Interview with Julian Dean, Farrar’s top lead-out man

Andrew Hood chats with veteran sprinter and lead-out man Julian Dean on his career and how he can help Tyler Farrar beat Mark Cavendish in the sprints this year.

Dean leads a chase on stage 4 of this month's Vuelta a Murcia

Julian Dean unselfishly stepped aside last season as Garmin-Transitions’ Tyler Farrar broke out to be one of the revelations of the 2009 season.

The veteran Kiwi sprinter is committed to helping Farrar improve his game and will play a key role as Garmin-Transitions adds riders such as Robbie Hunter and Murilo Fischer to help forge a top-end lead-out train for Farrar.

VeloNews sat down with Dean at the team’s training camp earlier this season. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: You’ve had a long career, how do you reflect on your career up to now?

Julian Dean: My first season professional season was in 1997. My first full year in Europe was with U.S. Postal Service in 1999. I’ve had a long career, but I’ve had a lot of difficult times, like any athlete has. My difficult times have come from injuries sustained through crashes. I’ve come through most of it pretty well. The body is still good. Probably the last year or so I have felt stronger than I’ve ever felt in my career, so it’s good.

VN: What were some of your worst crashes?

JD: I broke my leg when I was with CSC in a training accident. I had reconstruction on my elbow. It has three plates and nine screws in it, so it holds it together. That was 2005 in the Giro. That was the worse one, it was a time when I nearly quit the sport. That was probably the closest I’ve come to quitting. You know how there are finishing circuits in the Giro? The finishing barriers were sticking out, and we were coming through it with one lap to go. The crash wasn’t that spectacular, but I must have been on the ground like this (positions arm with elbow sticking up). I don’t know, whatever it was, a bike, a rider, just crashed right on there and my elbow just exploded. When I went into the operating theater, they said I might not be able to ride again because I wouldn’t have enough use of it. There was a good surgeon in Valencia who really helped. It’s a doctor who works on the Moto GP guys, so he was really good.

VN: How do you confront the fear and the psychological challenge, knowing that crashing is part of the job of sprinting?

JD: You just have to look at it that every time you crash, you’re going to get up and walk away from it OK. Occasionally, there’s the chance it’s going to be a bit more serious. You just got to keep reminding yourself that you’re going to be able to get up and walk away. When it comes to being a sprinter and being a lead-out guy, like I am on this team, when you get older, you have your own kids, your own family, and that sort of thing. Once you get into that race situation, the animal instinct is always quite primal. Nowadays, I don’t take the same sort of risks in every race like I did before. I know that I can still tap it when I need to. That’s what I do, at the Tour de France, at the big events. That’s one reason that I’ve sort of stayed around as long as I have and having a few less injuries and crashes as I’ve gotten older as well.

VN: How much of a difference is there between younger riders and more veteran sprinters?

JD: Looking at the sprints now, the difference between a young guy in a sprint is quite phenomenal, their behavior patterns, the risks they are willing to take. I was like that, too. I didn’t care who I was racing against. I just put everything I had into everything, just see what happens. Now I am much more selective on what I do and when I have my body on the line. It’s a mark of professionalism as well. It’s learning to be professional in that regard, in picking and choosing your times. When you’re young, you’re very aggressive and you want to win everything. If you can hold back sometimes and then let it go, the monster can be even better.

VN: You first came to Garmin as the top sprinter, now you’ve transitioned into the lead-out man for Farrar, was that easy for you?

Dean on stage 2 at the Murcia

JD: Not really, I came from Credit Agricole because I wanted to have a chance to have some sprints for myself. I had one year here when we first rode the Tour, I did OK, I was several top-tens in the Tour. I was sort of there, or thereabouts, but last year, Tyler really stepped up to the mark and improved a lot. My value to the team came from me helping him. He came up to my level and he passed me, to become one of the top two sprinters in the world, so it’s only natural, as a professional that my role within the team changed. Previously, before I came to Garmin, I was working with Hushovd at Credit Agricole, and I was regarded as the best lead-out guy in the world. It is something that I enjoy, and when you can be part of someone, an athlete like Tyler, who is growing, expanding and improving, it gives me a lot of satisfaction.

VN: Will you still have your own chances in some races or is your schedule tied with Tyler?

JD: Pretty much tied into Tyler. A lot of people always say, oh, you can win these races yourself, this and that. If I had more chances for myself, possibly I could of. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy doing a lead-out. That almost gives me a greater feeling of satisfaction, giving Tyler the best lead-out he needs, to win a stage, to help the team. When you have a good group like that working, it’s very satisfying feeling. I don’t thrive in bike racing because of the publicity, because of the stardom. I like to be someone who is well-respected by his peers for the work they do, what they contribute to the team, how they lay it on the line. As long as I have that respect from those guys that I race with, that’s my stardom.

VN: What makes a good lead-out?

JD: It’s very much about reading situations that are happening in the sprint. We’ve still got work to do with Tyler. I think racing last year, doing the Giro and Tour together, we got better and better. As a lead-out guy, you’re actually the guy who has to make the decisions in the sprint. You’ve got to pick the right moments and pick the right gaps to move through. All that’s got to happen for Tyler, you got to bring him close enough to the line, so that all he has to do is come off the wheel and go. Or you’re going to bring him from somewhere behind, up to another train where he can slot in. The hardest thing is, sometimes you might to use your energy and move early, and it might not be ideal. The other outcome, you might get stuck and boxed in and not move at all. You have to decide on the best of two bad situations.

VN: And those decisions are made at 60kph on the fly?

JD: When things are going good, it’s not something you have to think about. If you’ve thought about doing something in a sprint, it’s too late, the opportunity is gone because everything is happening too fast. I had this relationship with Hushovd, he had complete trust and confidence in me. He would just follow me everywhere I went. It didn’t always work out, but sometimes it did. We’ve got to a little more work with Tyler.

VN: How comfortable is Farrar completely trusting your wheel?

JD: Tyler never had a lead-out before. One of the things I want see Tyler do this year in the sprint is to see Tyler racing Tyler. I don’t want to see him racing against Cavendish, against Boonen, against McEwen — he’s racing against Tyler. And he’s focusing on his teammates and he’s taking the decision to when he should he go, when he should start his sprint, rather than try to be beside Cavendish and go when Cavendish goes. Have confidence in us, he takes the decision when he wants to do something, rather than looking around at your competitors when he’s doing the sprint. If we can push Tyler a little bit more in that way, I believe he has the capacity to win a lot more.

VN: Where do you think Tyler is in terms of his potential and his development?

JD: He’s obviously one of the top-two sprinters in the world. I think his capacity is going to change in the next couple of years. There are going to be in certain sprints that he’s going to get stronger in, like the harder sprints. He might not be as fast as he is now, but he is going to become stronger. It’s a matter of maintaining that top end he has right now and improving his strength.

VN: What kind of sprint favors Farrar?

JD: The longer, drawn-out sprints are the ones that are going to suit him better. If you watch Tyler in the sprints, over and over again, every time he’s coming in at warp speed from behind, coming over the top of people. Maybe he hasn’t come over the top of Cav’, but you can see he’s going as fast as Cavendish.

VN: This year, the team has brought some new firepower with Hunter, Fischer, what’s the strategy on trying to beat HTC-Columbia at its own game?

JD: It’s not easy to get four or five guys together and say you’ve got a lead-out train. It takes a lot of good riders getting together, practicing, figuring out the order of who does what when and how. It’s something we’re going to have work with. Potentially, if you look at it on paper, there’s going to be no one who’s able to do a lead-out like we’re going to be able to do. A lot of dynamics have to come together to get those four or five riders working at the optimum level.

VN: How long will that process take? Ideally the team wants to be ready for the Tour?

JD: A couple of months, at a minimum. We have to do all we can get to that down before the Tour. It’s a major focus for the team in the first part of the team is to get that dialed. We’ll have Tirreno and the Giro.

VN: Is your position going to stay the same as the final set-up man?

JD: That’s the kind of things we have to suss out. It will kind of depend on who Tyler has confidence in. We’ll try different things in different times. Hopefully we’ll get some chances to come up against Columbia as well. I am really looking forward to that. I think, in terms of lead-out riders, we’re going to have more horsepower than them this year. They had more than us last year. It will be interesting to see how that evens out.

VN: The media often plays up a big rivalry between Garmin and Columbia, how does the team look at it?

JD: Sure, it’s a rivalry. We want to beat them. I would like to see us have something like the Saeco train going from the old days, to get that sort of system up and running. Once you get those sort of things dialed, the team can really be unbeatable. Petacchi had that at Fassa Bortolo. Zabel had it a few years at Telekom. I think we certainly have the potential to have a season or two where we can kind of have our own kind of argyle armada, and have that sort of image that Cipo created during their era.

VN: What is the actual process of trying to knock Columbia off its train?

JD: It’s about choosing the moment. Sometimes, if the trains are even, it’s getting on the front first and keeping the speed so high, so whoever is behind is stuck behind. That’s what Columbia did a lot last year. It worked for them. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got four or five guys behind, if the speed’s so high, there’s not really anything anyone behind can do. That’s one of the things we’ve got to figure, is how we’re actually going to come around them or over the top of them. How we’re going to stop them from coming over the top of us. Another thing is, every sprint is different. You’ve got to be adaptable and try and predict and read a little bit to figure out what’s going to be the best way to approach a certain finish.

VN: How does Tyler fit into the sprinter’s mentality? He is quite reserved in a specialty that typically sees a lot of bravado?

JD: He’s a gentleman off the bike, there’s no question. Which is good, it makes it a pleasure to work with. He’s got a lot of respect for the riders on the team and a lot of respect for the guys he’s racing against, which is nice. He’s also an animal, when he goes into that I-got-to-win-the-race mode. No one else can have more fire than what I’ve seen him put out. There are not a lot of sprinters who are like that. He’s quite approachable and calm off the bike. That’s good, because in big tours, you save a lot of energy being that way. In the grand tours, it’s about saving energy. A lot of sprinters, when they’re young, they’re running their mouth all the time. When they’re older, they’re still aggressive on the bike, they’re mellower off the bike. Tyler has mastered that already and it’s going to be good for the length of his career.

VN: How would you gauge the differences between Farrar and Cavendish?

JD: How do you measure it? If you measure it by wins, then (Cavendish is) the No. 1. He’s not unbeatable. The pressure is on Cavendish. He’s already the world’s best sprinter. Everything goes in cycles. Sprinters don’t dominate for a long time. They dominate for a few years, then someone else comes along. Look at Robbie McEwen, he was around for a long, long time before he had that three or four-year period when he won the green jersey. He didn’t really come into that until he was 28. Cavendish now is, what is he, 22, 23? He’s come to the forefront of the sport very, very early, he’s not going to be that dominant like that forever. Tyler is a little bit older, in terms of an athlete’s development, he’s sort of like McEwen. His timing is quite right in terms of mental maturity and his physical capacity. The pressure is going to be on Cavendish on how long he can hold on to whatever got him to where he is as a 23-year-old. It’s not going to last forever.

VN: How do you react to some of Cavendish’s public comments about some of his rivals?

JD: Well, that’s just the games kids play. It’s a simple psychological philosophy of trying to control the uncontrollables. You cannot control what anyone else says. I just try to get Tyler and the rest of the boys focusing on what we’re doing and working to improve. We have confidence in our team. We’re capable of putting something together. We’re capable of beating Cavendish. I have enough faith and confidence in Tyler that he can, and I believe he can do it.

VN: What is your future in cycling? What is your contract situation with the team?

JD: I signed a two-year contract after the Tour last year, through 2011. I am not thinking about retiring. I enjoy my training, I enjoy my racing. I’ve had a good couple of years injury-free, so I feel good about everything right now. I had this conversation with Stuey O’Grady the other day. When you get to our age, when you have a bad crash, that could be the end of it because you don’t want to go through that process again. Right now, things are going good. I am still motivated by the biggest races. A team like this is ideal for me right now. I feel I can contribute a lot to the team. We’ve got a good group of guys. I see a lot more potential in Tyler. As long as I can help, I want to be here and keep racing.

VN: What has changed most in racing since turning pro in the late 1990s?

JD: I think the biggest change, and I think we’re going to see more and more of this, is the commercial nature behind the teams. I’ve had quite a bit of experience with different teams, with U.S. Postal Service, CSC — before and after Bjarne Riis came on. I was on Credit Agricole, who was run by Roger Legeay, who has been around since God was a boy, and hard a sort of old-fashioned, French philosophy. Now I am on this team, which is very different. There’s a huge media presence and sponsors thrive off that. I think Garmin and Slipstream Sports is on the leading edge of how the sport’s going to be in the future and how teams are going to be run. Some of the old ways of doing things, I think that’s finished. I think we’re passing into a new era, when teams are going to be run more like Garmin, HTC-Columbia and Team Sky. The sport’s had some very, very difficult years with doping over the past 10 years. What’s happening now is very exciting. Teams are going to get bigger, get flashier, have more media exposure. That’s good for everyone. It’s going to be getting over that era we’re leaving behind now. I think the sort of old-school, European, French structure is going to be left behind. It’s amazing to think that in this year’s Tour de France, there might only be one Italian team. There could be six Anglo teams. That shows you how much it’s changed.