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An interview with Hayden Roulston, November 9, 2005
A big base for a big 2006
Hayden Roulston is one of two New Zealanders plying their trade on Pro Tour teams, the Discovery Channel rider having switched from Cofidis in late 2004. This year Roulston suffered injury setbacks that hampered his efforts to shine in the spring classics, and recently suffering a little embarrassment while at home in the South Island of New Zealand. He's primed for 2006, however, and spoke with Cyclingnews' Les Clarke about his plans for next year.
It's mid-afternoon when we reach Roulston at his home in Timaru, New Zealand, and he's just been to watch his uncle's racehorse run in a local race. She didn't get up for the win, but in a land known for its 'stayers' [horses that run well over long distances] there was surely plenty of competition. Roulston follows the tradition of New Zealand producing stayers - the big classics rider comes from an endurance track background and prefers long races so he can gallop all day, looking to outlast other riders over 200 kilometres or more.
With several strong performances during his time at French squad Cofidis, Roulston moved to Discovery Channel for the 2005 season, because, as he says, "When you look at the riders they've got, the results they've had, they really are the number one team in the world." He had established good relations with some of the team's staff, and they followed his progress. When he enjoyed some strong results as a first and second year pro Discovery decided to give him a shot, which suited him perfectly. "I went to Discovery because I felt it was a better setup, easier in terms of the language and the way things are run - I'm really happy that I made the move," said Roulston.
Based in Waregem, Belgium, Roulston is happy with his living and training arrangements that make it easy to keep in touch with his team while offering a good environment to develop as a rider. "I love Belgium because it's the next best thing to New Zealand - people speak English, they're friendly and I've got my director there - not in Waregem, but close by...the team doctor's even here. There are a lot of people in the team circle that it's just good to be close to if you've got a problem or need any help," he says, and adds, "The New Zealand Federation's got a house in the south of France [Limoux] and I'll do [training] blocks down there. I'll do two or three weeks at a time down there because at the start of the year the weather's not nice! You've got to motivate yourself to go out and train - but with hail and stuff it's not that easy to do!" All this adds up to an environment tailored to producing good stayers, but sometimes it doesn't quite work out that way.
This year Roulston has been plagued by illness and injury - in Malaysia he became sick and had to spend time off the bike, and before he knew it Kurrne-Brussels-Kuurne had arrived and Roulston had only two days of racing in his legs. "I got sick in Malaysia and had to come home before another race got snowed out; so I came into Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne with about two days racing in my legs and took seventh - I just worked the whole day for George," said Roulston. The team took notice of this, and it looked as though he was in for a shot at some strong results in the classics before injury struck him out of Discovery's plans for the spring. "The team saw that [his seventh place] and thought, 'hey, this guy's got something' and so from then on they gave me all the lead up races to the big ones, like E3 Prijs and Three days of De Panne; I rode really strongly in those races. I wasn't in top form, but was coming into form when I got injured - I had a problem with a cyst and had to have an operation which shut me out after I made the team for Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem."
Roulston was obviously disappointed but is looking forward to his chance next year, saying, "I was absolutely gutted not to race because I was injured - I had to watch the race coming through my town...it was bloody hard. So in 2006 I'm going to be racing all the major classics. I've got pretty high expectations for myself this coming year - I'm going to be doing a really big base because I missed so much of this season; my last race was the end of March so now I have to do a big base and show the team what I'm capable of."
But it wasn't just during his time at Cofidis that demonstrated Roulston's ability to ride well in Europe - he won nine races as an amateur during his second year in France, and according to the 24-year-old Kiwi it's a matter of having the goods, a little luck, and some local knowledge. "I've got the goods, it's just a matter of it all going my way! In Europe you need a little bit of luck. Also, a big thing about the classics is knowing the roads - now I've got a full year behind me I know the roads for the Tour of Flanders, E3 Prijs and those type of races - I know them like the back of my hand," he says.
And in 2006 Discovery Channel will be looking for some big results in the spring classics; with the departure of Lance Armstrong the team's focus will be more encompassing, and Roulston realises that he's part of a balanced squad - it's not just the 'Discovery Channel/Lance Armstrong show' anymore. "The teams's a strong team and Lance just makes it ten times stronger - the guy's unbelievable - but the team realises that another Lance isn't going to appear overnight, and maybe never will, but there are plenty of backup guys."
He cites the performances of Paolo Savoldelli and George Hincapie this year as proof of this. "Savoldelli won the Giro and George was super strong all year. You've got guys who have the capability of doing big things, so that'll still make the team solid. And from what I've seen this year the atmosphere is unreal - it's similar to the New Zealand track team...you're best mates and just having fun." But at the end of the day, each rider has a job to do, and Roulston feels that Discovery lets them do this easily, saying, "It's a good team, a happy team and they just let you do your job - I think that's really important as a professional and that's how it should be."
Recently Roulston was involved in a fight in Timaru and was fined after facing court. Fearing he would be sacked by Discovery Channel, Roulston apologised and is embarrassed and disappointed by the incident. Discovery Channel management understood this and kept him on the team, for which he is extremely grateful. "I made a mistake that I regret, and I'm grateful I'm still with the team. I think that's because they believe in me. If I hadn't raced all year without a good result I would've been gone for sure, so I'll be doing everything I can this year to arrive in good condition to I can prove to them what I'm capable of."
And although it caused he and his family quite some embarrassment because he's a sportsman in the spotlight in his home country, Roulston is looking to move on from the incident, and so is the team. "It's definitely not good, considering the fact that I haven't raced much this year - I'm disappointed in myself, and so were my family, because it's not just me involved. The team and my family were pretty disappointed with what's happened and I'm pretty sure they were upset about it. But I've just got to take it on the chin; I've admitted my mistake and it's pretty much the end of it."
With young riders such as Peter Latham and Tim Gudsell making their mark on the international stage, does Roulston believe Europe is still the best place for young riders to begin their pro careers? "The young guys I talk to - the Tim Gudsells and Pete Lathams - I try and make them aware that you've got to go to Europe. If you've got the goods you have to go to Europe," believes Roulston. "To go to Europe and make the step up to pro level isn't easy - when I look back I think 'how the hell did I even make the step up?' There are guys who've won 10 or 12 races and they still haven't made the step up. It's a 'who you know' game as well, and that's a bit sad. If you're from Australia or New Zealand, you're not there for a holiday, and I think with the reputation the Aussies have got - through things like the Francaise des Jeux links - they've set the trend, which is quite good."
Roulston believes that if a rider can make the jump straight to the pro ranks in Europe, it's the best way, saying, "Riders like Julian Dean used the US as a stepping stone to Europe, which I think is a good way to go about it; but if you can go straight to Europe and learn the trade there, as opposed to going to America first and then going to Europe, it's a better way." Feeder teams such as the one established by Francaise des Jeux rider Brad McGee are the way to go, according to Roulston. "I think what the Australians are doing - especially Macca [Brad McGee] setting up the feeder team - is the way to do it for guys from the smaller countries. Trying to make it by yourself is bloody hard; I was really lucky I came across a nice French family that helped me. You've still got to do the work on the bike, but even doing the work on the bike doesn't guarantee you a pro team...and nowadays a Pro Tour team. It's not easy," he said.
Roulston feels that although New Zealand has traditionally been lacking in the area of junior development, they have improved immensely in recent times. "The New Zealand federation are now onto it; they've got Flynny [Michael Flynn, BikeNZ's newly appointed High Performance Director] at the head and he's knowledgeable with good contacts, and Terry Gyde is just a guru of coaching. They've now got the right people in charge and the base in Limoux [CyclingNZ's European training centre] and that's going to serve as a good starting point for a lot of young riders," he says, adding, "I think it's pretty important if you go over there and you're 17 and you can spend a couple of weeks here [New Zealand] and a couple of weeks there [Europe]. They [CyclingNZ] have gone from doing nothing at all to heading in the right direction."
For Roulston, however, it's now a matter of getting stuck into the serious miles to prepare adequately for the heavy going of the spring classics. "I'm starting to build now, so I'm actually doing quite a few miles - building a good base. I'm doing a lot of cross-training and core stability exercise and working on other aspects of cycling as opposed to riding the bike. It'll be base right up until January, then it's time for training camp before the season starts in February." He's not under any illusions as to where his strengths are and what it takes to get the best out of himself, saying "For me, the more kilometres I do, the better I go, and that's just the way I work. I'm a bigger rider - I've got to take care of things in terms of weight; but the team are aware of that, and although I'm not Lance up the hills I'm strong enough on the flat."
So after a fairly forgettable 2005, Roulston is set for a 2006 that showcases everything he's capable of, and if race wins are allocated to those with the most enthusiasm, he'd take his fair share of victories. He knows he's been given a stellar opportunity to perform by Discovery Channel, and is very keen to repay the favour. More than any other time in his career it's crunch time for Hayden Roulston, and with his hopes resting on the cobbles of Flanders the big Kiwi stayer may get up for a win or two, unlike his uncle's racehorse.