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An interview with Paul Griffin, November 3, 2005
Going full-time in the Far East
One of the UCI's aims is to make cycling a more global sport, and the new Continental Tours are one way to help this happen. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes spoke to Irish rider Paul Griffin, who has had a chance to experience the Asia Tour first-hand this year while competing as part of the Giant Asia team.
For most riders, the pro dream begins or ends in your late teens or early twenties. A rider's peak generally happens around 28 or 29; if you haven't made the break before then, the chances are pretty remote that you'll do so after that. Irish rider Paul Griffin is 32 years old yet, earlier this year, he got the chance to finally go full-time.
Racing in Asia is not the same as competing on the ultra-competitive European circuit but, as Griffin states, the standard is pretty respectable all the same. "I think there is a misconception out there that the standard over here isn't very high," he told Cyclingnews this month. "I think it is as high as the equivalent level in Europe, though... any of the 2.2 races we do in Asia are as hard as those over there."
Following a spell with the French ACBB club in 1997, Griffin competed for many years as part of the Irish national team, working full-time but still managing to put in some decent rides. These included a stage win in the FBD Milk Rás [now the 2.1 ranked FBD Insurance Rás] in Ireland, plus mountains classification wins in races such as the Tour de Hokkaido and the Tour of Hellas in Greece. Then, out of the blue came the chance to join fellow Irishman David McCann on the Giant Asia team for 2005; for the recently-married Griffin, it was a big move, a leap in the dark, but an adventure all the same.
Of course, 2005 was a year of big change in cycling. The ProTour came into being and the restructuring of the calendar saw distinct Continental Calendars being set up. One of the aims of the latter is to effect an improvement in the global standard of the sport, encouraging the growth of cycling outside Europe. And this is what appears to be happening; an expanding race programme in Asia has attracted riders from Australia and the Netherlands to the region, while the quality of the riders from there has also improved.
Griffin feels it is only a matter of time before Asians start to make a big impact in Europe, challenging for strong results in pro races there. He says the Japanese are leading the way, through the European racing programmes of the Shimano team and the Bridgestone Anchor squads and the fact that Fumiyuki Beppu has a contract with the Discovery Channel squad.
"There is no reason why they shouldn't make the breakthrough," he reasons. "They have got some of the best marathon runners in the world, some of the best middle distance runners in the world, so it is only a matter of time before they make the breakthrough with cycling. They are putting the money into it and they are doing everything right, so it will happen."
For his own part, Griffin has settled in well. He had already shown a good ability while working full-time and now that he had the chance to really apply himself, the results started to flow. He opened his season with a good sixth-place finish in the Tour of Siam, then followed that up with strong results in other 2.2 ranked events. He won stage five and placed eighth overall in the Azerbaïjan Tour, then took a stage and finished second overall in both the Tour of East Java and the Tour of Indonesia.
Griffin also put a lot of effort into supporting Giant Asia riders in other races, riding for team-mates such as Ghader Mizbani, Hossein Askari and David McCann. He helped the latter to overall victory in the Tour of Milad du Nour in Iran earlier this month, but also went painfully close to winning a stage himself there. However he was sent the wrong way with about 200 metres to go, losing out on certain victory. Since then he's spent time in Ireland training hard in preparation for his end-of-season goals. That work seems to have paid off; a couple of days after talking to Cyclingnews, he won the Giant Cup which was stage one of the Tour of Hualien. Griffin then placed sixth on the second day and took the overall. He is now gearing up for a good ride in the Tour of Taiwan, which began last Saturday.
Cyclingnews: Paul, you have been racing in Asia since the start of this year. What are the main differences between racing there and competing over in Europe?
Paul Griffin: I suppose one of the main differences is the heat. It is obviously very warm and humid over here so that is a big issue. Also the terrain is very different - you have a lot of big, high mountains, unlike a lot of the equivalent 2.2 stage races in Europe. They tend not to have such big mountain stages. But in Asia you are going up big climbs 50 kilometres long in 39 x 23; the terrain in more like something you would see in a Grand Tour. Okay, the standard is a bit lower in these races [than in the big Tours] but they are not afraid to use the terrain that they have.
CN: Is the level higher there than you were expecting?
PG: Well, I did an awful lot of racing in Asia before 2005 while racing with the Irish national team. I think there is a misconception out there in Europe that the standard over here isn't very high. I think it is as high as the equivalent level in Europe, though... any of the 2.2 races we do in Asia are as hard as those over there. Quite a big percentage of the Asians are good now, and obviously the Japanese are of a high standard. You get a lot of Australians too, guys like David McKenzie are doing a good bit of their racing over here. McKenzie is a former Tour of Italy stage winner, so he's pretty good. And then there are the Dutch... a lot of those guys on teams like Marco Polo get invited to races here.
CN: Koji Fukushima rode well in the Tour de Langkawi this year. Do you think in the future that there is going to be a breakthrough in European races from guys like that?
PG: Yes. Again, I think the Japanese are leading the way. They have two pro teams now, based in Europe. There is the Shimano team and the Bridgestone squad, and of course this Beppu guy who signed for Discovery this year. It is really only a matter of time.
There is no reason why not; they have got some of the best marathon runners in the world, some of the best middle distance runners in the world, so it is only a matter of time before they make the breakthrough with cycling. They are putting the money into it and they are doing everything right, so it will happen.
CN: Looking at your own racing, you recently won the first stage of the Tour of Indonesia and finished second overall. Is your ride there your best result to date, do you think?
PG: I suppose it would be up there anyway, along with the Tour of East Java in June. I was second overall in that as well and won the first stage also. I think I was possibly even going better in June, I had better form. But Indonesia would be up there, I got a load of world ranking points as well, which I guess the Irish federation will be happy with.
CN: How did you lose the lead during the race?
PG: I had the jersey since the first stage and held onto it the following day. The third stage was the long one, with nearly six hours' racing. We decided that day that the best way to defend yellow within the team was for my team-mate Hossein Askari to attack. He was second overall going into the stage. At that point there was only three of us left as two of my team-mates were out of the race. So we decided the best thing would be for him to go for it and to make the other teams chase. But he stayed clear and ended up taking the jersey that day.
CN: Had he not taken over at the top, do you think you would have held on until the end?
PG: Yes... I can tell you that if those two riders from our team - David [McCann] and the other Iranian - hadn't got sick, I would have ended up winning it overall. The only reason we employed the tactic of sending Hossein up the road is because we were down to three men. But if we had a full team, we would just have defended it as normal.
CN: After that race, you went to the Tour of Milad du Nour in Iran and rode well there too, nearly winning the third stage...
PG: Yes. That particular day, I think that David was fourth overall going into the stage. We happened to get into a break of about eight riders about halfway through the stage, and the two of us just drilled it. I had no thoughts of winning the stage, I just drove it and drove it and drove it as he was going into the jersey on the road. In the last kilometre, a guy who was sitting on the break attacked. I was on the front and I went to shut him down. David let my wheel go, and I went straight across to the guy, caught him, and jumped him. I thought, "wow, I am going to win this" - it was in the last kilometre. I dropped him and with 500 metres to go, I looked back... there was a big gap and I had the stage won.
But it didn't work out. I was following the lead motorbike and there was a left hand turn with about 200 metres to go. The motorbike didn't take it, the driver went straight on and I followed it. The lead motorbike was in the wrong, though... it should have gone all the way to the finish. He thought he was going the right way, but didn't. By the time that I turned around the three guys who were behind had gone through and fought it out for the stage win between them. I was fourth.
CN: I'd imagine you were pretty ticked off with that?
PG: I wasn't too bad, to be honest, because David was going into yellow and it hadn't even crossed my mind about winning the stage until the inside the last kilometre. It is just worked out that way. I suppose the adrenaline was flowing as well, because we had just drilled it and drilled it all day to try and get the jersey. We knew we took the lead that day there was a good chance that the team could defend it for whatever time was left, three days or something. So the fact that he took the jersey took the sting off it.
CN: So has the season worked out better than you were expecting?
PG: Yes, it has worked out better than I thought. Especially recently, in the second half of the year. In the first half of the year I was doing an awful lot of riding on the front, such as in the Tour of Korea, which David won, and the Tour of Kerman in Iran. One of the Iranians on the team won that. I was just riding on the front all day in those races and didn't get much opportunity to do anything else. But since the Tour of East Java I have come on a couple of percent, getting stronger, and in the last two or three months I have been winning a lot of races and finishing well up overall in some others.
CN: Do you see yourself staying with Giant Asia next season?
PG: I am hopeful that I will be able to race again with the team next year. I have been told verbally that they are keeping me on, but none of us have signed any contracts yet. Our next big race is the Tour of Taiwan which is the home race - the team is from there - and that is where everything is going to be done, really, for next year.
CN: Given that yourself and David McCann have had so much success this year, I presume you are among the stronger guys on the team?
PG: Yes, along with Ghader Mizbani. He is probably the strongest on the team, on his day.
CN: So what are your goals for the rest of the year?
PG: Well, whichever one of us on the team is strongest in the Tour of Taiwan will be protected. I've been working hard to get ready for that - I went back to Ireland after the Milad du Nour race, doing some specific training on the Connor Pass in Kerry. I did hills, hills, hills - regular intervals on the mountain at high cadence. There are two mountain-top finishes in Taiwan which are pretty incredible. They go up to 4,000 metres above sea level and are 40 or 50 kilometres long. On paper, that kind of climb suits me well if I can reach 100 percent form.
I was using a power meter during the training... that has been a great help this year. I get my average watts from the Connor Pass and divide that by my weight to see what figure I can come up with. That gives me a great indication about where I am relative to my best form.
CN: So how is your condition now, after all that specific training?
PG: Very good, to be honest. I took 30 seconds off my best time on the Connor Pass, so that is a pretty good indication. And my power is looking good, as well. So I will just keep fresh for the next few days and as long as I don't have to fall into a team role in the Tour of Taiwan, I should be okay.
CN: What is the team's goal there?
PG: The Tour of Taiwan is the big one as it is our home race. Last year, Ghader Mizbani was second overall and it was a huge disappointment. We have to win it, really. We have won nearly every stage race we were in this year, so it would be an awful anti-climax if we didn't win it, to be honest.
CN: Overall, 2005 seems to have been a pretty good experience for you. You got the contract quite late in your career, but it has worked out well...
PG: Yes, it has been good season. And it is great to be still improving at this stage of my life. This is the first year in a long, long time for me to ride the bike for the whole year. The last time I did it was 1997 when I went to ACBB. I have been working ever since, racing at home in Ireland and getting time off work here and there to go away on national teams. For the first five or six months of this year I was pretty much at the same level that I had been every other year, but I found that once June or July came along I started to get an awful lot stronger. That was possibly related to all the stage races I was doing, obviously, and the fact that every time I came back from abroad I wasn't heading straight back into work. I was getting stronger and stronger.
I have a lot of data and figures from the Connor Pass, and the weight to power reading is still going up. The level is still improving every two or three months. It is very motivating to get that feedback.
CN: Looking ahead - and presuming you get a renewal of your contract for next year, which I'd imagine looks likely - what goals would you like to achieve in 2006?
PG: Well, winning some of those 2.2 races overall is a target. And riding well in a couple of the bigger races that we do, Langkawi and Qinghai Lake. I would like to win stages in those kind of races next year, to be honest, which will require going up another five percent or so.
CN: Finally, you had said earlier this season that you were hoping to go for the FBD Insurance Rás title back in Ireland. But in the end, you missed the race due to commitments with Giant Asia. Are you hoping to chase that goal next year?
PG: Yes, I am hoping that nothing clashes with it. This year was a bit of a disaster in that we had a race in Iran that was on at the same time. I suppose I will just have to wait and see when the Asian calendar comes out... that should be available in the next month or two. If there is nothing on around that time, I would certainly be thinking 100 percent about the Rás for the first few months of the year.
I have won stages and had two podium places in races this year that were every bit as difficult as the Rás. The only thing I can say about the Rás that doesn't suit me is that there isn't enough mountains in it. In Asia we have climbs 12 to 15 kilometres long, where you would be using a 39 x 23 or something like that, which really does suit me. You are climbing for nearly an hour at a time. It would be great if the Rás had those climbs but unfortunately there isn't anything like that in Ireland. I'll be certainly trying to win it, though... that is for sure.