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When I asked Stephen Hodge what he thought his biggest strength as a rider was, he told me it was his Time Trialling. As twice winner of the Grand Prix de Nations amateur section (then the unofficial ITT World Championships), I was happy to take his word for it.
But, the more I spoke with him, and the more I read up about him, I am sure his biggest strength lies between his ears. Both as a racing Pro and since retirement, his career seems to have been marked by smart decisions, no shirking of hard work, a lack of ego, and the ability to get his teams to achieve real success in Grand Tours.
To race and finish 6 Tours de France, 4 Giro d’Italia’s, 4 La Vuelta’s, virtually every Classic, 10 World Championships, an Olympics and a Com Games, plus all the races in between, needs more than just a big engine.
As Stephen pointed out, deep in the 3rd week of a Grand Tour when your team leader is in GC contention but your younger teammates are barely hanging in, let alone even able to speak, and your DS is sitting somewhere behind in the team car, a lot rests with the Road Captain. Decisions of whether to, and when to, chase breakaways, calculating acceptable time losses, knowing where the other GC leaders are and how they are faring, are made that much harder when your own body is racked with pain. That’s where mental toughness comes in.
After moving to Canberra as a kid, Stephen found his love of cycling as a teenage touring cyclist but didn’t race until his ‘20’s. While studying his Bachelor of Science at ANU, a mate thought it would be fun and convinced Stephen to race with him. Clad in his Stubbies shorts and sandshoes with a massive polystyrene helmet on his head, Stephen found he was pretty good at this sport. Joining Canberra Cycling Club, Stephen progressed through the ranks quickly and was working at Albion Cycles when friends like Tony Consceiecaio, then at Clarence Street Cyclery, stepped in to help.
In the 1983 Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic, Stephen raced for the Clarence Street Cyclery team and came 12th, impressing the visiting Swiss amateur team Mavic-Gitane. They told him if he could make it across to Switzerland, they’d give him a shot. Working in Canberra bike shop Spokesman Cycles, Stephen told the manager Rob Fletcher about his opportunity, who organised fundraisers and helped him get across to Switzerland. CJ Sutton’s Dad Gary helped too, recommending him to contacts and advising of his experiences as a Pro via the less travelled route of Switzerland.
His two years with amateur team Mavic-Gitane turned out to be a smart move. The competitive racing on long hard stage races like the GP Willem Tell (amateur Tour de Suisse, where he came 3rd in 1985), combined well with training on great roads and mountains. Plus there was a lot less rain than Belgium.
The Mavic connection paid off in 1987 when he joined the mighty KAS-Mavic team under leader and ‘Classics King’ Sean Kelly. Kelly was a formidable rider in the peloton, but one who taught his own team mates a lot. Stephen rode all the Classics with Kelly over the next two years, making him a vastly stronger rider and providing a steep learning curve, especially for someone still learning the tactics of the sport.
Paris Roubaix became Stephen’s nemesis, “I’d have been happy never to have ridden it to be honest”, he said. He crashed and DNF’d 4 of the 8 times he raced it, once breaking his elbow, another time a collarbone. Despite his self-acknowledged dislike of cobbles, Stephen finished in the winning break at the Tour of Flanders/Ronde van Vlaanderen where Kelly came a close second. In 1988 Stephen also won the GP Impanis, beating the Lion of Flanders Johan Museeuw on his home turf. He also raced Paris-Tours and Paris-Bruxelles, and placed 10th in the Tour of Britain.
Moving to the Spanish Pro-Conti team Caja-Rural Orbea in 1989, Stephen got his big chance – the Tour de France. With leader Marino Lejarretta, and Dutch sprinter Mathieu Hermans who won Stage 11, it was without doubt the hardest thing Stephen had ever done. The relentless physical toll, coupled with the stifling crowds and media attention, were a massive culture shock for the young rider. Nevertheless he made it to Paris rapidly shedding the puppy fat, which he thinks young Aussies also still bring with them to Europe today.
Not long after coming 13th in the Milan-Torino, just behind the likes of Rominger, Hampsten and Breukink, the Cajas-Rural Orbea team folded. Stephen returned to Australia to race the Sun Tour, thinking his dream had ended.
All that changed with a phone call from Lejaretta asking him to join the new ONCE team. The Basque who stood on the podium at every Grand Tour and is the only Pro to have ever completed 3 Grand Tours in a year for 4 years, had repaid Hodge for his loyalty and hard work. Interestingly, Lejaretta decided Hodge was the only rider he wanted to bring with him, despite many Basque compatriots being on the team.
Stephen remembers ONCE being a very tight unit, several years before “things changed and it all went bad”. Run by Manolo Saiz, ONCE introduced a new management style to cycling, more professional management, with very close supervision in coaching, equipment choice and training. A strong personality with emotion always close to the surface, Saiz was very loyal to his team, who in turn were also very loyal to each other. They worked as one on the road for their GC leader, and the number of times the team would “blow the race apart and create havoc” was another great memory for Stephen. The ONCE team rider reunion proposed later this year should be interesting…
With GC riders like Laurent Jalabert, Alex Zulle and Laurent Dufuax, ONCE was known as the Yellow Armada for the way it dominated the Team Time Trials and looked to impose itself on every stage. ONCE quickly became a mentally intimidating force that Darth Vader would be proud of. ONCE riders Lejarretta and Chozas each won a stage and finished 5th and 6th in the 1990 Tour.
Even as a hardworking Domestique, Stephen took 34th in the Tour’s GC that year. He also placed 19th in the Giro d’Italia behind winner Gianni Bugno, again delivering team leaders Lejarretta and Chozas into good GC positions. The 19th placing was a really big result when you consider the calibre of riders far behind him in the GC, names like Anderson, Lemond, Konychev, Sorenson, Riis and Ballerini.
1991 was the year Stephen thinks was his physiological and psychological peak (he also began seeing a Sport Psychologist). By now, he was finishing two Grand Tours and racing up to 120 days a year, which included the Milan San Remo, Tour de Romandie, Liege Bastogne Liege, RVV, Classica San Sebastian and Giro Lombardia (and back home to win the Mazda Alpine Tour). In a serious warm up for the Giro, his 3rd in the Dolomites stage race the Giro del Trentino stands out for the quality of the other winners in this race to date – Moser, Bugno, Chiapucci, Fondriest, Basso, Cunego, Nibali and Vinokourov.
He still sees a Grand Tour as the best way to produce the necessary strength, fitness and form, and in his view is also the best platform for a World Championship race. His 8th place in the Worlds at Stuttgart is true to that theory, and after coming 67th in the Tour his world ranking that year was a career high 45.
In 1992 at the Tour, ONCE team leader Laurent Jalabert won the sprinter’s jersey but an increasing leadership and Domestique workload forced Stephen into 93rd place on GC. 26th in La Vuelta, 10th in Giro Lombardia, 19th at the Worlds, and a stage win in the Criterium International, rounded out another hard-raced but successful year for Stephen.
Some might say Stephen had some luck missing the Tour in 1993, because Big Mig swamped everyone taking his 3rd consecutive victory, having also grabbed the Giro win just prior. Stephen finished 93rd in La Vuelta, but it was an otherwise quiet year by his standards.
Joining Festina-Lotus in 1994, Stephen rode alongside the French Housewives’ favourite and all-time Tour KOM champion Richard Virenque. He remembers him as being “a pretty crazy Frenchie, all about the bling. Sometimes I think if he wasn’t such a success on the bike, he’d never have ridden one”.
As Road Captain, Stephen’s work and experience helped team mates Luc LeBlanc, Richard Virenque and Pascal Lino finish 4th, 5th and 11th in the GC that year. Winning the teams classification against Big Mig’s henchmen was a great effort.
Stage 10 of the Tour that year was 160km’s across the Massif Central. A scorching hot and airless day, Stephen can vividly recall just how far into the red zone he went. He was in a bunch of 4 which broke away, led by the iconic Jacky Durand (about whom Velo Magazine published a Jackymètre, to log the breakaway km’s he had ridden at the front of races). Although their lead continued to stretch out, they could never relax with 3 chasers not far behind, and just pulling a turn put Stephen above his maximum heart rate. But he knew he had to keep working though, and hung on desperately.
With less than a couple of kilometres to go, Bortolemi flatted and Jacky Durand took the opportunity to attack the other two, creating the winning move. The Italian Serpellini finished 5 seconds behind, with Stephen another 54 seconds, leading the remains of the chasers. Nearly two minutes back was the main field, led by sprint powerhouses Abdujaparov, Svorada, Zabel and Ludwig. Stephen still feels that stage may have been his “one that got away…” as he finished another Tour, this time in 83rd place. He took 14th in the World Championships ITT and 31st in La Vuelta that year.
In his final Tour de France in 1995, Stephen helped Virenque secure a 5th in the GC and a record 4th KOM title, coming 64th himself. Again, his obsession with racing that year continued as he also finished the Giro, Vuelta, Milan San Remo, Paris Roubaix, RVV, Amstel Gold, Tour de Romandie, Paris-Tours, and Volta Catalunya, among others.
In his final year of racing, Stephen packed in his usual diet of high racing km’s with the Olympics road race and ITT, both the Giro and La Vuelta, Milan San Remo, Tour Mediterranean, Quatre Jours de Dunkerque, the Tour of Tasmania (with the win on top of Mount Wellington) and finally grabbed 2nd in the Sun Tour, before he hung up the bike after Warrnambool.
Probably the best cycling advocate Australia has, Stephen has been on the Board of Cycling Australia since 1999 and is currently Vice President. He sits on the High Performance Management Committee of CA/Australian Sports Commission, and is the Government Relations Manager for the bicycling industry’s Cycling Promotion Fund. In 2010, he was on the organising committee of the 2010 UCI World Road Cycling Championships. He sits on the board of the Amy Gillett Foundation and patron of charitable causes like Ride to Cure and Men’s Link, as well as a member of the ACT Minister’s Sport & Recreation Advisory Council. Elsewhere, he runs a PR and Communications company Day & Hodge Associates, and works in event planning, management, marketing, sports administration and education.
Somehow he also found the time with some mates to establish www.cyclinghistory.com.au, a group intent on preserving and sharing historic collections from the early years of the Tour de France. Securing rare photographic works owned by Sir Hubert Opperman, this is an amazing collection they have now made available to all cycling fans.
Stephen said he has never returned to France to watch the Tour since retiring, but was keen to remind me he’s still a massive fan of the race and the SBS coverage, staying up late in July like the rest of us fans. Personally I’d be milking all the connections I had to be the biggest groupie since Didi Senft, but that’s just me…
Closer to the likes of us mere mortals, Stephen gets out 2 or 3 times a week with his Squadra H in Canberra for training and coffee shop rides. With the thousands of km’s he raced and the fact he’s turning 50 in July, I reckon he’s earned that coffee.
Written by Jamie Jowett. Jamie is a keen cyclist himself and loves digging into the tories and details of Australia’s cycling history.