Gerrans Q&A: Australian would give up yellow again for a close mate
In an extensive interview, Simon Gerrans discusses sharing the Tour lead with a friend and building a team of committed mates at Orica
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ADELAIDE (VN) — Simon Gerrans is multiple-time Tour de France stage winner and Australian road champion. The gifted all-rounder from Victoria won Milano-Sanremo with a crafty sprint in 2012 and wore the yellow jersey for two days at the 2013 Tour de France. On that second day, Gerrans, one of the road captains for Orica-GreenEdge, dropped out of the peloton and handed his maillot jaune to roommate and friend Daryl Impey, making the South African the first rider from his continent to wear the most important leader’s jersey in all of cycling.
That was before Gerrans abandoned the Vuelta a España after fracturing his hip — and before his triumphant return to win a record third Santos Tour Down Under in January. Rupert Guinness of the Sydney Morning Herald met with “Gerro” after that home-tour win to discuss his yellow-jersey hand-off, making up for what he lacks in natural ability with shrewd tactics, and the responsibility of teammates at Orica. Guinness, a former European correspondent for VeloNews has shared his extended interview with us below.
Rupert Guinness: After the Australian nationals, you won a third Tour Down Under. No other rider has won three. Have you been able to stop and take stock of it?
Simon Gerrans: We were able to sit back and reflect [on the night] after the race. We earmarked this event a heck of a long time ago. As soon as I knew my injury status [a hairline fracture to the hip from a crash in last year’s Vuelta a España] I had to turn this into a positive and use it as good preparation for the [Australian] races — when you plan it out five months ago and get results, it’s nice to sit back and say we did a good job.”
RG: There is a change to the route of Milano-Sanremo this year with a new climb between the Cipressa and Poggio. This should be good for you?
SG: Probably it’s a race that suits me a lot more now. I haven’t had an opportunity to ride the new climb — just yet. As soon as I’m back home in Europe [in Monaco] I will be doing quite a few runs of the final kilometers into Sanremo. It’s a selective climb that will change the dynamics of Milan-San Remo. This is something that suits me quite well.
RG: Many know you got into cycling after the knee injury you sustained in a motocross accident, but can you explain in detail how it came about?
SG: I had a road bike when I was 12 years old. But then I had been saving up to get this bike … I was doing some local races and triathlons. So I bought a John Beasley road bike – I still have it at home. So when I was 11 to 12 yrs I old got the taste, but then being country kid, other things took over — footy [Australian Rules] with my mates and I got really in to racing motorbikes, so my interest veered away from cycling for some time. It wasn’t until I was 16, when I injured my knee for the second time, that it was suggested I do some cycling for rehab. I knew Phil Anderson as a neighbor [in northeast Victoria]. When I was doing rehabilitation Phil suggested I do one of his training camps — it was the end of 1996. So for Christmas my parents bought me a camp spot [with Anderson] in Pinnacle Valley near where I grew up. Phil leant me a bike and off the back of the camp he said I had a little bit of ability … that was my second week of cycling. We rode up Mount Buller a few times. Also at the time, Phil was doing his coaching levels and as part of it he had to write a training program and coach someone. So he came up and said, “If you are interested in getting into competitive cycling I would be happy to coach you.” I thought, “What a great opportunity.”
RG: When did you realize you had talent?
SG: Talent is a funny one. I don’t think I have ever been earmarked as a rider with huge potential. All my results are something I have worked at and step-by-step I have improved. I feel I am still improving. That has given me confidence that I did have something there. I fell in love with the sport at that first training camp with Phil. It was the mixing with people and that element of competition. I was such a competitive kid. As soon as there was a checkered flag, I was happy to be involved.
RG: But from someone who was not a natural born champion you have still developed into one of Australia’s greatest riders. …
SG: I am to a certain extent a bit of a perfectionist with the way I prepare. I am disciplined with that as well. It’s quite funny, as I see these kids coming through now with so much talent turning pro so young. I think, ‘When I was your age I was still fighting, fighting to get selection in state and national teams,’ and these guys have World Tour teams knocking in their doors. Maybe one or two [people] came up and said, ‘You have something, stick at it.’ But it was always myself chugging away. Of course I had some support like [Victorian Institute of Sport head coach] Dave Sanders and Phil in the background. But it’s quite different being able to achieve with what I have compared to some others. The sport has opened up so much for these young riders; there is so much opportunity.
RG: What is the message for young riders like Caleb Ewan, who will join Orica-GreenEdge as a stagiaire at the back end of the season and full-time next year?
SG: What I have learned after so many years is that talent only gets you so far and there is a heck of a lot of talented bike riders out there. If you want to win the big race you have to put everything together. Talent will get you a pro contract and some smaller victories, but when you get to the big races, there are a heap of talented riders there who have worked so hard. You have to be 100-percent committed. These young guys in the [Orica-GreenEdge] team are realizing that, that they have the potential and if they really work hard they can do some incredible things.
RG: Have all of your major wins been the end result of a campaign or special panning, or have any of them by accident or not planned?
SG: Milan-San Remo [win in 2012] is one I definitely didn’t plan to have. I sat down with [sport director] Matt White [at the end of 2011] to plan a program and I said, ‘I want to do Milan-San Remo next year because I want to do a long race before the Ardennes classics.’ I didn’t want Amstel Gold Race to be my first race above 240km. He said, ‘We will be with ‘Gossy’ [Matt Goss] as defending champion. I said, ‘I don’t care if I have to work, I just want to get some racing distance in.’ I did a lot of work to start the season well — I had victories in the national championship and (in the Tour Down Under) and was still in good shape. I went to the race as not a bad ‘Plan B’. We knew it was a race that could suit me under certain circumstances and that I was still in good shape. It was a not a race I targeted. It was more about taking the opportunity.
RG: You always make the right decision to strike in the race. You are intelligent enough to wait before striking … how is that?
SG: I am a calculated rider … very calculated. That stems from not being the most talented guy, not having the biggest engine. You have to be so smart with your effort when you are racing guys like Cadel Evans and Fabian Cancellara. You can’t afford to make any mistakes. I have learned over the years to be very precise and calculated with my tactics in races. And as I have got stronger that has worked to my advantage.
RG: How much do you do that and feed off the weaknesses of others?
SG: A combination of both. You watch how other people are racing and profit from their mistakes and take advantage of your strength. Something I have also worked on a lot in the last years is my sprint and [through] that I have got some fantastic wins. You profit from people who have the most to gain and most to lose from a race and take advantage of your strengths.
RG: Do you keep a virtual form guide of the peloton in your head?
SG: Definitely. That becomes second nature. When you learn who the riders are, who are in the peloton [of a race], who are in good shape, who are not so good — whether they are tactically great or not, whether they have a good director in the car or don’t. All these little things you are constantly analyzing in the race. But then I looked here [at the 2013 Tour Down Under] and someone like [Thomas] Slagter came from nowhere won convincingly. Then you look back at how he prepared for this race and you say it makes total sense. You can’t pick them all.
RG: What do you look at specifically about a rider?
SG: I watch their programs, their results, when they are having breaks, when they are going well and how their preparation is going. Often you can pick from a little way out if a rider is going to come good. Sometimes you are off the mark. Sometimes there is someone like Philippe Gilbert [in 2011] who is so good and you say he is only going to so good for so long, and he was just there all year. Again there is no exact science, but you rely on your experience to analyze what everyone else is doing. Cycling is not always about being the strongest guy in the race.
RG: Handlings setback is a challenge — like losing a race or having an injury. How do you handle setbacks? Do they weigh you down?
SG: Never for a long period of time. Obviously, I was disappointed last season crashing out of the Vuelta a España [with a fractured hip] and my last race was to have been the world titles. It put an end to the campaign. For a day or two I was pretty disappointed, but like when I win a race, when I lose a race I move on quickly. I analyze [setbacks], learn from them and move on. I won’t sit there and think about it too much. When I do will probably be when it’s time to move on and do something else
RG: Did you watch the world title road race on television?
SG: No, I went away for the weekend [laughing]. When I knew I couldn’t do the world titles I thought, ‘I don’t want anything to do with this race. I have to go as a far away as possible.’ So I booked a holiday away with my wife Rahna on the beach. But once we were there, I was up on my phone watching the livestream. I spoke to some of the guys at the start and thought [missing it] was not such a bad thing as it was a miserable day, but as soon as the race unfolded and I saw the guys at the front I thought to myself, ‘Simon [Clarke] and I could’ve had a pretty big impact there.’
RG: In last year’s Tour de France, you wore the yellow jersey for two days. How much of an impact did that have on you?
SG: The yellow jersey was such a huge result because of the sheer enormity of the Tour. It’s the race everybody knows. I have had a stage win there a few years ago  and early on [in stage 3 of the 2013] Tour, but cycling has grown so much as a sport. Everyone already new of the Tour because of the size of the event, but now everyone in general is interested and what goes on [in the race]. To have the lead was such a huge honor. But at the time I wasn’t probably enjoying the moment enough. I was so focused on the next job. I enjoyed it more when it was finished and I could take a step back and go, ‘Wow … that was amazing.’
RG: You earned so much respect for handing the yellow jersey over to South African teammate Daryl Impey after you wore it for two days. How hard was it to decide and then go ahead with it on stage 6?
SG: That was a decision that I made myself. It was a logical thing to do. I wasn’t there intent on taking the yellow jersey all the way to Paris. I knew I was going to lose it at some point, and I knew the likely stage I was going to lose it. On the first day I was wearing the yellow jersey [stage 5] you could feel the hype and how important it was to wear it and I had one of my best mates sitting next to me in second place on equal time. I said to him with about 30km to go on that stage — stage 5 — ‘Mate, this is fantastic. We will stick together today, then tomorrow I will drop back and then you take the jersey for a couple of days.’ It was a decision I made during the stage, on the bike and said it to Daryl.
We finished the stage together, and then going from the race to the hotel in the car with [team media manager] Brian Nygaard, [team video producer] Dan Jones, and [sports director] Neil Stephens, I said to Neil, ‘I hope it’s ok with you, but I am giving the jersey to Daryl tomorrow.’ They all went silent for a second and then Neil was like, ‘That would be bloody fantastic. It would be great if you are happy to do that … that would be unreal.’
RG: How many riders would do that?
SG: That’s interesting. For me it seemed like the obvious thing to do, but on the first day Daryl had the jersey, as we were rolling out of the neutral zone, I had a couple of big riders from other teams say to me, ‘Did you really mean to give the jersey to Daryl?’ I said, ‘Yeah’ and they were like, ‘Bloody hell I wouldn’t have done that.’ Then it occurred tome, ‘Well, maybe not everyone would do this sort of thing,’ but for me it seemed the obvious thing to do and I have time and time again said it was thanks to the fantastic work the guys did in the team time trial and the leadout [on stage 3], and the support they gave me put me in the yellow jersey. So for me it was only the natural thing to do, to share it around.
RG: Would you do that again?
SG: I am not sure if people [will] expect me to do that sort of thing [in the future]. It probably highlighted the culture at Orica-GreenEdge, that camaraderie. It wasn’t going to change my life if I had the yellow jersey for two days or four days. I was never going to keep it to Paris so I had the opportunity to change the life of a teammate and a good mate of mine. For me it was the obvious thing to do. In a heartbeat I would do it again and for any of my teammates if they were in that situation. Whether I am expected to do again I don’t know, but it’s pretty rare you have those opportunities in cycling. I am pretty lucky I was in that situation.
RG: As a leader on Orica-GreenEdge, are you a demanding person?
SG: As a leader there are two ways. Two ways I have seen teams being led. [There are leaders] that are very ego driven and like to be at the top the whole time and like everybody there to support their goals. Then the other way is by example and that is the way I would like to be seen as one of the leaders. These guys know I am 100-percent focused on my goals and doing the best performance possible. I like to see them do the same. That is what I expect from my teammates and what I expect from the staff and organization. It’s easy to ask for that when they see you doing it too.
RG: Who has inspired you as a leader?
SG: I have taken elements of different leaders I have worked with. Over the years I don’t think I have come across a leader where I have said, ‘I want to be like this guy.’ But there are certain elements. … I really enjoyed working for a guy like Christophe Moreau at Ag2r. When we had a fantastic Tour in 2006, you couldn’t find a more gracious and thankful guy. Go and get him a bidon — on one stage I only got him one bidon — and he would come up and say, ‘Thanks very much.’ I’d say, ‘Sorry Chris, I only got you one.’ But he would say, ‘You know what, it was an important time, so thanks very much.’ So I thought that’s a real nice trait to have to individually, [to] thank your teamates.
That’s s something I try and do. You see other leaders and how meticulous they are when they prepare and I think that’s another great trait to have, to know you can tick all the boxes and that you have done all you can to be in the best shape possible for a race. Elements of other leaders I take on board. They all have good and bad ones and you try and learn from the good ones and … from the bad ones you try and learn from their mistakes as well.
RG: When a teammate lets you down, are you calm about it or not?
SG: One of the other things I insist on as a leader is that after every race we debrief. I make sure everyone makes sure everyone knows what their role is before the race and we debrief after — as a group. Then you can be honest and open with everybody and say they did a great job, or they didn’t fulfill their role. Then you learn from the win or loss or otherwise and then you move on. I am very clear with my teammates if they haven’t fulfilled their role. You debrief, you are still in the work environment, you get it out there, learn from it, and move on to the next race.
RG: Are you a forgiving person when someone falls short of what’s expected?
SG: Yeah … well, probably not overly. I am probably not an overly forgiving person. But I have a lot of respect for my teammates, the staff, and the team. And I think I am generous with my praise and my thanks when I see them putting in 100 percent and I am brutally honest with them when they are not. As we have seen, the sport is cut-throat. You can’t afford to be making too many mistakes. And if I see someone making the same mistake over and over, eventually they are not going to be around for much longer because it’s clear they are not learning from that mistake or rectifying those mistakes.
I am forgiving enough to give someone more opportunities if they don’t get it right, but if they continue to not get it right it’s not going to be my call that they are not around anymore, it’s going to be team management. We all are good mates in the team and get along really well. We are open enough with each other that you can be critical of someone’s performance, can have praise for someone’s performance, and then you move on. That’s why Orica-GreenEdge progresses: we are very analytical about our mistakes and victories.
RG: People could underestimate how hard it is to be so upfront with each other. …
SG: It’s very confrontational, but more often than not, when you get to a debrief, someone knows if they haven’t done their job and they are quick to put up their hand to say, ‘You know what guys, I’m really sorry I let you down today, and it won’t happen again.’ It’s pretty rare that you have to pull someone up and go, ‘Oi, c’mon mate, we were expecting a lot more of you today.’ When everyone is very clear of their roles at the beginning of the day and they don’t fulfill it … the worst part about it is that you are letting your mates down.
RG: You are off contract this year. Would this environment at Orica-GreenEdge be hard to find elsewhere?
SG: Definitely. I don’t want to go into talking contracts, but philosophically I have had a pretty positive influence on creating this atmosphere at Orica-GreenEdge. I think that’s an asset I bring to the team as a leader. You are right, it would be hard to step away from this organization and create that culture within another team. But I’m not taking all the credit for it. [My influence on it has been] just a small part of it. There have been a lot of people who have had a role in it.
RG: When you joined Orica-GreenEdge did you have any apprehensions?
SG: Definitely … 100 percent. Time and time again you hear of a new project in cycling and about teams coming and going. I have been a part of two start-up projects — Cervélo and then Sky in their debut year. So to start for third time in four years with a brand new project … I was very apprehensive at the beginning to be honest, but then when I saw the people getting involved — and they were people I had worked with and alongside in various teams — that’s when I knew this was going to be something special and I wanted to get involved.
RG: Do you have much influence or a say on the riders who come in to the team?
SG: They ask my opinion of a lot of guys they are looking at, but no, I don’t have a big influence on who comes to the team. In saying that, the guys that have done the recruitment have done a fantastic job already and are quite aware of the kind of guys I like to have around me in the races I am targeting. And they are good at sourcing those type of guys.
RG: It wasn’t all good for Orica-GreenEdge last year, with the doping cases involving sport director Matt White and Stuart O’Grady. With O’Grady, did that issue so soon after the team’s success at the Tour de France ruin the party for you all in the team? Was it hard for you riders?
SG: It was tough because ‘Stuey’ is a mate at the end of the day. That is what it all comes down to at the end of the day. Whether he was … what he did … and what he confessed to doing after the Tour when it happened so many years ago … what is tough, [is that] this guy is a good mate. I have known him for a heck of a long time. He was one of the very few guys who actually put his hand on my shoulder at [Tour Down Under] over 10 years ago and said, ‘You know what mate? You have got something.’
It was tough for me to just try and comprehend how hard that whole process must have been for ‘Stuey’ and what he was going through. I imagine his whole world would have been falling in on him. I wasn’t too concerned about it ruining anything we were able to achieve at the Tour de France. I was more thinking, ‘Shit, this guy is a mate and he is going through a tough time at the moment.’
RG: Did you see O’Grady during the Tour Down Under?
SG: We crossed paths once or twice [in the] week and made a point of catching up for a bite to eat before the race started, and he was out and about [on the Sunday night the race finished] with a few mates. We had a beer with him and he was very pleased we were able to pull the win off.
RG: What about you and family life? You and your wife Rahna have two children. How does that impact your outlook on the sport?
SG: I am not going to lie. I take my hat off to my wife daily because she does most of the load when it comes to looking after the kids. She totally understands what’s required from me with my job so she takes a heck of a lot of the responsibility with home life and the kids. It’s really grounding.
You can be at a race doing really well and everyone is pumping your tires up telling you how fantastic you and the team are, then I a few hours later you are back home changing nappies. As a dad and as a parent, it’s one of the proudest moments, becoming a dad. Bike riding is insignificant in comparison to your family. It’s hard work, but you wouldn’t change it for anything. [Cycling] is tough on the family, especially you and your family are flying between Europe and Australia twice a year.
In Europe they have their routine. They will be at a French school. It’s a great opportunity for them and it has challenges. Some guys find it really difficult and their careers taper off once they have kids. I try and use it as extra motivation. You have to go away, so you have to make it count. You would prefer to be with your kids and not to be away for a long period, so when you go, make it really worth it. My wife knows [as an ex-elite cyclist]. Your career as an athlete is a very short window in your life.
RG: Are you religious?
SG: [Smiling] No … no way. I can safely say that sport is my religion, what I am doing most Sundays. I don’t think it ever came into the equation
RG: The Back Stage Pass videos filmed by Dan Jones … are they hard to front up for during a race?
SG: No. … A lot of the times you feel [Gerrans sighs] like, ‘Oh we have to do another video.’ But Dan Jones really lifts the mood of the team. He is like one of those mates you had at school in Australia. He loves a beer. He loves his footy and his cricket and he really lightens the mood.
It probably takes the stress out of what we are doing, too, because it does relax everybody, and shows the fans the true personalities of the riders. On stage 6 [of last year’s Tour] I had the yellow jersey and when we got to the start it was really windy, so there was pressure on us to defend it. Then, ‘Jonesy’ came out and said, ‘Can you do a couple of lines of AC/DC in front of the bus with the fans, put on a wig and do this and that?’ You think, ‘You know what? We have to enjoy this, so why not? Let’s go and do it.’ Then some days you don’t feel like doing it and he appreciates that. He has the mix right. A few teams have tried to replicate it, but they have fallen very short. It’s pretty natural what we are doing.
Rupert Guinness is a renowned cycling reporter with the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. A former European correspondent for VeloNews, Guinness has covered 25 Tours de France. Follow him on Twitter @rupertguinness.