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“I’m not sure what you’re going to write about. I don’t really have anything interesting to say or any stories to tell”. This is how my four hour ride with Jeremy Hunt began just a short while ago while he was back in Melbourne for the off-season.
How about this one for starters. “I was sitting at Cafe Racer minding my own business and some guy I’ve never met was taking the piss out of me in front of all his mates. He says, “Nice one mate. You went out and bought yourself a nice expensive pair of Lance Armstrong sunglasses and a pro team kit.” I didn’t know what to say. Lance Armstrong gave those to me when I went with him on his private jet to a race in Norway”
I had seen Jeremy, or Jez as everyone calls him, around Melbourne many times over the past few summers but never had the pleasure to get to know him until a couple months ago. He’s a bit of a nomad but one constant in his life is that he spends the off-season here in Australia with his partner Nerelle and her family. I always had it in my mind that he was this intimidating stone-faced pro who doesn’t doesn’t like people and doesn’t do interviews. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Jez began his professional cycling career with Banesto as an 18 year old. He’s still going strong at 37 and has had a fascinating and understated career. Sixteen seasons later he is well and truly one of the Statesmen of the Peloton doing his duty for Team SKY and its young stars.
As an amateur
“A guy named Colin Lewis [a former Tour de France rider and team mate of Tom Simpson] was a bit of a mentor to us back when we got started. Well, when I say ‘mentor’, I mean he would take us out and kick our asses. If you were good you’d end up staying with him. If you couldn’t, you’d never see him again and you’d be riding home alone. That’s what happened to me once. I was 14 or 15yrs old he left me out there alone. Crosswinds, rain in December, I didn’t know my way home. It was a long day! If that were done today, parents would be outraged”
One year before signing with Banesto Jez went over to France to race the French amateur scene. “I was flying as a junior and amateur. It must have been 1989. There were three of us who came over to France in the same year. Myself, Roger Hammond, and a guy named Cane Stuart. There wasn’t any type of support system or academy back then. A guy name Eddy White would take us to the races. He had a Ford Sierra which was our ‘team car’. That was it. Just a car…that was my development path. We’d just jump in the backseat, go and ride some Classics, then drive back home to Dover again on Sunday night. I first did Milan-San Remo I was an amateur. Most of those races back then have now become major World Cups. But I didn’t really take much interest apart from the Tour de France. I knew what these races like Paris-Roubaix entailed but didn’t really take much interest.”
Jez’s most notable strengths and results lay in the Belgian Classics, but he developed from a very different mold. He’s beaten all of the big riders of the late 90’s and early 2000’s era. Zabel, Cipollini, McEwen. “I used to be a sprinter. Back as am amateur the only races I could ever win was in the bunch sprints. I’ve changed roles now and not as good as I used to be. You have a few bad crashes and you tend to back off. I still have a kick on me, but I can’t beat the young guys. They’re good! Cav will put 20m into me. Okay, maybe he’s not the best example.”
“I used to be able to beat them all back in the day. And it was pretty fast back in the day! But I can still win the Hell Ride when I want to (laughs)”
Making it to the pros
After smashing the French amateur scene Jez was immediately picked up by Benesto in 1996. “When I was first year pro I remember getting to the Benesto training camp. They had never seen me before and I showed up and I was fat. But I didn’t think I was fat, I thought I was normal. The first time I met everyone I walked up to the table with all the riders and managers and I see Indurain sitting there. I thought, “this is the guy who I’ve just been watching on TV for the past five years”. It was amazing. When I rode for him in the Tour of Asturias all we had to do is ride at the front for the first three days and they told me I could pull out on the first mountain day. I stayed with it and I’ll always remember Indurain saying, “muy buen Jeremy, muy buen”. How good was that! I was totally star struck by him.
“A lot of those Spanish races I was with Benesto for ended up in bunch sprints. I nearly won my first and second race, and ended up overtraining. I didn’t have anyone telling me how to train. But in my second year I won about ten races.”
“I had enough of cycling by then (1997). It was different back then. There was no internet, no DVDs, no cheap phone calls. To call England it was a pound per minute. Unless you earned a lot of money, which I didn’t, I couldn’t afford to call home. I had enough of living in Spain, trying to speak Spanish…I had enough. I didn’t have a contract in December of that year but wasn’t too fussed about it, and a friend named Dan Smith got me a contract with Big Mat. If it weren’t for Dan making that one phone call I don’t know where I’d be.”
In 2000 Jez was in Australia for the Sydney Olympics and decided to have a crack at the Nationals. “After signing for Big Mat I started riding my bike again and won the Australian Nationals down here. It was myself and Jamie Drew. He attacked and dropped everyone, I went with him, and we rode to the finish together. I couldn’t take the jersey, but I could take the win and pipped him a the line (laughs). It’s a strange one. I think they’ve stopped letting international riders race the nationals now. Back then it made sense because there weren’t as many good riders. Now Australia has some of the best riders in the world. That was a long time ago, eleven years ago.
Jez went on to race from 2000-2002 with Big Mat where he got one of his biggest results: Grand Prix Plouay in 2002. “My biggest win led to the worst contract of my career.” He ended up signing with MBK-Oktos which was basically an amateur squad racing with the pros. “I should have had a manager back then.”
From there Jez didn’t have much better luck. He signed with Mr. Bookmaker (later taken over by it’s parent company Unibet) which had troubles of it’s own. The team was excluded in the big ASO races because of French betting and advertising laws . But he’s gotten on with things and there’s not a hint of bitterness towards that time of his career. “I think it was a blessing in disguise. They were good days. Remember that Canyon bike I was riding with the Lightweights? That was a great bike. I won the GP d’Ouverture La Marseillaise on that thing”
Missing the Tour de France
I turned down the TdF in 1997 when I was racing with Banesto. I wish I had ridden the Tour that year. That was when there were all the big drug problems. I was winning a lot of races that season and I thought I’d sit it out and do it the next year. In hindsight I wish I had ridden it. I can’t say for sure but I might have won a stage or two (or close). There you go…that’s life. It took me 14 more years before I got the chance to ride my first Tour.”
“When I finally got to do the Tour, it was amazing. A childhood dream. In 1997 when I thought I could just choose when I wanted to do it, I realized ten years later I should have taken my chance. When I finally did it last year I trained really hard for it. I didn’t want to be suffering on the back the whole race. If I were getting dropped everyday, my memories wouldn’t have been nearly as good. I would have though, “thank God that’s finished”. Luckily that wasn’t the case. When I got to the Champs-Élysées, you finally think “I finished the Tour de France.” I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower many times, but when I saw it on my way to Paris it was something really special. ”
“I won’t make the Tour this year. No chance. Wiggo, Cav, Edvald [Boasson Hagen], Mick [Rogers], Richie [Porte], Froomie [Chris], Bernhard Eisel …That’s most of the spots gone already. I think it’ll work out, but the thing is that it’s not like the old days were the whole team gets on the front and leads out Zabel while still racing for Ullrich in GC. If you do that every day you waste your energy for the overall win. But wasn’t Ullrich the best ever? He just didn’t have the mind of Lance Armstrong. ”
On the Copenhagen World Championships
“We were riding around with the big master plan. My job was to look after Cav and keep it together. then on the last climb I thought, “do I really need to suffer on this last climb to finish in the peloton?”. Well, David [Millar] stopped so I dropped back with him to finish the race nice and easy and have a chat and we rode past this nice big screen TV. We looked at each other and said, “we gotta watch the finish.” So there we are, two guys in GB skinsuits, jumped the fence to watch the finish on TV with the crowd, and then hugging each other and hi-fives with the fans in the park when Cav came across the finish line first. Then we just hopped out and rolled to the finish line about 8 minutes down. That was one of the highlights of my career. When I was doing well I was winning four or five races a year, but when you’re helping guys win World Championships or Classics, it’s a lot better.”
On What’s Changed in professional cycling over the years
“The racing is less respectful for the bigger riders. But it’s understandable with the way the UCI points system works now. Guys now days will flick their teammate in order to get 60 points or something, which might be worth a lot of money in next year’s contract. The young guys just don’t care.”
“I remember doing a lead-out last season, I won’t mention any names, but he’s a young Aussie guy, comes in on our train and bangs one of our guys off the wheel. There was only 800m to go and we’ve been on the front the whole day and now four of us are on the front for the leadout. The thing to do was to get on the back behind us. Then he crashed and brought a bunch of guys down. I’m starting to see stuff like that happen all the time now. Back when I was in my first few years as a pro you knew your place. If you tried something like that someone would smack you so hard you’d never try it again. The rule of etiquette is that you never knock someone out of their leadout.”
“Live at home, be happy, train right and be around a group of guys who wants to ride their bikes. That’s what makes the difference to me. If you wake up in the morning and have a few good guys to train with, it makes it enjoyable. It’s hard to keep motivation for more than 2-3 weeks at a time. Riding 5-6hrs a day is tough without surrounding yourself with the right people.”
“Back in 1999 when I wanted to give it up, I would never think that again. If I could get back that time, I’d do it all again. But I’d do exactly the same thing again.”
“I’ve been coming to Australia since 1993. My first time here was the Bank Race when Jan Ullrich won. Then the next year Shane Sutton took us over. I would always be in Sydney or Cronulla back then. When I met Narelle during Sydney Olympics I started to spend my off-season here in Melbourne. I love it here.”
“I was born in Saskatchewan. My mom was a Native American. I was a Canadian citizen but I’m not anymore. I moved away to England when I was about two years old, so I don’t remember anything. I think I’m the only professional cyclist to come out of Saskatchewan, right?”
“I feel different. I feel old! I thought that I was getting old two years ago but then I started going good again and I can keep going. When I fall off now it hurts. I see now that training is all mental. You get up in the morning, you put your heart rate monitor on and go up a climb. If your heart rate starts rising, that means you’ve recovered. Thinking that you’re tired is all mental at times. Your head gives in before your body. I know what I gotta do for training now and I just do it. I have a coach who tells me what to do every day. I need to be told what to do otherwise I’ll just roam around from coffee shop to coffee shop”
“They say you’re going to slow down at some point, but I don’t seem to be slowing down. You gotta stop at some point and this year will probably be my last. I could just keep riding my bike, but it’s another year where I’m not in the real world I guess. I’ll always keep riding though. I could never give it up. If I stopped riding my bike or stopped doing some exercise I’d get twitchy. I just want to keep getting out there.”
“I don’t really win that much anymore,” Jez says without a hint of regret. “It’s nice to win a race now and again. I’d still like to win a Classic if I could. I don’t train every day flat out just because of that though. It’s still a dream, but I would never mess up my team’s chances to chase it. It would all need to go perfectly for it to happen – get in the early break, not get caught, having the day of your life, etc – but those are far and few between. The thing is that you still need to be flying to support your team anyways. You still need to be at that level or you don’t get selected to be on the team anyway, so I’ll definitely be there if I get my chance.”
Check out Jez’s SRM data from Flanders
Second half of his career
“I’m starting to think about that now. It’s a difficult one. I think I’d like to start again and do something different. It’s a hard thing to say and it feels funny, but you have to stop at some point. We’re having a baby which is due in June, so that’ll be a life changer. I’m looking forward to coming and settling down in Australia. It’s a bit scary really. Very scary. After you do something your whole life and then to stop. I’ll always keep riding though. I’ll probably be riding with you guys at O2. ”
It was a pleasure to do this piece with Jeremy. I’m often amazed at how humble, genuine and affable many of these professional cyclists are. Jez has never known anything but professional cycling and is well grounded, appreciative, and doesn’t display a hint of negativity towards anything or anyone. He’s still very much a fan of the sport and it’s great to know that he still gets nervous at the startline before the big races. When reflecting on Jeremy Hunt’s long career, I think Indurain says it best, “Muy buen Jeremy, muy buen.”