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Geschke Q&A: Missing Kittel, the Tour win, his famous beard

Simon Geschke reflects on the biggest win of his career at the Tour de France, the stage of German cycling, and his famous beard.

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Before last July, Simon Geschke (Giant – Alpecin) was better known for his voluminous beard than his exploits on the bike. A six-year veteran at the time with only two wins to his name, the 30-year-old German saw everything change when he took an emotional breakaway mountain stage victory at the Tour de France. For once, he was in the news for his racing rather than his facial hair.

The son of an Olympian and world champion track cyclist, Geschke has cycling in his DNA. The 5-foot-7 all-rounder cannot beat the pure sprinters or pure climbers, so he has zeroed in on hilly stages and one-day races. We recently caught up with Geschke to talk about his career, Marcel Kittel, and, of course, his beard.

What is your cycling background?

I have always had cycling around me. My father was an Olympic track cyclist for the former East Germany. He was world champion in the sprint. When I was little, he was also the national trainer of Denmark. When I was 10, he finished his career and started to mountain bike, and he took me with him. I started to have fun and won some races in my region. I grew up near Berlin and [rode with him] at his old club. I started racing on the road when I was 16.

Did you want to race on the track or road?

I was not so bad on the track, and I was okay in the pursuit, but I wanted to be a road cyclist. My real inspiration was watching Jan Ullrich win the Tour de France. After that, everyone wanted to be a road cyclist in Germany. When I turned pro in 2009, it was very quiet in German cycling. It was not a good period at all. There was a big boom with Ullrich followed by a big down with all the bad stories.

It appears cycling in Germany is coming back. Do you believe that’s true?

It’s not like the boom we saw with Ullrich, but it is coming back. All the media talked about then were doping scandals, but now it’s coming around. Last year, we had six German stage victories in the Tour, so people are paying attention again. There are many people riding their bicycles, and there are many gran fondos, but at the professional level, it has been slower to come back. It is good that German sponsors like Alpecin and Lidl are coming into the sport. And now we will have the Grand Départ of the Tour in Germany next year.

How do you describe yourself as a rider?

It’s difficult, because I do a little bit of everything. I am not going to win bunch sprints, and I’m not going to win on Alpe d’Huez when I’m with Froome and Quintana. I see myself as a rider for the Ardennes classics, and the stages that are hilly — the medium-hard mountain stages. People like to think black and white, but there is some room in between. When climbers cannot drop me on a climb, that’s when I can get my results. I have a good sprint when it gets hard. I need a hard race to have chances. Races like Amstel Gold Race are ideal for me. I am 30, and I think I have some good years ahead of me.

How much have things changed on the team with the departure of Marcel Kittel?

It changes things a lot. I was with him when he won his first Vuelta stage, and I was with him when he won his first Tour de France stage and had the yellow jersey. Those were so big for the team. Last year, the air just went out, and I think the breaking point was when Marcel was not selected for the Tour. He was disappointed, and he decided to leave the team. Then there was no point in paying him more money to make him stay. When he is unhappy, it is better for everyone that he leaves. We are close. I’ve known Marcel for a long time; we raced together in 2007 on the under-23 national team. I miss him as a teammate. But it was not easy for him last year. He went from being the best sprinter in the world, and then he got the virus. It went from worse to worse.

Did you have more chances last year in the Tour because Kittel was not racing?

It is because he was not there that I raced! I was not planning to do the Tour, and it was me who was replacing Marcel. I was not taking his spot for the sprints, of course, so we decided to support John [Degenkolb]. It was a hard decision, because I also raced the Giro d’Italia. I broke my collarbone [at 2015 Tirreno-Adriatico] and I had missed all of the spring classics.

How difficult was it to win stage 17 to Pra-Loup?

I struggled a bit in the first week, but for the second and third weeks I was in the best shape possible. There were a lot of good riders in that group, so that’s why I attacked early, because I knew if I went to the final climb with guys like Talansky, Porte, or Pinot, I would have no chance. They were also looking at each other. I knew from previous days that after the intermediate sprint people take a chance to eat, to regroup, and I knew that could be a good moment to attack. My goal was to get as much time as possible before the final climb. I wasn’t thinking I could win the stage, but I knew I had to try something different, because if I waited I’d have no chance.

What was it like going up the final climb, realizing a Tour win was close?

I was at my limit. I had cramps, and I had to go easy for one kilometer. The crowds were pushing me along. Your body tells you to stop, and you just want to sit on the side of the road because everything is hurting. I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to win a stage in the Tour de France, and everything went perfect until those final moments. You suffer so much in this sport, but I just kept pushing.

Did that victory change anything for you?

It was the first year that German TV was broadcasting the race again, so many people were able to see my victory. I am not like Ullrich or Kittel, though, so nobody bothers me if I walk down the street. People recognize me more for my beard than the races I have won!

Tell us about that beard.

Luca Paolini was the first to grow a beard, and then I made mine. I’ve had mine since worlds at Firenze in 2013. The reactions have been very funny. I decided to keep it. I have no reason to shave it off.