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An interview with Steffen Kjærgaard
Ride Steffen, ride
By Anthony Tan
Other hobbies - now you have a 1 year old son, your family must be important to you? "Ya, my family's very important, and it's always been a priority. But I really enjoy going to the mountains with some good friends, staying in a nice cottage and doing lots of cross-country skiing, going for long walks, telling stories and just relaxing."
No one ever said cycling was an easy sport. But they forgot to tell Steffen Kjærgaard it was also a cruel one too. In eight years as a professional, he's been to hell and back on more than one occassion.
However, Kjærgaard can see patches of blue over the horizon. And a little further away is the Eiffel Tower - a place Kjærgaard would like to visit just one more time, riding in the wake of his team leader, Lance Armstrong.
16,000 KILOMETRES separates myself from Steffen Kjærgaard, yet his voice is coming through crystal clear. So is his English. Although you'd expect that after three years on "Lance's team" as Steffen calls it, and the fact that he's seen Forrest Gump more times than he can remember.
Right now, it's five degrees below freezing in Geilo, Norway. Kjærgaard and three of his mates, including Bjørnar Vestol from Team Fakta and Bjarke Nielsen from CSC, are on holidays, doing what Norweigans and Danes do in the winter. Ski.
"I guess I don't know any better," laughs Kjærgaard when asked wouldn't he prefer warmer climes for his end of season vacation. "Bjarke and Bjørnar keep talking about how good Australia is and I almost went there for the Olympics [in 2000], but for some reason, they didn't pick me to go. So for now, my favourite place is Denmark," he jokes.
Denmark was also the country responsible for resurrecting Kjærgaard's cycling career after three years of turmoil at TVM.
"TVM was a hard place to start when you're a young rider, especially as a neo-professional," admits Kjærgaard when talking about the Dutch super squad that dominated the early season Classics from early to mid nineties.
"They expect something from you from the very beginning and the results didn't come, so you start having problems with your motivation. It was a really hard time; I almost quit after that," Kjærgaard says bluntly, his tone indicative of a man still scarred from a less than joyous time under the hands of directeur-sportif Cees Priem.
While Kjærgaard's difficulties in adapting may have a lot do with moving to Belgium - a country possessing a language foreign to him - and the sink-or-swim mentality that characterised TVM, it may also have something to do with his success as an amateur and the naivety that follows.
As a youngster, Kjærgaard soon realised he had a talent for very short time trials, so initially he concentrated most of his efforts on the track. In his last year as a junior, he was Nordic Champion in the 4000 metre Individual Pursuit; so not surprisingly, Kjærgaard decided to further his commitment for another two years in an attempt to peak for the 1994 World Track Championships in Palermo, Italy.
The spell of success continued well into the following year, and his transition into the senior ranks of track cycling appeared seamless. Kjærgaard also lengthened his pursuiting prowess, with a National Championship victory in the team time trial in 1993.
However, a year later, aged 21, Kjærgaard found greater success on the road, while his results on the track began to wane. Only one of his seven wins was on boards, the Dortmund Six in Germany, an event best suited for endurance track cyclists. The other victories - including the Norwegian Road and Time Trial Championships, the Nordic Team Time Trial Championships, the Ringerike Grand Prix and a stage in the Tour of Austria - catapulted him on the road to TVM.
Which brings us to that "minor" stumbling block known as life in a Division I pro cycling team in Europe.
"After plenty of success as an amateur, I had a lot of belief in myself because I was used to getting good results," remembers Kjærgaard. "The language barrier wasn't really an issue - I learnt Flemish since I was staying in Belgium, but almost everyone in the team spoke English well. Although it [the language] was a problem socially - a lot of the time I would just sit there and not understand anything."
Kjærgaard's tone becomes increasing analytical. "That was only a little part of the whole problem though."
However, when you add all these "little parts" up - the move to a foreign country, being the only Norweigan on a Dutch team, becoming a social outcast by default rather than choice, the speed and length of racing (and at the same time, having a DS breathing down your neck and expecting results) - you begin to have an idea of what a very green Kjærgaard was up against. A proverbial brick wall.
Most other 21 year old males in Norway were probably thinking about what their Mum's cooking was for dinner, which girl they liked at university or where to go for their next snowboarding adventure. Certainly not where and what to eat and how they would get to the start village for a 260 kilometre Classic the next day. And that was before thinking about how they would get to the finish of that 260 kilometre Classic.
Though it's not like Kjærgaard had an absolute shocker at TVM. In three years, he won the National Time Trial Championships three times, a stage and the overall in the Tour of Austria and the Copenhagen Six in Denmark - which was enough to land him the job as team captain at Team Chicky World from 1998-99, a Danish outfit that provided the springboard for an immediate reversal of fortune.
"[After TVM], when I went to the races, I just attacked because I didn't care about the consequences and I was much more aggressive," says Kjærgaard rather insouciantly about his all or nothing attitude. "But the results were still a surprise for me. After those years at TVM, I didn't have a lot of belief in myself anymore."
Kjærgaard's "I don't give a stuff", Jackie Durand-style of racing certainly paid dividends. Ten wins - with four victories in some highly-ranked tours that included the Bayern Rundfahrt, Tour de Pays Basque and the Circuit de la Sarthe - was truly amazing for a rider who, mentally more than physically, struggled so much only a few months previously. Consequently, Kjærgaard's name began popping up on a number of DS's "most-wanted" lists just in time for the millenium season.
"Because of my strength and good results, I found US Postal," he says.
Although it was more a case of Belgian born USPS DS Johan Bruyneel finding Kjærgaard. Bruyneel found what Belgians term a roleur - a super strong, big-gear cruncher that thrives on harsh conditions and is not afraid of pain. Perfect for the Tour de France.
Kjærgaard tells me, however, that despite his credentials, he was actually on the reserve bench for the 2000 Tour before Christian Vandevelde fell ill shortly before the start in Futuroscope.
"In the first couple of days, I didn't really believe in getting through [to the end], but after every day, I got better and better, and the last week was great for me - especially the final stage along the Champs-Elysées," he remembers fondly.
The performance was enough to warrant another ride in Armstrong's third Tour victory, but this year, Kjærgaard - along with another Postal workhouse, Matt White - lucked out. Both riders were in superb form, but the competition for a spot was fierce. "Mathew [White] and I were basically good enough to ride the Tour, but we weren't good enough to ride in the team," he says in an unusually candid manner.
"But that's the 'prize' of Johan's strategy," says Kjærgaard. "He makes a team of 12 or 13 riders who are all good enough for the Tour, and can only choose nine."
Asked if he feels Bruyneel goes a touch overboard and recruits too many riders for the Tour, Kjærgaard is at first coy, but then relents, and surmises the plan of too many is always better than the plan of too few for an event like Le Tour.
"They have the capacity, they have the money, and of course, they have the winner," he says.
I can't really argue with that. Four wins out of four attempts is nothing less than incredible, and Bruyneel deserves much of the credit.
Bruyneel's professionalism is what makes Postal work and work so well says Kjærgaard. While he admits that he doesn't know the workings of every team in the peloton, Kjærgaard explains that many other teams look at their budget first before making a plan on what races to target, whereas at Postal, the reverse applies.
"Postal always devise a strategy focusing only on the big Classics and the Tour. There is nothing else the riders have to focus on… apart from getting into shape for those races," he says half-jokingly.
Adds Kjærgaard, "I think it's also got something to do with being on the biggest American team, and their mentality of focusing on what matters most for them."
Right now, what matters most for Kjærgaard is earning his spot back on the team for the 2003 Tour so Lance gets his five out of five.
After poor showing at this year's Vuelta, Kjærgaard needed time to think about whether he wanted to stay with Postal, despite having a prior arrangement with team management for 2003. Kjærgaard has experienced both the joy of being on the winning team, and the disappointment of being left off the winning team, and states that "if you're not good enough for the Tour de France, you are not really on the team."
"But I want to stay," says Kjærgaard vigilantly. "I said to myself that this is not the way to end my career, and that I would try another year to make the team again. My opinion is that I should be good enough, so I want to give it my best."
So until then, no thoughts about life after cycling?
"Oh no, I've been thinking about it. Really thinking about it. There's quite a few opportunities, but nothing definite. Right now, I'm focused only on cycling and I like to take one year at a time."
Looks like Steffen Kjærgaard's a man on a mission, not unlike his old pal Forrest Gump. Ride Steffen, ride.