Brad McGee – Stealing that time back…

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Last month Brad McGee wrote a profound article in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled “How dopers stole the best years of my career.” He was one of the few former pros from his era to speak out about the doping culture during his career and gave a good insight into what was going through his head. In this piece, Jamie Jowett speaks to Brad McGee about some of his career highlights, his new life back in Australia, and his association with the Amy Gillett Foundation’s Share The Road Tour next month.

“Numero quatre-vingt-dix six….Brahd-Mahgeee…” said the announcer as Brad rumbled down the start ramp. Ignoring the wall of noise suddenly in his face, Brad turned the big gear and quickly got into his rhythm. Within seconds he was up to speed and could only hear the thump of the pulse in his temples and the grumbling low thunder of the rear disc wheel.

Coming into the 2003 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong had four titles already, and assembled around him a team with air of Bond villains. As we now know, the hype of it all being due to hard work was all a lie, but the vibe at that time was a very imposing one. Adding to his psychological squeeze, Armstrong ignored the hundred year old tradition that last year’s winner should never wear the yellow jersey at start of the next.

The start to the Centenary Tour de France was virtually under the iconic Eiffel Tower, but this was lost on McGee in a Zen-like state and unable to even recall at the time who else was in the race alongside him. As he says now “I was on one. I mean, you just knew when you were on one…and I was”.

breathe. focus. technique. power.

Left: The 2003 Tour de France Prologue starting underneath the Eiffel Tower. Center & Right: Brad McGee took out the sprinters jersey and the coveted yellow jersey as well.

For three days before a big race like this, Brad says he would start to mentally shut down and became totally unapproachable. Apart from 3 or 4 reconnaissance rides, he would mostly go to his room and sleep. One hot lap was all that was feasible as the roads were not closed, but he noted every bend, rise and bump.

Early on, his DS and coaches would get mad thinking he was getting lazy. I shudder to think of the reaction of his FdJ team DS Marc Madiot, but soon they realised the depth and extent of his mental preparation – “If I needed firing up on the way to the start line, I’d look for cues like red colours, if I felt I needed calming down I’d look for blue…”

breathe. focus. technique. power.

Still to this day Brad can picture the exact scene, and he recounts it to me, “down the ramp, 200m, then left onto pavé, then into the small ring for a minute up a rise for 700m up to the Trocadero…”

He was up to nearly 58km/hr now, and looking down he was pleased he was turning the big gear so easily. “I felt like I was a racehorse or a machine or something, or a pilot above controlling everything”, says Brad in what sounds like an almost outer body experience.

breathe. focus. technique. power.

Out of the gate ahead of McGee were TT powerhouses Beloki, Ekimov, Ullrich, Hamilton and Vinokourov. In just seven minutes twenty seconds though, Brad could put those dark forces firmly back in their box.

Bradley McGee during the prologue in Paris, 2003 Tour de France

breathe. focus. technique. power.

For a quality track rider like McGee, this was his turf, his game. From his first race at aged 10 with Parramatta Cycling Club, the tall skinny kid would always be a force to be reckoned with. Crowned world junior champion in the 3,000m pursuit aged 17, Brad set a junior world record the next year which would stand for 16 years. These were pretty clear signs of his sheer quality, as well as the chance of success to come.

At the halfway point Marc Madiot screamed on the race radio something about being half a second down on David Millar. Not very helpful in this instance, but for a guy with a perfect memory of the race, Brad can’t recall anything Madiot said until the very end. Right now though, Brad had missile-lock on and was impervious to all outside forces. His spatial awareness had narrowed down to almost zero, and all power within him was transferring directly into his pedals. As he leaned on the bars and stared down the road, he was literally flying. “I actually felt like I had the brakes on” he says. “It was something I learnt from racing on the boards. You’re just a big spring, and it’s up to you to control the release”.

breathe. focus. technique. power.

With the Prologue being only 6½ km’s, technique and maintaining a very high speed was all that mattered. Hell of a way to start a 3,427km Grand Tour, unable to even lift himself off the ground where he’d slumped. “Pain is just another marker. I told myself to just make an adjustment”, he says later, knowing that the glory was worth it – the yellow jersey on the podium in Paris.

Aldo Sassi once told Gregor Brown about the time trial,”You are there, holding your aero position and if you feel pain in some particular part of your body then you must ignore it, to resist it or fail. It can be a terrible event because your mind has all the time in the world to wonder and let any small problem get out of control”.

breathe. focus. technique. power.

Ahead of McGee in the starting list, was Tour debutant Haimar Zubeldia. Within a minute of starting, the whisper quickly spread that this was kid fast. No one expected this though as the Basque rider blistered off the bends. Every time check he re-set the fastest time, and pushed up the pressure valve.

Every minute Xubeldia was ahead and he looked unbeatable. In the last few corners though, the unknown Euskatel rider lost his grip, and with it a vital couple of seconds were lost. His chance for glory was gone.

breathe. focus. technique. power.

With 500m to go, David Millar dropped his chain once again and blew the rare opportunity of taking a yellow jersey for a second time. Millar’s bike had been set up without a front derailleur to save weight, but the mechanic hadn’t thought of the cobbles.

By the last turn, Brad looked like a Bugatti Veyron humming down the motorway at 200km/hr. All menacing power and speed, but doing it just so smoothly. “I don’t reckon I breathed at all in that last minute, everything was going into the pedals”, he says. “But Jeez I was lactating out my ears! It was only about then that I actually heard Madiot, saying something like ‘You can do it Brad! You can do this!”

Finally McGee crossed the line, 0.14 secs ahead of Millar and with Xubeldia, Ullrich, Hamilton, Armstrong, Beloki and Ekimov all bunched up within 11 seconds behind. A media scrum quickly formed around him and it was several minutes before he could get out and celebrate with his wife and daughter, wearing her “Go Daddy Go!” t-shirt.

Not realising it at the time, Brad took the adulation from his mate David Millar, but years later it dawned on him, ”he confided in me that I was the rightful winner, even though he’d had mechanical problems that cost him time. I knew enough to know what he was talking about – that he was doping”.

McGee had taken both the yellow and the points jerseys. Of that time he says, “You’re king for the day, it’s pretty good”. McGee held yellow for two more two stages as his FdJ teammates and fellow Aussies Matthew Wilson and Baden Cooke rallied around him.

Baden Cooke and Bradley McGee at the end of stage 2 in La Ferte sous Jousaarre, 2003 Tour de France.

Recently, Brad made headlines with his open letter “How dopers stole the best years of my career”, which outlined how his 2005 Tour de France in particular had been crushed by “the Armstrong years. After success and a good lead-in, he started the Tour well but after the first rest day Armstrong and his posse of drug cheats “completely changed the race…in effect they tore it to bits…The more I think about it, the more it makes me mad as hell. But I have to move on from the fact that I have, more than likely missed out on results and revenue, plus more, because of others doping”.

There are similarities in this to how all cyclists are perceived out on the road, as well. Brad sees the link to Amy Gillett Foundation’s main aim of zero cycling related casualties, with where the UCI should be aiming for with its doping strategies: “it’s not zero tolerance, because I don’t like the way ex riders who doped have been treated by the sport, when there isn’t any policy or way of dealing with their situation. There is too much lost, and some like Hodgey are actually really good politically for cycling. They’ve got to have a clear goal, though, and it should be that the sport is free of doping, that’s all”.

2004 Giro d'Italia, Bradley McGee in Maglia Rossa during stage 3 from Pontremoli to Corn Alle Scale

As a host of the Amy Gillett Foundation “Share the road tour” on December 3rd – 9th, Brad will be helping deliver the messages of cycling safety programs and community campaigns such as ‘a metre matters’. Riding alongside other eminent Aussie cycling legends Stephen Hodge and Phil Anderson, an awesome opportunity for everyday riders to ride with Australian cycling stars and be treated like a Pro with massages and support vehicles as well. “I reckon I’ve done over 300,000 km’s on the road, and it’s just not worth it. We all need a cool head out there”.

Back to the bike, and talking from his property in the Southern Highlands of NSW, he doesn’t really sound too bitter about the “Armstrong years” or look too badly on most of the riders he knows who doped. Instead he suggests, “in my day, no one would blink about doping, but I reckon I had a self-responsibility about myself that seems to be a lot more common with riders today”.

When I put my post-ride too many coffees conspiracy theory to him (that he will take Sean Yates’ DS role at Team Sky, rejoin with Richie Port at Sky, then after Richie’s contract expires they will both come over to GreenEdge and win a Grand Tour), he just laughs and tells me how he’s just been down to his daughter’s orientation for Prep next year. Things sound pretty good for him, nicely settled. The zeal for cycling is still very much there though, and his enthusiasm noticeably bubbles as he talks about the “immense upside still there that no-one knows about Richie. He might be one who thinks too much, but once the maturity catches up to the legs, he’ll really do well. There’s still lots of room for him to improve, that’s for sure”.

As we all know, the 2003 Tour de France yellow wasn’t Brad’s only leader’s jersey. In 2004, Brad McGee wore the Maglia Rosa in the Giro d’Italia, and the golden jersey in La Vuelta in 2005. Although Brad McGee says that “dopers stole the best years of my career”, I’m left with the feeling that for a little while at least, he stole that time right back, fair and square.

References and acknowledgements:

Brad McGee, Sydney Morning Herald, October 27 2012
Ride Magazine – Rob Arnold article – Tim Maloney report, July 5 2003

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