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An interview with Ian McLeod, November 10, 2004
South Africa's lone ProTour rider
FdJeux.com, who will revert to their original team name of Française des Jeux at the beginning of 2005, has a history of recruiting English speaking riders since 1997. An American (Chris Horner), two Englishmen (Max Sciandri and Bradley Wiggins) and, of course, a few Australians (Brad McGee, Matt Wilson, Baden Cooke and Mark Renshaw) - but never a South African.
Next year, however, 24 year-old Ian McLeod coming from TT3 HSBC, will be one of the French team's attractions. But who knows? He may well be kidnapped by British cycling... Before his first appearance with his new French team, Jean-François Quénet caught up with him in Johannesburg during his (very) short off-season - just seven days long.
Cyclingnews: As the world of cycling is now focusing on the 2005 season, it looks like you'll be South Africa's only UCI ProTour rider. What's your feeling about that?
Ian McLeod: It's quite an honour for myself to be a part of the UCI ProTour, but I shouldn't be the only one from South Africa. Robert Hunter deserves to be there as well; he's still with no doubt the best South African professional cyclist. If it wasn't because of Phonak's exclusion, he would ride on the big pro scene, and I wish he'll be able to take part in the best races anyway; what's happening to his new team isn't his fault at all.
CN: Talking about yourself only, what's your feeling about entering the UCI ProTour?
IM: It's a big opportunity. I'm getting thrown in the deep end. I'm extremely happy to be there, racing with Française des Jeux next season. It's a dream for any cyclist all over the world to join one of the big teams, it's even more exciting when it's a Tour de France team.
CN: Where did your cycling story start?
IM: In 1993. A good friend of mine whose brothers were racing professionally in the Beneke's team told me to come and join him riding. I remember it was in the month of July, the Tour de France was on, watching the special highlights every night made us enthusiastic. Miguel Indurain was the first big name I heard, he was my hero. Over here in South Africa, we don't really know much about the history of cycling. As you grow into the cycling community, you start to learn a little bit more. Now I know that Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil have performed before Indurain, but I've never seen them racing.
Before taking up cycling I played soccer for seven years. In the Under 15 category I played for Chappies, SA's big league for youngsters, we were the only two white kids in the team and I was quite promising in that sport. But I found cycling more interesting straight away. It was new to me. Watching cycling on TV made me want to ride while soccer was only fun to do, I never felt inspired by the Kaizer Chiefs, the Orlando Pirates or the Bafana Bafana - our national team.
CN: Have you always been a successful cyclist?
IM: No. When I first started, I used to get dropped all the time. But when I turned 15, I won all the races. I was the South African junior champion both years and I won the Junior Tour, which is the Tour of South Africa for juniors. When I went to Belgium to prepare for the world championship, I won two kermesses. In 1999, I moved to Italy - I raced for two years for the Trevigiani team, where the young stars were Franco Pellizotti and Rafaele Ferrara, they came 1st and 2nd in the Baby Giro in 2000. I often trained with Marzio Bruseghin and Roberto Sgambelluri as well. My stay in Italy wasn't a big success but I learnt a lot. I saw the reality of being in a different country with people treating you like shit. I grew up a lot there. When I moved back to South Africa I realized how much better I was.
CN: Being a professional cyclist in South Africa, what is it like?
IM: There aren't many teams but they are pretty well organized. They are much bigger now with about eight riders per a team instead of five but there isn't a lot of staff. The riders have to do a lot by themselves. Cycling is the fastest growing sport in the country, obviously in terms of mass races with thousands of participants. We race every weekend but unfortunately we have only two stage races. The Rapport Tour or the Boland Bank Tour aren't organized anymore. The Giro del Capo used to be the smallest South African stage race and it's now the biggest, but it'd stayed pretty much the same.
CN: Then how did you manage to jump from South African cycling to a big French team?
IM: After my Italian experience, I joined HSBC because it wasn't only a South African domestic team but an internationally recognised Trade Team 3 who was keen to give their riders exposure in Europe. Our two campaigns in France have worked extremely well this year. In periods of two months, we've had time to get stronger. We've been quite successful in May with our team captain Nic White winning a stage in the Ruban Granitier Breton then myself winning a stage in the Tour de la Manche and the one-day GP Lys-lez-Lannoy.
I was told the most important race for me would be the French cup race A Travers le Morbihan, where I'd be able to 'fill page 1 of my pro contract up'. Luckily, I was introduced to FdJeux.com's boss Marc Madiot at breakfast. He said: 'I'll watch you during the race today.' And he didn't!
He only heard my name on the race radio since I went in the early move and he had no one in the front. I was up there with Stuart O'Grady and Thomas Voeckler, I won the hot spot sprints and the KOM, I attacked at the bottom of the last climb and eventually finished 6th. With that result in hand, I could come back to South Africa highly motivated and get ready for our second European campaign in August with Michel Gros as a directeur sportif. I had a goal to work for. A few teams approached me but FdJ was my first choice. Madiot signed me at the end of August.
CN: Two years ago Team Barloworld was created with the goal of bringing young South Africans to the Tour de France. It's now an Italian team with veteran Francesco Casagrande as a leader. How come didn't they sign an up-and-coming rider like you?
IM: They were obviously interested in me but a bit too late I suppose... When they asked me, I had this opportunity to join a UCI ProTour team, it would have been stupid to say no to FdJ. It would have been nice to ride with other South Africans, although they are a minority now at Barloworld compared to the Italians, but I'll ride with Aussies instead - what's the difference? Baden Cooke and Brad McGee are accomplished riders; I'm sure I'll learn a lot from them as well as I've learnt from Nic White at HSBC. The English-speaking background at FdJ will make things a lot easier for me.
CN: You were born in Falkirk, Scotland, your British passport makes you eligible for Great Britain at the World's and the Olympics. Will you still ride for South Africa?
IM: I don't know. It depends on the coaching. I don't want to go to these events only for representing a country. If I go, I want to perform. In the past I've seen a lot of favouritism in South Africa and I've missed out a lot of opportunities because of that. This year, we've finally had a qualified national coach. I've loved to work with Tony Harding at Le Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia but it looks like he's not going to carry on and I don't know who will be next. I've also heard a lot of positive comments about the British national team and their coach John Herety. I've been told he knows about me being eligible but no one from the UK has contacted me so far.
CN: What is your near future made of?
IM: I'm going to France for a 10 days training camp in mid-December. It will be interesting to visit Lapierre's bike factory and discover what a big pro team is about. My first race will be the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under in January. It's been quite a surprise to hear that I was selected for that event but it was a nice surprise. It'll be damned hot there! But it won't be bad for me, coming from South Africa, and I'm looking forward to ride with my new Australian team-mates. I'll know more about my race programme during the camp but I've been told already that I'm very likely going to ride the Tour of Italy. I'm delighted.
CN: What kind of rider are you?
IM: I believe I can do well in hilly one-day races. I've never won a stage race before but I've always been up there. Anyway, my first intention is to help the team wherever. I'll fetch bottles, cover moves, lead the sprints out... I'll do my job for the team as much as I can. With Française des Jeux, I'm convinced I'm on the right path, I hope to start the Tour de France one day and try and win some big pro races when my time will come.