South African rider Daryl Impey has seen plenty of riders come and go in his 12-year professional career. Impey started his professional career on Barloworld, riding alongside Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, long before either man was considered a potential Tour de France champion. These days, Impey is helping shepherd Simon and Adam Yates to victories at some of the biggest races in pro cycling.
Along the way Impey has worn the Tour’s yellow jersey, come back from scary crashes, and found ways to win plenty of races. VeloNews recently caught up with Impey to discuss Froome, Thomas, and his own career.
VeloNews: Daryl, it’s never easy for riders from Africa to get noticed by the big European-based teams. How did you get on the radar as a young pro?
Daryl Impey: It’s very hard for the South African riders to make an impact and get to Europe. When I was racing as an amateur, we had six big national teams. Today you’re lucky if there are two teams. My dad was quite successful as a road cyclist, and my brother and I started mountain biking. I eventually got into the road team with the U16 team. I loved the intensity of racing and the team dynamics, and I got stuck into road racing. At 20, I started with La Pomme Marseille, and I actually nearly quit. I eventually got onto Doug Ryder’s team. Robbie Hunter had won a stage at the Tour that summer, and I messaged him, and he said he saw me winning races in South Africa. Robbie said he would vouch for me. I joined Barloworld in 2008, and Chris Froome and I turned pro there.
VN: Once you’re at that level, many say the hardest contract is the next one to stay there; how was it for you in those early pro seasons?
DI: Adjusting to Europe wasn’t bad for me. Living in France set me up for that. I had already learned about living alone and living around. I signed with RadioShack after Barloworld closed, and I took it all for granted. Oh, now I am in the WorldTour, I am with the big dogs. I was riding with Lance [Armstrong], it was all exciting. At the end of the year, I signed with the Pegasus team, which folded by December, and it was back to ground zero. I was back in South Africa, and I landed backed with Doug Ryder’s team — it was MTN then — and I was racing the local scene again. I was doing races in Morocco and Iran. NetApp signed me halfway through the 2011 season, and I came back to Europe. I knew it was make or break then. It was my last chance.
VN: You were at Barloworld with Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas; was there any indication then that either would eventually win the Tour de France?
DI: Both had a big engine. ‘G’ was a different rider, and he was coming off the track. ‘Froomey’ was always a different rider. He was a bit heavier in those days, but you could see both of those guys had big engines. Froomey was always doing these massive rides, stuff that none of us could come close to. He was riding into the dark, with lights on his bike and bottles on his bike so he wouldn’t have to stop. The drive was always there with Chris. G was a bit different, and he still is. He’s a bit more loose. He can have a good time, but he knows when to get serious. I think G was still partying into the New Year after winning his Tour. None of us would have picked them and said, oh, man, these guys are going to be grand tour winners. But at the same time, they had special qualities. They were just too young to predict something like that. Even when he was young, Froome was showing that even in his first year pro he had an engine. He was very nearly winning time trials in his first year without any real knowledge of what he was doing. And he’s shown a very fast progression and that style of racing suits him. He’s always had that.
VN: Going back to South Africa, it seems ideal to have an early season race. Why hasn’t a big stage race developed down there?
DI: It’s a question of money, and finding the right people to run the event. South Africa is a very tricky country to negotiate with. There is still a bit of corruption, you got to pay the right people to get things done, there’s still a bit of back-room dealing. We did have a Tour of South Africa once, but the police didn’t do road closures. We’d ride into town and race straight into the cars. That’s the kind of challenges we are dealing with. We certainly have the places to do it. It could be a bit like the Tour Down Under. It would really work well in that February period.
VN: Your high-profile crash involving Theo Bos on the last stage at the 2009 Tour of Turkey seemed to have a big impact on your career. Looking back now, how did you get through that?
DI: It was a rough period. Barloworld was folding that year, and we knew that, so I was pretty stressed about getting racing again. It was all over the media, ‘Oh Daryl, he’s broken his back, fractured his jaw — is he up and running yet?’ People start spreading stories. I remember Robbie Hunter messaging me, ‘hey, stop talking about your back. Just start talking about coming good, otherwise, no one is going to offer you a ride at the end of the year.’ I was panicking, and it took me three months to get back to training. I was so motivated and at the backend of the season, people saw I could still race. That’s what got me famous I suppose, but maybe for the wrong reasons. I was with Lance, Robbie McEwen, but everyone’s talking about if we (Bos) had fought, or did they punch each other? I got through it.
VN: Now your role at Mitchelton-Scott is fairly defined and you’re strictly a worker for the Yates brothers. Is that a role you enjoy or do you miss your opportunities?
DI: I like it. Now you have to be switched on every day and it’s even better. Before you would just be floating around sometimes. It’s been great to watch them go so well. I do miss some of those other days sometimes. It was nice to take the foot off the gas. The team has gotten more serious, our goals and ambitions are bigger, and we’ve started to take things more seriously. The whole sport has evolved. You have to put your energy in the right place.
VN: How far do you think Simon Yates can go?
DI: He could win the Tour. If you win the Vuelta and are close to winning the Giro, you can win the Tour. Simon is the first grand tour winner of our team. The way he handled the pressure was pretty amazing. He’s a gutsy rider. The fact that he’s willing to take those bold moves and go for it, he’s a natural champion.
VN: You do get your chances to lead, especially at the Tour Down Under, which you’ve won two years in a row…
DI: A lot of my career I’ve worked for other guys, so we talked about what races could suit me. When they sat down last year, they gave me the chance to go for the TDU, which is one of their biggest goals. I’ve started to believe in myself as well. It’s good to have a finish line and know that I have to ace that. When you’re leading out someone, it’s a different mindset. This year gave me a lot of confidence. I am still learning, but at the grand tours, the objectives are with the GC guys. That’s what I will be ready to do. Races like the Ardennes and the Tour Down Under are races where I can perform at.