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An interview with Bradley McGee, May 7, 2005
Those who doubted Bradley McGee's seriousness about being a contender at the Tour de France better think again. As Anthony Tan found out at the Tour de Romandie, the smooth-talking Sydneysider is back on track, and ready to give the race around France the best shot of his life.
It was curious to see Bradley McGee towards the back of the pack on the third stage of the Tour de Romandie last week.
In 2004, after a spending his earlier years as a noted prologue and time trial specialist, he openly announced his intention to target the general classification of the Grand Tours. This he seemed to do with apparent ease, almost winning the final time trial at the aforementioned race before a top 10 overall finish, then going on to a convincing prologue victory and finishing as the eighth-best rider at that year's Giro d'Italia.
The next logical step was the Tour de France. But things went horribly wrong at Le Tour, which saw him abandon after less than a week completed. "I don't know what to say. I just haven't got anything," said a stunned McGee to Cyclingnews at the time. "It's like I've only got one leg. I've never been in this position before. Never thought I would be, either.
"It's hard to accept. When small problems take over you in the world's biggest bike race, one realises there are deeper issues," he wrote in his diary. "Like a special victory, I feel like it hasn't sunk in yet. I feel lost. I struggle to find anything positive out of this - therefore I'll try not to think about it at the moment, head home, relax and wait for the right sensations to return."
Luckily they did, and although not back to his best, McGee went on to a silver medal in the individual pursuit in Athens, where he was beaten by his namesake Bradley Wiggins. But it was enough to keep him more than motivated in the 'offy' (off-season), as he likes to call it, and to remember never move house one week before the Tour de France again - or at least not by himself...
"Oh absolutely," he says when asked whether the motivation to slog out the early season kilometres over the Australian summer was equal to previous years. "It's like a new lease of life targeting general classification, which has made me sharpen my act up another level, and I'm really enjoying it. It's the only way I want to do it... the motivation is there, the hunger is incredibly high to make good all the work I've done."
When we talk about the way he now trains, McGee uses that 'absolutely' word again: "Absolutely I've changed a lot," he says.
"My years leading up to sort of midway last year were really an extension of the work I did on the track - just extended, hard, short efforts... floating along, not really paying much attention to anything until I was going flat-out, and then structure all my flat-out efforts really well, like I know how to do.
"So now we've taken away the top-end - I haven't even started working it yet this year - and putting a real solid foundation in the mid-range; aerobic and anaerobic thresholds, a massive amount of 10 and 20 minute efforts, as opposed to 30 second and one minute efforts."
The test results showed that McGee was becoming the rider he wants to be this July, too. Analysing himself under lab conditions once a month since the start of the season, McGee says the results indicated his body was "definitely performing to the condition that I'm after". The Tour de Romandie was supposed to be one of his first physiological peaks leading up to the Tour. But finishing over 20 minutes down on the third stage to Anzère was hardly what one would call 'peaking'.
"That's again why I'm disappointed I couldn't actually show it, prove it, get that feeling in the race sense this tour... but I know it's there," McGee says with faint optimism.
"Like I said, this was a major part of it - I wanted to increase from where I left off last year. Now I must say, my form coming into Romandie was much better than last year - I put it together in the early season really well with some solid work, and improved my climbing - but the second day here, I started feeling very ill, stomach-wise, and it just affected something in my breathing.
"I'm very disappointed with what's happened, but I know that it's not my level; there's some problems and we're looking at it now, and I'm still living off the dream that something will come off today... "
McGee was mouthing these nervous last words to Cyclingnews an hour before the start of the final time trial stage in Lausanne, having endured another bad day in the saddle in between.
"It's one of those things about our beautiful sport of cycling that there's so many unanswered questions to do with form," he says with a wry grin, something which Santiago Botero said so himself after winning the race, and something the Colombian struggled with the previous two seasons at T-Mobile.
"You just can't let it break your head; you got to remain confident and focused and true to your plan. Like I said, it's why I'm still here with a flying hope today... it's just the way you've got to do this sport."
McGee's mind seems far less fragile than his body, the latter resembling that of a nothing-but-bones Grand Tour rider, rather than the solid pursuiter he was in his teens and early 20s. His directeur-sportif at the race, Jean-Cyril Robin, only recently retired and a general classification rider himself, knows all too well how form and fortune roll and up and down, and in many ways, was the best person to be at his side during this week of uncertainty.
"I will talk to our big boss Marc [Madiot] next week," says McGee. "I think they're happy with the way I've structured myself and kept to my plan. Of course, the pressure's on and I've stuck my head and hand up high to have the pressure come back on me; history will tell you that that's the sort of thing I often need - a bit of extra squeeze brings the best out of me," he laughs, now a little more easily.
True to his word, McGee went out and set the fastest time out on the 20.4 kilometre course, his best time holding all the way until the second-last competitor, that of race winner and 2002 world time trial champion Botero, a man who is currently enjoying the best form of his life. And while only marginal, McGee's time was also 10 seconds faster than that of his second-place finish to overall winner Tyler Hamilton in 2004 on exactly the same course.
The result was a huge relief for McGee, who can now relax and take a break as planned, before a possible ride at the Volta a Catalunya "just to keep the rhythm going". However, he will return to the politically neutral country at the Tour de Suisse in June, which will be his final lead-up race before the Tour de France, and a very important test indeed.
If anyone thought his La Francaise des Jeux team was piling the pressure on the 29 year-old Sydneysider, McGee says that's not the case at all. "Well, the team's expectations are quite opposite to my expectations - they're happy to see me have a strong prologue and work individual stages like I've done in the past," he says. "It's myself who put the pressure on to perform a GC campaign."
McGee also mentions the name of Thomas Lövkvist, FdJ's Swedish sensation, who may be a strong run for the white jersey. "He's a similar level for white jersey as what I am for the overall, where it's early days of putting together a campaign, so we've been feeding off each other a lot in recent races. So with that, there will be at least be some attention given from the team for the general classification," he says.
What he's trying to say, I think, but as diplomatically as he can, is that you're not going to see him looking after his mate Baden Cooke in the sprints until the final kilometres, or going in any long suicide breakaways, like he did in 2001. "It's the long-haul duties, day-in, day-out, that can really break your legs," he says.
"This is where and when it should come together; that's why I put together my campaign and that's what it is, it's a real campaign, and you just have remain true to it through thick and thin... it's cliché stuff but... "
"It often holds true," I say.
"Absolutely!" There's that word again.