Even at 34, Henderson keeps on progressing

Winning on American soil is nothing new for Greg Henderson, Team Sky’s Amgen Tour of California stage 2 winner in Modesto.

MODESTO, California (VN) — Winning on American soil is nothing new for Greg Henderson, Team Sky’s Amgen Tour of California stage 2 victor.

A former top track cyclist who has represented New Zealand at four Olympic Games, the 34-year-old from Dunedin cut his teeth on the North American circuit, launching a road career that’s involved riding as lead-out man for varying riders from Gord Fraser and Andre Greipel to Mark Cavendish and Ben Swift.

The rider known as “Hendy” has also taken stage wins of his own at the Vuelta a España, Paris-Nice, Volta Catalunya and the Tour de Georgia.

Henderson began his pro road career with 7UP-Maxxis in 2002. That team morphed into Health Net-Maxxis, where he rode from 2004 through 2006 alongside sprinters such as Fraser, Tyler Farrar and Ivan Dominguez; today it’s the UnitedHealthcare squad of Rory Sutherland and Robert Forster.

A brilliant career on the track earned Henderson a 2004 world scratch championship, but it was wins at races like the 2005 Wachovia Invitational Lancaster and the 2006 Reading Classic and Philadelphia International Championship that took him to the ProTour in 2007 with T-Mobile. That team evolved into HTC-Highroad, and in 2010 Henderson switched over as a charter member of the new British team Sky.

Henderson went winless for the first time in his career during his inaugural ProTour season, a year spent finding his way at the ProTour level while riding as a lead-out man for both Greipel and Cavendish. He twice finished second in sprints at the 2007 Tour of California, to Graeme Brown in Santa Rosa, and J.J. Haedo in Santa Clarita. He then entered his first grand tour, the Giro d’Italia, but abandoned after 10 stages.

At the 2008 Tour de Georgia Henderson won two stages, both times ahead of Greipel, earning his second sprint classification there, to match his first, earned in 2005.

Following the 2008 Olympics Henderson married his girlfriend, Australian Katie Mactier, the 2004 Olympic pursuit silver medalist and 2005 world pursuit champion. They live together in Girona, Spain, with their 19-month-old daughter, Charlie.

In a 2006 interview with VeloNews magazine, Mactier described her husband’s notorious drive to be the best. “I have never come across anyone who is so diligent or has such a hard work ethic,” she said. “The thing is, he does the hours, he goes out and does six-, seven-, eight-hour rides not just once or twice a week, but five times a week. He’s a sucker for punishment. He’s capable of hurting himself more than a lot of other people are.”

Henderson said it all comes down to desire. “I reckon it’s totally about the hunger, I really believe in that,” he said. “It’s so good to have that hunger, it just gives you that motivation. I read a book by Percy Cerutty, who coached Herb Elliot to Olympic glory in running the 1,500 meters, and in his philosophy, he welcomes pain and suffering. One of his famous quotes that I wrote up and put on the back of my door says, ‘You’ll only surpass me in speed, but not in the ability to take punishment.’ It’s so inspiring. He says, ‘I’ve found the only way to the top, and this is it.’ Training is the hardest part. Racing is the easy bit. If you train that well, racing becomes easy.”

After winning a stage at the 2009 Vuelta a España, Henderson signed with Sky for 2010. He kick-started the team’s debut season with an early win at the Tour Down Under’s warm-up race, the Cancer Council Classic. Six weeks later he followed up with a stage win at Paris-Nice, and took second in a field sprint at the Giro, to Manuel Belletti; he also won stages at the Eneco Tour of Benelux and the Tour of Britain.

Henderson started the 2011 season with a second-place finish at the New Zealand national road championship, and rode support of Swift at the Tour Down Under, where Swift won two stages. In March, he took a second stage win at Paris-Nice, ahead of Matt Goss, and dedicated the win, and his points jersey, to victims of the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.

After spending the month of April training in Colorado, including three weeks in Boulder and one week at elevation in the town of Nederland (elevation 8,200 feet), Henderson came to the Amgen Tour in top condition. With Swift on the team, the Sky sprinters had divvied up stages suited to their strengths. The canceled opening stage in Lake Tahoe was for Henderson, because it took place at altitude and had a categorized climb; stages 2 and 3 were for Swift. Everything went to perfection on stage 2, but not quite to plan in Modesto. Henderson launched his sprint with 500 meters to go, but Swift never came around; the young Brit had tangled up with Rabobank’s young sprinter Michael Matthews, and was nowhere near his lead-out man.

“I was unaware that Ben wasn’t on my wheel,” Henderson said. “At 200 to go I thought ‘They will start coming now.’ But I wasn’t getting slower, and at 100 to go no one passed me. There was only about five or six pedal strokes left to the line, and at 50 to go I thought, ‘Who can catch me? There are only a few guys left.’ It was a surprise to win; I’ve never sprinted from 500 to go. It was the longest sprint of my career. I was lucky to hold off everyone from the line. I was so lactic I was cross-eyed. I couldn’t even do a victory salute.”

Henderson credits the steady progression he’s seen over his career to persistence and consistency.

“A lot of it has had to do with finding my feet in Europe first, and gaining respect in the European peloton,” he said. “I was the lead-out man for Greipel and Cavendish. On my last year with Columbia (Highroad) I picked up six wins even though I was lead-out for Greipel to 20 or so wins. Last year I took six wins with Sky. It’s just a matter of being consistent, and I think that’s one of my attributes. From January to October you’ll get good results out of me.”

The only thing missing in his career is a shot at a Tour de France stage win. First, he has to be chosen for a Tour squad for the first time in his career.

“It’s no secret I want to race the Tour de France,” Henderson said in Modesto. “I didn’t make the Sky Tour team last year, and I am trying to tickle the boxes this year, in the hopes that if I keep doing my job correctly and keep my condition, I can make the Tour team. I was late to turn pro, and my career has stepped up year. I’ve raced at the Giro d’Italia a few times, and I’ve won a stage at the Vuelta. Now I want to compete against the best at the Tour de France.”