By Andrew Hood
Don’t discount Team CSC’s Stuart O’Grady as a candidate for the win in Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix.
The 33-year-old Aussie might not be one of the five-star favorites to win the “Hell of the North,” but he can be a wildcard, behind teammate and defending champ Fabian Cancellara. (VeloNews.com will offer up-to-the-minute live coverage of Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. – Editor)
“Stuey” barreled into this year’s classics season in his best form in years. After a string of top-five finishes, O’Grady is intent on snagging his first victory since 2004, when he won a stage at the Tour de France, two at the Dauphiné Libéré and the HEW Cyclassics.
VeloNews caught up with O’Grady as he talked about Roubaix, broken bones, Ivan Basso and why French teams can’t produce a Tour de France winner. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews.com: You’ve been injury-free since your crash in last year’s Tour. How is your condition coming into the classics week?
Stuart O’Grady: It’s the best form I’ve ever had. I’m at the same form I finished off last year. After the world championships, I’ve had a good solid winter. Since the Tour Down Under, it’s been non-stop. I haven’t been home with all the training camps and races. It’s been hard, but when you can see it paying off and how it easy it is in the races, it makes it motivating. I’ve got one big week ahead of me and I just can’t wait.
VN.com: You’ve had some close calls for victory and you’ve been in the top five nearly a dozen times. Does being so close frustrate you, or give you motivation that at least you’re getting closer to winning?
SOG: It’s easy to look at it and say it’s frustrating that I’ve been close, but what’s motivating is that I am the front when it counts. I wasn’t putting too much pressure on myself until San Remo, Flanders and Roubaix. I was a bit frustrated at San Remo because I definitely had the form to be on the podium and Freire was unbeatable that day.
VN.com: At Milan-San Remo, it looked like you were boxed in when Petacchi didn’t take his sprint. He just drifted across the line — did that impede your sprint?
SOG: One of his teammates came out, I think it was Zabel and kept sprinting. It kind of stuffed up Robbie and me, but that was partly my fault because I was probably back a little too far. That’s my fault and that’s what makes it frustrating. Pretty much since the Tour of California I haven’t been out of the top 10 no matter what it is, time trials, sprinting, semi-classics. That’s given me a lot of confidence. That means the work is paying off, the training camps … but now it’s time to win something. I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself this week because I do think it’s possible. I think Boonen is beatable. I think we’ve got a strong enough team here to win all three of these coming races.
VN.com: You’ve dropped your green-jersey dreams and have focused your goals on the classics, why is that?
SOG: It’s the challenge, just how hard it is. It’s just so hard. It’s difficult to explain when you see photos and see it on TV, it looks bumpy, but it’s just so damn hard. The worse you’re going, the worse the cobbles are. Finally, when you get a bit of form and get some confidence, that’s when you start to enjoy it. It’s all about confidence.
VN.com: It seems like now you have all the pieces — your health, a strong team, good form. How do you rate your chances?
SOG: If it’s ever going to happen, it’s this week. I’ve been on the podium. You’ve got to be offensive, but back then I didn’t have the support when I was on the French teams. Now, you look across the table here (at CSC), you’re like, fair enough, if I don’t win, he can win, he can win, okay, I’ll win. Put your hands up.
That also gives you confidence, because you know after 220km, we can have three or four guys up there and you can rule the roost. The problem is if you’re isolated, it doesn’t matter if you’re Eddy Merckx, there are only so many guys you can chase down before you succumb to the pressure and let one go.
VN.com: Are you and Fabian Cancellara equal captains or does he have an edge if it comes down to the two of you?
SOG: We have Karsten Kroon as well. Allan Johansen was fifth at E3 Prijs. I keep bringing up (Paris-Roubaix winner Servais) Knaven as an example. Museeuw that year was the strongest guy by 10 men, but Knaven won because of his teammate. Everyone starts watching the favorite, all of a sudden the teammate goes off the front, and it’s game over. We have to keep reminding ourselves that.
At Roubaix, if Fabian is 100 percent, then he’s the absolute team captain, no ifs or buts about it. I hope to be there by his side and help him and use my form as well because I think I can do a pretty good Roubaix.
VN.com: Between Flanders and Roubaix, you would pick Flanders, correct?
SOG: Roubaix is typically for bigger guys. In the past I’ve tended to struggle a little bit on the big sections of cobbles just because I bounce around a lot. Ten, 12, 15 kilos is a big difference on the cobbles and that’s why these big guys have an advantage. I think Fabian’s legs are twice the size of mine and it just comes down to pure power. Flanders is a little bit more complicated, with the climbs and the extra burst of speed means more in a race like Flanders than Roubaix.
VN.com: How much is luck a factor in these big one-day races?
SOG: I’ve fantastic experience with that last weekend in E3 when I punctured at the vital moment of the whole race and I managed to get back to the front and attack. That’s given me a lot of confidence because I was able to come back from the worst possible position and I still managed to get at the front and be part of the game. You just gotta hope the stars will line up in your favor and you won’t crash and won’t puncture.
VN.com: You seem very happy here at Team CSC. How has the move here helped you after racing most of your career with French teams?
SOG: It’s been the answer to everything. If I stayed where I was, I would have been retired right now. I found a comfort zone on the French teams and they were happy with results and placings. I was getting complacent with the placings and I had lost that winning hunger and desire. Then I came to this team and that all got rediscovered again pretty fast under Bjarne. He believes in you and you respect him. His survival camps and great comrades nearby, it all adds up, you can’t just pinpoint one thing. I knew I wanted to come to CSC because I knew this was the team that would get the best out of me as a bike rider.
VN.com: We’ve heard all kinds of stories about French teams. Why do you think it’s been 22 years since a Frenchman has won the Tour (Bernard Hinault in 1985)?
SOG: I think the French have had a very good past, they’re just searching too hard for the next big French champion. It’s too easy for the French pros to plunk in with a French team and just hop from French team to French team.
They can do that for five, six years and not have a problem. They don’t have that hunger or desire. I think there are some really good bike riders, but they won’t become great until they move teams and look at the big wide world. The French riders are very well paid, but it’s too easy. I’m not complaining. I enjoyed 11 fantastic years with the French teams, my best results ever. There is certainly a quantum leap coming to this team. Every detail is looked after. I think the French are a little bit blasé and they can improve in a lot of ways.
VN.com: You’ve had to battle through some big problems in 2004, with the doping scandal overwhelming the Cofidis team you had only just joined. Then came the death of your grandfather. Nonetheless, it was your best season ever. Why?
SOG: It made me realize, no matter what’s happening around me, that the will to win is still there. I don’t give a shit what’s going on around me. I’ve never been positive. I’ve never been into doping. I wanted to prove to the world that everything was still possible. It’s just the hunger. It would have been the easiest year to throw in the towel because no one was expecting any results, because “oh, there’s been a scandal on our team.” This sport’s too hard just to sit around and do nothing. That gave me a lot of motivation to train harder.
VN.com: Then you joined Team CSC last year and ended up suffering two bad crashes, first at Tirreno, then at the Tour. That must have been a difficult challenge to try to overcome.
SOG: It was the toughest year of my career. Being on a new team, getting ready for the classics, I felt like a neo-pro. I trained so many times up and down the Poggio and Cipressa to memorize them, then I’m standing there at the finish line with seven broken ribs [at Tirreno]. It was really down part of my career. I had a one-year contract, this was the part of the season that I was brought on the team in the first place. If you don’t take the positive out of something negative, you’re just going to kick yourself, so I kept resetting my challenges and personal objectives.
Once I got the ball rolling, the form was great at the end of the year. It’s always riding on a fine line. This time last year I was all busted up at home, and now I’m here bucking for the win. That’s the kind of stuff you have to keep reminding yourself of when you’re down.
VN.com: What was your reaction last year to Basso’s ejection from the Tour and his eventual departure from the team?
SOG: It was the biggest shock of my life. He had just asked me to be his roommate for the Tour de France. It’s like having Lance coming up and asking you to be his roomie. I was looking forward to it. It didn’t shock anyone more than me. To be honest, I don’t even look into all that Puerto business. I’m confused by trying to read it; what’s good and what’s bad. I think everyone should have morals; obviously some people don’t.
VN.com: Team CSC instituted dramatic internal testing of the riders. Some 300 tests have already been conducted by team-sanctioned controls. Do the riders support that effort?
SOG: I think it’s fantastic. It’s the wave of the future. It’s the way it has to be on every team, in every sport. Everyone goes on about privacy, but privacy isn’t an option anymore.
You can’t wince and cry because you have to be here at this hour. That’s sport, that’s how it’s going. It’s a way of guaranteeing that people don’t cheat. It’s only the people who do cheat are the ones complaining and worrying about it. You have to go with the flow and deal with the new rules. At the end of the day, the cream rises to the top. I’m really excited and it’s good for the sport. We’ve got a lot of work to do to win back the trust and support of the general public. We’ve had a lot of bad news lately and if we want to bring back the support to the sport, we have to support it.
VN.com: You’ve been around the game of cycling for a long time. What keeps you motivated to make the sacrifices, to take the risks?
SOG: Challenges. I could quite happily have retired after Athens, for me, I kind of ticked all the boxes, but now I just see my challenge is the classics. I just want to win the big races. I just want to win the monuments. That’s it. I don’t care about the small races; I don’t care about stages in tours. This is all that interests me anymore.
Even at the Tour, I have a different role. It’s a team role. No more green jersey, no more hunting for stage wins. It’s looking after our leader, and that’s a different challenge. I really enjoyed it last year. It’s a changing of the guard. I’m not going for the green jersey and that stuff, but it didn’t phase me. It’s my new role and I’m going to do it 100 percent.
VN.com: When you look into the crystal ball, how much longer do you see yourself racing?
SOG: Depends. I said that I would stop in Beijing, but if I am winning classics, I’m not going to stop. It all depends on how things go in those big races. If I’m popping out podiums in San Remo and Flanders, then that’s all I need to keep the fuel in the fire. There are other things to take into account, family, whether it’s another two years or four years.