In recognition of the Tour Down Under’s cancelation, we have features, interviews, photo galleries, and other stories to celebrate Australian cycling as part of “Aussie Week.”
Cameron Wurf was the WorldTour’s most unlikely comeback story of 2020.
The 37-year-old was a surprise call-up by Ineos Grenadiers last year at the Santos Tour Down Under. After leaving the WorldTour in 2014 to fully dedicate himself to triathlon, the affable Aussie was thrown into the deep-end of the peloton on his return. The idea was to help the team fill some gaps across the season and use the intensity of racing to help his preparation for the Ironman World Championship.
Also read in Aussie Week:
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- ‘Bling’ on return to Aussie fold with BikeExchange
- Is Australia’s next grand tour star ‘just around the corner?’
Just weeks after his return in Australia, however, the coronavirus pandemic threw everyone’s plans upside down. Kona was eventually canceled, and Wurf ended up racing a lot more than he ever expected. None of the world drama dampened his trademark passion and enthusiasm, and Wurf embraced the unexpected challenges of 2020. He ended up racing the Ardennes classics and the Vuelta a España. VeloNews caught up with Wurf to talk triathlon, WorldTour racing, Chris Froome’s comeback, and how his return to the road will help him in his quest to win Kona.
VeloNews: Things changed very fast after you returned in January, how did you manage the challenges of 2020?
Cameron Wurf: I was brought onto the team as a backup, someone who they could call up when they were short-handed and someone who would always be in pretty good shape. It wasn’t for any old race, but for the bigger races where they felt I could provide good team support. In a normal season, I doubt there would have been that many opportunities for me to race. But with COVID, and the season being very much condensed, and with Kona and the Ironman championships being completely canceled, all teams struggled to field riders. The attrition rate was different due to the shortness of the season, and the intensity of the racing. Guys were tired, guys were crashing, guys were hurt, so there was a lot more times than we initially anticipated that the team needed me to jump in and do some significant races.
VN: How hard was it to return to the racing level in the WorldTour after such a long time away?
CW: I initially really struggled with the rhythm of races. It’s very different at an Ironman, where I am in complete control of what’s going on. It was a bit easier at the classics, where I was on the front all day, but at the Vuelta, I was chasing attacks and getting into breakaways, that’s something I haven’t done in seven years. I’ve forgotten how hard it is to get into moves. It certainly reminded me how hard the races can be. I’ve been on the back foot all year, in terms of the racing rhythm, but as the Vuelta went on, I was able to do back to back days, and I was feeling better and better every day. Every day I felt more part of the race.
VN: Did you notice that you might have lost a bit of touch on how to move in the peloton, or are you worried about a bad crash taking you out of triathlon?
CW: There were a lot of crashes in Tour of Wallonie, and one day someone took out my front wheel. I fell quite awkwardly and fell on my ribs, and I wasn’t able to run for quite a few weeks, and I couldn’t swim at much of a level. That made me realize, looking ahead to Kona, once we know it’s happening, that’s the one race you need to give all the respect to with all the preparation without jeopardizing that. That’s been the only spill I had. I can proudly say that it was not my fault. I’ve felt quite comfortable in the bunch. My coach Tim Kerrison said he believes that I am used to rolling along at 40kph-plus an hour. Even in an Ironman, you’re rolling along much faster. I am very used to moving at high speeds, and with a road bike, there is a lot more control than with a time trial bike. I think my bike-handling has improved a lot. Even at the Vuelta, I led a lot of the descents and gapped the field a few times. From a technical standpoint, I feel more comfortable about riding, and no one’s complained about my style. In fact, most people have commented about how comfortable I look.
‘Cycling has the biggest impact on Kona, you win in the run’
VN: Triathlon remains the main focus, but everything was pretty much shut down in 2020; what do you expect for this year?
CW: I didn’t think about triathlon too much [in 2020], except that I plan on being at Kona [this] year. I’ve maintained my swimming and running to a point that once we know there is an Ironman on in the future, I will be in a position to begin training for that more specifically.
VN: So your major goal remains trying to win Kona?
CW: Absolutely. There is no guarantee that Kona is going to happen. When I am at home, I train a lot more, and I’m still doing 20-25km a week in the pool, and running 100km a week. Once we know there is an Ironman back on, the switch will be on that. Until then, I am finding a role on the team, and I am being useful. I love what I do. I get along great with the team and the staff. I’ve fitted in quite well here. In 2013, I spent the winter in California, training with Taylor Phinney and some others, and every day was just brutal, and I started that next season the best I’ve ever been. I felt so much more confident with that type of aggressive racing. I will probably go back there to California to do those group rides, because going into [this] year, there could be an opportunity to do some more racing. And be of best service as I can at the team, and see how good I can be at it. I’ve been kind of one foot in each camp, but right now, there’s no other camp to go to. Until we know Kona is back on again, it makes no sense to focus too heavily on that.
VN: How was the lockdown for you last spring, and were you able to train much?
CW: I was in Andorra, and my wife was pregnant. She was seven and a half months in, and we considered going back to the US, but in Andorra, we set up a chat group, and we decided to stay. We all kept communicating, and we’d try to let everyone know that we’re all here for each other. In the end, we had a little boy, and it’s been wonderful. That all happened in May. When lockdown came to an end, I was able to enjoy those first moments with him and my wife.
VN: Living in Andorra, where can you swim?
CW: The Olympic pool had a fire, and that’s been closed, but I swim in a private club. There are two 25-meter pools, and there’s one we call the dungeon. It’s in the basement and you need a private code to get in there, and since I am the only professional triathlete in Andorra, I can get in there to swim. It’s like I have my own pool. It’s only 25 meters, but that’s plenty for what I need to do. With the lockdowns, I had to make my own gym. I rented myself a little studio, and I have a treadmill, a rowing machine, and everything set up with the bikes. I bought a sauna, and I have my own little gym for the cross-training part, so it’s a great setup. Andorra has everything, and Barcelona is just down the road. For me, it’s like a dream come true. It’s a playground up there. I cannot wait to get up every day and get to work, in all three disciplines. We’re really fortunate to have found that place. I’ve always been a bit of an outlier, so it’s nice to be apart from those guys in Girona. It’s just close enough to know I’m there, but they can’t see me. Just lurking (laughs).
VN: Swimming in just a 25m pool, does that become an issue after so long?
CW: There is a facility in Spain from the 1992 Olympics, where they held the kayak and whitewater events, so when I want, I can swim in there at a 600-meter lane. At the top of the Arcalis climb in the Pyrénées, there is a lake up there, that’s at 2,400m. It can be pretty chilly, but with a good wetsuit, and a thick hat, I can easily do an hour or so. I can do 1km lap up there. The swim for me hasn’t been too bad, and when I am Tenerife, there is a 50m pool there. It’s nice to have a 25m pool, because I get quite excited when I go to other training facilities. I never feel like my open-water swimming is compromised. I have plenty of opportunities to get into the ocean. When I am in Big Bear, I swim in the lake before I go into Kona.
VN: And you said you were doing some running during Vuelta?
CW: I’ve been running just on the rest days. I would have liked to have run a few days after some stages, because it’s such an opportunity. After the classics, I ran after both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, because you don’t that many opportunities to run on legs that are that tired. The racing was just flat out and brutal. I did 10km, and the thing about 10km is when you start, you don’t feel great. After 5km, you feel a bit better, and after 10km, you start to feel quite fresh. You run your way into the run. In triathlon, after you pedal 180km on a time trial bike, it’s never easy when you get off and start running. That first 10km is all about getting into the rhythm. We had hoped to swim during the classics, but with the bubble, that wasn’t possible. The run and the swim, it’s more about ensuring that should an Ironman happen in the future, I will be ready to start training for it with a few months notice. I am not too stressed about that.
VN: So you really haven’t had a chance to test yourself in a triathlon after putting so much racing in on the road?
CW: I am so lucky that I have been to race so many days due to everything that’s happened, but it’s also a shame that I haven’t been able to race an Ironman to see how I could have done. We have seen some benefits from training at altitude and racing so hard, being at the front of the bunch a lot. When I go home, I have a very different tolerance to suffering and pain. When I do run, I am running a lot faster than I used to. I am happier at a higher heart rate, at a higher cadence. With swimming, I am wanting to do faster stuff, I am wanting to do an extra set, I am wanting to see how much faster I can go. I am much more ‘racy’ in my training, if that makes sense, and I think that is a really good sign. So when I do a proper buildup, I am confident I will be able to train very, very well. I don’t want to injure myself, so we have to taper a bit of that enthusiasm to get me ahead of my abilities.
VN: So to remind everyone, your return to the WorldTour is to help your ambitions at Kona; where will you see the biggest benefit from so much road racing?
CW: Cycling has the biggest impact on the race at Kona. I need to improve my swimming a bit to use more effectively the bike segment, especially for Kona, where the guys are very fast in swimming. It’s not about me trying to go any faster on the bike, it’s about having the weapon to go just as fast, but doing it far easier. Because I’ve improved running so much, so the goal is to be able to do a bike leg that is harder for everyone else to do, but then be fresher than everyone else for the run, to be able to execute a very good marathon and be able to win. At the end of the day, that’s how you win Kona, you win the race on the run. It’s pointless to go hell for leather and gain an extra five minutes on the bike because it could cost you 10-15 minutes in a marathon. You blow up in a run, and there is nothing that can help. That’s the key. I haven’t raced at the WorldTour level in the last four or five years, so I had last that little extra edge where you want to accelerate, change the rhythm, or pass riders, those things are going to take a lot less out of me know. Believe me, at the Vuelta, chasing a Luis León Sánchez or an Imanol Erviti, ‘Oh my God! That really sucks!’ Especially on the flat, when they get a little gap, you see their calve muscles bulging with horsepower. It’s beautiful to watch, but your legs are not enjoying it. Having that muscle memory back, that’s what will make a big difference for me in an Ironman, to be able to dictate the pace even more and leave myself in a much better position when I get to the run.
Younger riders are ‘just fearless’
VN: What changes have you seen in the WorldTour peloton since you left in 2014?
CW: The top guys, a lot of them are the same guys, Richie Porte, he’s improved incrementally over the years. The biggest changes I’ve seen are from say rider number 4 down to 140, the level is so much higher now. You do some turns at quite a high level, and there would be 10-15 guys. Now there are still 50-60 guys there. Every team is at a much better level and there is far more depth. That’s why the racing is so exciting because no one dominates. You never know who is going to win. It so much more intense when you’re in there. Before the break would go, you’d have a chat, and now, I ignore everyone. I have my job on the team, and I am 100 percent focused on that. Being at the right spot at the right time, who to watch, who to follow, and when you have a team like Movistar at the Vuelta, you know they’re capable of doing something crazy at any given moment. The details count. When Movistar has their aero helmets on during a flat stage, I know they’re looking for the crosswinds. I’m on the wheel of Erviti and Rojas, because I know those are the guys that feed them into the echelons. It is so intense in the peloton, and the level is so much higher. That’s why you see more crashes, more fatigue. Teams have 30 riders, and they’re struggling to fill out teams. The level of competition is so much more intense. That’s why the sport is evolving so much.
VN: There’s a new wave of young riders coming into the peloton, what’s your take on them?
CW: They’re just fearless. I raced with Evenepoel in Algarve, and the guy has no fear. The same with van der Poel and van Aert. They want to race. It’s like that in every race. Every race is just full-on. The Tour de France even five years ago, you didn’t even bother tuning in the first week. This year, you didn’t want to miss a minute. There was stuff going on every day. It’s been the same at the Vuelta. It’s been action-packed every day.
VN: You know Chris Froome quite well, where do you see him and his comeback for 2021?
CW: It was a tough start for him at the Vuelta. As a friend, I am glad I was there with him. He’s a great champion, and when he came to the Vuelta, he probably felt there were some expectations of him. On the team, we never talked about him being the leader. It was all about Richard [Carapaz]. It was all the media pressure, and you could see after the first few days, it really weighed on him. You could see how concerned he was, and I said to him after the second or third day, when he missed out on the echelon on the descent, the next day he was on the front with us. I said to him, mate, you have to start from zero. You have to do everything again. You have to get dropped, have to ride on the front, you have to do all the things you did 10 years ago to become a great bike rider, because you’re literally starting from ground zero. The fact that he’s even able to race at this level, it’s a miracle. He said, ‘That’s the reality of the situation,’ and when he came to terms with that, he was the first to raise his hand to do the work on a climb, or pull on the flats. He’s come along so much, and you add his knowledge, which he loves passing it along. He really likes to share what he’s learned over the years about how to lead. He’s been a wonderful teammate, and it’s awesome to be here with him in his last race on the team. I have to pinch myself that all this is happening to me this year. It’s just been an amazing ride. It’s a great atmosphere on the team.