By Sebastian Moll
Bernhard Kohl sat in the sunlit conference room of the mountain resort hotel Navize Te in the Italian Alps on the rest day of the Tour de France for more than hour, patiently answering questions from nearly 100 international reporters.
It was a new experience for both sides. Never before in his career had the 26-year-old Austrian been the focus of so much attention and before last Sunday, when he rode his way to within seven seconds of the maillot jaune, no one, except for the most avid Austrian cycling fans, had ever even heard of … Bernhard who?
The stir he is causing at the world’s biggest bicycle race has left him remarkably relaxed.
“I am not going to lose sleep over thinking about the yellow jersey,” he says in his deep Austrian dialect. “I think I am very good at shutting out things that would bother most people.”
The former chimney sweep from the Corinthian city of Klagenfurt appeared at ease, comfortable and unfettered by outside pressures. Kohl doesn’t seem to care much about what other people say or think and, for the most part, he prefers to be by himself.
Throughout the one-hour press meeting organized by his team Gerolsteiner he constantly checked his watch, eager to get out of the room and onto his bike for a solitary spin through the pristine Piedmont region, where the Tour spent its second rest day.
Kohl hasn’t picked up his cell phone for a week, he admits, and he isn’t about to. He said he would prefer not to know what is going on in his native Austria, where he has caused considerable excitement. The sudden celebrity frightens him more than anything, he said, making him reluctant to even think about what is awaiting him when he goes home after the Tour.
Kohl is a loner when it comes to training, too. While his Gerolsteiner teammates spend most winters together in Majorca preparing for the season, he stays in the Austrian Alps to go back country skiing alone or with childhood friends.
“I love the quiet of the mountains,” said the man who now holds a solid lead in the contest for the polka-dot jersey. His eyes sparkle as he speaks of time in the mountains, leaving the impression that the place he would most like to be right now is on a snowy Alpine peak.
His Tour preparation this year was equally solitary. In June, after he crashed out of the Dauphine, he stayed in France for a weak to scout all six mountain stages by himself.
What goes for expectations of capturing the yellow, or even winning the Tour, is also true for the debates and scandals around doping in cycling: Kohl simply doesn’t let them get to him.
“I just try to stay focused on my job,” he said.
Hopefully that is what he did in 2005 and 2006 when he was on the T-Mobile squad, at a time when Jan Ullrich was still the captain and Alexander Vinokourov and Matthias Kessler where his teammates.
Kohl says that he has only good memories of those times.
“I learned a lot from the more experienced riders,” he says, declining to say exactly what he learned and from whom, knowing that the answer might get him into trouble, especially with the scandal hungry German media present at the Gerolsteiner press event. But then maybe there is no reason for him to explain himself. Maybe Kohl was as much to himself then as he is now and really saw none of what was going on in the team at the time.
In any case, he appears to have a clear conscience nowadays.
“I think, I have been tested four times during the Tour,” he noted. “I don’t really keep count.”
Kohl certainly does not seem to be particularly worried about these tests.
So perhaps the laidback Austrian is really exactly what he seems to be — a quiet young man, who enjoys to be in the mountains by himself with and without a bike and who is giving us one of the more remarkable stories of this year’s Tour.