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An interview with Gordon Fraser, September 8, 2006
Turning a new (maple) leaf
Health Net-Maxxis is just one of the teams that Gord Fraser has raced for during his long career - a career that has been spent racing in both North America and Europe. After twelve years of racing as a professional, Fraser realises that the time is right to move on to the next chapter. He spoke with Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski while he was racing the last NRC race of his career.
Gord Fraser is ending his career as a pro in North America, finishing it in the sunny waters of the Bermuda Grand Prix. But his last NRC race was the criterium nationals in Downers Grove, a race that has a larger emotional meaning to him. "That race marks the passing of my father five years ago," said Fraser. "My mother was there [this year,] so there were a lot of things going on for me. Bermuda is going to be a fun race, but Downers Grove is definitely all business. There were a lot of emotions going on for sure."
Fraser decided during the off-season that this year would be his last. "The winter was tough for me," he said. "It made my decision a lot easier. The training I usually do seemed to be a lot harder for me, both mentally and physically. It reinforced the thinking that this could be my final year. I wanted to get everything out of it I could. Nine years have really flown by, but it is time to move on to other things. I can feel that it
would be really hard for me to maintain the level I expect out of myself. I don't know if I am willing to put in that type of work to keep at an acceptable level. That is a sign to switch to something new."
Getting everything out of it did not necessarily mean sprinting to victory in every race, something that is much harder to do with the fast talent that is both on his team and on other teams. But this was one of the aspects Fraser wanted to focus on this year. "With a new bunch of guys on the team, from a high turnover in the off-season, getting to work with them has been rewarding. Watching Greg Henderson assume more responsibility. He's a huge talent and is going to be a good one. And young guys like Kyle Gritters and Roman Kilun have done great this year."
Fraser's intention to stay focused during his last season was evident at the USPRO criterium nationals, which has always been a big race for a fast sprinter like Fraser. "Number one I still had a job to do - it's a race that my teams, Health Net and Mercury, have done well at in the past. But the competition is just stiffer and stiffer every year. Personally, there isn't anything really left to prove. I have fulfilled everything that I set out to do in my career. Especially when I came back from Europe - I was hoping to get five good years and I have."
The stiff competition is something that Fraser might not enjoy when knocking shoulders in a field sprint, but does recognise is a good indication of the health of the sport on this continent. "There has been much more competition with Toyota being so good and Navigators stepping up. Even the smaller teams like Priority Health and Jelly Belly get their kicks in. I think it's been the best season since I have been back from Europe - the most highly competitive season that we have seen."
Done it all
Fraser can say that he has done everything he set out to do in his career - from racing at the highest level in Europe, to winning major races, such as a stage of the Midi-Libre, and building teams from the ground up. "My career went in a couple of phases. I was a struggling amateur for many years, knocking on the door of teams in the States and not getting any attention. I headed to Europe on an amateur team, won a bunch of races and turned pro with Motorola. That was a great experience for me, to ride with George, Bobby, Lance, Kevin Livingston and all those guys. If the sponsor had stayed around a little while longer they would have gotten more out of their investment!"
"Then the year on the French team, Mutuelle - to go from Motorola where I was a low rider on a big team, not getting to do a lot of races and prove myself to a small team I was thrust into everything like the Tour de France! From sparingly used to over used was a big transition."
At this point Fraser decided he had had enough of the grinding as a Euro pro and took a job back in the U.S. on the Mercury team - a team that always seemed to involve drama concerning non-payment of rider salaries but still managed to be a dominant team thanks to the personnel.
"Coming back and taking a chance to ride with Mercury… the career path I took seemed to work out for the best no matter what happened. With Mercury there was always turmoil there! But the guys on that team were incredible. Mike Sayers being number one. We have been together for nine years and have been through so much together, it's been an incredible ride. But all of the guys who have helped me in the sprinting department, it's been an amazing ride. It has to do with the guys I race with."
Building the programme
After Mercury, Fraser moved to a new outfit, getting in on the ground level and helping to build the foundation for what would become a force on the North American circuit. "It's more than I imagined, being fortunate to find this Health Net team and finish my career here is very rewarding for myself, and maybe for Mike Sayers too. We were in at the ground level and had our say in the direction, with the forming of the team - and it's been rewarding to watch the progression over the years. Watching older guys like Moninger and Sayers do the work they always do has been fun. There is always a high standard with us three, and I think we continued that tradition this year."
In 2005, the Health Net team took the rest of the domestic teams to the woodshed, dominating the season with wins at major races such as the Tour de Georgia. And of course, that race is one of the highlights for Fraser along with the new Tour of California. And while 2006 has seen an increase in parity between the top teams, Health Net has still notched its share of big wins.
"For me personally, racing the Tour of California was fantastic. It lived up to all the hype. The Tour de Georgia continues to be a great event. It's also good to see Philadelphia survive and continue its long run. Winning that with Greg Henderson was the highlight of the year for us. To win Philadelphia, for a domestic team, that is the biggest race of the year."
Fraser has operated the spotlight more this year instead of standing in it. But the week of racing in Arkansas at the Joe Martin and Tri-Peaks races saw a glimpse of the winning Fraser form. "Arkansas turned out to be a great week, winning all the stages and the overall of Joe Martin - it was a throwback to my old form, so it was neat to relive that type of feeling where you feel like you are on top of your game and everything goes well and guys rally. We just had a great time there. It seems like that Arkansas trip every year is a lot of fun... who knew!"
As with many pros, the first question is always, 'are you staying in the sport?'
"I don't know yet! Things pop out of the blue all the time. I started focusing more on it the morning after Downers Grove! I've been procrastinating long enough about the 'ole job search! I'm definitely going to Vegas, if for no other reason than to say thank you to all of my friends and supporters out of the years. I'm not ruling anything out. Every part of cycling has an attraction for me, coaching, directing..."
Oh, so will we see Gord Fraser the soigneur for Health Net next year? "Everything but a soigneur!" Fraser laughed. "There is no way I could do their job. They are special people. I have to hand it to them, they put up with a lot of BS from... mostly me!"
"If there is a way of staying in the sport I will obviously favour that way of going. I love watching bike races. I will be a fan for sure, and a fan of this Health Net team, and all the guys. Everyone has ex-teammates and friends on all of the teams it seems. Rivalries are pretty friendly and it will be nice to watch it from a step back. I might even get more out of it as a spectator. Maybe do some announcing. Dave Toule and Richard Fries have asked me to step up to the mic. But who knows what the future holds."
Fraser has already laid the groundwork for a way to stay involved with his sport, his cycling camps. And this venture has been a good preparation for life after cycling. "It wasn't so much a financial success but just the experience I had with the people who came and the logistics of setting it all up - just stepping out of the box for me. Not just waking up and figuring out what ride I had to do that day. I have to do some work on this, make some calls, and just be a more organised person. It was a little sampling of what real life is all about."
"We had wonderful people at the camp which made it easy for me. I think I can speak for Scott [Moninger] and his wife Kelly who helped, we had a great time. Hopefully we will get a good turnout again this year and follow the same formula as last year."
This year, Fraser is adding a second camp in the spring. "We had a lot of requests for a spring camp so we will put one in March, for people who have more specific goals coming up. And maybe one in Europe in the summer during to Tour. But these camps are for of a training for real life for me! They won't be my be-all for supporting myself but I definitely want to keep doing them because they are so much fun."
Beyond the bike
Of course, Gord will be taking advantage of the life without cycling. "I think for me the main thing is all of the sports that I dropped. I used to play basketball. I'll be not so afraid of getting injured, so I'll pick up the sports that I did growing up. Rediscovering my youth in a way. Maybe travel without having to wangle your bike on for free will be nice! Maybe go someplace cold instead of looking for someplace where I can ride. I might head home to Canada for a while."
Heading 'home to Canada' is due to the fact that Fraser and his wife have settled in the very non-Canadian city of Tucson, Arizona. "I've been there long enough now [to] develop roots and we like it there. If there is a way of staying there we will - but it's not exactly the job-centre of the world... there might be reality coming in where we have to relocate."
Even though he will not be a pro anymore, he will always be a cyclist - just not racing anymore. "I'm not going to be racing a full-time masters programme! If I do race, hopefully I'll have enough of a fitness level to jump in a pro-am and race with the guys I know. But it would be interesting to do a masters race - I hear they are pretty serious. They might even be more serious that us! But I just got a new fork for my tandem, so I'm itching to ride that with my wife."
"I think the highlight of being a professional rider is the success of winning races. The sense of accomplishment you get and the rush that comes with it is definitely a high. Hopefully I can find something that will substitute that in the real world."