If there is a moment that highlights Greg Henderson’s ability as a rider, it is his showing inside the final kilometre of stage six of this year’s Giro d’Italia. Hurtling towards the line, the Lotto Soudal team was intent on putting Andre Greipel in a position to take the stage, the 13th Grand Tour win of his career.
However there was one problem; the team was left with just one leadout rider heading into the final kilometre. Henderson didn’t panic, but hit the front, hit the gas and held on for a long, long time, giving his team leader a hugely impressive leadout. It was the platform he needed to romp to victory.
Greipel was one of many who were impressed afterwards. “Greg Henderson made a really, really long leadout, a really long pull,” he said, giving credit where credit was due. “When I looked up, when he went I thought, ‘this is going to be a bit too early,’ but he kept it up.”
Indeed he did; Henderson was on the front for easily 300 metres, if not more, showing he had strength where it mattered.
“I think I am going really well,” admitted the Kiwi rider, speaking to CyclingTips last week over a pre-training ride coffee in his base in Girona, Spain.
“There was that Giro stage, but I think one of my best ones that never really got talked about too much was the stage in Paris-Nice this year. I did a huge pull into a headwind. I even had guys from other teams come up to me the next day and go, ‘wow, that was impressive what you just did.’
“The one in the Giro…okay, it was more televised, maybe, and it was longer, I had a tailwind. I had already radioed through to the director to ask if it was a headwind or a tailwind, so I knew whether or not I could go early or late.
“It a good team effort. We were a little bit short-manned, if you like, with the absence of Marcel Sieberg… Jurgen Roelandts is normally there too, or Jens Debusschere. But we managed to get it right and we did what he had to do, to get a stage win with Greipel. If you can get the big fellow to 200 metres to go at the front, he is pretty hard to beat, for sure.”
Now 38 years of age, Henderson is in his fourteenth pro season but is as valued as ever. He recovered from knee problems which held him back in recent years and believes he is in better shape than he has been in a long time. He’s also highly motivated, keen to keep racing and to keep helping Greipel to win.
In order to do that he has worked hard at modifying his strengths.
“As I have got older now, I have trained my sprint so different to what I used to on Sky,” he explained. “I basically call it a 30 second time trial now. That is what I train for so that I can hold high speed for a really long time. I don’t have the massive power that these sprinters do, but I can do that.”
Indeed he can, and Greipel has benefitted from it more than once. The German is a proven winner, but that is at least partially down to the oomph of others such as Henderson.
“If he is there, he is still going to be an absolute weapon”
When CyclingTips was catching up with the Kiwi in Girona, a careless comment led to a moment of panic. Speaking about travel plans, this writer mentioned to Henderson that after a return home, bags would be packed again ‘in a couple of weeks’ to go on the Tour.
After a flicker of wide-eyed surprise, Henderson responded. “Ah mate…we’ve got longer than that – it’s nearly a month away…”
He’s looking forward to July and the biggest race of the year but, after riding thirteen stages of the Giro and then competing in the Skoda Tour of Luxembourg, he was also valuing his time at home.
Henderson started his final warm-up event on Wednesday, finishing a very solid seventh in the prologue of the Ster ZLM Toer.
He and Greipel – who was tenth – are both racing there, as is a likely major Tour rival, Marcel Kittel. The Giant-Alpecin rider has missed much of the season due to illness but his sixth in the recent Rund um Koln and 13th in the Ster ZLM Toer prologue show his form is coming.
Speaking before those two events, Henderson said that while there was uncertainty about the German’s form, that he would remain a major threat in the Tour if he was there.
“I don’t know what he has been up to, to be honest,” he said. “The thing is, for a sprinter he is so fast. If he gets to the finish of the stage you can never, ever count him out. I don’t even know what the latest is, if he is going to the Tour or if he is not going to the Tour, but if he is there he will still be the fastest man. He will still be the one to watch.”
Henderson recognises that Kittel’s season has been less than ideal. However that doesn’t negate the threat.
“He will miss the fitness, but nobody really knows what condition he is in,” he said. “Maybe he is going well. I don’t know. But what I am saying is that with a sprinter, if he gets to the last couple of kilometres, he doesn’t lose anything on his last 200 metres. It is getting to the last 200 metres that is the problem.
“If he is there, he is still going to be an absolute weapon.”
He’s not the only obstacle to stage wins for Greipel, though. Henderson also recognises that Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) are likely to be in the running for victory too.
“You can’t count out anyone in a bunch sprint,” he said. “There are so many trains now that have got it sussed to save the energy of the sprinter. The likely candidates, the big names are obviously Kristoff and Mark Cavendish.
“He has been the world’s best for how many years now? You never, ever count out Mark Cavendish.”
How to beat the big sprinters
So, the big question: with such other fast sprinters in the race, what is the best way for Greipel to beat them?
“Start in front of them,” he answered, laughing. “In a leadout train we will have our metre markers, which basically means this is my finish line here, this is Sieby’s [Marcel Sieberg] finish line here, this is Adam Hansen’s finish line. It is about getting there with the highest speed.
“One of the good things, one of my natural attributes is actually adapting from the front. I think it maybe comes from experience and years on the velodrome. If we are coming up short or if we have to go too early, I can adapt and find some room or wait a little bit longer on someone else’s wheel. Just things like that that come from experience, I think.
“But, to answer your question, ideally we’d want to have Greipel on the front with 200 because if Kittel opens with the lead, he is so hard to pass. Cavendish the same. Kristoff is so strong that if there is a slight headwind or a slight uphill, it is going to be so hard to pass him.
“So we can’t change our game plan. We just have to stick to what we know, to what we do right. Greipel is the same, he can’t think about the other sprinters, he just has to get to 200 metres to go and put full power down.
“If someone is faster on the day, that is bike racing, isn’t it?”
Thus far this year Greipel has clocked up six wins, including stages in the Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice, the Presidential Tour of Turkey, the Giro d’Italia and the Skoda Tour of Luxembourg. Cavendish has taken 13 victories, but hasn’t often squared up against the key rivals he will meet in the Tour.
Does Henderson believe he is back to his best, or is his success partially due to the absence of some of those other competitors?
“I don’t know, to be honest with you,” he said. “I haven’t raced him this year at all, I don’t think. I haven’t seen him sprint. I don’t look at cycling videos.
“I know he has got Renshaw, I think they have got a pretty good train this year, but I don’t know. Has he raced Greipel yet this year? Anyway….we will find out at the Tour!
“We will go in 100 per cent fit, there are no excuses in the Tour and we will have a go in the bunch sprints there. Then we will see who is the fastest.”
“I want to keep racing…I love it”
He’s earned attention for his leadouts, but Henderson made headlines for another reason earlier this year when he raised questions about Fabio Aru’s biological passport. The Italian Astana rider objected to this and opened legal proceedings against the Kiwi.
Understandably, Henderson didn’t want to comment on the matter during the interview, other than saying he wasn’t sure what the final outcome would be.
It’s undoubtedly something at the back of his mind, but he knows that he will have to let things play out. In the meantime, he is focussing fully on his racing.
That means helping Greipel to as many wins as possible, and also in earning himself a new contract. Although he’ll turn 39 in September, it’s clear that he loves the sport and also that he isn’t planning on retiring anytime soon.
“I want to keep racing,” he said. “For sure. I love it. I still believe that I am very good at my job. Until I lose motivation…I mean, I love training.”
He is also passionate about guiding the younger riders on his team and elsewhere. Having studied physical education in university, he has long had an interest in the physiological aspect of the sport and plans to keep using that.
In addition to coaching 11 male and female riders, he said he also draws a lot of satisfaction from helping the younger riders on the team in terms of tactics.
If things go to plan, Henderson will remain with Lotto Soudal in 2016. He said the Belgian squad has a multi-year contract with the lottery company and its future is secure; his intention is to keep doing what he is doing, and he believes that a new contract will follow.
“I am not too stressed about it, to be honest,” he said. “I know Andre [Greipel] is happy. He has already said to Marc [Sergeant, the team manager] to sign me up. So yeah, I am not stressed about it. If I was stressed I would be sending off emails and trying to talk to Marc. But I am not.
“I guess the talks will be held during the Tour or before. I know some teams are like, ‘you can’t go to the Tour if you haven’t signed,’ but is not going to be anything like that for me.
“They know I am here to do a job. My job is to deliver Greipel or whoever the sprinter is that day. Even if it is in a smaller race, I still prepare the sprint.”
He’s proud of what he does, how he rides, but stresses its not about himself.
“I am not there to get points for myself for the team. I am not there to win races for the team. I am there to make the team work as a team and to deliver whomever is sprinting that day in the best possible position to have a crack at the win.
“That’s what I like doing, and that’s what I hope to keep doing.”