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An interview with Michael Rogers, February 18, 2009
Struggle street makes way for the High Road
The last two years have been both tough and rewarding for Michael Rogers. Crashes and illness have been the low points. Starting a family and being part of a team that feels like one have been the highlights. It all adds up to a mature rider who knows his place is on the top step of the podium... and one who knows the best way of getting there, as Cyclingnews' Les Clarke discovers.
Since his first Tour de France in 2003, Australia's Michael Rogers has been on the radar as a potential podium finisher in the world's biggest race. His ability to transfer the power he first developed as a raw track talent to the mountain stages of a Grand Tour has been a big drawcard for those interested in signing the 29-year-old born in Barham, in regional New South Wales.
That natural ability is reflected in his record in races against the clock. Rogers finished on the podium twice in the U23 time trial event at the world championships before going on to secure the senior title in the same discipline for three consecutive years - 2003 (Hamilton, Canada), '04 (Verona, Italy) and '05 (Madrid, Spain). Add to this various national track titles, a Tour Down Under crown and a Commonwealth Games silver medal before his triple time trial success, and Michael Rogers was hot property for prospective employers.
Those prospective employers included the likes of QuickStep and T-Mobile, both of who have employed the Australian at different stages of his career; an indication of the level of their regard is the fact he became a stagiare with Mapei-QuickStep in 2000 at the age of just 20. It was at the next incarnation of this squad, QuickStep - Davitamon, that Rogers got his first taste of the Tour de France in 2003. He rode for Richard Virenque in the mountains and finished 42nd on general classification, an amazing result that illustrated what he was capable of over three weeks.
Having already ridden three editions of the Tour de France by the time he secured his third TT crown in Madrid, Rogers began to believe in his ability to do big things at the loftier heights of Grand Tour general classification battles. That 42nd had been added to with a 22nd and 41st overall in 2004 and 2005 respectively, and a subsequent move to 'strip' the muscle required to gain momentum in time trials meant his training regimen focused on becoming a 'climbing machine'.
That process continued over 2006 and 2007, the result being a top 10 in the 2006 Tour de France, riding for T-Mobile. It was clearly his best finish and proof that the new focus was working. It also placed him amongst the favourites for the 2007 edition, hype he lived up to on stage eight to Tignes until the unthinkable happened.
Yellow dream brutally shattered
On the descent of the Cormet de Roselend Rogers' tyre ripped apart and sent him into a barrier, where the maillot jaune virtuel broke his collarbone but tried to continue riding. Kilometres later he would be forced to get into the team car in tears, an event his current bosses - Bob Stapleton and Allan Peiper - have described as one of the most tragic sporting moments in their careers.
Rogers' wounds recovered, but he didn't make the startline at last year's Tour de France for another reason - severe illness. A case of Epstein-Barr virus forced him to miss a large chunk of last season, although he says that the support from Stapleton and the entire management at High Road has been fantastic. "With the sickness and everything I probably couldn't have been in a better team," says Rogers.
"Obviously the support I've had here has been great. They said, 'Get your stuff together and when you're ready to come back we'll be here with open arms'. I've been very appreciative of that, and I hope to repay that trust during this year."
He repaid them sooner than that, with the Australian taking sixth in the Olympic road race in Beijing last season, albeit wearing a different jersey - that of the national team. It was proof that he was getting back to his best form. A win in the time trial at this year's Australian national championships was further proof, although it begged the question: Will Rogers get back to concentrating on time trials?
"Actually I'm keeping that in the back of my mind but I think I have to train what I'm good at," he explains. "Normally when I'm time trialling super well I'm climbing super well too, so it is hard to balance both of them, but it's just a happy medium between the two."
Given his status as a general classification leader at Team Columbia, Rogers has some unfinished business in France to attend to this July. It's the most relaxed I've seen him in some time, and this is reflected in his response. "I hope to get there with some success already. I'd like to finish off what I started in 2007, which is getting to the jersey," he explains.
Maturing on and off the road
"It's a hard race to say, 'I'm going to win'. It's hard to say because it's easier to lose than it is to win. I'm going to go in with an open mind," he adds. It displays the maturity he has developed that generally only comes with a struggle - and over the last two years there's been plenty of that. It also comes with the territory of being a father. Rogers and his Italian wife Alessia have twin daughters Sofia and Matilde, and although Alessia struggled with the birth, all is well at home.
"The kids are good - they're ripping everything to bits and keeping my wife busy," he says with a smile.
It was obvious during the Tour Down Under that local fans were happy to have one of their favourite sons back on the road, although some observers may have written him off when it comes to France in July. Rogers says that suits him perfectly. "That's the plan; hopefully I'll slip under the radar a little bit. I'm also a little bit wiser now, with six Tours de France under my belt - you never know."
There's plenty of work to do before this point, however, and the Australian has proven in the past that shorter stage races are also his domain, and has recorded strong performances in early and late-season week-long events. They'll feature in his program for '09, one which is pretty packed.
"I'll do the Tour of California, I'll have a short break and start again with the Tour of the Basque Country, then the Ardennes Classics, before heading straight into the Giro. I've got a pretty long season this year."
There will undoubtedly be plenty of fans around the world hoping this last statement is true, and that Michael Rogers enjoys a long, tough season with plenty of racing.