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An interview with Ryan Cox, April 11, 2006
Where I want to be
A change of management was thought to bode well for Barloworld's chances to finally participate in one of the three Grand Tours in 2006. But that didn't happen, and as the door closes in on wildcard invitations at the rest of the ProTour races, Ryan Cox tells Anthony Tan he knows exactly what he needs to do to be exactly where he needs to be.
"The last two years, I've had two good years early on but maybe raced well too early in the season. I just said [to myself] I can't afford to have a good early season and do nothing the rest of the year, and that is what's pretty much happened."
These two sentences basically sum up how Ryan Cox was feeling at the end of the 2005 season. Second overall in 2004 then victory in last year's Tour de Langkawi made a name for himself, but after a number of years training to reach peak performance at the start of the year, he says it's time to move on.
"I've restructured the whole year [based] on what I want to do and I have plans in my mind on what I want to achieve," says Cox, as ominous-looking skies gather intensity in downtown Kuala Lumpur, threatening to disrupt the final stage of this year's Tour de Langkawi. "I won this race the year before and won the king of the mountains, so it's like a little tick [in the box]; it's ticked and now I've got to move on to something else. I'm not getting any younger and I've got to do something at the bigger races."
Nonetheless, for someone on a Pro Continental team, victory in this 2.HC event - the highest classified race outside the ProTour - is not only prestigious but also very lucrative. I'm interested to know if the management reshuffle that saw Barloworld's South African team manager John Robertson replaced with an Italian, Claudio Corti, had any bearing on his change of plans.
"A new structure and new guys coming in, they have different ideas... let's just hope it's a good idea," Cox says somewhat cynically.
"We still have a lot of South Africans, and at least the team's going forward; at least the team's still around and they want to go bigger places, so let's hope that they go places they haven't been before with the old structure - that's the most important thing.
"I think he's [Corti's] good for the team and the team wants to go forward, so we will see, time well tell. I'm sure it will be good... the planning's good, the structure's good, and already the planning of the team has been a lot better this year; already, we are seeing things, just little things, that have been a lot better than it had been before, so that also helps."
However, change, be it for better or worse, often brings a certain element of disruption. Cox was safe in that he had a contract with Barloworld until 2006, but some of his countrymen weren't so lucky - David George and Darren Lill included. "You know, it was a bit disappointing for me to see some of my team-mates getting dropped out of the team, some guys that had been with the team a long time. You look where we are, and shouldn't we look after some of the riders that have achieved things for the team?" he asks.
Well... it's hard to say. I don't know, with the ProTour, if you're not in there, it's quite hard to say, 'Okay we're going to do the Giro', but they've [the organisers] have opened the doors for us this year, saying we might get a chance to do it. And when that time comes, that's when I'll tell you, 'Yeah, he will do something for us.' (smiles) But that's the main thing, the want to do a Grand Tour, and if he can do it for us, then good for him and I'll take my hat off to him.
I think he's good for the team and the team wants to go forward, so we will see, time well tell. I'm sure it will be good - the planning's good, the structure's good, and already the planning of the team has been a lot better this year; already, we are seeing things, just little things, that have been a lot better than it had been before, so that also helps.
This initial uncertainty surrounding Barloworld's future coupled with some lofty ambitions did see Cox's manager start knocking on a few ProTour team doors towards the end of last year. Cox says he came close, but as he said earlier, the top squads are after talent, results and consistency.
"I did have a two-year contract, so some of the teams were a little bit undecided and unknown as to what was going down with me. The thing is, winning this race last year did open a lot of doors, but the guys [on ProTour teams] want to see me do something else and I know I can do something else in a bigger race."
Consequently, when we first spoke this year, soon after the opening stage of this year's Langkawi race, where he and team-mate David George made what turned out to be the first of two crucial moves that decided the race, it was a confident though noticeably more relaxed Cox. "Y'know, it's the first race of the season and I've just been training the whole time, so you don't know how you actually are," he said casually. "But I was there and it's a little better than being at the back, so we'll go from there."
As the days progressed, it became evident that it was indeed his team-mate who was in better form - but it didn't mean the rest of the team got an easy ride. When the South Africans launched a surprise offensive on the third stage to the Cameron Highlands, George, the most experienced at 30 years old and in the form of his life, found himself in the position of race leader by the day's end... meaning his team had to defend the jersey for an entire week if they were to win the race.
Asked if he believed the going was more difficult this time round, Cox admits it made it harder for one team, but welcomed the change.
"Last year, we had the sprinters' teams working and then the climbers' teams; this year, virtually all the pressure was put on us because we got the jersey so early. But that's not a bad thing - we've had the jersey for six stages or something, so that's been good for us - defending it makes you stronger and gets respect.
"There's not only one team like last year winning all the stages; this year, there's been a lot of attacks and we've let a lot of riders go off which make it easier for us. So the structure's good, not always coming down to Genting; this year, it was Cameron Highlands that made the decider."
In the two months since the race ended in Malaysia and true to his word, the 26 year-old's form has slowly improved. At the Giro del Capo in early March he finished third overall, less than fifteen seconds behind George and eventual winner Peter Velits. Melbourne's Commonwealth Games saw another solid performance, where he and team-mate George drove the winning break, before being outsmarted by Australian Mathew Hayman.
Regardless of what has happened to his team-mates, Robertson or whoever else that got shuffled or shafted (depending on who you speak with and how one wants to look at things), if Corti had managed to get this new-look Barloworld into a Grand Tour, it will all have been worth it. "And when that time comes," says Cox, "that's when I'll tell you: 'Yeah, he will do something for us.'
"That's the main thing, we want to do a Grand Tour, and if he can do it for us, then good for him and I'll take my hat off to him. The earlier I can start doing big tours like that, the better; I feel once you do a three-week tour, you come of it a bit better rider, a bit stronger. You know a lot more, your body copes being tortured a bit harder... hopefully my form can be as good as it was when I was here last year, but we'll just wait and see."
Not all is lost; Barloworld did receive a start in Milan-San Remo, where Igor Astarloa was one of the main protagonists in the finale, eventually finishing 11th. But as for the rest of the ProTour events, the door is slowly closing, and Cox is only too aware of the fact: "Yeah, it's a big year for a lot of us; not only me, but cycling at the moment, there are a lot of teams knocking at the door and if you're not in the ProTour, it's really hard to get in," he says.
"A lot of guys want to be in there, be in the ProTour and do those big races. That's exactly where I am at the moment, so it's a big year for me in Europe and I just hope I can do something there and get into the bigger teams."