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An interview with Manolo Saiz, April 29, 2006
Liberty Seguros-Würth's Manolo Saiz is one of the most experienced campaigners in the professional peloton. Establishing and running one of the sport's longest-running professional teams has thrown up its fair share of challenges, all of which Saiz has had to deal with, as he tells Cyclingnews' Hedwig Kroner.
In 1989 Saiz began what became one of the sport's longest-running professional teams, ONCE, and it wasn't long before the Spanish outfit was a major force, producing several champion riders and a Vuelta a Espana overall title. In 2003, ONCE, the Spanish lottery of the blind pulled out as major sponsor, but Saiz was able to find a new backer, insurance company Liberty Seguros. The patron of the family he had created continued his ambitious project in the same way as he had before, achieving another two Vuelta overall wins with Roberto Heras - and a third one which the former US Postal rider was stripped after a positive test for EPO.
Consequently, Saiz has had to deal with the ramifications of Heras' positive test, and it hasn't been easy. Defending one of his star riders is a big burden for the 47-year-old Spaniard, and he's had to put the events of late 2005 behind him and look to the future, which includes fostering talented riders such as Andriy Kashechkin, Luis Leon Sanchez and Alberto Contador, plus the arrival of a certain rider by the name of Vinokourov.
Cyclingnews: You've always been one of the best managers for fostering young talent - do you have a lot of confidence in your younger riders this season, such as [Andriy] Kashechkin and [Alberto] Contador?
Manolo Saiz: Yes, I think riders like these are the future. If we can race well, the victories will come, even if the rider is only 22 years old now. Many focus on Contador, but for example Luis Leon Sanchez has also impressed me; on the day up to Saint Etienne he first waited for Kashechkin, then he came back on the front group, and he's only 22 years old. That's the most important thing for me - with this many young riders on the team, generally speaking, we have a great future ahead of us.
CN: Will you include these young riders in the Tour de France roster as well?
MS: Yes, they are in the greater selection to help Vinokourov at the Tour. Some of our younger riders did it last year, too.
CN: How is [Alexandre] Vinokourov feeling? How will he be shaping up for the Tour?
MS: He's doing great. He rode in the Vuelta a Castilla Leon and did some altitude training on Tenerife. He's a hundred percent motivated for the Tour, and the pressure will really be starting in the month of June.
CN: Has he been integrated well into the team?
MS: Yes. Andriy Kashechkin is more talkative than Vino, but they're both doing fine and getting to know their new teammates. It's important that they get on well, as we spend so much time away from home - the team becomes a family. And that's good for our work and good for results. So I hope the Kazakhstanis will learn to get to know their new family now! [laughs]
CN: Well, you manage the team like it was your family...
MS: Yes, it seems I do - apparently I do!
CN: But one of your 'family' members, Roberto Heras, had to leave the team last autumn.
MS: Yes, it's sad but it's a reality. Heras will go back to university; I am still in contact with him of course, but now, the main thing is not that Heras is no longer a professional rider but how the team is focusing on its future.
CN: How did the team deal with his suspension?
MS: Well, we were all disappointed, of course. Especially at that first team gathering in December, where people asked me why I didn't call Heras up to see if he'd come ride with us. But I didn't as it was important for me that the riders refocus on their future instead of thinking of the past. I wanted them to go out training on their own to get their heads straight and think of new objectives.
CN: You said at the time that you were very close to quitting cycling altogether. Why did you decide to continue?
MS: That's correct. It was only the help of my surroundings and the support of my riders that made me continue, helped me move forward. I remained in cycling only for them.
CN: Cycling is a peculiar case in the sports world because team directors are never held responsible when there is a doping infringement - why is this so?
MS: Well, that's because we cannot control the riders one hundred percent. They go home and stay there for a month...it's very hard to hold other people responsible when this happens."
CN: What would be your way of dealing with the problem of doping in cycling if you had the power to regulate it?
MS: I think we talk a lot about doping, but it's really not only a problem in cycling; it's more a problem in our society. Our whole society thinks and acts competitively, so it's not only a problem for professional sport. To change it, we need to act with an eye on the future. We need to find young riders, talk to them, motivate them in the right direction; if a rider arrives with bad habits, it's impossible to change that.
It's like in life in general: what about alcoholism? What about synthetic drugs? Our society is going forward too fast in general, so we need to educate the young to make them move in the right direction. But we need to do this generally speaking anyway, not only in sports. In cycling, young riders need to be given the right habits, so that when they arrive in the professional world, they continue the same way.
CN: How have you worked on improving Vinokourov's climbing abilities in view of the Tour?
MS: Well, there are many aspects to it. You can never say 'I've changed this one thing, now it's better' - there are many details to observe. So we worked on those, and on the material, and saw to it that his motivation is right. But Vino is 33 years old; it's difficult to change many things now about his way of riding a bike. It's easier for me to influence younger riders like Kashechkin, for example.
CN: After your five Vuelta a Espana victories as a directeur sportif [Mauri in 1991, Jalabert in 1995, Zülle in 1996 and 1997 and Heras in 2004], what would a Tour de France overall win represent for you?
MS: The Tour is the greatest competition in the world, so it would make me feel extraordinary. But I've always said that victories are the consequence of hard work, and not a goal to aim at. So in this sense, it means that I haven't earned it yet, but I hope I'll get there one day.
CN: What would you have done if you weren't manager of a cycling team? Do you sometimes feel that it is a disadvantage not having been a professional rider before becoming a directeur sportif?
MS: My profession by university degree is sports training so that's what I do. As to not having been a pro myself, I actually think that it is more of an advantage; this way, I don't think about what I did myself, but what I want for my riders. It's true that it was a disadvantage for my integration into the sport, but on the long run I gained respect for other things.