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An interview with Greg Henderson, June 19, 2007
An eye opening experience
Kiwi sprinter Greg Henderson, a world champion on the track, paid his dues for years in the American racing scene, winning multiple races for the Health Net-Maxxis squad. An impressive set of wins in 2006, particularly at Philly week made some European teams take notice. One of them was the re-invented T-Mobile team, who signed Henderson to his first ProTour contract. Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski sat down with 'Hendo' as he returned back across the Atlantic for the second of his two trips here - this time to race as defending champion in Philadelphia.
Greg Henderson is one of the most personable riders in the peloton, any peloton. For the past few years he was the fastest part of the Health Net-Maxxis team that routinely rode at the top of the American peloton, with Henderson's wins including both the Reading Classic and Philadelphia International Championship during last year's Philly week. But this year, Henderson got the call-up to the 'big show' to race for the ProTour team T-Mobile, and it's been quite an eye-opener for the Kiwi. "It's just another level," he said bluntly. "I've heard people say it before but it really is another level higher."
No longer was Henderson the fastest guy in the bunch, no longer was he the one others were watching or was he able to jump on another team's leadout and freelance to the line. Field sprints now had numerous teams lining up lead-outs for the fastest guys in the world. And even the non-sprinters were fast.
"You pretty much can't compete in a sprint without [team] help," noted the New Zealand rider. "To freelance, the bunch is going 65 kph over there and to get good position it is a full-on sprint by itself. You can only do that two or three times. By the time you do that a few times, when it comes to the actual sprint, you have nothing left."
"The chances you have going up against guys like Pettachi who have six guys leading him out...it's just another level," he continued. "It's a big eye opener for me."
"The other thing I noticed is with ProTour versus hors catégorie and 1.1 races, there are massive level drop offs! Hors Categorie and 1.1 races, I feel like I can win those - I can animate the race and go in moves," he explained. "In ProTour races, there are so many guys in it that can win it. I'm not saying I can't win one, but you need everything to be going 100 percent, a little luck, perfect health, perfect conditioning...at least I do. Guys like [Liquigas' Danilo] Di Luca don't seem to have that problem at the moment!"
Henderson started out the season with good form and positive results, a programme the team management gave him, possibly to help give him confidence early in his ProTour career. "I trained really, really hard so I knew I was in really good condition," he said. "I was told to be going early in the season for Qatar and California. I was going really good in January, February, March - the results I got came then. Qatar was fast but short. You get guys at different levels there, so it was a pretty good introduction for me. It gave me a good idea of just how fast things would be going."
Since then, the racing has continued to get stronger and stronger, with Henderson switching to the role of domestique in many, many races. "The directors asked me which races I wanted to race and I said whichever you want to put me in," said Henderson. "And they have done it until now!"
"There hasn't been so much focus on me winning since then, more of a supporting role and helping as much as I can," he explained. "Also gaining experience. For me every single race is brand new. I come to America and I know where all the races get hard or where I can relax. Over there I don't even know where to turn left!"
Henderson's first ProTour race came right after the Tour of California with Paris-Nice, but was not as ideal of a situation as he had planned. "I should have been going alright for it but I got sick after Tour of California," he said. "I remember doing these climbs and asking the doctor to re-calibrate my SRM, thinking, 'This couldn't be right - I cannot be doing this many watts up these kind of hills!' They re-calibrated it and said it was right. I was like, 'Holy s**t!' No one was getting dropped and I'm pushing 420 watts up a 20 minute climb! I'd be waiting and waiting thinking surely they will call for a gruppeto soon. Nope!
"The other scary thing was in the Giro," he continued. "I was doing 400-420 watts average for the climbs and there are guys beside me talking! I don't understand it. Just having a nice conversation and I'm on the limit."
But like other racers who have an initial shock racing at the highest level, looking back, even after just a few days, it does not seem quite as drastic. "At the time it was like, Holy s**t! But you look back at it and it's amazing and a little funny." Henderson also has a fellow ProTour rookie from his US domestic racing days - Team CSC's Juan Jose Haedo. "We're pretty much in the same boat, suffering the same," said Henderson. "I look over at him and he looks like me. They go uphill like airplanes!"
Coming into Philly-week Henderson was realistic about his chances at a repeat performance. "Last year was different because I had specific preparation for this race, racing in Mt. Hood right before," he reflected. "I was 100 percent fresh and coming off an injury so it was big motivation. I'm in a totally different mindset right now. I've come over with a team full of rock stars. Anyone on the team can win these races which is just a fantastic situation - I've never been on a team like that. But if my chance happens, I can still win these races."
A different level, a different kind of team
Though racing at the elite level is much more difficult, there are some perks that come along with it - namely the infrastructure of support and level of enthusiasm for the sport in Europe. "I knew what I was getting into - I knew it was professional and a step above what I was doing," said Henderson. "So not a major surprise, eh? But the level of support, the amount of investment and the popularity of the sport there, that is always a surprise for me. Where I came from and where I have been racing, it is amazing."
Not only is Henderson racing at a different level, his new team is racing in a different paradigm. Even with the recent revelations surrounding the T-Mobile team of the past, the T-Mobile team of today has cleaned house, which is one of the reasons there was a spot on the team for riders like Henderson - good riders with a clean reputation. "I'm on an amazing team and happy to be racing my bike. Zero tolerance is awesome, and I think it's totally respected," he said. "I've had bike riders talk to me for that reason about coming to T-Mobile because we are known as the clean team. It's cool to be a part of that."
"Riders who are picked to be on the team are picked for their clean reputations," noted Henderson. "People talk and get to know who might be a dodgy bike rider. But all the guys on the team now are known for their talent and being a clean bike rider."
Not only are his teammates clean, but they all have a camaraderie that Henderson said is as important as anything. "Good bunch of guys, it makes such a difference," admits Henderson. "They are all good bastards. They've got respect for everyone and there are no bloody egos on the team, which makes us the team that we are."
Still, transitioning to Europe and to a foreign team did produce a little shock, particularly from meeting one of his teammates for the first time. "Bernhard Eisel's Aussie accent!" he said when asked what surprised him the most. "I did a double-take actually. I think he was hanging out with FDJ guys too long - Cookie, McGee! He can't say his Vs, so we've just been hanging it on him all week here [in Philadelphia] 'Hey Bernhard, what bikes do CSC ride?' 'Cer-W-elo'."
Teams like T-Mobile are leading a sea change of sorts regarding drug use in the peloton, though the changes are taking some time to filter through. "It's amazing, you race against guys in the Tour of Romandie and then just five days later they are just another level higher at the Giro."
Living abroad, abroad
The past few years Henderson has lived abroad in America, a place he found comfortable - living and training in Boulder, Colorado, with a large contingent of riders racing in the US and his significant other, fellow track world champion Katie Mactier. Sure, it was far from his home in New Zealand, but at least he knew the language. "No one speaks English where I live! And now it's not one 12 hour flight home, it's two 12 hour flights," stated Henderson. "I do get homesick, but I'm lucky to have Katie over there to screw my head on straight when I get down in the dumps. She puts things back into perspective."
But having tasted Grand Tour racing would he trade it for weekend crits back in the States? "Not so much, eh?" he responds. But Henderson does appreciate the welcome back comments from his friends in the US peloton. "It's funny, the guys that are nice guys in the bunch here come up and say G'day. In Lancaster guys like Danny Pate and Alex Candelario said hi and that was nice."
Watch this space
The future for Henderson will be a quiet one, at least for the next few weeks as he gets his first break since training camp. "I'm going to Boulder and getting some training in," said the dedicated racer. "Maybe have a beer or two...I've been known to chug one back!"
As for his racing schedule, he is ready to take whatever is thrown at him. "The directors keep saying to me, 'You are not an old-seasoned pro, and you want to race every race!' Other guys will be like, 'This is the seventh time I've raced this race - I can't wait for my holiday to start at the end of the season.' So that's an advantage I've got. I'm so new to all these races, and I'm learning so much every time I get out there on the bike and suffer! It's the learning curve and just getting some confidence.
"My next race will be the Tour of Denmark," he reported. "Supposedly they have some nice flat stages and a few hills - a good combination with a little something for everyone!"
"I will probably start the worlds," he said laughing. "It's a hilly parcours in Stuttgart, but I think T-Mobile will want me in there, so that is fine. And if I can do anything for Julian at any stage of the game...but it's too difficult of a course for someone like me."
"I do love racing over there," he added. "It's great but every day I come home smashed from racing, and I couldn't go any harder! I'll be half an hour behind and I will be like, oh no, I have to do it again tomorrow! But then I'd have a bad day the next day which turned out to be good, because I couldn't go hard and it would be like a recovery day."
"I'm lucky I love racing my bike, so room for improvement," said Henderson. "But watch this space!"