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by Shane Stokes
November 14, 2014
They are three riders who have each won stages in Grand Tours and clocked up victories in important single-day events; they are also three riders who have lost a little momentum in recent years and are trying to get back to their best.
MTN Qhubeka signed Matt Goss, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Tyler Farrar to the African team and, according to general manager Brian Smith, he believes that a specific approach by the squad should help them return to their top form and to winning big.
Smith spoke in detail to CyclingTips about the strategy the team will employ and why he feels it will work to the trio’s advantage next season.
“The hardest thing for a bike rider to be is a Mark Cavendish, a Marcel Kittel, a Chris Froome, a Vincenzo Nibali, a Contador, because every race they go into, they are expected to win,” said Smith, a former professional and British national road race champion who later went on to work with the Cervélo Test Team, Endura Racing and NetApp Endura.
“People don’t really understand the pressures. When Mark Cavendish was winning all his Tour stages, a break would go up the road, his team would ride on the front and he would ride behind them.
“When guys behind him were chit chatting, having fun, talking to their mates, the High Road team were on the front. Mark hardly talked to anybody as all that effort his team is putting in means the pressure is on him to deliver. Mentally, that is huge; people don’t really get the mental side of our sport.”
Smith’s point is that some riders are suited to a day-in, day-out laser focus; for these individuals, an intense, tunnel-vision approach is what they need to achieve big things.
For others, though, being the centre of attention and shouldering the brunt of the pressure isn’t the right environment. He uses Goss as an example to explain his point; the Australian raced alongside Cavendish on HTC Highroad and was one of his key lead-out men. The Briton absorbed most of the pressure and availed of many of the opportunities, but at times Goss was able to play his own card.
Mark Cavendish and Matthew Goss at the start line in Horsens during stage 3 of the Giro.
“Gossy is the sort of person who maybe doesn’t like to absorb that pressure on a regular basis,” Smith explained. “Every race the pressure is on some guys. If you look at Froome, every race that he turns up in he is expected to win. Contador, expected to win. Nibali, expected to win. If you don’t win, there is more and more pressure.
“When Gossy went to Orica GreenEdge, he was the sprinter, he was the main guy. He was super motivated as it was an Aussie team, but over time the pressure got too much for him. He was getting beaten and it wore him down.
“I am bringing him back to riders that he knows. He knows Edvald [Boasson Hagen]. He knows the other guys on the team.
“I think Matt is the sort of rider who likes to be in a team with different options. You have to remember that not everybody wants to be THE sprinter.”
According to Smith, another signing, Theo Bos, will be the designated rider in those kinds of finishes. He has shown his speed in many races in the past and will be the designated speedster at the end of Grand Tour stages and other such events.
“I think the only bunch sprinter we have in terms of competing with the top guys in the world is Theo Bos. If it comes down to a sprint in a stage race against Cavendish or Kittel, or in a race such as Scheldeprijs, we will go and lead out Theo and try to get him to the win.”
Boasson Hagen and Farrar are riders who have both taken Tour stages in the past, but who have been outpaced more recently by the pure sprinters. Ditto for Goss, who took Giro d’Italia stages in 2010 and 2012 but has been quieter since.
While they have been very quick at times, Smith actually feels that they are better suited to other kinds of demands rather than big bunch gallops.
“I believe that Goss, Farrar, these types of riders are more suited towards the Classics,” he said. “If any one of these riders comes to the finish of Gent Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix in a small group with all three or four, we are in with a chance of winning.
“When you get to the end of the race, you hear from a lot of amateur riders, ‘I have nothing left in my legs.’ These sprinters get to the finish of a race and they still have got big power. Goss has already proven it. Ciolek has already proven it.
“Farrar is excited about us taking him out of that mould of bunch sprinter at Garmin and into more of a Classics rider.”
Indeed, the American is a rider who was seen as a likely Classics contender early on. He has won Scheldeprijs plus the Vattenfall Cyclassics, and taken third in both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Gent–Wevelgem. He is still a relatively young rider at 30 years of age and, after seven years with the Slipstream/Garmin-Sharp setup, has the opportunity for a fresh start and a reinvention of sorts.
“When I was recruiting, I was looking at who has got the talent, who is unhappy [with their current team], and who is affordable,” said Smith.
“There are a lot of people coming to MTN Qhubeka to help the team, but obviously also to re-find themselves. You only have to look at Beijing, the last race of the season. Most people would say they are not motivated at that point in the calendar, but if you look at the guys who were performing. Farrar won a stage, Boasson Hagen was up there, Janse van Rensberg was up there in the finish.
“All of these guys are super motivated coming at the end of the season. They are fired up to do something, and will be raring to go next year.”
Smith said that his key tactic will be nurturing the right race environment, to encourage the riders to race hard via a carrot rather than a stick system. He believes it would be a big error to demand they achieve X, Y or Z; instead, he believes a more laissez faire approach could pay off. Emphasising freedom rather than constraints.
“Mentally Gossy just needs a reset. He just needs to be refreshed,” he said, using the Australian as an example. “He will go into some races next year with Boasson Hagen, Ciolek and these guys and he will look to them. That is where you will see the best of these guys as they will be very good at working well with each other.
“The pressure is totally off them. There is no pressure from me to deliver big results. I just want the guys to go out there, have fun and race. All these bike riders have the ability to race, because that is what they did as kids. I am seeing that in my six year old now. All the want to do is go out and race their bikes.
“The further up the ladder they get, then they start to get the pressure. ‘You can’t do this, you have to sit in the bunch, let these guys go in the breakaway, let these guys do this, you have to deliver. If it comes to a sprint, it’s all for you.’
“You ride 80, 90 days of racing a year and if the stress is all on you, of course you are going to burst with the pressure.”
Smith talks about Team Sky and its approach, pointing out that the team has focussed on marginal gains, on taking small improvements across the board and combining them to try to eke out a bigger advantage. That has been successful, he says, but it is also a system that doesn’t suit every rider.
“For us and the riders we have, I think it’s a case of telling them, ‘go out there guys, race your bikes and enjoy yourselves.’ That is where you will see the guys thrive,” he asserts. “Allowing them to race the way they want to race and not always coordinating things from the regimental side of things. Cycling has become so regimental and not that much fun any more.”
Of course, time will prove if Smith’s approach is correct or not, but he is convinced that it is the best way to get the maximum out of each rider. “These team principals and general managers have to look at their teams and decide when they put their arms around the person to give them a wee bit of TLC; it is hard for these bike riders to be told ‘you failed today, this is what you have to do, go and to talk to the sports scientists, go talk to this person and that person.’ It has become so robotic.
“We are going to be a team that is going to be full of motivation, because we are going to go there and race. If it works it works, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. There won’t be analysis of this and analysis of that.
“Okay, there will be a certain element of sports science and various different areas, there has to be. We will be there as a professional team and a professional business, but at the same time that principle of allowing the guy to race is probably the biggest gift you can give everybody. Telling them, ‘just go out and race.’”
MTN Qhubeka rode its first Grand Tour this year when nine riders started, and finished, the Vuelta a España. That was a fine achievement for such a young team, not least because many of those were young African competitors with less experience than many in the race lineup.
The team wants to try to be a WorldTour squad by 2016 but, before than, Smith is hoping it will ride two Grand Tours next year.
It is pushing for an invite to the Tour de France and has already met ASO about that; a final decision is expected in January. Competing in the Vuelta again is another goal and, to that end, the team is working hard to increase its budget for 2015.
Smith had meetings with potential sponsors in recent weeks and was due to talk again on Thursday and Friday of this week. He wants to add three competitors to the team, and also to buy a second team bus and to bring on more support staff.
“We would like to go to 25 riders, I think, to realistically look at fielding a strong team in the Tour and a strong team in the Vuelta,” he said. “Last year, looking at IAM, it rode the Tour de France but the team they had in the Vuelta didn’t go so well.
“A lot of Grand Tour organisers think, ‘well, a lot of these Pro Continental teams can’t do two Grand Tours.’ But I believe with 25 riders we can and that we will have the strength in depth to be able to do that. We can field a completely different team for the Tour and the Vuelta, and do well in both of those.”
Riders such as Ciolek, Bos, Goss, Boasson Hagen and Farrar would of course be part of the Grand Tour lineup, but so too the team’s climbers. Smith believes that next year’s Tour route offers opportunities for both types, and is working hard now to try to get the extra budget to make such plans possible.
“A few of the existing partners are increasing their support for the team, and that helps. They have dug into their pockets and that has made a difference,” he said. “We are also speaking to a British company and another based in Brussels; they are two potential new sponsors, and together that would give us the opportunity to add three more guys.”
He already has potential riders in mind if things work out, and also has a likely timeframe to make announcements. “We have got the first training camp from November 23 to 30 in South Africa,” Smith stated. “I would love to be able to announce that we have got another one, possibly two partners by then, and to have three additional riders on board.”