Henderson on life in the fast lane: ‘I still love it’

The veteran leadout man says the emergence of a top crop of sprinters only spurs motivation to help Andre Greipel win the mass gallops

It’s hard to go slow when you’re paid to ride fast. Veteran sprinter and ace leadout man Greg Henderson (Lotto-Belisol) had to learn to slip into the slow lane in 2014 to recover from three minor surgeries. Those proved to be little more than speed bumps, and the 38-year-old Henderson was right back in the mix, picking up a win at the Ster ZLM Toer and slotting into his role as part of Lotto’s formidable leadout train.

VeloNews recently caught up with Henderson from his European home base in Girona, Spain, to talk sprints, André Greipel, and how to beat Marcel Kittel.

VeloNews: You’ve been in the game a long time. Do you still love racing?
Greg Henderson: It depends on what you call a pro. When I was racing on the track, I guess you could call that a bit of a living. I was in America for a number of years, and I was able to make the jump to Europe. I’ve been racing my bike a long time, but I still love it. I really do. I am lucky that I enjoy training. I love the hard work. You have to love it; otherwise you couldn’t deal with all the suffering. If you haven’t done the hard work, you get your ass handed to you at the race. I pride myself on the hard work I put into the bike.

VN: You were a sprinter in your own right, but now you’ve slotted into the role as a leadout man. Are you happy in that position?
GH: I am very happy. I had my chance to have my shots. A win now doesn’t make or break me. I am employed to do a job. At the Vuelta, I was looking after the Belgian champion [Jens Debusschere]. Some of these young guys really need help with positioning, how to save energy, how to move around the bunch, general skills in the peloton. I really enjoy doing that. That’s what I enjoy. André has the horsepower I never had. My biggest attribute was always positioning, so it works out perfect. My job is to position Greipel, and I drop him off with 200 meters to go, then he turns on the turbos at 2,000 watts. It’s impressive to watch. I am totally happy with that.

VN: You had that nasty crash at the Tour de France. How was the recovery from that one?
GH: I had three knee surgeries over the past year, mate. I had a problem at the end of [2013]. After the team time trial at worlds, my knee was so sore, I skipped the Tour of Beijing to give it a rest and hoped it would resolve itself. Well, it never did, and I had surgery two months later. They found some old scar tissue in there, and it was fine. Then I crashed at the GP Samyn [in April], and I opened it up again, got some dirt off the road, and it got infected. I pulled out of Three Days of De Panne. So it was another surgery, and two weeks on the couch. After that, the training went perfect, and I started the Tour de France with huge motivation, and then I crashed on the fourth day. It was a stupid crash, and I landed on my knee, and it just exploded. It just blew straight open.

VN: So another surgery, but a fast comeback for the Vuelta?
GH: Yes, my surgeon knows me pretty well by now. My knee just exploded at the Tour. It was a stupid crash, I just crossed wheels with André [Greipel], and I landed right on it. I was not a happy chappy, but it was not as serious as it looked. They sewed me up, and I was back for the Commonwealth Games [ed: he was seventh]. This year, I’ve been king of the comebacks.

Generation of super sprinters

VN: Lotto has one of the top sprint trains, but now there’s a lot of competition …
GH: Three years ago, there was not that many sprint trains. Giant-Shimano saw what we were doing, and now every team is trying this leadout thing. We did a bloody good job, but credit goes to the other teams. Now there are three or four major leadout trains out there. It makes it more fun, more of a challenge, and more satisfying when you win.

VN: Has the type of sprinting changed? Now we see these huge engines, Greipel and Marcel Kittel. How different is that to guys like Robbie McEwen or Oscar Freire?
GH: There are pure power sprinters, like Greipel and Kittel, who just want to get to the front, and they will smash the pedals. Guys like McEwen and [Mark] Cavendish, they’re more nimble, and they can move through the peloton, and use their pure speed to win. When McEwen was at the top of his game, you’d be looking around, where’s Robbie? He’d be tucked in behind someone, and then, oh, there he is, and he wins. There are different types of sprinters today. Kittel is so strong, with 200 meters to go, when he opens up, there is almost no chance to pass him. The only way to beat him is to try to make him tired before the final sprint. [Alexander] Kristoff, he’s another big, strong guy. They just blast off. Sprinters have changed a bit the past few years.

VN: It’s a very deep sprinter field right now — is it more competitive than ever?
GH: It’s very deep right now. Five years ago, it was all Cavendish, and everyone else was racing for second. There’d be Greipel, maybe [Tyler] Farrar, and then here comes Kittel. We have three very fast guys right now, with Greipel, Kittel, and Cav. And guys like Kristoff, [Luka] Mezgec, [Sacha] Modolo, all coming up. Even if you lined it up perfectly at the Tour, you could still be fifth at the line. The guys are lightning-quick, and the field is deeper. More teams are bringing their trains. It’s an exciting time right now for the sprints.

VN: What’s your take on Nacer Bouhanni?
GH: I don’t know him at all. He’s come up bloody fast. I did the Vuelta with him this year, and I couldn’t believe how strong he was climbing. He’s the complete package, that’s for sure. I don’t know him as a person. He’s not a super-friendly type of guy that you’re going to chat to in the bunch.

VN: Despite this generation of sprinters, it seems like the major races have something against a pure sprint stage; there’s always a rising finale, or a steep climb in the final 20km … is that frustrating?
GH: Then you get guys like [John] Degenkolb, [Peter] Sagan, and [Michael] Matthews, guys who can get up a 10-minute climb. The pure sprinters cannot do that. They’ve had to change their sprinting styles. They’ve lost a little speed in the pure sprints, but they can get over those hard climbs that the sprinters cannot, and then they can win out of a smaller group. There are two options to win a sprint these days: the first is to put out 2000 watts at the line, or 450 watts for a 10-minute climb at the end of a race, and win out of a small group. It’s still bloody exciting.

VN: Would you like to see more chances for the pure sprinters? You don’t want the extreme, such as when Alessandro Petacchi won nine sprints in the 2004 Giro, but there were only three or four sprints in the Vuelta this year. What’s the balance?
GH: The pure sprinters deserve their chances. So long as there is an even distribution of stages, I am happy with it. You cannot have a sprint every day, but it does seem like they’re putting in these bloody hard climbs to make it to the sprint. The guys have worked on that skill, and evolved their style of sprinting to adapt to the changes in the kinds of stages we’re seeing. You gotta be able to get over that final climb to have a chance to win the sprint.

VN: How is your team dealing with the emergence of Kittel? First, you had to try to beat Cavendish, and now here comes Kittel …
GH: He’s hard to beat. I’ve been studying footage on YouTube to try to figure out a way to beat him, to see if he has a flaw in his sprint. The problem is, he’s bloody strong. He doesn’t have a big kick, it’s like he’s a bloody steam train. To beat him is very difficult. But that’s bike racing. We have to find a way to beat him. You cannot just go into the race thinking about second place, especially if you’re a sprinter. We do what we normally do, and try to put André in perfect position with 200 meters to go, and hit it out on the line. André’s pretty bloody strong, too.

Greipel is ‘consummate pro’

VN: Greipel and the team have won at least one Tour de France stage the past four editions in a row. How important is that?
GH: André is the consummate pro. From January until October, he’s still winning. That’s bang for your buck. There are not a lot of bike riders who can do that. He had the most wins again this season. He’s exemplary. He’s always in good condition, always healthy, and ready to race to win. He’s one of those guys young riders look up to.

VN: How is Greipel as a leader? He doesn’t seem like one of those riders who yells and screams on the bus when things go wrong …
GH: He is really mellow. He lets his legs do the talking. He gets upset when he loses, but he’s angrier with himself, especially when he messes something up. That’s a mark of a true champion. Of course, he’s disappointed when he doesn’t win, but he’s not on the bus, yelling and screaming, throwing his helmet. He’s very respectable with everyone, and he knows he cannot win without us.

VN: Does the increased competition give the team even more motivation?
GH: Absolutely. It’s never a given we’re going to win. We hate being beaten. It pisses me off immediately. That’s a huge driving force — to win. It takes a lot of hard work to win. That’s part of this job, the hard work.

VN: Describe the sensation of winning …
GH: It’s incredibly satisfying. It’s better than any wine you’ll ever drink. Winning is the best, but when you win at the Tour de France, it’s beyond words. It’s such an incredible feeling, because everyone knows just how hard it is. There’s that one stage from the Tour a few years ago, and there’s a photo with my arms up in the air, I was celebrating before André even crossed the line. I knew as soon as André came off my wheel, I knew he was going faster. That’s when we won our first one.

Keen to keep racing before coaching

VN: So you’re still up for 2015?
GH: Yes, one more year with my contract, but I want to keep racing. I am still at the top of my game. I am really good at the job I do. I love it. I have a niche that I am super-comfortable with, and I give 100 percent.

VN: Have you thought about what you will do when you retire?
GH: I’ve started a little coaching business. I have about 12 guys that I look after, mentor, and coach. It’s something I really enjoy, and it’s an avenue I’d like to explore when I retire, whether it’s coaching on my own, or as a sport director, or coach for a team. I have a sport science degree from university, and it’s always been a passion of mine. I am always reading articles to stay up to date, and I’m always interested in the new training techniques. When I was at Team Sky, I was always pestering the coach there with questions. One day he said, ‘Hendo, are you sick? You have haven’t asked one question all day.’

VN: Do you think there will ever be a top New Zealand team, similar to Orica-GreenEdge?
GH: I’d love it. Racing is getting better and better in New Zealand. Back in the day, it was just Julian Dean. There was Chris Jenner, and then I got across from America to Europe. Now we have six Kiwis in the European peloton. That’s the thing with the Kiwis; we have to succeed. If you’re Belgian, you can just go home, but if you’re Kiwi, this is your only shot. The work ethic is there.