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By many accounts, one of Australia’s most under-rated professional cyclists is David Tanner. He wasn’t awarded the privilege to take a direct road to the World Tour, but did so with hard work and determination which has gone largely unnoticed by fans and media. It’s only a matter of time before Tanner snags a big result to get the recognition he deserves and Jono Lovelock spoke with him to find out where he’s been, and where he’s going.
It only takes one conversation with David Tanner to understand that he is no quitter; enough ambition to bring his career back from complete disaster, yet sufficient humility to allay all personal goals at any one race in order to get the job done. To label Tanner as simply an ‘all-rounder’ or ‘domestique’ is to underestimate the 29 year-olds capabilities, especially so when two people who know him well -Victorian Institute of Sport Coach Dave Sanders, and childhood friend and current manager Baden Cooke- both compared him to Simon Gerrans without even a hint of prompting.
“There are two things about Dave Tanner; one is that he’s just a hard-arse, but two, he just wanted it so much. Just like Simon Gerrans he decided from day one that he was going to be a pro bike rider, whatever it took,” said Sanders.
“He is so professional, he’s one of those guys like Simon Gerrans; he is always doing the right thing so they just keep getting better. Even when they’re 30 or 31, they’re still getting better,” said Cooke.
Of course neither are going to be derogatory, but after analysing Tanner’s career thus far, it’s hard not to agree.
When asked about his proudest achievement Tanner’s aversion for snivelling shines through:
“There were two rides last year where I was proud of myself because there were times were I could have snivelled in a seventh or an eighth, but I laid it on the line for the team instead,” he told Cyclingtips from Tenerife.
Tanner had a realistic shot at victory from the break at the Amstel Gold Race but devoted his efforts to Lars Petter Nordhaug, who Tanner said simply had more runs on the board than himself and deserved to be leader. Then later in the year it was assisting Bauke Mollema’s stage victory in last year’s Vuelta a España that delivered Tanner great satisfaction.
Cooke asserts that Tanner’s “value as a teammate is his biggest asset,” and it’s Tanner’s genuine desire to back a more able colleague than ride for himself that makes this so.
“I like to be honest,” Tanner said curtly. “I’d prefer to help a teammate win than run fifth or eleventh myself. I just don’t see any point in a top ten when a teammate could win instead. That’s just the way I am.”
Broken at Barloworld
“Well the problem was I’d broken my left collarbone, my right leg and my back.”
At 24 years of age, with a pro contract all but assured, Tanner suffered a disastrous crash whilst racing as a stagiaire with Barloworld and his professional ambitions had to be put back on the shelf for two years. Reports at the time were filtering back to Australia that Tanner was flying, the new guy signed up to ride as a domestique was filling his duties and still going on to be one of the team’s top finishers. After an agonising six years in the French amateur ranks, Tanner had thought he had broken through.
In conversation Tanner brushes it away and refers to it as just ‘the accident,’ but when prodded it is clear that the time out was one of the hardest periods of the Australian’s career.
“Each year in the amateurs I was always so close to turning pro and each year there was always some stupid little thing that got in the way,” he said. “So when I did break my leg I did consider stopping and doing something else.”
But Tanner persisted and pulled through the initial rehab that was soon followed by two transition seasons with Rock Racing in 2009 and Fly V Australia in 2010.
“I had everything pinned, but the leg took a long time. I was on crutches for three months and I more or less lost every bit of muscle in the leg and in the glut. Then also on the left side with the collarbone there wasn’t much I could do to get that strengthened early on. It was a just a long and very slow process,” said Tanner. “We had to start from very, very small movements, just visualising activating muscles. Slowly and slowly I got back on the bike but the first year after the accident I was never really at a good level because my body just wasn’t strong; after 100km I’d be all out of alignment.
“It wasn’t until 2010 where I was with Fly V Australia that I actually got my full level back and I was strong again. That’s when I started winning races again. If I didn’t crash I was definitely going to turn pro that year. It cost me two years of experience in the WorldTour but at the end of the day I think that things happen for a reason and I learnt a lot of stuff about myself and about other things because of it. I’m not bitter about it.”
To comprehend Tanner’s present, one must look at his past; and it’s clear that after getting through a lonely first year in 2003 with amateur team Châteauroux, Tanner knew he could get through anything.
“To be honest, the first time and the first year was so bad, to this day, I don’t know why I even considered going back the next year,” said the then 18-year-old from Benalla. “I got taken and put in an apartment with no anything; no phone, no internet, they just said catch you later, we’ll pick you up in a couple of weeks for your first race.”
A conversation he had with Matt White about his team for 2005, VC Roubaix-Lille Métropole, echoed Tanner’s first year sentiments.
“In my third year I was living in Roubaix and I remember before heading over I’d seen Matt White in the off-season and he asked me what I was doing,” said Tanner. “I told him I was racing with VC Roubaix next year and he said ‘Ah, alright. Mate, if you can stay there nine months of a year going in from January and coming back in October, you deserve a pro contract just from that.’”
But back in his apartment in 2003 Tanner was not deterred, instead, he bought L’Équipe each day and with his French-English dictionary he became a self-taught francophone. It’s that ‘hard-yards’ attitude that steels Tanner to this day.
“I look at how some things work now and I think I was one of the last of the guys who did it the way I did it; going to amateur teams in Italy or France and turning pro that way. I know Richie Porte was in Italy in the amateurs and it’s really hard,” he said. “I was one of those guys and I’d finish 25 times in the top five but I’d only win two races a year. For a foreign guy to get into a French team he has to be twice as good as a French guy.”
And with our recent debate over the true level of the NRS, Tanner is confident that being thrown in the deep end was the best preparation.
“It just amazes me now, it really, really amazes me how I hear these guys talking that they got a result in an NRS race or they finish top ten in the Sun Tour and they think that they’re automatically eligible to be in a WorldTour team, but they’ve never raced in Europe!” He said. “These young guys these days they sort of cut out the whole middle path wanting to go directly into the top league with the good conditions. Maybe the sport is turning and the Aussie guys can do that, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that it definitely wasn’t like that in the years that I was an amateur.”
The result for Tanner was a perplexing six years as an amateur being given the run around by top ranked French teams.
“When the WorldTour came in I was so close to signing with FDJ [for the 2005 season], because they now had to have a certain amount of young guys in the team,” he explained. “But there were already four Aussies on the team and it was either me or another young guy so I missed out that year.”
What followed was then a process of moving each year to a different amateur team, each one affiliated with whichever ProTour team Tanner was in talks with at the time.
“Because of that FDJ said they wanted me to go to VC Roubaix. Then I did a year in Roubaix and they said they wanted me to go to another team [AC Noyal-Châtillon-sur-Seiche], but what I should have done from the very start was to go to VC La Pomme. From the very start [of Tanner’s time in France] they offered me a spot and it wasn’t actually until I started with them in 2007 that I began to enjoy myself.”
Tanner’s late 2010 with Fly V Australia netted him wins at the Tours de Beauce, Utah and China and some wrangling from Cooke got Tanner his first WorldTour contract with Saxo Bank. Unfortunately for Tanner his time at the top has been as tumultuous as the path that got him there. Having missed the Giro in 2012 and the Tour in 2013 owing to unfortunate crashes in lead-up races, getting that first Grand Tour under his belt took until last year’s Vuelta.
“Everyone told me that I had to get my first one out of the way and it’s just through circumstance that it was last year and not two years ago,” said Tanner. “At the Vuelta I got sick with two days to go, really sick, so the last two days weren’t so much fun for me. But what I noticed in that second half, I was surprised how my body was responding. I was actually getting stronger. I mean, a lot of guys do, you know, but I was definitely seeing changes in my body that you can’t do in training. You cannot replicate it. I noticed afterwards as well that once I recovered from the sickness I was feeling really strong, just so strong.”
With a Grand Tour now in Tanner’s legs, Cooke is hoping that the kid that he has known since he was “up to his knee,” will take on more responsibility of his own.
“He’s such a good teammate, he’s very generous, he will always be there for you and it’s not often he puts his hand up for himself,” said Cooke. “But I’m sort of trying to get him to take more responsibility for himself because he is going well enough that he can place and win big races. He was flying this January, he should have been top five at Tour Down Under but he was caught out in a crash [where he broke his collarbone]. It’s just a shame for him.”
And then Cooke lays the challenge:
“I hope this year that he steps out a bit and takes some wins for himself.”
But as Tanner explains, his loyalty as a teammate has afforded him the trust of his current team in Belkin, and that trust has proved crucial.
“I think the team letting me manage my program was a little bit of payback; I’ve got a good role within the team and they respect the way I function and race,” he said. “We set out a plan last year to change my start of the year a little bit, in the end in didn’t work because I broke my collarbone at TDU. But after that they made space for me to skip Paris-Nice or Tirreno just so that I could come up here to Teneriffe and do a good month of altitude.”
And it’s that month block that will be Tanner’s launch pad for the Giro d’Italia later in the year.
“More or less, because of the collarbone, my program has stayed the same I just didn’t do Ruta del Sol [Vuelta a Andalucia]. So I’m doing the same days at altitude and Belkin have been really good with that. From now I do Catalunya, Pays-Basque, Amstel, Fleche, Liege and the Giro.”
And with such a good race program, is Tanner willing to step up to the challenge laid out by his manager?
“I want to push for more,” he says without a hint of doubt. “That’s why I’m up here now, I’ll be honest with you; I’m sitting on top of a volcano just on my own, no team support. It’s more or less train, eat, sleep and relax, and that’s it. It’s a big investment but I’m doing it because I believe that I can get results in the races that are good for me.
“I’m completely honest about my abilities and what I’m capable of doing; a top ten in the GC of the Tour –or even top 50- I’ll never do, and I’ve got no ambition to do that. But I believe I can be up there in the classics and the one day races. This year the team wants me to do the Giro so that I can enjoy more freedom and get in breakaways and get a result on my own.
“I’m ultimately there to support Bauke or Robert [Gesink] in the hard part of the races. But on top of that now I think that after a few rides that I did last year –in the five or ten chances that I try to get a result for myself- I believe I can really nail one or two of them.”
Having seen many riders progress from junior right through to professional, Dave Sanders has seen the full gamut of attitudes and approaches. With Tanner now wanting to step up, and believing that he can, it’s the insight from Sanders that makes Tanner’s goals seem a likely prospect.
“Look, nine out of ten people would have just racked it and gotten over it after all the things that have happened to him,” said Sanders. “All the injuries, all the setbacks, most people would have said ‘I’m over this, I just don’t need it that much.’ But he just soldiered on and he was determined it was going to happen. One way or the other, he was going to get there, and he got there.”
The question is, where will Dave Tanner go next?