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An interview with Brett Aitken
Back on track and dreaming of Olympic selection
After almost three years of obscurity, Sydney Olympics gold medallist Brett Aitken is finding it hard to hide his enthusiasm for Athens. Karen Forman spoke to the madison champion who wants another crack at the title.
Brett Aitken surprised a lot of people when, rather than heading off to Europe after the Sydney Olympics with his gold medal-winning madison partner Scott McGrory to try their luck on the international scene, he decided to stay home in Adelaide to lay down the foundations for a career after cycling and spend more time with his wife Natalie and young daughter Ashli Tyla.
While McGrory went on to achieve great success in the Six-Day scene overseas with a new partner, Aitken, who won the hearts of a nation when he dedicated his gold medal to his daughter born with Rhett's Syndrome, stayed home and concentrated on keeping his legs turning over on the domestic scene. He told Cyclingnews at a Victorian country track meeting a year later that he 'might' consider the 2002 Commonwealth Games and Athens, but didn't appear to be specifically targeting any major international events.
That is, until this year's results on the road and some comments about the events he has marked for coming months spurned questions about his intentions.
The truth is, three years after his conscious decision to slow things down and set himself up for life after cycling, his new business Brett Aitken Personal Training is operating smoothly from its internet base, daughter Ashli is "going well and a joy to be with", he's recently won a round of the Tattersall's Cup series in Victoria and now leads the national road series, is preparing to do well in two previously 'unfinished' events - and the Athens Olympic Games are now looming as a real possibility.
Speaking from his Adelaide home this week, the affable rider says that although he didn't think he would win the Tatts series now because he had been sick for a week with 'flu and would miss the third round in Colac on Wednesday, he was really keen to do well on the road this year and show selectors he should be a member of Australia's track team in Athens.
Athens on the agenda?
"Yes, if selectors agree, then Athens is on the agenda," he says. "It's up to them, but I would love to be in there."
However, he's under no illusions, discounting any chance of being part of the existing team pursuit squad that has been cited as a gold medal certainty in Athens. Rather, Aitken believes he should be slotted in as a specialist rider, to fill a gap he believes has been left open with his own withdrawal from the madison after the Olympics in Sydney …and has, to his own surprise, never really been filled.
Bright and chatty despite his illness, Aitken shows himself to be a realist, a practical thinker and well aware of the hurdles he faces. And while he has been doing well on the road this season, it is on the track that his talents lie and where his heart belongs.
"I would love to be in Athens," he says. "The fact that I haven't competed at that level for three years - there's two ways you can look at it. I've more or less opened the door for other riders to step into my shoes while I focused on work and family commitments and get my life back on track."
"But they haven't performed, so at the same time it does give me bit of an advantage going into Athens next year… not being not known amongst other riders, like how I ride and my tactics… that could work well for me."
He says his time away from international competition had panned out perfectly according to plan: "This is exactly how I've treated it over the past three years, thinking it would be a good tactical move to be out of the loop for a while and that might play into my hands for Athens," he says.
"Hopefully the selectors will make the right choice… choosing experience over youth. There are some really strong riders in the team pursuit and I don't expect to be selected on that basis. The coaches have done an extremely good job in the past few years and I fully expect that the [track] team will be based around the team pursuit, which means there will be limited rides for specialist spots - i.e. the madison.
"Because the pursuit takes four riders just to ride the event, then they need a couple of spares to ride in other rounds as reserves. Basically you are talking about six to seven riders just for the pursuits… and then you are left with only one or two specialist riders."
He doesn't hold much hope that he and McGrory might be given the opportunity to team up again.
"I can pretty much guarantee that Scott and I won't be riding together, but I am pretty confident I can get that specialist spot," he says.
Building the business
By his own admission, Aitken has had a couple of quiet years, which were 'purely work related'.
"I had to try to start the progression towards setting up a future for myself after cycling, but got I my self back on track recently and am really enjoying it and love cycling for what it is. The way I see it, if I can keep performing and getting results as the season goes on, which I think I will, that says to the selectors, 'Hey, he's still in the sport and not retired. And he should be chosen as a really good candidate for filling that gap that exists in the team where they are lacking in experience and depth for events other than the teams pursuit.'"
"Without a doubt, the team has just outshone everyone based on the teams pursuit, but we will be judged on how we go in overall events, not just one or two events and our success will be based on how many gold medals they win - so if I can keep performing on the road, it's a good way to make a statement that I am still around."
So how does he feel about riding the madison after spending so much time on the road?
"Well," he says with a laugh, "it's been a while since I've ridden a madison actually… I can't remember the last time I rode one! But it's like riding a bike - you never forget.
"I mean, Scott and I never raced a madison for three months before Sydney where all the other teams were all the time, and it never disadvantaged us in any way. It doesn't mean I haven't got it all in the head."
And what about his time off? Has it been beneficial?
"The training business is going well," he says. "I am getting more into online coaching now, it's definitely the avenue I want to head as it is what I have done for 25 years. I have got a lot of racing experience behind me and I don't just want it tied up with myself; I want to get it out there among other cyclists who want to learn. It gives me another focus as well."
Ambitions on the road
So what about concentrating on the road?
"Well, I have to be realistic. I think the road, well, it is totally not possible for me to even look at any type of road racing at the Olympics next year, but at same time that doesn't mean I don't have a lot of aspirations on the road. I really want to do some good things domestically…
"Like the Grafton [to Inverell] - I have done it before, in 1997 and 98. I got away in the first 10 to 15 kilometres and chased down a small break and was leading, then got caught at 150km and never finished. Ben Brooks won it that year.
"Similarly, I started the Sun Tour once, but only did the first crit, got the flu and pulled out. I was two minutes behind after that, and I was that sick, so I just went home that day and basically never finished it. But I've been saying to [promoter] John Craven for years that I'm going to do it and I am really committed to it this year and pretty hopeful about doing really well.
"Just because I don't see myself road racing in Athens doesn't mean I don't have aspirations on the road," says Aitken. "I'm probably not going to win the Tatts series now because I have been sick for a week and will miss this week's race, but hopefully I will be ok for the next round in Colac.
From Victoria, Aitken hopes to do well in the Vic Roads Herald Sun Tour and the challenging Grafton to Inverell, hoping that somewhere during the winter road season and the summer track season to follow, that diminutive anonymous band he dubs "the selectors" will notice him.
"I'm still not fully committed"
Aitken's not totally focused on Athens just yet. "Until the selectors pick me, I'm still not fully committed," he says. "I can guarantee though that once given selection, I will be 100 per cent committed to that role of trying to win another Olympic gold medal. In meantime, I am riding and enjoying racing in a different context.
"I don't think I need to say right now that I am totally dedicated towards Athens. As far as I am concerned, I am already on the road as far as riding local races and keeping my strength up as far as the domestic road season goes."
This is the first time, he says, that he has ever looked into being on the national team in a specialist role and he is quite excited at the thought.
"I have always been picked in the past based on riding the pursuit first and specialising in other events second," Aitken says. "This time I would be looking at riding purely as a specialist madison and points rider - they would be the two main events - and I think that again it would be a real big advantage as that would give me total focus on two similar events as opposed to doing two totally different ones."
If he regrets anything, it is that he reckons he still isn't training enough?
"I am amazed at what I am able to do on so little training - that's what gives me a lot of confidence - knowing that as soon as I buckle down and do some, I can do well. For example, at the start of the Tatts, I couldn't even get over the hill in the top 50, which was really bad for me - I should have been the top 10. But after a week of training, I was able to pull it off the next week."
As for being a good 10 years older than some of his prospective Olympics team-mates, Aitken says: "I know with just a little bit of training I have got a lot more ability… mentally I think it's all still there, I still really believe in my ability. I don't think I am in any way a lesser bike rider. At my age I am still at my peak - if anything, I have probably got the potential to be an even better bike rider than I was in Sydney, purely on the basis that I know what is needed on that level.
When the day comes...
"At the same time, I know I have had my mind on other things, which is probably why I was not winning or even competing in bike races. It is just a matter of when that day comes, when I know I am 100 per cent committed to the task at hand, I know I will be able to do it."
Aitken, who doesn't have a coach but trains himself, says he doesn't even know what the selection process will be "but it will probably take a good six months of full-time training to get to the right level, and in the meantime I will keep plodding away till that day comes."
Not having a coach has both advantages and disadvantages though. "What I am doing for work now means I have to practice what I preach," he says with a wry laugh. "I am putting my reputation on the line every time I go out on the bike. Sometimes it is hard because of work and time commitments, but I don't think there are many riders who put their reputation on the line with what they do for work as well… so I want to do well, because it's also good for business."
Aitken hasn't had much contact with his Victorian team-mate McGrory for a while, but will catch up with his gold medal-winning partner soon.
"I don't even know how he was affected by not getting selected this year… but we will talk later in the year," he says. "Also I am realistic; I looked at what happened at this year's world titles, what the coaches want… which is a guaranteed gold medal in the teams pursuit. They will see that and will basically form the whole team around that on the track endurance side of things. But I guess there are a few other events that gold medals can be won in, as well…"
Like the madison, perhaps?