In February 2007 American Tyler Farrar arrived in the Belgian city Ghent alone, his suitcase in one hand and his bike in the other.
Just 22 years old, Farrar was fresh off training camp with his new team, Cofidis. When team management asked where he’d like to be flown after camp, he answered Ghent, despite having no place to live.
After 10 days spent walking the streets by day and staying in a rented hotel room by night Farrar landed a dream apartment, a one-bedroom flat in the historic town square, right along the city’s old canal.
Four years later, Farrar and his longtime girlfriend Stephanie Wade feel right at home in Ghent, a bustling college town close to friends from the USA Cycling national team house in Izegem, as well as to the roads where the spring classics are held. Belgium’s famous wet weather is even akin to their other home, in Washington.
“We got really lucky with the apartment” Farrar said. “We found a place we really love living.”
Since that time Farrar has developed into one of the top sprinters in the sport, and continues to develop into a legitimate threat at the cobbled classics. Last year at the Tour of Flanders he won the bunch sprint behind the leaders to finish fifth; so far this season Farrar has won a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico, won the bunch sprint for third at Dwars door Vlaanderen,-Waregem and finished third in the bunch sprint at Ghent-Wevelgem.
VeloNews met with Farrar outside his apartment earlier this week to discuss his new Garmin-Cervélo teammates Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler; what it takes to master the cobbled classics; and how to beat a dominant rider like Fabian Cancellara.
VeloNews: How is the new team dynamic working out between Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler and yourself?
Tyler Farrar: So far I’d say it’s working out pretty well. We haven’t won a classic yet, but we’ve certainly come close. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and we adapt our strategy for which rider is best suited to which day. Last weekend, at E3 Harelbeke, we sent Heinrich and Thor to that race, because they wanted to target something hillier, and I wanted to target Ghent-Wevelgem, because it can be a sprint. So we divvied it up that way. We can make the tactic, where if guys are going in breaks, Heinrich or Thor jump in moves. If it’s going to be a sprint from a small group, Thor will be there, and if it’s from a bigger group, I’ll hopefully still be there.
VN: How do you rate the team’s performance at Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo?
TF: I think Tirreno went exactly how we hoped it would. Our goal going in there was to win a stage, and we knew there would likely only be sprints on the first two stages; after that it was mountain days. We didn’t send a climber. We went there with the intention of the classics guys getting training. We won our stage, and we came close the next day but J.J. (Haedo) got me right at the line in the sprint. I had a few days in the leader’s jersey and took a good run at the points jersey but ended up tying for it. I was pretty happy with it. Everyone got the prep they needed coming into these (cobbled classics) races.
At San Remo, that’s just how it goes sometimes — you can’t control everything in a bike race. I felt good that way, Thor felt good that day. Thor crashed even coming into the climb of La Manie, and then the crash on the descent threw the race into disarray. Luckily we had Heinrich and Andreas (Klier) in the front, but they could have used more help. Two guys in a group of 40 or 50 isn’t really enough.
VN: What’s it been like having the world champion as a lead-out man? And what do you think it’s been like for him to be leading you out wearing the rainbow jersey?
TF: I think it’s gone really well. The first time we tried it, the first stage at Tirreno, he gave me a perfect lead-out. On the second stage we came screaming through the final turn on the outside; he got through other riders, but I wasn’t sure if I would get through without crashing. There was that fraction of second of hesitation, and I was a bike length off him. That’s sprinting. Making that effort to close that gap, I kind hit the wall 30 meters before the finish. We’ll be sharing lead-out duties throughout the year.
At Tirreno we decided that day to go for me, and then the next day I was in the leader’s jersey, and since there were time bonuses and we wanted to keep the jersey, we decided to sprint for me again. We’ve talked about it, and it’s different for either of us to be riding in a lead-out role. Thor told me he hadn’t led someone out since he was an amateur. It’s different than what we’ve been doing. But we’re learning how to work together and I think we complement each other pretty well.
VN: So which races will you ride as lead-out for Thor?
TF: Take Paris-Roubaix. We’re fully supporting Thor, and that plan will only change if something happens on the road. The team has other riders that could do a good result, but Thor has the Roubaix pedigree, and as a rider like that he deserves our full support.
After Roubaix I don’t race with him again until the Tour de France. He’s going to race the Tour of California, and I’ll race the Giro. And at the Tour we’ll just break it down stage by stage. We know our strengths and weaknesses. We’ll look at the days we can do well, and we’ll divvy it up.
VN: And how has Heinrich fit into this picture?
TF: I didn’t race with him until Waregem. I think he fits in well. After Roubaix we won’t race together again until late summer. He’s not doing the Tour. But of course we can make a program work with him. He can go in breakaways, he can cover a different range of races than I can. We’re all getting along pretty well for the most part. There is always a potential for friction when you have three leaders. But it should be fine as long as they are all reasonable guys — willing to work when its their turn, and only take the responsibility when they really have legs to win.
VN: How has it been with Peter Van Petegem directing the team at the classics?
TF: It’s been good. You can’t really find a more experienced guy calling the shots. Of course it’s difficult to get to know someone during the biggest races of the year. If we do it next year, the rapport will already be built up. It’s a big asset to have his knowledge of the races.
VN: How do you describe what you’ve seen here in Belgium over the past few weeks, at Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and Three Days of De Panne?
TF: From the team standpoint I think everyone is firing pretty well, and for the most part we’ve been executing our race strategies as we’ve wanted to. We just haven’t quite had the luck to get a victory yet, but there are a few opportunities left to come.
I guess Fabian is the big talk after Harelebeke. It was a pretty impressive ride, kind of reminiscent of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix last year. Obviously he’s on form, and the man to beat coming into the next few weekends.
VN: When a rider is as strong as Cancellara, how can he be beaten?
TF: I don’t think anyone is unbeatable. I think there are riders that are really hard to beat, Fabian’s case in point. But it’s one guy. Tactics play out in different ways. There are plenty of strong guys in the race. If you get the right group away, a few guys can overwhelm one guy if they’re committed. If there are five strong guys at the front, working together, it’s not necessarily certain he’ll be able to bridge across to them.
You send groups away, and you hope to get the right combinations. Also, it’s a one-day race — guys have good days, guys have bad days. Yeah, he was really impressive in Harelbeke, and he’s the top favorite, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to be on a good day come Flanders. You never know, and that’s kind of the beauty of a one-day race.
VN: Is it possible that Cancellara’s dominance could take away from the excitement and unpredictability of the cobbled classics?
TF: If he was to win Flanders and Roubaix every year for five years in a row, I might agree with that. He’s only won Flanders once, and Roubaix twice. They were very impressive rides, and that’s exciting. If he solos in the last 50km every year, then you would lose the excitement, but now and then, that’s part of it. I mean, when is the last time in modern cycling someone won Roubaix like that? Not since I’ve been watching racing. I don’t think he will be able to do that year after year. There are a variety of factors that go into those races, there’s no guarantee that will happen every year.
VN: Who are the other favorites for Flanders and Roubaix?
TF: For sure Tom (Boonen), he is always one of the favorites. I think for Flanders Philippe Gilbert will be good. And on an equal level is Thor for Roubaix. He’s going well and he’s motivated, it’s one of his biggest objectives for the year. He’s been second and third at Roubaix, I don’t see why he can’t win.
VN: Living in Ghent, as a classics rider, how important is this time of the year for you?
TF: I consider this 3.5-week span and the Tour de France as most important objectives of the season, and I put them equal. I take the classics just as seriously. The classics and the Tour are my two biggest priorities of the season. Living in Belgium is just the bonus, it makes it that much more important. I mean, look at Ghent-Wevelgem. I live in Ghent. Of course that adds that extra bit of excitement.
VN: But does it also add pressure?
TF: Not really. When you prioritize these races as much as I prioritize them, you can’t really get much more pressure than that. Victory in one of these big Belgian classics would be meeting one of my major objectives for the season. That kind of pressure is the best part of being a pro cyclist. Or at least it’s one my favorite parts — having that pressure.
VN: Do you get recognized much in Ghent?
TF: Not if I’m just sitting around in my street clothes, then it’s only the diehard fans that might recognize me. But my best friend here (Wouter Weylandt of Leopard-Trek) is also a pro cyclist, so if he and I are sitting at a café in our kits before or after a ride, then it’s pretty easy to recognize us. Ghent is a city, but not a big city, so everyone kind of knows everyone. And Wouter was born and raised here, so it seems like he knows everyone on a personal basis. But for the most part everyone is very friendly and respectful. They’ll say “Good luck at De Ronde, we’ll be watching.”
VN: What has been your best day of racing so far this year?
TF: Winning a stage at Tirreno was obviously really nice. Tirreno is the first time in the season where I really say, “Okay, I need to be in top shape, I need to be 100 percent.” To win a stage is always nice. But I’d say my best day on the bike was at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Everything was going perfectly until the break stayed away by one second. As a team we executed perfectly, but those two guys (Nick Nuyens and Geraint Thomas) were just a fraction too strong.
VN: It seems like almost every race this year has either seen the breakaway caught right at the line or just staying away until the end — either way, by a matter of seconds. What do you attribute that to?
TF: I think it has a lot to do with the makeup of the teams, and the dynamics of the teams. We keep getting the right combinations up the road, and if enough teams don’t want to chase, or the teams that do want to chase start bluffing, the next thing you know the break stays away — or it almost stays away.
VN: Which three sprinters have impressed you the most this season?
TF: Matt Goss has been pretty damn impressive.
VN: Was that at all a surprise?
TF: No, it’s not a surprise. He didn’t come out of nowhere. Or, at least any pro that’s been racing with him won’t be surprised by that. It’s been a steady progression. It’s fairly logical for him to be doing that well.
I’d also say Andre Greipel. He’s been good, but had more near misses than wins. He’s obviously going well. Sometimes, as a sprinter, it can feel like everything goes against you, but he’s obviously got the fitness.
I’ve also been impressed by (Rabobank’s U23 world champion) Michael Matthews. He’s quite a talent. I was racing against him at Tour Down Under, where he won a stage, and also in Mallorca and Algarve. He didn’t win there, but he was right there in the mix, which is impressive for a first –year pro.
VN: What does it take to win at Flanders or Roubaix?
TF: So much of classics are about experience — knowing the roads, knowing all the details. I mean, there are only a few races per year where you go and do course recon. Take Hamburg — I don’t go and ride the lap the week before it, or for Plouay. But for the cobbles everyone that wants to do well goes and recons the roads. Take me, I live here, I train on those roads, I know them in and out, and I still go and recon them.
These races are won and lost on the knowledge of the roads — knowing when to move up, when to rest. Even really good riders can come and do a race for the first time and just get blown out of water. It’s such a special style of racing, very different than other races in the year. Take Flanders — everyone knows the crucial moments, but if you didn’t know anything about the race, you wouldn’t know about the Knoktberg, Koppenberg, or Paterberg, which all come with 100km to go. All of a sudden everyone is in a massive battle of position, it’s like a sprint. If you don’t have the experience you don’t realize that’s coming, and you won’t have a chance.
Weather can also be such a factor, it can completely change the race, the whole dynamics. I kind of hope it rains once or twice before Roubaix or it could be a dust bowl. And a muddy Roubaix versus a dry Roubaix is a completely different race.
VN: Which of the cobbled races is most appealing to you?
TF: For me, the Tour of Flanders is the number-one race in the world. Whether or not I will develop into a rider that could get a result there, we’ll have to wait and see, but I think it is the most beautiful race in the world. Between the climbs, the cobbles, the weather conditions it can be run in, the fans on the side of the road… it’s a really special day.
I would say Ghent-Wevelgem suits me a bit better, but for me, Flanders is the coolest. There’s so much history and culture attached to it. It’s been around for 100 years, there are a million people on the roads going. I like Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo, but there’s just something about Flanders. In America, Flanders doesn’t quite carry the weight that Roubaix does — it’s the Hell of the North, and the race that everyone knows.
Roubaix is the most brutal, but Flanders is the most beautiful. Roubaix is just war — your body is destroyed, even if you get dropped in the Arenberg Forest and just ride it in, you will still be destroyed, riding that many kilometers of bad cobblestones. But Belgium is the heart of the cycling world for the spring classics, and it doesn’t get any bigger than Flanders.