Charly Wegelius
Charly Wegelius

Charly Wegelius is coming off the two most trying seasons of his 11-year career and feels the spark burning for the first time in a while. The new UnitedHealthcare recruit brings his grand tour palmarés to the upgraded American outfit as it embarks on its first solid European campaign Wednesday at the Volta ao Algarve.

The Finland-born Brit joined Cadel Evans at Lotto in 2009 after a decade in Italian squads Liquigas, De Nardi and Mapei. Evans departed the team at the end of that season, just months after his lauded new domestique only made the Tour de France squad the week of the race when Thomas Dekker was excluded after a positive test for EPO. Forced to abandon the Tour a year later with an infection after stage 10, Wegelius saw perhaps the high point in his career end in misery.

“The Tour de France is a huge monster,” Wegelius told VeloNews. “If you do well at the Tour, it can make you for years, but if you do badly, it can break you into small pieces.”

After a successful Giro d’Italia, where he finished 15th in stage 15 atop the brutal Monte Zoncolan climb, Wegelius entered the Tour with expectations of his first individual stage win. A pre-race blood test showed a festering infection, however, and Wegelius fought to stay in the race for more than a week. Following a restless night in Chambéry, he turned his number in and left the Tour.

“It was the first time in my career that I really allowed myself to think about maybe winning a stage and doing something really good,” he said. “I went from being almost overly positive to being in a really negative place, but that’s sport, isn’t it?”

Wegelius said the period following the Tour was one of the darkest of his life. Negotiations with Team Sky had gone quiet early in the race when the market for riders appeared set to flood with uncertainty surrounding Saxo Bank-Sunguard and Cervélo TestTeam.

“I had some pretty desperate moments,” said Wegelius. “Going from such a positive place to being really just lost … I didn’t understand why my body was having issues. I couldn’t find any answers to it. I couldn’t string together any consistent training.”

With no ProTeam offers coming in, Wegelius accepted a contract with UnitedHealthcare. He said he didn’t take the decision lightly, as it was a step away from the WorldTour, his first since 2004. But Wegelius, more at home acting as a super domestique than a leader, started to feel the fire in his belly a week later. A stream of emails began to run from team management —  on everything from time trial equipment to logistics — and gear began arriving in the post.

2008 Giro d'Italia, Charly Wegelius
Wegelius in the 2008 Giro

“I started to realize these guys were really serious,” said Wegelius. “I was really keen to start training again when I started in December and that hasn’t happened for a while.”

With a grand tour pedigree that includes eight Giros, it would follow that Wegelius would be seen as UHC’s top rider in the mountains. Two of the reasons for his renewed passion, however, are the opportunities to mentor young riders and act as top supporter for Rory Sutherland.

“I give the best of myself riding in support roles on the team,” said Wegelius. “I’ll just be trying to stay as close to Rory on the climbs as possible and trying to either put him in a good place or close gaps.”

Wegelius has two team trial wins in his career, one of them in the opening stage of the 2007 Giro with Liquigas. He admits that a team win falls short of an individual win in popular regard. After sipping from the cup of individual hopes last year, Wegelius hopes to close his career with at least one individual win.

UnitedHealthcare for Volta ao Algarve
141 Rory Sutherland
142 Christian Meier
143 Charles Wegelius
144 Robert Förster
145 Morgan Schmitt
146 Boy Van Poppel
147 Bradley White
148 Jonathan Clarke

“I’d like to stop racing having won a proper race,” he said. “It’s not an obsession and I hope it’s not what people will judge me as a cyclist by when I stop. If I win one race this year or next year, that’s not going to be how you sum up 12 years of work … but it would be nice to do it.”

How would the 32-year-old like to be remembered?

“As someone who did his best with what he could in the situation he was in,” he said. “A reliable, honest teammate who did his job properly.”

Before he hangs up the cleats, however, Wegelius is riding a high of motivation heading into 2011. “I want to get back to being myself,” he said. “I don’t want to look at my suitcase when I have to leave and think, ‘Oh, another bike race.’ Even if it means I stop at the end of the season, I want to stop on a positive note and do my job seriously, but I still want to have fun. I want to get back to doing cycling as a sport and not just grinding through a job.”

The Volta ao Algarve starts Wednesday with stage one, which starts at the Estádio Algarve outside Faro, Portugal, and covers 157.5 km to the coastal town of Albufeira.