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By Neal Rogers
Henk Vogels is back.
Well, sort of.
After a career that included a pair of top-10 finishes in Paris-Roubaix, second at the 2003 Gent-Wevelgem, wins at the USPRO road and criterium championships, an overall victory at the Tour de Beauce and an Australian national road title, Vogels quietly retired at the end of the 2008 season.
There was no announcement, no send-off race or ceremony — just a shift, from the bike to the driver’s seat in a new role as team director.
But for the rest of the month Vogels is back in the United States, where he raced for Mercury, Navigators Insurance, and after two years at Davitamon-Lotto, with the Toyota-United squad.
Alongside Steve Hegg and Ryan Yee, Vogels is directing the Australian continental team Fly V Australia-Successful Living. (V Australia is the international arm of the Australian branch of Virgin Airlines.)
After flying on V Australia’s new direct Sydney to LA route, Vogels arrived in his former home in Boulder, Colorado, to drive a team vehicle out to California for the San Dimas Stage Race and Redlands Bicycle Classic.
Driving at 70mph on Interstate 70 west Thursday afternoon, Vogels had nothing but time to discuss his new team, and the transition into the next phase of his career.
VeloNews: When did you make the decision to retire?
Henk Vogels: The first time the thought crossed my mind was during the 2008 Tour of Californa. I was really struggling to stay in the peloton. At that moment it was really hurting my pride to not be able to follow the best guys in world. It was the first time I really thought about retiring. In July I turned 35 and thought, ‘maybe its time, after 14 years as pro.’ I was still winning races, but when you are suffering to stay in the peloton, it’s time to face the music.
VN: Did the demise of your Toyota-United team play a role in the decision to retire?
HV: Yes and no. The writing was on the wall, and I was working with Chris Wherry on putting a new team together. If the economy hadn’t been gone so bad we would have been able to put a kick-ass team together. We were very close with three different sponsors, close to putting something together with a Health Net-sized budget, around the million-dollar mark. But the economy went bad, and I was lucky I have a good relationship with Chris White, the owner of the Virgin team. He took me on as director.
VN: What can you tell me about how the Australian Virgin team and the American Successful Living team came together?
HV: At first it was just the Virgin team’s budget, but then Steve Hegg and Ryan Yee contacted Chris White. They didn’t quite have the funds to run the program they wanted, and they were late in getting registered with the UCI, so they proposed merging with a team that already had an Australian continental license. We knew we were coming to the U.S. for some events, and we took on five of their guys. We are going to do a lot of races in Australia from July onwards.
VN: It seems like it would be pretty complicated riders to run a team with riders based in Australia and the U.S.
HV: Well it certainly makes it easier because we are sponsored by V Australia, so we don’t have to spend $100,000 on plane tickets. The good thing is that there is no real racing in Australia from February through July, and that’s when there is a lot of racing in the U.S., so it works perfect for us. We can have our strongest team in the U.S. for the first half of the season, and our strongest team in Australia during the second half of the season.
VN: So were you active in recruiting riders for this squad?
HV: To be honest I was more actively looking for Australian guys. Steve and Ryan already had a few guys on contract; we took J.R. Grabinger and Alessandro Bazzana. They didn’t have the budget to bring over too many guys, and the exchange rate (one Australian dollar currently equals .69 USD) wasn’t going to work having too many of those guys. I was actively seeking riders like Ben Day, as well as Bernie Sulzberger, who is probably our best rider. Another Australian great rider is (2008 Superweek overall winner) Johnny Cantwell, he is an untapped talent who can sprint. I’ve been working closely with him. He just won the last stage of the Tour of Murrieta, where he dropped Floyd Landis.
VN: For a boisterous guy, you sure had a quiet retirement. What was that all about?
HV: Yeah, I had a long career, and I didn’t make the decision until mid-season. I didn’t want to have a send-off race, those always tend to be tacky, and that rider always wins. It tends to be a show. My last race was in November, at the Noosa International Criterium, the same race where I met my wife. Robbie McEwen pipped me on the line by half a wheel. Boy, that was a nice present from Robbie after years of service as his lead-out (laughs).
VN: What’s it like being on the other side of the race caravan now?
HV: Well I am getting fat. I have put on 15 kilos — 30 pounds — since I was racing, and I have hairy legs. And now I have a thing for beef jerky. My new race food is beef jerky. No more PowerBars.
VN: Do you feel like you have a new appreciation for what your team directors went through?
HV: I do. I can really understand that when the director is telling the rider something, they do know what they are saying. They really can see it unfolding. The bike riders are just suffering. They only care about the pain in their legs. And for all the times I took that earpiece out, which wasn’t too many, I realize that just two more minutes of suffering to get in a break does make a difference. I think being a director, the fun part is with the guys that do need direction. They are not leaning on you, but waiting for direction, and it can make the difference in making the right move at the right time. And that is something I am comfortable handing out.
VN: With the roster and schedule the team has, what are realistic goals for 2009?
HV: I think Ben Day can win Redlands. He has better form than last year, and last year he was one second behind Rory Sutherland in the Redlands prologue, but then he crashed out. Phil Zajicek is managing his health issues well (Zajicek was diagnosed last year with Crohn’s Disease). He was in great form at the Amgen Tour of California before he broke his scaphoid. So in those guys we have two great GC riders. Then we have awesome one-day guys in Sulzberger, Charles Dionne, David Kemp and Cantwell. I think Sulzberger and Dionne are both capable of winning in Philadelphia. Our team has six major objectives in North America — Cascade, Tour de Beauce, Philadelphia, Tour of Utah, Tour of Missouri and the Tour of Elk Grove. I think either Day or Zajicek can win Cascade; Zajicek won it in 2007. I think Ben Day is a seriously underrated talent. He is someone who can and should challenge Rory to win NRC. That’s not our goal, because to win the NRC you have to send riders to each event, and we don’t have budget for that. I also think the surprise package this year is going to be Sulzberger. I can see him winning out of a break. He is very quick. He had two top -10 bunch sprint finishes at the Tour of California.
VN: California was a tough race for the team though, eh? Day was the only finisher.
HV: Yeah, we had five guys out with gastro diarrhea, and three who had to try to do something. Then we lost Phil to a broken wrist. It was really disappointing.
VN: What’s your take on the domestic peloton this year? Obviously there are some major changes, with the loss of Toyota-United and Symmetrics and the arrival of Floyd Landis.
HV: I think it’s fantastic that the American peloton is in the same health as it was 12 months ago. Sure, Toyota is gone, but OUCH has strengthened its squad, and Team Type 1 is much stronger. Given the current economic crisis, it should have been hit a lot worse. I mean the business world is taking a 30- to 60-percent cut, but maybe the American peloton has taken a 15-percent downgrade. I think it’s really healthy, and there’s a lot of interest, especially with Lance and Floyd coming back, I think it’s really good. There are a lot of good riders.
VN: What about Rock Racing? With the way the team rode in California and Mexico, it seems like they could run away with everything this year.
HV: It’s a much better squad than last year. Oscar Sevilla is in a league of his own, and so is (Francisco) Mancebo. Freddie (Rodriguez) also looks better than last year. I think they have a fantastic squad. Glen Chadwick is awesome, Chris Baldwin is riding well, and Tyler Hamilton is rock solid. They have a great squad, but I don’t reckon they will run away with it, the American teams are tough. I think in Chadwick, Day, and Sutherland there are some very good riders there. And I think the hole left with Toyota-United is actually not that big. I mean, Ivan Dominguez and Dominique Rollin were headed to the ProTour, as well as Ted King. A lot of domestic guys have stepped up to the plate. But if you want to hear a wildcard prediction, I’m picking Rollin on the podium in Roubaix this year. He rode well at Tirreno-Adriatico (fourth on stage 2), and that is an absolute indicator. If you want to see who will go well at the early classics, you don’t watch Paris-Nice, you watch Tirreno-Adriatico. Take a look at the top 10 there, and look at the classics guys — they will be top 10 in classics. It’s a standard indicator.
VN: Just looking at Rollin, he seems like he’s built for the cobbles. He’s built just like Tom Boonen.
HV: He is going to eat that shit for breakfast. If I were a betting man I would get on Unibet.com and put as much as I could on Rollin on the podium. I’m sure he has long odds, so I think I’d make some money.
VN: What about Milan-San Remo? What’s your pick there?
HV: I think (Cervélo’s) Heinrich Haussler could win. He’s a long shot, but he looks good. Then there’s Bennati, and Boonen …
VN: So you’re taking Haussler over his teammate, Thor Hushovd?
HV: Yeah, I reckon Haussler. I think Hushovd will spend his energy later in the classics season.