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Q&A: Greg Henderson brings Olympic expertise to U.S. men’s pursuit

Greg Henderson retired from professional cycling in 2017 and joined USA Cycling as a performance manager for the new National Team.

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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Greg Henderson retired from professional cycling earlier this year and joined USA Cycling as one of several performance directors with the newly formed National Team. Henderson will work with track endurance and road athletes, but his main responsibility is clear — the men’s team pursuit for the 2020 Olympics.

The women’s team pursuit squad has developed into a powerhouse, becoming multi-time world champions and Olympic medalists. Kristen Armstrong will be that team’s performance director.

Meanwhile, the men’s squad has been dormant. But that is changing.

Henderson rode the classics, grand tours, and made a name for himself on the track. He represented New Zealand at five Olympics with four appearances on the track and one on the road. He won gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in the points race.

In his new role, Henderson will guide a group of riders who are finding their legs in UCI Track World Cups this season: Adrian Hegyvary, Colby Lange, Gavin Hoover, Daniel Holloway, Eric Young, Ashton Lambie, and Daniel Summerhill. The team was third at the recent Chile World Cup and fourth at the previous stop in Canada. Holloway won the omnium in Chile as well.

Henderson will also support a select list of road riders on the National Team: Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), national road champion Larry Warbasse (Aqua Blue Sport), national time trial champion Joey Rosskopf (BMC), and Coryn Rivera (Sunweb).

VeloNews caught up with Henderson in Boulder, Colorado, where he lives with his wife Katie Mactier — also a medal-winner on the track — and two kids. Henderson discussed how he planned his smooth retirement from racing and the excitement surrounding the new National Team.

VeloNews: When did you know this would be your final year racing professionally?

Greg Henderson: In 2015 I went to the worlds in Richmond, and I started planting the seed. I knew I wanted to do one more Tour. I knew I wanted to do it as a 40-year-old. Basically, in my cycling career, I ticked every box I wanted to tick or could realistically tick. I had done it for what felt like 100 years, and I had already started to coach a bit, and I got a lot of joy from it and seeing riders progress under my guidance and my program. That was a big aspect of it too, and a motivating factor for me to hang it up.

I was already sort of looking after the younger guys on the team, Lotto Soudal, so when I moved across to [UnitedHealthcare], I was obviously the elder statesman there. They gave me a lot of respect there and I could pass on a lot of information to their young sprinters, which was really enjoyable.

VN: How was it coming back to racing in the U.S. after spending so many years racing in Europe and at the WorldTour level?

Greg Henderson: I think I mentally prepared for it and the racing the way it is. It is so different. The thing of American racing is everyone attacks like anything to try and get in the breakaway and then as soon as we are in the breakaway, nobody wants to work. Then I remember I was here 12 years ago and everyone was doing the same thing. You would get in the breakaway and nobody wanted to work in the breakaway.

[In Europe] you get in the breakaway and you give it because there’s a chance they aren’t coming back to you. I had to accept it and it was my last year and I preferred to help guys win and to be honest, I wasn’t that interested in winning myself. It was more if I could help the team win, if I could help Travis McCabe win or whoever was sprinting, if I could teach them which side of the road to sprint on and just small things like that, it could just really help the team. In the end, I actually really just enjoyed it.

VN: You’re a Kiwi, so why the decision to join USA Cycling, and did you think about joining a WorldTour team considering your 10+ years at that level?

GH: I spent 11 years in the WorldTour and I just didn’t want to be in Europe anymore. Also, the kids are in school here and they really like it. My wife is Australian and we weren’t ready to move back to New Zealand yet. I was actually riding on contract this year with UHC, so it was a transition year where I was like, ‘Let’s start putting the next phase in place.’ I contacted Jim Miller [USAC’s vice president of high performance] and he ran by this idea of these performance managers and how the structure is going to be in place and what their goal is. I was used to riding for these pro teams where they offer you these one- or two-year contracts, and he said here’s a four-year contract and I was like, ‘Yep, that takes a bit of pressure off.’

We love Boulder as well. I would come here every year for a training camp before the Tour and we’d be staying up in Nederland or something like that, so we love the place.

VN: How do you think your own Olympic experience will help this program grow over the next three years and help Team USA capture medals?

GH: I’ve been to five Olympics myself. It’s just about micromanaging guys also. Facilitating a training program or whether it’s a training camp or it’s some wind tunnel testing we need. It’s just those little things and something like that that I wish I had when I was an athlete, even something as simple as physio. I’m in a foreign country and I’ve got a sore knee, who do I ring to fix this? [The riders] can ring me and I can sort that out. That’s part of it.

I was in Chile [at the Track World Cup] recently and we got three medals there, two gold medals and a bronze, and we broke the national record in the [men’s] team pursuit. In the bronze medal run-off, we were actually on 3:59 pace. We were about to break that four-minute barrier. Unfortunately, there was an accident with the team we were racing and they fired the gun with a lap and a half to go, so they had to swing up. I was screaming at them to keep going, keep going because I knew the time they were on. I think they still ended up riding faster than the national record, but the time doesn’t become official because the gun was fired.

In order to then make the National Team, they had to win a medal at a World Cup and see the time standard. We ticked both those boxes so that pursuit team is now part of the National Team too.

VN: What specific wisdom do you bring to the National Team?

GH: I think the thing we have to keep reminding ourselves is that we are new to this. We are not Team New Zealand or Great Britain or Australia. Track racing is in our blood [in New Zealand]. I’ve been doing it since I was seven years old. It’s just what we did, we track raced. [Team USA is] new to this and we just have to learn and see where we can tidy up. In the team pursuit, for example, I just keep telling the fellas to respect the process. It’s a long one, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We want to ride 3:55 like the Australians or whatever, but let’s just take our time. The U.S. Olympic Committee is happy every time we are improving, so let’s plan on it being a three-year process.

VN: Who excites you the most on the National Team that you are going to be able to work with?

GH: I think the [men’s] team pursuit as a whole. I’m from the side of the world where if you make the starting lineup of the team pursuit you were going to get a medal, and it’s the same with British Cycling. Your goal was to make the starting lineup and then you were basically guaranteed a medal. I remember having a conversation with Adrien Hegyvary. He just couldn’t believe it that they got the bronze and then the tactics came up with Daniel Holloway in the omnium to get the gold medal. They’re just so used to lining up and getting beaten. Now all of a sudden they are on for a medal. It’s that switch in mentality and I never really thought of that because whenever I lined up, I expected to win. It was just a totally different mentality. It’s nice to see them evolving as athletes and their enthusiasm because they just want it so badly. You can see some of the guys at the track on the Australian team, for example, in the infield yawning and just waiting for their next effort, but these guys are discussing everything and they’re so green and they’re so motivated.

VN: How was it getting those three medals at the Chile Track World Cup, knowing days later was the big National Team announcement?

GH: Well, Jim Miller said, ‘Mate, you couldn’t have got better timing. This announcement coming and now you’ve gone and got three medals.’ It was perfect timing and it was a nice feeling. I think it was a momentum thing because as I was calling the team pursuit, Holloway was warming up for the omnium and he asked me ‘Mate, how do you think we are going to go in this omnium’ and I said, ‘Mate, we are going to win this omnium, that’s what we are going to do.’

VN: Do you think success early in the Olympic cycle is key to developing momentum and getting riders excited to push themselves and compete?

GH: Yes, absolutely, but again it takes time. I think the European World Cups will be a little harder like the ones early on in Manchester and Poland because the Europeans have come straight off the European Games, so they’re in peak condition and they’ve come off the road season. These next two are probably a little softer, but you still have to win the bike race. Now it comes down to that confidence and [the riders] know what 3:59 feels like, the pace they have to ride.

It’s a process and we keep going back to that word and keep instilling that word into the guys’ heads and let’s not get carried away. It’s a three-year process.

This conversation was edited for clarity and length