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Veteran Canadian reflects on 2008 and how cycling is cleaning up its act
By Andrew Hood
Michael Barry was back in the spotlight in 2008, winning his first race since the 2005 season with a dramatic stage victory at the Tour of Missouri. He also rode to fifth in the Tour of Ireland and finished ninth in the grueling Olympic road race in Beijing.
The 32-year-old Canadian returned to form this year after struggling through a challenging 2007 campaign that was wiped out with a nasty bout of pneumonia. Though he missed out on a slot on the nine-man Tour de France squad, Barry regained his confidence with a consistent and steady season that will carry over into 2009.
VeloNews spoke with Barry recently about his 2008 season, efforts to clean up cycling, the emergence of teammate Mark Cavendish and the comeback of former teammate Lance Armstrong. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: So you live in Girona full-time now, how is the off-season in Catalunya?
Michael Barry: I just started training this week. I took three weeks off and it’s been nice just to be home. We sold our home in Colorado last July and we moved out here full-time in November. We’ve been spending more time here the past three years, ever since Liam was born, so it just made sense. With kids it just became logistically crazy to keep traveling back and forth, changing homes. We’re very comfortable now in this community. It’s a really good place. Liam speaks Catalan fluently as well as Spanish and English. He’s comfortable in all three languages.
VN: You’re set to stay with Columbia next season, what’s best about the team?
MB: I re-signed halfway through this year for next season. Initially I signed with T-Mobile for two years. We have a super ambiance within the team. It’s just a lot of fun racing. In many ways, it reminds me how I was racing as a junior and a young amateur with my buddies in Toronto. We just have a lot of fun. I feel like I am 20 years old again. It’s a good blend of veterans and rookies. That’s one of the major reasons the team has been so successful. Even when things are going bad, everyone is still laughing.
Looking back at 2008VN: Reflecting on 2008, you got a win in Missouri, had a strong Olympics, but missed out on the Tour, how would you rate your season?
MB: I finished the season very happy and content. I gained a lot of confidence throughout the year. I started the year not really knowing how I would perform. After missing so much time off the bike and being away from the races last year; I think I missed more time off the bike than ever before. I never missed more than two months off the bike since I was six years old.
I struggled a bit in the first training camps, and that was frustrating because throughout my career I’ve always showed up at the camps in really good condition. I started to feel good at Cataluyna and I started to believe that I could perform and win. In one stage I was in a breakaway all day that got caught on the final climb. At the Dauphiné I was climbing quite well and staying at the front until the last climb. At Austria, I was feeling good and I progressively got better and better all year. At the worlds, I had good legs and in Lombardia, I felt better than I had all season long.
VN: So it sounds like you finished the season off on a strong note, how will that help you next season?
MB: I was almost wishing I could race more. I will have a lot more confidence going into next season. I am back to where I was a few years ago before I had pneumonia. A few of the directors have been very supportive if me, they’ve been encouraging me to get into the breakaways and giving me a leadership role within the team. That gave me a lot of confidence to get into the breakaways and gave me momentum that I needed.
VN: So your illness last year was worse than it seemed at the time?
MB: I was racing with walking pneumonia, maybe we can call it “cycling pneumonia.” I just felt terrible from about California to the Giro, then that’s when we finally realized I was sick. I was in the hospital for a week. I came back and did a few races, but I kept getting sick because my immune system was thrashed. That was a wasted year, but you grow from these experiences.
VN: Was it easy to get through the setbacks and frustrations of not being at your best?
MB: This sport can be hell if you’re not having fun. Cycling is by far the hardest sport, it seems so much easier when you’re having fun doing it. If you have good ambiance and teammates, riding in the rain doesn’t seem so bad. Most VeloNews’ readers understand the tactics of the race, but many people don’t understand how much of a team sport cycling is. It’s pretty amazing how important the dynamic is on the bus and the dinner table. That carries the team a long way. When we’re at the races, we’re always one of the last to leave the dinner table. On other teams, that doesn’t happen as often. The guys are just genuinely happy to see another rider to win. There aren’t jealousies on the team, and that’s not always the case (on cycling teams).
On missing the Tour de FranceVN: You missed out on the Tour de France once again this year, how hard was that for you?
MB: Because I was still recovering from 2007, there was a bit of a question mark on whether or not I could perform in a three-week tour. I believed I could because I was strong and got better through Cataluyna and Dauphine. They had a strong team for first half of the season and the team at the Tour was successful. It’s hard to argue with their decision. I accept the decision they made. I was disappointed not to be there, but it’s not the first time it’s happened.
VN: So does getting to the Tour remain a top goal or have you set your sights on other challenges?
MB: I want to race to the Tour. I will be ready. The race comes to Girona and the race passes a few kilometers from where I lived in the Alps, so I’d love to race it next year. I am motivated as ever. How fantastic would it be to come to your hometown with your kids and friends watching? It’s a big goal.
On Columbia teammate Mark CavendishVN: Mark Cavendish had a great, breakout season, just how good is he up close?
MB: He’s unbelievable. You don’t win that many races without being the best. It’s very impressive when you lead him. In Ireland I was the last guy or second to last guy, and to see him accelerate 200 meters from the line is amazing. You could see he was clearly going to win right away. He would take five pedal strokes and we were already celebrating. When he didn’t win he was pissed off at himself because he knew should have won, or if he made a tactical error.
VN: What makes Cavendish so effective in the sprints?
MB: He’s extremely confident; he’s got an incredible kick. When he accelerates, he can come around guys and he can come out of being boxed in and still accelerate. Robbie McEwen could do it quite well, Mark is almost better because he can accelerate and hold it for quite awhile. It’s impressive to watch. He’s also very good with his teammates. Throughout the season, he was gaining confidence as a leader. He’s grown a lot of as a leader. He’s being more vocal in team meetings and on the road. He finished the season as a rider that can lead the team. Nobody can beat him.
On fight against dopingVN: The team introduced its monitoring program in 2007, how many times were you tested in 2008?
MB: Quite a lot. I don’t keep track of my race days or keep track of how many times I was tested. With ACE, they were very active through the first half of the season. We would be tested every 10 days out of competition and almost every time we raced. Then during the buildup to the Olympics, I was tested quite a lot. It’s not a big deal. The ACE testing was convenient for us here in Girona. It’s a small inconvenience. At the end of the day, if the sport is going to get cleaner and better, we’ll do it.
VN: After watching the doping scandals of this season, are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future of cycling?
MB: I’m encouraged. The peloton is definitely changing. You can feel it in the races. You can see the changes also in the mentality of the peloton. You could say it’s pretty bleak with all the doping cases this year, but I think there are people within the sport who are becoming infuriated with the problem and realize we have to change. That’s from the directors to the race organizers to the riders and the fans. It sucks for cycling that we have to go through this, but it’s not going to change overnight.
VN: How long do you think the changes will take before everyone is in agreement that clean racing is the only way to go?
MB: It’s not going to happen overnight. We’ve already seen that. Two or three or four years from now, we’ll still have doping cases in cycling. It’s just part of society. People will cheat because the incentives are there. If the mentality and ethics change, which is happening, we’re going to have clean racing.
VN: What did you see in this year’s Tour that reflected changes in the peloton?
MB: The Tour was a good race to watch. Christian (Vande Velde) was fourth. The attacks aren’t sustained forever. Riders attack, slow down, attack, slow down. There wasn’t a long attack and sustained power like we’ve seen in the past. I felt more comfortable in the races this year. You see young riders performing extremely well in the biggest race. That would have never happened a few years ago.
VN: What is like for clean riders to be racing against riders who you might suspect are doping? Can you tell who is doping?
MB: No one knows. If someone is doping, you will never know until they test positive. But it’s not fair to do that, to say that riders are doped because they’re riding well. It’s not fair to individuals. People can have tremendous performances clean. I know that for a fact. You see that so many times in cycling, as soon as someone has an incredible performance, and people start pointing fingers. That’s not fair. What’s sure is we’re moving in the right direction.
VN: The team had an extremely successful season, with more than 80 wins, what do you attribute the success to?
MB: The won early and built that momentum for the rest of the seasons. It was really impressive to see. The team didn’t really get a lot of publicity for how many wins it had. If you look back at the last couple of decades, very few teams have won so many races. Mapei won a lot, but they had 44 guys on their teams. Maybe Panasonic or La Vie Claire, but there aren’t too many teams who have performed so well. The morale was good from training camp all the way through to Lombardia. That says a lot because the riders wanted to perform well. On other teams, a lot of times riders don’t even want to be at the races. Here we were, the most successful team in the season, and we could have ridden into the final races and done nothing. Even though we didn’t have a sprinter to finish it off, we tried to get into breakaways and animate the races. We finished off the season well.
VN: When this team rolled out its monitoring program two years ago, skeptics said the team wouldn’t win very much.
MB: We have some incredibly fast sprinters, maybe three or four of the fastest guys in the world. Plus we had a lot of young guys who are very motivated to prove themselves to perform in the big races. Very quickly we had an extremely potent lead-out and we were able to win. It was so much fun being part of that train. The team had so much confidence when it took control of a race. It goes both ways, when the sprinter has confidence in the lead-out and the team has confidence in the sprinter, everyone goes that much harder. Everyone wanted to race hard and win no matter what.
VN: The team is losing riders such as Ciolek, Gerdemann, Klier, Hammond, Wiggins, who much will that affect next season?
MB: They are all very good bike riders and they contributed, but the core of the team is still there. We have 26 guys on the team for next year, so it doesn’t change things that much.
On interest in writingVN: Changing the subject, you have a budding writing career going now, with articles in the New York Times along with your column in VeloNews, how did that all start?
MB: I emailed them during the Tour to see if they were interested in some of my writing. I enjoy doing it. I don’t like the deadlines, though. I have a unique perspective on things from inside the peloton. It’s easier to write about something you live every day.
Writing the book (”Inside the Postal Bus” – VeloPress) was a great experience for me. I was fortunate to be able to do it. It opened up my eyes to a whole new world. The book made me to want to try to do more writing.
On Armstrong comebackVN: And finally, what do you make of the return of your ex-teammate, Lance Armstrong?
MB: I had heard the rumors before, so when I heard officially I wasn’t that surprised. When I first heard the rumor, I was kind of surprised for sure. Then the more I thought about it, I wasn’t that surprised.
I think he misses the sport incredibly. It’s hard to replace that camaraderie and the friendships and the moments you have on the bike. It’s extremely unique to race your bike; even out there training by yourself, there’s nothing in life that can replace that. Unless you retire with some incredible strategy on how to replace that, you will miss it on some level. There are some people in cycling who are not passionate about racing. There are quite a few people who do it because the money is good or because they’re good at it. Lance is extremely passionate about riding his bike. He text-messaged George (Hincapie) during the Dauphiné and said to say hi to all the guys, so I know he misses being on the bus with the boys. It’s really irreplaceable.
VN: Do you think Armstrong will be competitive again?
MB: He’s not going to be come back if he doesn’t win. He’s going to be riding with his Power Meter, with his teammates. If he doesn’t think he’s going to achieve what he had before, I don’t think he’ll race. It’s not in his personality to race and not win. He’s been like that since he was a kid. Unless something has changed in the past three years, he’ll be at the front.