On Tuesday evening when I arrived to Adelaide Tim and I caught up for a drink and then went out for pizza. If you’ve never met Tim, he’s a mild mannered, likable young man who’s just like anyone else you’d bump into. The fact that he’s a professional athlete on one of the top ranked pro cycling teams in the world is something that doesn’t even occur to him as being out of the ordinary. There were times when it seemed like he was interviewing me more than I was him.
Tim has been punching above his weight his whole life. He started road cycling at the age of 14 after following his older brother Andrew’s lead. Shortly after saving his money to buy a $700 Avanti Sprint he asked his parents if he could race. They tried to sway him away from it telling him he was too young (probably because they knew how expensive it would be). But Tim was persistant and discovered that he could race in the Junior categories. His partents knew this wasn’t just a passing phase and bought Tim a race licence.
“I actually won my first race. It was a handicap. I rocked up, I weighed about 45kg and had knicks that looked like baggy undies on me. It was a handicap race and they had me off of a mark with all the good guys. I told them there’s no way I should be off here – I had never raced before! They took a look at me put me off limit which was around 17 minutes head start. I rode with my group for a lap and then rode away not knowing what I was doing and won the race. That was the last time I was off limit. Then I spent the next year getting my butt kicked.
Then I started training on the beach with all the older guys on the Thursday morning Time Trial bunch at Outer Harbour. I couldn’t keep up with them at the start. I was in the U17’s at the start and I had fixed gears, 39×12.
I missed school a fair bit because of those Thursday morning rides. I’d always rock up to school late because of ‘family reasons’. Mom would always write in the diary on Thursdays ‘family reasons’. They were super supportive. Even the teachers at school were good about it. I’d do the Thursday or Saturday bunches and constantly get dropped. When they’d start going fast I’d be spun out with my little gears at 130RPM just trying to keep up. I went for a stage of months where every time I’d get dropped again and again. Then after a while each week I’d last a little bit further in the bunch until I started sticking with them.”
To most of us, getting dropped again and again by guys twice our size and strength would be enough to discourage us away from the sport forever. Tim absolutely loved it though. He could mark his progress. Every time he’d last a little bit further with the bunch which motivated him to show up to that next ride.
“To this day, the best feeling I’ve ever had on the bike was when I finally stuck with that bunch. Then every week after that I was like “Yes!”. Then, every week after I just loved sticking with the big boys. As soon as I moved up to the U19’s I was allowed bigger gears and then it made life easier. Then I could see myself progressing and swapping off turns at the front with the big guys. I kept getting better and it wasn’t as hard to stick with them. I got my ass kicked for a long time before that happened though.”
It wasn’t long before Tim started raising the eyebrows of others around him. One Adelaide rider told me that they all knew Tim was something special during this local criterium when he soloed passed the A-Grade bunch while escaping from the B-graders peloton. He rode past them all like they were standing still. These types of things got Tim noticed and a place on one of the best Continental teams in Australia when only 18 years old.
“I was racing with the bike shop Bicycle Express for a while and then I went to Savings & Loans [an Aussie continental team based out of Adelaide]. I got a half scholarship from SASI. I spent 1 year as a development rider for S&L and then 2 more years riding for them. That was awesome. I learned a lot from racing with those guys. That’s where I learned most of my job as a pro. It was just like racing with the pros with those guys, but just at a lower level.”
Tim had some excellent domestic results with Savings & Loans getting 2nd in the Tour of Mercer Vally and just missing the overall win of the Tour of Gipplsand because of the sprint primes. It didn’t occur on him that professional bike racing might be a career option until he went to win the Tour of Jelajah Malaysia with S&L.
“That was my second international race and I ended up winning it. I know racing in Malaysia isn’t the same as racing in Europe, but it gave me a lot of confidence. Then I signed with Livestrong. Because of that and I was getting managed by some of the best people in cycling. That’s when I knew I was on the right track. I just had to keep my head down, train hard, get results, and I knew things would work out the way I wanted them to.”
“Pat Jonker who was my mentor at the time of S&L and was the guy who brought on the Livestrong opportunity. I owe everything to Pat. I wouldn’t be where I am now without his help. He gives all his time to me to make sure I developed. He was in contact with Axel Merckx (Livestrong DS) about getting me on the team. At the same time I won a couple stages in a row at the Tour of Korea and then that sealed the deal. I signed in August of that year (2009).
Cycling is definitely a sport where everything just has to fall into line. If I didn’t have contact with Pat or Axel I’m sure I wouldn’t be where I am now. It’s all worked out for me, but all along I’ve just tried to let my results and my riding do the talking and I try not to talk myself up too much.”
And that’s exactly what Tim did. He kept his head down, trained hard, and got some good results in Europe and the US with Livestrong. In September 2010 he broke his collarbone which put him out of racing for the rest of the season, but it didn’t matter. He had already quietly achieved his goal of getting a professional contract.
“I broke my collarbone in the Tour de l’Avenir and I was sitting in a hospital bed. Then all of a sudden BMC walked in and gave me an offer. Straight way I said, ‘yup, done, good…let’s go with that’. Talks were over a three week period, but it was just talk. I was surprised when they came in with the offer. I couldn’t wait to get home to sign the papers and get it official.”
Tim’s good mate Talyor Phinney also went across to BMC where they now both live in Lucca, Italy and train and hang out together regularly. BMC has lived up to their promise of investing in Tim and developing him as a rider in a healthy progression instead of focusing on results. One week stage races such as the Tour of Catalunya, Tour of the Basque Country, and Tour of California have been this season’s aim so far to help develop his skills, fitness and experience.
In the grand scheme of things, those might appear to be insignificant races. However, for those who know Tim and what level he’s at, it’s astonishing to hear his perspective on how difficult it is at the World Tour level.
“The biggest shock to me this year was how much harder the racing is. When I went over to Europe I didn’t know what to expect. Racing in Australia was hard. Then it was a step up at the world level in the U23’s, but this step is and unbelievably big jump up. It’s like a different sport almost. It’s super fast. The hardest thing I find is the positioning. Everyone is so good at it. Everyone wants to be at the front when they have to be. It turns out to be a big fight out there while dealing with the incredible pace. It’s more cut throat because it’s everyone’s job. The better you do it, the more you get paid. The less experienced guys like me don’t get as much respect, but when you have Cadel or George (Hincapie) in a race you tend to get more respect with them around you. It’s gonna take some getting used to adapt to that sort of racing. If you have a bad day, it’s not nice out there.”
Not all days are pain and suffering though. What you don’t see on television are the many times when the peloton takes it easy on themselves and strolls along which would probably get a little mind numbing.
“It can get boring backing up 200km stages. Especially when the break goes in the first kilometer and then you’re riding along at 20km/hr. It can get boring, but it’s also something that every bike rider looks forward to, because it’s easy (laughs). We’ll all take a boring easy stage over a hard and stressful stage any day!”
“The longer the tour gets, the more comfortable I get. I always hate the first day. But in the 6th or 7th day I feel just as fresh as the first day. I like the tours. I don’t really care for waking up after a long 200km day and then doing it all over again, but my body likes it much more than a one day race.”
Tim heads back to Europe on June 21 and then will likely ride the Tour of Austria, possibly the Tour of Wallonie (Belgium) and the Tour of Utah (USA). It’s not a jam packed race schedule but it allows Tim to slowly grow accustomed to life in Europe and racing at the top level. You hear horror stories of riders getting raced like dogs and it’s good to see that Tim’s talent isn’t going to be wasted on the self interest of team results. I have a lot respect for BMC to invest in their neo-pros like they are with Tim. It’s definitely not the way things are often done in pro cycling.
I get the feeling that Tim would be exceptional at whatever he decided to do with his live. He’s very mature and wise for his age and sees things from a perspective that many 21 year olds wouldn’t. It’s easy to forget that Tim was only 6 years old when Stuart O’Grady first turned pro with GAN.
When I asked Tim if he feels like he’s missing out on the parties and shenanigans that other guys his age enjoy he says, “I don’t miss it one bit. It’s never really been my thing, but I’d much rather make the most out of the incredible opportunities I’ve been given than have nothing to show for it by partying these years away”. Tim reckons that the reasons many talented riders don’t make it to their dreams is more of a case of the way they live their lives off the bike, rather than on it.
A common theme that I picked up on is that Tim has a lot of faith in himself and his future. Even when things aren’t going his way, he’s able to see through it and get on with things. Nothing seems like too big of a deal to him and if he puts his head down and works hard, everything will fall into place. So far it’s worked brilliantly for him.