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An interview with Tony Cruz, February 13, 2008
Team captain at last
Since Antonio Cruz turned professional in 1999, he has raced for the most dominant US teams, starting with Saturn and more recently with Discovery Channel. Although he is entering into his tenth year of professional racing, 2008 will offer Cruz some new opportunities with the BMC Racing Team. Sarah Bamberger met up with Cruz in Santa Rosa, California, on the last day of BMC's training camp to check in on the transition to his new team, his thoughts on the Tour of California and what happens when training with former team-mate, Levi Leipheimer.
On the last day of the BMC Racing Team training camp, Tony Cruz had a chance to ride with his former team-mate and area local, Levi Leipheimer, who led the team on a ride that included a very technical descent. Although Leipheimer knew the road well, Cruz wanted to push the limits of his new BMC rig and see how fast he could go around a blind curve. Tucking down and diving into the turn, he passed the Astana rider, caught air over a cattle guard and then flew down the descent with utter fearlessness. It might have been a playful rivalry, but Cruz' calm, yet serious and assertive manner will perfectly suit his role as captain of his new team.
Cruz has been a fixture in the US racing scene for nearly a decade, but his role in the European peloton has been mainly that of a domestique. After being put out of work when the Discovery Channel team folded, he found a new home with the BMC Racing Team, which upped its level to the Professional Continental status. Now one of the senior members of the team, Cruz will be tasked with passing on his knowledge while trying to win some races.
To leave a ProTour team for a Pro Conti team is an adjustment for Cruz, but he has faith that the team will grow and bring itself to the highest status in the near future, and he has signed a two-year contract. Confident that he will race major European races with a new team, sponsor, management, and, most saliently, a new role, Cruz looks to his past experiences for guidance.
He pays some credit to his former Discovery Channel boss for showing him a very effective way to motivate his team-mates, especially the ones who think they have reached their capacity for suffering. "Probably the biggest thing I took away from racing for Johan Bruyneel was that he knows how to squeeze out whatever little bit or however much you can contribute depending on your talent, without overdoing it – and still be able to keep you motivated to fight and come back again and again in a race.
"If you're doing a Grand Tour and you have two to three bad days and you just feel like dropping out, he's not going to come, just yell at you and be super condescending and just break you down. He was very encouraging and it wasn't something I expected at first, so I appreciated that and in turn I fought a lot harder; I can't tell you how many times I surprised myself or the team was surprised with my results. I want these guys to learn that."
Cruz hopes to use that experience with his new squad, putting it to use on the road. "Just talking to the guys, making sure that I am always trying to communicate to everybody on the team; whether I am asking how they are feeling, what they think about that day's race, or if they have questions... I want to have an open line for everybody so that when they do have a question or are not sure about something they'll come to me and we can figure out whatever it is. That is probably the biggest thing – just to establish that line of communication and not be an individual."
He emphasizes that the ramp up time for this team will be much faster if everyone leaves their egos at home and starts to work together immediately. Tony's down-to-earth attitude is paired with seriousness as he stresses the reality that this is a "new level for everybody and I want to see us succeed."
As a seasoned rider of European races, many team-mates will look to him for leadership, and with that comes a level of responsibility. Cruz's confidence to succeed comes partly because of his trust in the management.
"I think with Gavin and John, it is pretty close to what we had on Discovery. They have the experience as riders and as directors, so it makes it that much easier for me to do my role. You're not trying to second-guess them or going back to the car trying to debate over whether something is right. It makes it a lot easier for me to try to be a leader on the team and to explain stuff to these guys because I have already experienced it. It's a format that I am used to. So I am happy; I couldn't be happier, actually."
Cruz applauded the addition of directeur sportif, John Lelangue. "Having John on board has really opened a lot of doors and opportunities. He's got the experience and he knows all the races, he knows all the directors. When I heard that they had signed him I thought it was the smartest thing they could have done for the team. Turns out he is a super nice guy very willing to help everybody, doesn't matter if you're a first-year pro or someone like myself. That is good to see, too. Because a lot of times, some directors will come with their own agenda and their egos, which makes it that much harder."
From the start of the camp, when riders got their new bikes and kits, Tony sensed the "Swissness" of the BMC organization. "It is just a totally different feel to the team with the bikes and the uniforms. I think they did an excellent job in matching the colours with the bike, it sync's. Sometimes other teams seem [to accomplish that] like an afterthought. It's so funny because the Swiss are known for their precision, I guess, and that's what we have here with this team.
"Normally a company will have something unique on the shorts like the cut or the chamois, and sometimes after four or five hours you're like 'man this is starting to chafe or this doesn't feel so good'. This is the first time ever, that no matter what I put on, I didn't notice it during the ride. I think that is why Assos is known for its clothing design."
Just to get excited about the apparel is noteworthy, and Cruz admits he never had tried Assos before. "I've dreamt about wearing it," he jokes. "I thought about maybe purchasing a couple pairs of socks, maybe the left foot. It's pricey, and now I see why. I kid you not – I put it on and it just works. So, we can feel the 'Swissness' in the clothing and on the bike. We appreciate it."
It is clear that Cruz is as motivated as ever to win, and the focus he brings to the team should help accelerate success. His confidence is understated, yet credible. "I know I can win. It's a matter of having the opportunities to do so. Gavin and I talked about that when I first decided to sign with the team to make sure that it was clear, that it is what I want to do.
" I'm not going to race that much longer, so I'd like to go out and get some wins. I've had some opportunities, but it's been pretty limited most of the time. You have a set role with Discovery or Postal, and you have got to do it if you want to stay on the team, but I still have it to win. I want to win more, which helps with the motivation and training. And once you start knocking out a couple wins, all of a sudden it just opens up the floodgates, the confidence is there, and you start winning a lot. I am looking forward to that."
The major US tour stages are amongst the most prestigious wins a rider can achieve, and Cruz has put in his bid for a stage at all three. In Europe, BMC will contest the Tour de Suisse, as well as Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, the latter of which Cruz is aiming to win the overall. "There's a good chance we might do Roubaix this year, which I'm really excited about and for a team like this, that's a huge step. I've done it five times but I'll have a completely different role so it's really exciting for me."
For Cruz, last year's Tour of California final circuit in Long Beach was an important and unforgettable day. It meant the race was over and his team had the yellow jersey, but it was also a day that every cyclist dreams of experiencing. The circuit was only three blocks from home, and his whole family and friends were there to celebrate.
"That is one of those things that every cyclist looks forward to happening to them, whether they are Italian or French or American. There is nothing like racing in your hometown, especially when it is the biggest race in your country." Cruz was disappointed to learn that the 2008 edition's finish will bypass his hometown, and lamented that politics had trumped community in that decision.
He still has some home turf advantages, as do many of the BMC team members, with some living in Northern California for the winter. With regards to other race changes, he has been doing his homework to see what is in store for the riders. "We checked out the Mt Hamilton stage [Stage 3 - ed.], that is going to be hard. That is going to be a very decisive day for GC. I think the last day too, if it's close in GC, is going to be another showdown. Fortunately for me, I do train a lot on those roads, so I know the area. More than anything it's mental, you have the advantage. Maybe you can suffer a little bit more because you know what is left."
With a stage win as a focal point, Cruz will be encouraging his team to be combative and smart. Of course, these words only can carry someone so far. He adds, "In my opinion, if you're not the best climber or not within the best five or ten guys you have to be aggressive – you just have to go for it. We can't just sit on somebody like Levi and wait for the next climb because he'll be gone – because he is a super climber. You have got to take advantage of whatever it is out there that you can and go for it. It's one of those situations where you'll surprise yourself and you can actually win a race. You can just be out of your league [and] act smarter than everybody. Do or die. I hope the guys will be able to take that approach. That is something that I'll try to get them pumped on."
Passing on the passion
There is a nervous energy at the early season races, but Tony hopes to instill a sense of belonging amongst the younger team-mates. He has attributed his ability to not be fazed to his dad, and thinks he can help calm the younger guys down with this attitude.
"If there is one thing I learned from my dad, it's that I really don't care who it is. I am not someone to sit next to some guy and second-guess myself – we're here to race. We're going to take this to the line because that's why I am here. That is another thing to try and instill in these guys, 'you are just as good, you're here for a reason.'"
Cruz's heroes include his dad, who raced bikes, swam, ran, and often included his son in those activities. Cruz looked up to him as a hero growing up and feels indebted to him now, especially for teaching him how to suffer. Reflecting back on the time when he finally beat his father on a ride, he has the cheeky expression of a kid that got the better of his parent.
Recently, his oldest son, who is 16 years of age, has taken an interest in fixed gear bikes. All his formative years have been spent playing soccer, so he has some natural strength that is translating over.
"However he wants to initially approach it is fine with me. I'll just encourage him and try to foster that. I already started to take him and his buddies to the ADT velodrome. It's funny because the second time we were out, one of the trainers there said he had a very natural pedal stroke and a really good position on the bike; So I sat there and watched him and that was only the second time he was in a paceline. You know, I was so proud inside because you're always wondering what he would be like as a cyclist. It's been fun. We've been riding together, and I have been trying to get as many bikes for his buddies so they can ride together."
French cyclist Bernard Hinault also inspires Cruz. "I just loved his style on the bike, he seemed like such a mild mannered guy, but as soon as someone ticked him off in a race, he wouldn't send his team to chase back, he would do it himself. I have actually talked to Dirk Demol and Johan [Bruyneel] and they say everything you read about him is true. That guy could really do anything he wanted on the bike. He didn't just win the tour; he won Worlds, Roubaix, the Giro and the Vuelta. It was so cool to arrive at a race, get the race bible and then see in the back pages that he had won that race.
Tony Cruz seems to embody a little bit of The Badger's mentality; he has a mild demeanour but will not back down to a challenge. And with the team rising up to this new level, his name could end up in the back of some of those same race bibles.
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Images by Sarah Bamberger