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91st Tour de France - July 3-25, 2004
An interview with Stuart O'Grady, July 2, 2004
Life goes on like a song
Stuart O'Grady certainly did not expect such an eventful 2004 when he decided to join Cofidis late last year, but as Anthony Tan finds, the French team's main man for the 91st Tour de France could well prove to be their shining light amidst a barrage of doping allegations that have surrounded the team almost since the start of the year.
The song 'Tubthumping' by European anarchist band Chumbawamba has never resounded so strongly for the freckled-faced sprinter from Adelaide, the famous lyric 'I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never going to keep me down' describing his hard-as-nails mentality to a T.
From his third place at the World Cup opener Milan-San Remo in March - to breaking a rib in a crash at the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen one week later - to the entire Cofidis team being suspended two days before Paris-Roubaix - to his team manager and doctor leaving the day before the team's return to competition at the Four Days of Dunkirk on May 5 - to his brilliant return to form at the Dauphiné Libéré in early June - and now, less than two weeks before the start of the Tour, his team-mate David Millar is reported to have admitted to using the sport's perennial blood-boosting agent EPO, according to French sports newspaper L'Equipe.
Despite an interrupted season of training and racing, however, the former wearer of both the yellow and green jerseys at the Tour de France is, quite ironically, enjoying his best season to date. At his last major stage race outing, the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré (somewhat of a mini-Tour de France), O'Grady was unstoppable, winning two stages and finishing second, third and fourth in another three, as well as taking the overall prize in the sprints classification. Not only that, but his prowess in the prologue already sees O'Grady's eyes firmly focused on the 'golden fleece' in the opening week of Le Tour.
A fortnight after the traditional finish of the Tour in Paris, O'Grady will ride in Olympic Games road race in Athens, which, based on current form and the demanding parcours offered, places him high on the list of favourites for an Olympic gold medal.
Cyclingnews: First of all mate, how are you enjoying managing fatherhood as well as riding a bike?
Stuart O'Grady: Yeah, there two very different experiences, that's for sure [chuckles]. Now I've got two jobs! [more chuckles]
CN: I guess [wife] Anne-Marie is staying home for the duration of the Tour then?
SO'G: They're coming up to watch the first week, and then probably follow a couple of the mountain days. I'm not sure how much my son will remember of his first Tour de France at six and a half months, though! [laughs]
CN: It's not even halfway through the season, although I'm guessing you would have never expected to have so many ups and downs to this point, particularly in light of recent events?
SO'G: I definitely didn't expect to see this coming, that's for sure. I still don't believe there's a problem involved with the team itself; I believe it's a problem with individuals.
So, yeah, I've had a pretty tough year, but I came back well after missing the Classics, and I've come back hungry. I've tried to keep having fun and givin' it everything I've got... and just try not to think about all the crap that's going on.
When we came back, we showed we can still race together as a team, and that was shown again by our success at the Dauphiné. We [our team] decided to give it everything we had, and the results followed. But still, it's been an emotional rollercoaster...
CN: After a such a good showing at San Remo, what was more disappointing for you - the announcement that Cofidis were suspending the whole team, or missing out on Roubaix?
SO'G: For me, I was already at home with a broken rib, anyway. If I'd actually been in the hotel at the time when the team was suspended, I wouldn't have been too happy at all...
CN: In hindsight, do you think the team made the right decision?
SO'G: I would have been very disappointed, but at the same time, I very much understand the situation and respect the team's decision to do that. Y'know, if the team hadn't taken it's own responsibility on board, I don't think we would have been a professional team. With that amount of allegation, the team just had to calm down, take a step back, and find out as much information as they could.
Even though I haven't raced as much this year, I've still done quite a bit of racing, but I'm definitely attacking every race very fresh, and mentally, I'm extremely motivated.
CN: Obviously, the situation was and still is unusual for you, but how tough was it to recover from a broken rib and return to the daily grind of training day-in, day-out with no competition in between, not knowing when you were going to compete next?
SO'G: Yeah... there was a period of about 10 days - actually, almost two weeks - where I didn't train. I had no motivation to train - it was a difficult transition period, not knowing what was going to happen - decisions were been made out of my control.
In the morning, I just get up at 8.30, read the paper like everyone else, and do nothing... it was a very difficult time. But I remember getting the green light [to race again] - the motivation was so strong. Not racing any of the Classics, I was very fresh and raring to go. In the long run, keeping myself very fresh may well be a good thing for the Tour and Olympics - when these things happen, you've always got to try and find a positive side.
CN: With no racing for almost a whole month, how did you feel in your first race back at the Four Days of Dunkirk? In some ways, it must have felt like the beginning of the season again?
SO'G: Yes and no, I guess. I was just really happy to have a team. François Migraine [Cofidis president] and everyone involved in Cofidis was soldiering through the hard bits. We didn't drop our shoulders - I think everyone was expecting us to say, 'Stuff this, forget about it' - but the opposite has happened, and we were even hungrier for results thanks to the support of our team.
CN: After Dunkirk, you raced the Tour of Belgium instead of the Tour du Languedoc-Rousillon [previously known as the Midi-Libre] at the end of May. Did you choose to race in Belgium because you thought it would be a little easier for you after your time away from competition?
SO'G: No, definitely not easier, but I had to take on racing that was difficult for me; in the Tour of Belgium, we had a few flat stages and then a few nasty ones, especially on the last day.
So I had to make sure I was during hard tours, but was also getting plenty of recovery between each one, and I think the great thing about being on Cofidis is that I'm getting that recovery and it's shown in my results. That hasn't always been the case in the past; I was just doing too much, and things started going pear-shaped.
CN: Although you didn't win a stage, you still won the sprints competition with some consistent riding. Did you tell yourself after the race it was still possible to arrive at the Tour in top form?
SO'G: Yeah, I saw in Dunkirk my performance was not too bad, and then in the Tour of Belgium it was a lot better. I'm pretty lucky as a rider that my form comes up very quickly.
I also did a lot of quality training; I've learned over the years how my body reacts to different workloads and luckily my body comes up very quickly with a minimal amount of quality training. Obviously when I started racing, I started getting some results and the confidence comes with it... and the morale and motivation keep on going. And that's how the season's panned out so far.
CN: At the start of the Dauphiné Libéré, you were only 15 seconds off Iban Mayo's winning time in the prologue, and were only just beaten by Thor Hushovd in the opening road stage. While you say your body can reach peak form very quickly, did you expect to be so good, so soon?
SO'G: I knew the form was good from a race I did the week before, but I definitely wasn't expecting it to be as good as it was in the Dauphiné. I left the prologue feeling a little disappointed because I felt so good before it, but I wasn't too far off Mayo, especially considering there was a very difficult climb - and it's definitely given me a lot of confidence for the Tour de France prologue.
But to be so consistent, nearly winning four stages instead of two, the green jersey... it all kind of happened so quick - it was just great, a great race.
CN: Your subsequent stage wins in Sisteron and Grenoble saw two fantastic days for you, both won in lengthy breakaways, and both coming down to two men in the end. You've long been known as someone who can handle long breakaways, but were you surprised to pull off two stages in two attempts?
SO'G: Yeah, the first [road] stage I only just lost to Thor Hushovd in the sprint, so it gave me a lot of confidence because I knew the form was good. The next day, I was third on a mountain stage, so I knew the form was consistently good.
Later on when I was in a breakaway [Stage 5], I thought, 'Stuff it, I'm not going to wait around for the sprint, I'm going to attack these races and make sure someone else is chasing me', and that's what happened when George [Hincapie] and I were away. To win that [stage] was a big relief, because by that time, I had been second, third and fourth - to win was fantastic.
The only reason why I went in the breakaway on the last day was that I just wanted to get the points for the green jersey. Then all of sudden, we had thirteen minutes and I thought, 'Geez, maybe I should give this a crack as well!' - I was feeling good!
CN: Based on your performances at the Dauphiné and the type of parcours you won on, is this also a sign of a slight change in you as bike rider?
SO'G: I've definitely changed as a bike rider. I think in the last couple of years, just my basic strength has come a long way; in those longer races, my body simply handles itself better. With three World Cup podiums, obviously there's something going on...
CN: If we talk about the Tour, your sprinting ability and your ability to ride a very good prologue has seen you in the maillot jaune before. This is something you've obviously thought about?
SO'G: Yeah, for sure - obviously Brad McGee and [Fabian] Cancellara are going to be favourites for the prologue, but I hope to finish within 10 seconds of the winner. There's going to be three stages where we're going to go all-out for the bonus sprints, but there's going to be quite a few sprinters not far off - it's [the prologue] only six kilometres long, so I guess the other big sprinters are going to be a maximum 30 seconds behind at worst - so it's going to be a real battle for the yellow jersey those first few days, that's for sure.
CN: Are you going to give the maillot vert another crack, or are stage wins more your thing now?
SO'G: I prefer to just go for stage wins; my main objective in this Tour de France is to win a stage. The Tour is such that you've just got to take it day by day - I'm not exactly sure what the team objectives are - but we don't have any hopes for GC or anything like that.
I think we've got to try and get in a breakaway, and if it comes down to a sprint, then it's all for me. Whether I go for green, I think we've just got to take it day by day; whether I'm sprinting well or not I guess we'll find out pretty quick, and we'll make a decision based on that. But my objective is to try and win a stage.
CN: Obviously there was a more than a little bit of bad blood between you and Thor Hushovd last year. Knowing you don't have to also try and contest a sprint finish from within your own team must make things a little easier for you this time around?
SO'G: For sure; last year was just an extremely frustrating Tour de France - there was no direction in the team and the riders didn't know what to do. It's hard enough trying to win stages with team support without having guys in your own team trying to race against you. But I'm happy here now; I've shown I'm capable of getting results, and if a bunch [sprint] comes, I'm sure the boys at Cofidis will be there to help me out and do whatever they can.
CN: In terms of knowing which Tour stages you might have a chance of winning, are you the type of rider who analyses each stage in great detail beforehand, or do you prefer to leave this to the team meeting the night before or the morning of the stage?
SO'G: I pretty much have a good idea of which stages I'm capable of getting a good result in. I don't study the Tour de France from day one, but definitely the night before, I know what's going to happen the next day and depending on how I'm feeling, whether there needs to be a change of plans.
CN: There's a two week gap between the finish of this year's Tour in Paris and the Olympic road race in Athens. Having ridden the course already last year, you're well aware the parcours is perfectly suited to your abilities. Have you given this much thought since then, and if so, what's going through your mind?
SO'G: Very much so - I'm really excited about the Olympics. But obviously first things first - get the Tour de France under your belt and finish the Tour competitive and feeling good and strong.
There's a World Cup race in Hamburg [HEW-Cyclassics] the week following [the finish of the Tour de France], and then a small stage race after that, so that should be enough to keep the body ticking over and keep enough focus on the Olympics.
CN: Does the two-week gap make things difficult? Your team-mate Matt White has said to me that after a Grand Tour's over, sometimes you can feel very good, and other times you're totally empty - is that a concern for you?
SO'G: Obviously the first few days after the Tour, your body's in complete recovery and shuts down for sure. But with something like the Olympics round the corner, it's pretty easy to get yourself motivated again. However, it's important to do that World Cup race in Hamburg and a stage race without having to train 200 k a day - that way, the time will pass quicker and hopefully you'll be fresh and raring to go again.
CN: Speaking about Matt [White], he's always wanted to ride the Tour but has never quite managed to do so until now. Obviously, you must be really happy for him?
SO'G: Yeah, I'm rapt! I've had a lot to do with Matt, and he's so geed for the Tour. He's come so close before, but he's so geed - I've just got to make sure he doesn't overtrain and blow himself up before the start! He's done the Giro and the Vuelta, so he knows how to handle himself over three weeks, but still, the Tour de France is a different ball game.
CN: Finally, is the World's in Verona on your agenda this year?
SO'G: Yeah - I intend on doing the World's this year. But again, it's quite some way off, so I've just gotta see how things go when we get there. At this stage, it's on the agenda for sure.