, or done really well in, he’s been able to optimize every last little detail. So when he’s in a race environment and one little thing goes wrong, he tends not to be tolerant of that at all. Because he knows that he can’t afford to be.”

Talansky knows what perfect looks like: his win at the 2014 Critérium du Dauphiné. The race should have been a clash between Froome and Contador. Yet neither grand tour winner stood atop the podium at the end of eight stages.

Talansky had perfect legs that week, and a bit of luck. He kept himself within spitting distance of the lead through six tricky days. On stage 7, as Contador and Froome attacked each other, teammate Ryder Hesjedal dropped back from the breakaway and escorted Talansky to the front. The teamwork led to Talansky finishing ahead of Froome. He entered the final stage on the podium, a comfortable third.

He could have stopped there. Third at the Dauphiné would have been a career highlight. But he needed only 39 seconds on Contador to take the race lead. The final stage saw a big, strong breakaway move clear, and Talansky made the group. This is the other side of the Pit Bull — the “true fire of a champion” part.

Chaos reigned behind and the chase fractured. Froome cracked. Contador left his own move too late. The break survived. Talansky rolled across the line in fourth. Forty seconds ticked over and Contador still hadn’t finished. Talansky, standing with his soigneurs, pulled his glasses off his face, tears in his eyes, and fell into the arms of the nearest, overwhelmed. He’d just won the Dauphiné.

Talansky was overwhelmed by his achievement of winning the 2014 Dauphine. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
Talansky was overwhelmed by his achievement of winning the 2014 Dauphine. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

That win, still Talansky’s biggest ever, was the exception that proved the rule. It proved he could be there, that he could contend, but he had to be flawless.

The thing about the pursuit of perfection is that it can drive you mad. Crazy mad. Angry mad. Frustrated mad.

For the next two years, perfection eluded Talansky at every bend. He crashed and made mistakes. He got sick, was robbed of valuable training miles, and arrived at major races with weak legs. He wanted to be perfect, but never was. So he got stressed, and then mad.

Madness in the pursuit of perfection is an explanation that diminishes the impact of Talansky’s visible anger, justifying it as an athletic necessity. But the anger wasn’t necessary, and Talansky knows it. It wasn’t even advantageous. He wasn’t using it as motivation, it was just a circumstantial reaction. Even he doesn’t excuse it, not anymore.

“For quite a long period of time, I did stress out a bit too much,” he says. “When you are stressed out, that leads to being frustrated at more things — that’s directed internally, at yourself.”

Talansky says he never lashed out at teammates, instead turning his anger inward. Still, people noticed his outbursts. Vaughters puts it more succinctly: “I think he kind of thought that over and said, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be a dick to everyone when everything isn’t exactly how I want it, when I want it.’”

IN 2016, a tragedy struck Talansky’s household. He describes it as “family stuff,” and prefers to leave it at that. We will do the same. It doesn’t really matter what the family stuff was, only that it happened, and it had an emotionally jarring impact on Talansky. It also kept him from the bicycle for several weeks. Mentally, he was off for much longer.

He returned at the Tour de Romandie. The prologue was just 3.95 kilometers and he lost a minute and four seconds to the winner, finishing 155th out of 160. There were 10 weeks until the Tour de France.

His previous two outings at the Tour had ended with a DNF and an 11th overall, one step back from his best finish, 10th, in 2013. He wasn’t keen to enter the race on the back foot once again, and neither was his boss. The call was made: Talansky would skip the Tour de France and focus on the Vuelta.

Weeks later, he went to the Amgen Tour of California to support Lawson Craddock and almost won the time trial. Then he went to the Tour de Suisse and finished fifth overall, showing fitness that would suggest a strong Tour de France. His form was rising more rapidly than expected. “I thought at that point that he’d want to change the plan,” Vaughters says. “But he didn’t. The funny thing is that when I came up with the whole Vuelta plan, I had in the back of my head that it would just take the pressure off and he’d be really good by the Tour. Mind games. But he wanted to stick with the plan, so we did.”

Vaughters knows the mind games that work on Talansky better than just about anyone. But why didn’t they work this time?

Few know Talansky better than retired pro Levi Leipheimer. The two train together regularly, dating back to a training camp Leipheimer invited Talansky on when he was just an amateur in 2010. Now 43, Leipheimer believes Talansky’s decision to skip the Tour showed that he’s growing personally and professionally.

“It’s by far the biggest event of the year, everyone wants to be there regardless of whether you’re riding well,” Leipheimer says. “It’s easy to say, ‘I want to be there’. For him to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to sit this one out, and work on myself,’ that takes maturity.”

The only race Talansky entered between Suisse and the Vuelta was the Tour of Utah. He was third behind a rejuvenated Lachlan Morton and ascendant U23 Adrien Costa. It was just a tune-up.

Then he went to Spain, and he found perfection again. He had form right from the start — eighth in the opening, 27-kilometer time trial—and held it all the way through, slowly climbing his way up the general classification. There were no errors. Every time there was a crosswind or a split, he was on the correct side of it. He finished ahead of Froome’s group in stage 15, the famed Formigal stage, where Quintana won the Vuelta.

At the end of three hot Spanish weeks, Talansky sat in fifth overall, just behind Contador. It was his best grand tour finish ever, against a stacked field.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, it was your best season when you won Dauphiné,’ and in my opinion, it wasn’t,” Talansky says. “It was last year, starting with Tour of California. I was top-five in every race I did. I was consistent, and capped it off with what I think was the best ride I’ve ever had in my life.” He refers, of course, to the Vuelta.

In an ironic twist, Talansky’s best season was one that began with a personal trial that altered his world.

Andrew Talansky finished fifth in the Vuelta, the best grand tour result of his career. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
Andrew Talansky finished fifth in the Vuelta, the best grand tour result of his career. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

THERE ARE MULTIPLE FACTORS that led to Talansky’s best grand tour. He realized he doesn’t need much racing to stay on top form. The space provided by his light schedule turned out to be a good thing. “He’s so intense at a race that he’s burning the candle at both ends,” Vaughters says. The mellow schedule is something they’ll replicate in 2017, as he refocuses on the Tour de France.

But there was something more. Talansky’s pursuit of the perfection his physiology requires has often proven detrimental. The Gerrans incident in 2014 is a perfect example. “He was so wrapped up in being the next American hero, ‘I just won the Dauphiné,’ he’s sprinting for a stage that he really shouldn’t have been sprinting for,” Vaughters says. And it ended his Tour de France.

When asked about what has changed, Talansky pauses before delivering his answer. “Perspective,” he says. “Perspective is the best thing in the world. You’re very consumed by this bubble, everything is about the bike — I have to do this, that, or the other—but there are moments in life when things are more important than training and racing. It makes you very thankful for the moments when training and racing are the most important things you have going. It’s very simple. It makes you thankful for those simple times.”

Dropping the Tour from his schedule did more than just rest Talansky physically; it allowed him the space to reset, to take his head out of bike racing and mature. In his time off the bike, and during his relaxed, pressure-free return to racing, he realized that talent doesn’t go away, that hard work is still just as effective after a setback.

“The most detrimental thing you can do is get overly consumed by it,” he says, after another pause. He then references the family tragedy. “Something like that, it completely shakes you out of your bubble.”

Talansky was always a pit bull on the bike and a puppy away from it. Friends confirm this. Leipheimer confirms it. “Off the bike, he’s very polite, extremely attentive, thoughtful of others,” Leipheimer says. “If you knew him there, you’d be like, ‘Wow, that’s a super nice guy, he’s not this killer.’”

The new challenge, Talansky says, is continuing to channel challenges into forward momentum.

“Everybody can train and race,” he says. “It’s not hard to be good when everything is perfect. It’s about taking those obstacles and finding ways to overcome them. That’s how I’ve changed.”

Listen to our conversation about Andrew Talansky on the VeloNews podcast: