Tony Cruz is back in the European peloton after racing last season on the domestic circuit with Toyota-United. The 35-year-old Californian says he still has unsettled business in Europe and rejoins Discovery Channel more motivated than ever. Cruz talked to VeloNews at length about his career, why he refuses to compromise his integrity and how he still hopes to race the Tour de France this year. Here are excerpts from the recent interview:
VeloNews.com: How are you recovering following your classics campaign?
Tony Cruz: I have a little problem with the tendon that covers my left knee. It has a little tear in it and I haven’t been able to ride for 10 days. It happened all at once. When I got home (after Roubaix), I was so sick, I was hacking up stuff. Then I went to see a physical therapist in Santa Monica, and they said you got some sort of tear going. It’s definitely painful. I have to be patient and try not to force it. I go stir crazy sitting around my house. Yesterday I went out into my garage and started doing things, my wife said you have to come inside and ice your knee and elevate. I have to be patient, but it’s hard for me.
VN.com: How did it happen, in a crash during the classics, or was it more from over-training?
TC: Definitely from a crash. I was caught in a big pileup at Flanders and I ended with a bunch of dudes, someone hit me from behind and sent my flying into a seatpost and I hit right square on my kneecap. When you’re at the classics, you don’t get a break. When you’re racing, you just keep going. That night it was sore and it progressively got work. Now, I can only ride about one and a half hours before it starts to bother me.
VN.com: How is it going to affect your racing schedule?
TC: I was supposed to leave Saturday for the Tour de Romandie. I had never done it before and I was looking forward to it. The doctors have said the longer you prolong the recovery, the longer you’re screwed up in the long run. We’ll see how aggressive we can get with some physical therapy and see how quickly I can get back to normal. I’ve never had an injury like this before and it’s all kind of new for me. It’s very nerve-racking. Things are in full swing and here I am a lame duck. There’s no point in flying over and doing 20 kilometers of the first stage and pull out. Right now, the next race I’ll probably do is Catalunya. The plan was to do Romandie, then the Giro.
VN.com: And what about your chances of scoring a shot at the Tour de France?
TC: That’s one of my objectives and now I’m getting really nervous. I was on the long list. It definitely set me back. I expected it to be sore for a few days, now I’m already going on nearly two week. I really noticed it toward the end of Ghent. The team doctor was doing some ultra-sound and giving me some anti-inflammatories. At Roubaix, it was painful. Roubaix is the second-biggest objective for the team. I know it wasn’t the smartest thing to do it, so I didn’t want to let the team down. After the (Arenberg) forest, I was still in first group, but my stomach was feeling weird. The anti-inflammatories wrecked my stomach. Two cobble sections later, I dropped out of first group and the second group caught me. I knew my race was over went to the feed zone and pulled out.
VN.com: Besides the bad luck at the classics, how is it to be back racing in Europe?
TC: It’s nice. There’s been a smooth transition. I literally felt like I had never left, which is what I was hoping for. I haven’t gotten my fill of European racing. I was missing it a lot, especially when it came times for the classics. Doing a race in Fresno just doesn’t compare. I’m pretty sure it’s everyone’s dream out there racing to be racing in Europe. It’s still mine. Ever since I had the idea that I could race professional, I knew I had to get to Europe. I still feel strongly about racing over there and motivated. A little time away from it really made me see that.
VN.com: Why did you decide to return to the US to race domestically in 2006?
TC: It was more about being home with my family. We have three kids – 15, 11 and 4 – and it’s hard for my wife. In 2005, I was trying to figure out what to do when Frankie (Andreu) called me up with this option (to join Toyota-United). It was perfect timing when he called. I was already thinking about going back to the United States to race and the way it all worked, it was meant to be. I had a lot of fun racing with the team and we won quite a few races with Haedo.
VN.com: How did you get back with Discovery Channel again to come back this season?
TC: I talked to my wife about it and she saw that I missed racing in Europe. She said whatever you feel you want to do, that’s fine with me. That’s all I needed and I called Johan (Bruyneel) around the end of May last year. He said he was surprised and said he didn’t think I’d be calling for a job. He kind of paused and then he said we’d love to have you back. It was cool, right before he hung up, he said, ‘I think you still have some unfinished business in Europe.’ That was really nice to hear. I still feel like a European-caliber rider. Once I got my letter of intent, I told (Toyota) what I wanted to do. They were bummed, but they said I needed to do what’s going to make me happy.
VN.com: Coming back with the team, are you assuming the same role as a helper? Will you get some more of your own chances?
TC: I know if you’re a little more vocal, I tell them what I want to do and they respect that. Most of the time, I’m pretty shy and I don’t speak up when I should. But you need to perform before your event to show that you’re serious, which is fair, that’s how it works. I’d like some opportunities.
VN.com: You’re 35 now, do you still feel motivated as you did earlier in your career?
TC: I feel the same as when I went over to Europe. I don’t think I’ve slowed down any. Mentally, I am stronger than before and that helps. Through my experiences, I know what to expect. I have a good idea what to expect at the races, I know how to deal with time away from the family and that helps me plan a little better. This year I brought my wife over for some of the spring races. That’s the first time I’ve done that since I’ve been on the team. They guys are much more open to that. They know I am serious and I am going to get the job done.
VN.com: What’s the difference on the team with having Armstrong around?
TC: Lance is a leader for the team. We just don’t have that strong presence that he bring out. It doesn’t matter if he’s at a race to win, he just takes control. Nobody asks any questions, they just follow the orders. I don’t see much of that right now. You kind of get that with Basso. You see that he’s motivated and driven. There’s definitely a void without Lance. He’s just a special individual with his presence. He has that ability to bring everyone’s game up. I know all the guys on the team really look up to him. I even heard Basso refer to him as the king of cycling.
VN.com: What’s your reaction to the latest news about Basso?
TC: That blew me away. When I saw that it was the Italians that wanted to pursue this whole thing, that surprised me, too. I’ve seen in the past with incidents like this, they usually give more support for their own riders.
VN.com: Have you noticed any differences in the peloton in terms of speed or attitudes that might indicate there’s less doping going on?
TC: I think it’s definitely changed. I’ve seen it at Telekom. There’s been a big shift from that team. I’ve noticed it on quite a few teams. They are taking it more seriously. That’s what needs to happen or it’s going to turn into a big mess. We can’t have another Puerto, with guys coming up positive. The whole sport is a laughing stock. I love cycling. I love what I do. I want to see this sport continue to grow, not taking steps backward. There are more out-of-competition tests. They’re taking some pretty hefty measures.
VN.com: Some pros have said they almost feel embarrassed to say they’re professional cyclists in light of recent doping scandals, what’s your view?
TC: I am really proud that I am a cyclist. I am proud to be a clean cyclist, who can compete at this level naturally. When I started racing, I didn’t think this was a sport where get to a certain level and then start taking performance-enhancing drugs to make myself into a superstar. I just thought it was always through hard work. It can be embarrassing to read about the scandals. People wonder, what are you doing? People have come up to me and asked me what drugs I am taking so that I don’t get caught. That’s insulting.
VN.com: How is it to be a clean racer competing against guys that you think might be taking something?
TC: That is hard, when you’re killing someone two week ago and then they’re suddenly a mountain goat. What a minute – how do you make that turnaround in two weeks? It does play with your head. I can’t dwell on it. I just figure those guys will get caught. If I start looking at that, then you think everyone is dirty and you’re the only clean guy. You can’t race like that and be happy. You just do whatever is best for you and stick to that.
VN.com: How do you keep your motivation to train and make sacrifices?
TC: I have to believe that those guys will get caught. It might take one year, five years or eight years. I do things the honest way, the hard-working way. I try to instill that in my kids, too. Once you start cheating a little bit, cut a corner here, then there will be a breaking point and you give in. I don’t want that for myself or for my kids.
VN.com: It must be hard to resist the temptation of perhaps cheating and perhaps have a huge payoff or win some big races? How do you turn your back on what many say is an easy payoff?
TC: I just couldn’t live with myself. Even some of my friends and family say you’re too honest. They say, dude, why don’t you do what some of the others do and make a bunch of money? I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror or look at my kids. I just couldn’t be happy. It’s really not that tempting for me. If I did it and won something, I think I would come out and tell everyone about it. I have too much of a conscience. For me, it’s a matter of integrity and being an example for my kids. I love to be a good example for future cyclists. You have to train hard and live a dedicated life. You don’t need to take this other stuff to be successful.
VN.com: Do you still believe you can win races in Europe?
TC: Yes, because that’s what keeps that motivation and hunger going inside. That’s why I decided to be more vocal and express what I need to the team. I love winning races. It was really nice last year to win. It’s a good feeling. It made me even hungrier to come back to Europe. As far as measuring my own career, I know I haven’t had the accolades as some people, but I know that you can compete at the highest level and still play a role for your team.
VN.com: What’s the difference in levels before racing in the U.S. and Europe?
TC: When I’m in Europe, just about every guy that lines up at the start, I view them as all potential winners. That’s how strong most of the guys are in Europe. Every one seems to measure it against the Tour. I noticed that last year, people would ask me if I’d ridden the Tour, as if it would make my whole career or even me as a person, if I had ridden the Tour. They just don’t understand the entire calendar is hard.