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by Shane Stokes
October 25, 2014
He was ninth in the Tour de France two years ago and is a past winner of the Critérium du Dauphiné, the Tour de Georgia and the Tour of Slovenia. Despite that, and despite being still just 30 years of age, Janez Brajkovic finds himself hurtling towards November with still no idea if he will be racing in 2015.
The Slovenian climber has had more than his fair share of bad luck in the past two seasons, crashing out of several races including the 2013 Tour plus this year’s Giro d’Italia.
Those accidents put paid to those Grand Tour campaigns and also hampered his form in subsequent events, but he bounced back to take a strong third in August’s Vuelta a Burgos.
Despite that showing, which proved he still has a big engine, Brajkovic finds himself in limbo. Spaces are very tight on teams and the collapse of plans for Fernando Alonso’s FACT project has complicated things further. Because of that, a rider who was top ten in the 2012 Tour remains on the sidelines.
“I am still looking,” a frustrated Brajkovic told CyclingTips Friday, speaking by telephone from Slovenia prior to travelling to his winter base in Dubai. “Ideally I would like to sign for a US team but right now, as far as I can see, I don’t have any options. I am looking for a team just to have something. I am not in a position to choose.”
Brajkovic has been with the Astana team for the past three years, returning to the fold where he previously competed in 2008 and 2009 prior to two years with Team RadioShack. After finishing third in Burgos he hoped to go on to the Vuelta a España and show what he could do, but instead he wasn’t selected.
He says that he harbours no grudges against the Kazakhstani team; he said they acted properly in relation to when they told him his contract wouldn’t be extended – in other words, not leaving him guessing. He also says he understands why they would favour riders who were staying with the team in 2015 being selected for the Spanish Grand Tour.
“I don’t feel bad about Astana,” he makes clear. “Sure, it would be nice to stay on the team, but they had a different plan. They were very correct, so I am not mad at them.
“The problem was I don’t think my [former] agent was really prepared for that. I would say he started looking for teams in late September; in September pretty much everything is full. So there were not many options, if any.”
He decided to change representatives, taking up with Baden Cooke. The Australian has tried to get him a slot but the late timeframe and a difficult market means that, thus far, there has been no real progress.
Brajkovic tries to look for a silver lining, but he feels further reason to be frustrated. It’s a dog eat dog sport, and he’s learned first hand how people can turn their backs.
“Right now I would say the only positive thing I see in this situation is that I now know who my real friends are,” he said. “All those people who I believed were my friends are now not replying to my messages. It is pretty sad, but life goes on. I am not ready to give up, so I will keep digging.”
A former world under 23 time trial champion in 2004, Brajkovic made an impression right away after turning pro with Discovery Channel midway through the next season. He was seventh in the time trial and finished in the top twenty of the Eneco Tour, his debut race. He was also 14th in the time trial in the Deutschland Tour and finished inside the top 20 of the world championship road race in Madrid.
In 2006, during his first full year as a pro, he finished fifth overall in both the Volta a Catalunya and in the Tour de Suisse. He then placed second on the opening mountain stage of the Vuelta a España and briefly led the race.
The 2007 season brought his first big pro victory, namely the overall classification in the Tour de Georgia. He moved to Astana for two years at the end of that year, and notched up performances such as the runner-up slot in the Giro di Lombardia and the Giro del Trentino.
His results were based mainly on strong climbing ability, but he also posted some solid performances in stage race time trials. Those two attributes combined to see him win the Critérium du Dauphiné with RadioShack in 2010, matching Alberto Contador in the mountains and beating him in the time trial.
He made his Tour debut that same year, finishing 43rd, then crashed out of the following year’s edition.
Brajkovic clearly has a lot of ability but his performances have been hampered at times by misfortune. Things came together in a better way in 2012, where he finished ninth overall in both the Tour de Romandie, won the Tour of Slovenia and was then ninth in the Tour de France.
He wanted to build on that, but it wasn’t to be.
“I went into last year’s Tour believing I had better condition than I did in 2012,” he explains, “but things didn’t go well. I crashed out of the race. This year I was again really good at the Giro, but I was unfortunately unable to show it. I fell and suffered a broken elbow.
“It took me quite a long time to get over that, actually. I don’t think many people realised how bad the injury was. My first race back was the Tour of Austria [where he was 13th overall]. I was still in a lot of pain there. I didn’t say that to anyone, though, as I wouldn’t be allowed to race. It would have been even worse.”
Despite his third in the Vuelta a Burgos, he’s still waiting. The clock is ticking, the new season begins in just over two months’ time, and he’s hoping.
“In the end, only the results count. It is a very cruel world. You have a bad season and you go from the top to the bottom,” he said. “It is a very sad situation for me right now, but I am sure I will be back. If I find a team, I will show very soon what I am capable of.”
Another rider who showed strong promise earlier in his career, Linus Gerdemann, found himself in a similar situation to the Slovenian a couple of years ago. He was unable to find a team and took a year out of the sport before returning with MTN Qhubeka.
Brajkovic believes it would be difficult for him to do the same thing. He feels twelve months away from the bunch would make it very hard to pick up at a high level again, and admits that he would likely retire if he found himself in that situation.
He’s hoping it doesn’t come to that. “It is complicated,” he admits. “I come from Slovenia and in Slovenia there is no market. Sometimes you have a sponsor who wants a certain rider [in order to sell a product]. In my case this is not going to happen. In Slovenia there is no market…there are just two million people living in Slovenia. So I think it is even harder to succeed that way.”
Still, it seems inconceivable that a rider with his past results could be left on the sidelines at 30 years of age. His priority is to keep racing in 2015, even if it is at a much lower wage, and to use that time to prove what he can do and to secure a bigger deal for the following season.
If a team steps forward and gives him that opportunity, he is convinced he can repay their trust. “I know I have had a hard year. I am really confident that next year will be a good one for me, though. I will show what I can do. I know I have to go through that year to continue in the sport, and am prepared for that.”
He’s also determined to prove a point to those who don’t believe in him. “Now that I am in this situation, I have been sending some emails to my ‘friends’ and other team managers,” he said. “The most frustrating thing is what happens. I am okay with an answer, even if they say no, we are not interested, or we don’t have a place. But the most frustrating thing is you don’t even get an answer, they don’t reply. It is really tough.”
He knows that he has more to give. “In 2012 I was ninth in the Tour,” he points out. “With a little bit of luck I could have been sixth. Realistically I think I can do top ten in the Grand Tours or aim for one week races.
“I still think I can improve, but unfortunately I couldn’t show that in the past years with Astana. Yet I am pretty sure I am capable of much more than I have shown so far.”