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An interview with Nathan O'Neill, December 27, 2005
Finding a home with Health Net-Maxxis
Aussie Nathan O'Neill enters the 2006 season with a new team, his fifth in just five years. However, his new contract with Health Net-Maxxis is a two-year deal, a rare feeling of job security in the often less-than-secure field of professional cycling. Cyclingnews'nabbed a quick chat with the six-time Australian time trial champion at the Health Net-Maxxis/Cannondale presentation in Santa Monica earlier this month.
Nathan O'Neill has ridden for more than a few teams during his career - from his national team in Australia, to a European squad in the form of Panaria, to his most recent tenures as a GC and time trial rider for three top North American teams, Saturn, Colavita and Navigators. Finding a consistent team has been difficult for O'Neill, as has finding a consistent season, with many injuries getting in the way. Yet, despite this, one constant for him has been six Australian national time trial victories - beginning in 1996 and most recently in 2004 and 2005.
After spending three years riding in 'the show' for a European team, O'Neill decided to cross the pond to try racing in North America for the powerhouse Saturn. After many time trial victories in 2003, Saturn closed up shop and O'Neill moved to Colavita. Again, he won many time trial and prologue races, but decided to switch to Navigators Insurance in 2005. Here, he continued his time trial prowess, which earned him eighth overall in the Tour de Georgia and first overall in the Tour de Beauce. With an impressive list of palmares, teams began knocking on O'Neill's door in Braselton, Georgia.
"I was pretty happy with Navigators - we had a good year and things were going well," O'Neill explained. "But what kind of stood it up was this new team with Frankie Andreu. They started knocking on the door pretty heavily around June, and made me a pretty good offer - it got me thinking about it a little bit. I couldn't do it on my own so I enlisted an agent, Michael Rutherford, who takes care of Chris Horner and Floyd Landis. He's done a great job. In the midst of that negotiation, Health Net made a killer offer for two years, and that is all there is to it. I wanted the security, you know? It's everything you can want - a strong team, great people to work with, great team-mates."
The concept of racing for a team for two years, meaning not having to shop around for next season's ride during the middle of the current season, is a luxury for O'Neill - a luxury that he plans to utilize to the maximum. "It's another two years of my career that is giving me another opportunity to expand my role, possibly as a team leader and certainly as a GC contender. I think I have some experience to share with the younger guys."
That experience as a veteran racer will become an odd juxtaposition on the Health Net-Maxxis team, as O'Neill will experience a regression of sorts in terms of age compared to some of his new, slightly older team-mates. "Obviously, on Navigators I was one of the oldest guys on the team, but now I am NOT one of the oldest guys any more!" he laughs.
"But I think there is still a good opportunity to mentor the younger guys on the team. There is a new Swiss-Italian rider that doesn't speak any English. I spoke with him on the phone the other day and I'm expecting to have a lot to do with him, helping him get integrated to American racing. There are just a lot of positive aspects to being on this team."
Certainly, one of those positive aspects is the stable of top riders on the team - though there is one new teammate O'Neill is particularly looking forward to racing with next season. "All the guys are good, but the main guy I am probably most happy to have [as a team-mate] is Scott [Moninger]. I'm thrilled more than anything to ride with Scott because when I first got on the scene, even as an amateur, Scott Moninger was a big name - still is a big name! And it's a real novelty to be on the same team as him. Scott and I tried to make it happen a couple of years ago and get me on the team, but it just never happened."
As for the pressure of coming on to a team with the success that Health Net-Maxxis has enjoyed, O'Neill looks back to 2003. "I have good memories from Saturn in 2003. I think I see some parallels to that program a little bit, and are even better in some areas. I'll be disappointed with anything less than a whitewash of the season! I think we have talent. If we all do our jobs correctly and play our cards right, everything will come together. There are enough days of racing in the year that if you're doing everything right all of the time you'll get wins. You can't be that unlucky!
Being on a team that wins means that the expectations are quite high, but that has not resulted in O'Neill aiming lower in terms of his specific season goals - most of which sprout from his main goal of defending his national time trial jersey. "I think obviously the early part of the season is my main goal - coming off of nationals I'll have pretty good form headed into Tour of California. And then the stage races in California after that. Georgia will be the tail-end of my first part of the season. We've talked about Georgia a little bit and most of my strong GC placing has been there, but a stage win there will be more important that a top ten overall. There rest of the season, at this point in time, we are going to take it as it goes."
Though O'Neill is without a doubt a capable time trial racer, he says racing on the world stage is not a focus for him at the moment, even though he had a top-twenty ride in Sydney and a top-ten finish at the world championships in 2001. "All that Olympics, national team stuff... someone asked me earlier if I was going to compete in the Commonwealth Games and I said no because of all the team commitments.
"Health Net has invested quite a bit of time and money and work into me, so I want to give them every opportunity to give them a return on their investment. So I reneged on that. And the Olympics is something that comes up every four years. It's a good thing to do - and of course I'll be interested in it. But there are plenty of races in this country that I want to win still. It seems like I have a lot of years to do it, but the reality is time is ticking. It'll be gone before you realize it."
But for now, his focus is that Aussie time trial championship, just around the corner. And this year, like the past three, he'll be on a new sponsor's time trial bike - something he must be getting used to by now. However, O'Neill says he has had to resist the temptation to try his new Cannondale time trial machine so as not to alter his training regiment.
"I've had the bike about a month, and the TT bike I just got the other day. I've being doing base miles on the regular bike - if I get on the TT bike now, the temptation is there to start drilling it. But I spent about an hour on the trainer the other day, on it. It's pretty dialled in already. I'll pull it out of the box as soon as I get back to Australia and start training on it."
And training he is now doing, for as soon as the Queenslander finished his team PR duties stateside, he was on a plane back home to Oz for training, visa applications, fights with Homeland Security over said visa application, and, oh yeah, adding another green and gold TT jersey to his wardrobe.