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An interview with Graeme Brown
Evening the odds
The start to the 2003 road season can be marked as a year where established sprinters appear to have fallen by the wayside, with a newer breed of fastmen making their mark on the peloton. Graeme Brown is one of these modern generation of fastmen, enjoying his most successful season ever, but as Anthony Tan writes, he's still got a point to prove.
When one speaks with up-and-coming sprinters like 24 year old Australian Graeme Brown, talk is composed of phrases that you often hear at the horse races, centering around odds of a win.
"Let's see: Mario's 9-1, Robbie and Petacchi are 6-1, and I'm 16-1," analyses Brown as he picks up the form guide for first stage of the Giro in Lecce. "I'm an outsider, but I'm happy with that. Actually, I'd rather not be on the sheet."
Not that he considers himself an outsider in the slightest, but I sense that it's more that he really wants to shock a few in the 86th Giro d'Italia, his second Tour of Italy. In fact, Brownie later tells me he'd be surprised if he or McEwen doesn't take line honours, saying, "It's got Australian cycling written all over it."
Analysing his chances and his rivals is something Brown's been doing a lot more of lately. He may not have the reputation for being the most cerebral of riders (he says that one of the luxuries of being on the team is being able to room with his Australian teammate Brett Lancaster and talk crap all the time) but it is something Brown has begun to learn and come to terms with.
"Experience counts for a lot," says the wisened third year pro. "Thinking about and knowing what you have to do and what others are going to do before they do it. Mario obviously knows what he has to do and I think Robbie analyses each person, and that's just part of the job [as a sprinter]."
However, it's not like Brown had a disastrous Giro last year, placing second, sixth and fourth on stages one, three and four, before finishing outside the time limit on stage six to Varazze. And done with virtually no training - receiving a last minute call-up from his dirrectore sportive Bruno Reverberi a week before the race started.
So what else has changed in this outspoken New South Welshman?
"Well, this year I trained," he says dryly.
Quite at ease with "taking the piss out himself" - as Aussies do - Brown tells me that his results last year were a total surprise. "Last year I was fat and had no form. I really don't know how I finished second [on stage one]," he says half-jokingly, still in disbelief.
But then a certain seriousness enters in his voice, indicative of a person and rider who has grown in maturity and confidence:
"I'm about six or seven kilos lighter compared to what I was then, and have trained hard to prepare myself for this race," Brown says.
"When I look back on it [last year's Giro] and think about the training I have done, I don't see why I can't win a stage. I've done long rides, hard rides, fast rides and plenty of motorpacing. Just today I went at 110 k's an hour behind a car!" he boasts, a comment reminiscent of the older, but now much wiser, Brownie.
For Graeme Brown and Panaria-Fiordo, a stage win sits high at the top of the list. He and his team have geared themselves up for a sprinting blitz that will be difficult not to notice in the forthcoming weeks. Taking the sprinter's jersey and finishing the tour three weeks from now is secondary.
"But finishing is important," adds Brown. "It's not important [for the team] for me to finish, but it's important for me. I want to do the three weeks, I want to experience the three weeks with all the hills and make it to Milan."
Brown's sprint radar has already honed in on stage nine, a 160 kilometre stage from Arezzo to Montecatini. While the stage to is certainly favourable to his abilities, it's also special because the race finishes near his home town, passing right by his doorstep the next day.
Asked if managing the interests of sprinter and climber will prove difficult with riders like Paolo Lanfranchi and Julio Perez Cuapio targeting the overall, Brown doesn't believe so. "We all bond well together; we're all one big team, but I guess in a sense, we run like two teams."
Brown also reminds me that a rider like Lanfranchi is equally at home setting him up for a sprint as he is pacing Perez Cuapio up the Dolomites. So much is his respect for this veteran of 14 grand tours that Brown has dubbed the rider "Lanfreaky". "He's unbelievable, just an awesome bike rider," says Brown admiringly.
Can he go all the way and join Mario, McEwen and Petacchi et al in sprinting's big league?
It's certainly possible. After stage wins at the Tour Down Under and Tour de Langkawi, Brown has shown he can mix it with the best - but on the occasions he won, they weren't quite the best, something Brown acknowledges. And he's never quite managed to get past Super Mario - yet.
"Mario Cipollini is the only sprinter I haven't beaten," he says with a tone of resent. "I've beaten Robbie on occasion, I've beaten Petacchi on occasion, but I've never beaten Mario."
As Brownie continues to talk of the Italian über-sprinter largely unprompted, it's clear that this "Mario guy" clearly bothers him:
"He's actually on my list of goals," he says, sounding a little like a Hollywood hitman. "To beat Mario would be a good feeling for me. He's regarded as the best sprinter in the world as well as being world champion, so to beat him is one of the things I want to do."
Not that it was needed, but Thursday's edition of La Gazetta dello Sport added a little fuel to the fire, Cipollini boldly stating that "no-one will beat me at the Giro". Says Brown with just a hint of digust, "Fair enough, but I don't think he should say that - he's obviously quite confident."
After three years inside the European cycling machine, Brown's beginning to make a name for himself. Sure, it wasn't for the right reasons at first - we can put that down to naivety - but in 2003, he's finally starting to come good and is much more capable of sticking up for himself in those final 200 metres. Robbie McEwen can vouch for that.
"I'm not regarded as one of the best sprinters in the world, so I haven't really proved myself," Brown says. "But I want to prove that I'm able to mix it with Mario and Robbie and Petacchi all the time, rather than just every now and then. I'd like to think I can get those odds down a bit."
Funnily enough, I believe him.