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Julich vows to make the best of what may be his last chance
By Andrew Hood
Editor’s note: A quick glance over the resultspage of this year’s edition of Paris-Nice will suggest the Bobby Julichis having a good start to the 2004 season. As of Tuesday, Julich is thirdplace in the overall standings, 18 seconds behind his CSC teammate JörgJaksche. At this point in the year, things are shaping up nicely for the32-year-old American, who spent an afternoon earlier this year speakingwith VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood about his new teamand his hopes for the coming season. This story originally appeared inthe March 8, 2004 edition of VeloNews.
When Bjarne Riis called everyone to attention during a team meeting at Team CSC’s training camp in mid-January, Bobby Julich was taking particular notice. Just last November, on his 32nd birthday, Julich was considering retirement, and now he was listening to the man who has given him what he calls his “last chance” to compete at the top level of the sport.
Julich was once America’s top hope for winning the Tour de France afterhe finished third at the world’s most prestigious race in 1998. But aftera disheartening stint with Crédít Agricole and two yearsspent spinning his wheels with Telekom, Julich didn’t have a contract for2004 until Riis phoned him on his birthday with the offer of a one-yeardeal.
“I was very close to retirement, and I’m very happy to get this chanceto ride with Bjarne,” said Julich, a rider who has experienced the exhilaratinghighs and bitter lows of professional cycling. “I feel like I’ve gottenmy last chance.”
In the years since his breakthrough at the 1998 Tour, Julich has struggledwith injuries, allergies, self-doubt and team politics, been overshadowedby Lance Armstrong and battled his own demons. He felt he never had thesupport he needed to navigate the treacherous waters of European cycling.But now that Riis has thrown him a lifeline, Julich says he’s rediscoveredhis passion for racing and vows to make the
most of the opportunity.
“It’s not over yet,” he said. “This year I’ll be 33. I’m a little olderthan I was in 1998, but I still have goals.”
FREE TO FLY
For a man whose greatest cycling achievement came half a decade ago,living for today is just fine for Julich, who with his wire-frame glasseslooks more Wall Street bond trader than hard-nosed bike racer.
“Mentally, it’s a new start,” he said while sipping a beer during theteam’s training camp in Tuscany. “It’s time for me to stop looking in thepast and stop regretting things I should have done or could have done andlook forward to what I can change and can do. I just feel free again.”
That realization came when Julich flew back from CSC’s Outward Bound-style,team-building “boot camp” in December in the Canary Islands. On the longflight home he reconsidered his past and his immediate future.
“It was also a rekindling of what I am, this is what I do,” Julich said.“That, especially last year, was not a part of my thinking. I felt likeI was ‘just there.’ It didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do. It didn’tchange. It was a stale feeling, and I know if Bjarne hadn’t called me,I would have moved on in my life.”
Still, he admits he didn’t want to end his career without taking onemore shot.
“I would have had that little voice in my head,” he said. “A lot ofpeople are winning races now at 34, 35, 36, and I love what I do. I justdon’t think it’s finished yet. It’s very refreshing to be on a team likethis.”
Julich is hoping Riis can work the same magic on him as he did withLaurent Jalabert and Tyler Hamilton. Based on his first contact with Riisand Team CSC, Julich is sure he’s made his best decision in years.
“At CSC, I feel like I’ve finally found the team I wish I had had fiveyears ago,” he said. “The past teams I’ve been on, they said they wantedto give me chances, but I never really had an honest chance. Here, I’vealready felt more special, more like a leader than I did on the last twoteams that I rode on.”
Finding his place has never been easy for Julich. He bounced aroundearly in his career, but after a ninth-place finish in the 1996 Vueltaa España, Julich landed a deal with Cofidis in 1997, the same yearLance Armstrong was supposed to be leading the team.
While Armstrong was fighting cancer, Julich emerged as America’s brightestTour hope since Greg LeMond. However, following his breakthrough 1998 Tourpodium, only the second by an American at that point, Julich was just asquickly eclipsed by Armstrong’s larger-than-life return.
“It just happened so fast — you just kind of take it for granted andthen it was gone so fast before you could even pull up the parking brake,”Julich said. “It was over so fast, and it’s so hard to get, it’s like theHoly Grail.”
While Armstrong was racking up Tour victories and lucrative sponsorshipdeals, Julich was enduring a winless streak that dates back to 1998 (notcounting Crédit Agricole’s team time trial victory in the 2001 Tour). Julich says he has no grudges against Armstrong but conceded it’s hardto watch his former rival and teammate win five consecutive Tours.
“It’s been frustrating to watch riders do better than me,” Julich admitted,saying that he “gutted” his disappointment and shared it only with hiswife, Angela. “I’m not the kind of guy that feels like in order to be aman you have to win every race, but I am a competitor.
“What makes it more difficult is a guy you’ve ridden with almost yourwhole career does it right. You’re sitting back and man, I wish I had madesome different decisions. Lance is one of the best riders in history. He’saccomplished what I wanted to achieve, but I don’t have a conflict withhim.”
SEEKING THAT ELUSIVE ‘ZONE’
What kept pushing Julich through those dark years? It was his desireto recapture the elusive feeling he enjoyed when he was on the front linesof the Tour, when he was attacking up the legendary cols of theFrench Alps and fighting it out for the maillot jaune.
“It’s not about winning races or being on the podium of the Tour, winningthe money or becoming famous,” Julich said. “For me it was one thing: Forthose three weeks in 1998, I was in the zone. That was the most amazingfeeling. If there’s anything I want to experience again before I retire,it would be to feel that again, that sensation.”
One of Julich’s loneliest days came last summer on the final day ofthe 2003 Tour. For the first time since his impressive Tour debut in 1997when he finished 17th overall, Julich was watching the Tour instead ofracing it.
“The loneliest time was Sunday when the Tour de France finishes andI was waiting to start a race in Belgium,” he said. “I could only thinkabout what my friends were experiencing on the Champs-Elysées. Thatwas tough, really lonely.”
Julich’s Telekom Tour letdown was just another in a string of disappointmentsthat dates back to his crash in the eighth stage of the 1999 Tour, duringthe time trial at Metz. Julich was racing with the No. 1 bib but fell hardon a corner and abandoned the Tour with a fractured elbow and ribs. Despitecrashing out again at the Vuelta later that year, Julich remained one ofcycling’s hottest properties and penned a lucrative, two-year deal to leadCrédit Agricole in 2000-2001. He quickly found out that the Frenchteam wasn’t going to be what he expected.
“My salary suggested I was ‘the man’ for the Tour. The first day I gotto camp I realized I was not ‘the man’ for anything, let alone the Tour,”Julich said.
Julich knocked heads with team manager Roger Legeay and other membersof the team staff over demands that Julich said earned him the label ofa “difficult rider.” Among Julich’s demands, he says, were lightweightbikes and wheels for the mountain stages and a personal chef to travelwith the team to ensure safe and nutritious foods — things that teams likeU.S. Postal Service were already doing.
“I wasted so much time stressing about things I shouldn’t have stressedabout,” said Julich, who even paid for a chef to travel with him duringthe 2001 Tour. “The bottom line is I have to take responsibility for theresults I’ve had in the past five seasons, but I think that under differentcircumstances things could have been different.”
Telekom proved to be even less satisfactory than CrédítAgricole. Attracted by the team’s success and a chance to reunite withformer teammate Kevin Livingston, Julich signed up for what he thoughtwould be a role as super-domestique for Jan Ullrich. Instead, he quicklyfound out he was just “pack fill,” racing 88 days in 2002 and 102 in 2003.
“One thing I realized about Telekom is that I never had a peak,” hesaid. “It was always pretty much the same, with a little peak here andthere, basically a flat line. That was pretty much my motivation, too.”
LAST SHOT FOR GLORY
Just as Julich is optimistic, Riis is sure his new pupil can recapturesome of his former glory.
“We have not seen much of him since he placed third in the 1998 Tourde France, but I strongly believe that we can get more out of him thanhe has shown in the previous years,” Riis said. “He’s a great rider thatgot a little lost in the last few years, and I hope I can help him getback what he needs to express his full talent. This is a new type of challengefor me.”
Julich is among 12 riders short-listed for Team CSC’s Tour squad, andif he can prove his mettle he will ride in support of team leaders CarlosSastre and Ivan Basso. But as Riis has said before, CSC is a team effort,and riders get their chance to shine in the right situation. That’s tantalizingenough for Julich to give everything for one more shot at the grandeboucle.
“My attitude, my motivation, my morale are definitely different,” hesaid. “It’s just up to me to make the changes. Will the person I’ve becomethe past five years cease to exist, and will I become someone different?I don’t know. I would love to have a great result, it would be a greatending to my career. It would be nice to end on a positive note.”
JULICH RELISHES AMERICAN RETURN
In 2004 Bobby Julich will race on home soil for the first time sincethe Olympic trials in 1996. “I haven’t raced in the USA since May 1996,”he said. “Not one criterium, not one cyclo-cross race. So I’m looking forwardto racing in front of some friends and family. It would be a lot of funto come back to try to win my first race in the USA in seven or eight seasons,and it’s important to CSC.”
Julich will race in the Tour de Georgia as well as in the USPRO Championshipin Philadelphia as a warm-up for the ultimate goal of the season: makingthe Tour de France squad.
“They have earmarked 12 riders, and [team manager] Bjarne [Riis] saidhe’s going to take the best riders. There’s not going to be any politicson which country you’re from, just the strongest riders,” Julich said.“I think that’s fair. It’s motivating to everyone.”
Julich worked closely with Riis to design his 2004 race schedule.
“I walked in with my notes and I said, ‘Before we start, I want to letyou know where I am coming from, my philosophy, my ideas of my program,’”Julich remembers. “After my five-minute spiel, Bjarne looked at me andsaid, ‘Well, we really don’t have to have a meeting then.’”
Such give and take with a director has Julich more motivated than ever.Julich debuts in Team CSC colors at the Mallorca Challenge in early February,followed by the Mediterranean Tour, Paris-Nice, Critérium Internationaland the Tour of the Basque Country before returning to the United States.
After the Tour de Georgia, Julich will return to Reno and train at altitudefor five weeks. CSC teammate Jens Voigt will join him for three weeks beforethe pair heads to Philadelphia.
Once back in Europe, Julich will race in the Tour de Suisse before theTour — if he makes the team.
“For me, it’s a perfect schedule,” he said.
It should be. He largely designed it himself.
Bobby Julich Fact File
BORN: Nov. 18, 1971, Corpus Christi, Texas
HOME: Raised in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Splits year betweenNice, France, and Reno, Nevada. Married with one child.
WEIGHT: 160 pounds
TEAMS: U.S. national team (1988-1991), Spago (1992), raced withoutteam (1993), Chevrolet (1994), Motorola (1995-1996), Cofidis (1997-1999),Crédit Agricole (2000-2001), Telekom (2002-2003), Team CSC (2004)
MAJOR VICTORIES: 2001: team time trial Tour de France 1998:Criterium International 1997: Two stages Route du Sud, Tour de l’Ain
RESULTS IN MAJOR TOURS:
Tour de France 2002: 37th 2001: 18th 2000: 48th1999: DNF 1998: 3rd 1997: 17th
Vuelta a España 2003: 95th 1999: DNF 1996:9th