Kessiakoff on Astana’s pressurising of riders, team’s licence woes, Nibali’s panache and an improving sport
He’s been out of the peloton for six months now and, with his autobiography Mitt Eget Race [My Own Race] now on the market, Fredrik Kessikoff was in a reflective mood in recent days.
The former Astana rider, who is known for his brilliant time trial win in the 2012 Vuelta a España ahead of the likes of Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde and Tony Martin plus a long stint in the Tour de France’s mountains jersey that same year, spoke at length to CyclingTips, analysing his career plus its beginning and end.
The 35 year old Swede was generally in a mellow frame of mind, being happy to talk for 30 minutes on a range of topics. However one subject causes his adrenaline to surge, his speaking rate to rise: the final year of his career and the manner of his exit still rankle, and he clearly feels badly treated.
The reason? The pressure he says he was put under by the Astana team’s senior management.
Kessiakoff crashed heavily during the Strade Bianche in March 2014, with his fall on an Italian gravel road tearing chunks out of his leg, hip and arm.
The riders had already been issued a warning about collective poor performances and he had started the race determined to try to put in a good ride. Instead, he ended his race on the ground, with the dust and dirt seeping into his wounds leading to complications that would last far longer than the skin healing would take.
A team doctor recognised that his system had been badly hit and told him not to compete. His team was having none of that, though, and insisted he line out on the Volta a Catalunya. He was still recovering at the time, came down sick when his system buckled and was a non-finisher. That led to another angry letter from team management, plus demands that he continue to race when he was sure he needed time to recover and heal up.
Kessiakoff lined out in, and struggled in, the Vuelta al País Vasco, Giro del Trentino and Tour de Romandie. He was a non-finisher in the GP du Canton d’Argovie, suffered in the Tour de Suisse, then was a DNF in the Tour of Austria. Each race dug the hole deeper; each demand prevented him being able to turn the situation around.
“I think it was definitely a major reason why I quit cycling,” Kessiakoff told CyclingTips, reflecting on the toughest year of his career. “I think the situation and how I was treated really drained my motivation.”
As he sees it, it is vital that the drive to succeed should be highest from the rider himself. However he regards it as ‘a really bad situation’ when others further ramp this up.
“Personally, I had a really high pressure on myself, always had, always wanted to perform. I never wanted to do this just to go and ride my bike, I wanted to do this job because I wanted to achieve,” he said. “I was doing everything I could and suddenly the team came and put even more pressure on me than I could handle. Suddenly it just became overwhelming.”
While he is speaking about his own case, the situation is a universal one, and not just limited to sport. Psychologists speak about the inverted U theory of psychological arousal; at low stress levels, performance is muted. At the optimal level [the top of the inverted U graph], optimal performances are achieved; beyond this, as the pressure grows even further, the levels of achievement quickly fall off.
To put it in more simple terms; everyone has a certain point between ambivalence and anxiety where the best output is achieved. Add too much stress to a situation and the effect is detrimental.
Kessiakoff is clear this is what happened to him. “It mentally drained me and it really put me in a bad place,” he stated. “I had a really, really difficult year with their added pressure on top of my bad luck and my own personal pressure.”
Dealing with threats about his salary
In an earlier interview with VeloNews Astana team manager Giuseppe Martinelli said he sent Kessiakoff to those races believing competition was the best thing for him, but that he wasn’t behind the letters demanding results.
Asked who was, and if general manager Alexandre Vinokourov was the sender, the rider didn’t pinpoint any one individual. “It was the management…Vinokourov is part of the management,” he said. “It was the highest management. From Vinokourov and his bosses, put it that way.
“It is maybe not bad to put on some pressure; of course, I was a paid rider, I was paid to get results, so of course they are allowed to put pressure on riders. But a good management also needs to be informed of what is the situation and why is a rider performing or why isn’t he performing,” he continued.
Kessiakoff’s issue is that demands were made without anyone trying to understand the situation. He points out that the team had several options to establish the truth and to see he wasn’t slacking off. He said he uploaded every training file, that the team’s four doctors were all informed of his health condition and that the directeur sportifs were in contact with him at each of the races he went to.
“I had the doctors telling me not to race but that then being overturned by the sports directors because they needed people to race and they really didn’t trust me for some reason. But when I came to the races the doctors again could confirm that I shouldn’t be there.
“But despite all this going on, still the management continued sending me letters telling me I needed to start performing. They were not asking questions, they were not saying, ‘Frederik, what is going to take for you to start performing?’ They were just telling me, ‘you will start performing or you will not get your salary.’
“Of course I got frightened at that. And for me being scared didn’t help me perform either. That put me in an even worse place.”
The situation extends far beyond Kessiakoff; considering reports of letters being sent to riders demanding results, it’s not difficult to imagine others in a similar situation of fearing for their jobs.
There was a general climate of tension, of expectation.
And then the positive cases started.
In August the Iglinsky brothers Maxin and Valentin were tested at separate races. Both results came back positive for EPO.
Three riders from the Astana Continental team subsequently tested positive for anabolic androgenic steroids.
Like the Iglinskiy brothers, Kazakhstan’s national champion Ilya Davidenok, Victor Okishev and Artur Fedosseyev all accepted the charges and lost their places on the teams.
Actions as important as words
Kessiakoff clearly has reason to feel aggrieved at his treatment by Astana, but he is clear on one thing; he said he never saw clear signs of any organised doping or encouragement to take it up.
“I honestly hope that they weren’t thinking what it could lead to,” he said, speaking about the demands for results. “I never heard them say, ‘guys, you need to start doping to go fast.
“But of course if you add up one plus one, it is going to be two. If you put a lot of pressure on a rider…if you put too much pressure on, you always have the risk of him doing something stupid.”
He considers that ‘something stupid’ as a course of action that could have helped him turn things around if he had gone down that road. “I could have started performing, I am sure. If I didn’t have enough morals, I could have maybe doped and possibly started performing and all my problems would have gone away.
“The team would have been happy, the management wouldn’t have said anything, I would have continued getting my salary, everything would have been good again.
“It was kind of a situation where I felt it was really dangerous, because some riders maybe don’t have something to fall back on to. For me, I knew if I quit cycling I had my life in Sweden and I had my family here and I will find something to do. But if you are maybe from a poor country and your are not sure what you are going to fall back into…maybe there is no social security in your country or whatever, and you don’t know anything [other than cycling].
“Then I think it could have been that another person might have done something different that I didn’t, might have taken a stupid decision because of that pressure.”
To Astana’s credit, Kessiakoff said that it and the other teams of his pro career all told riders that drug use wasn’t an option. However he feels that making such statements without recognising that riders are human and can’t perform on demand is counterproductive.
“In the end, even though this is what they communicated orally, your actions are just as significant. I do feel that the stance was there but the way they were executing it wasn’t in line with what they were saying. So there were double standards there.”
Despite that, though, he is glad the UCI Licence Commission ultimately overruled the UCI’s own request to withdraw the team’s WorldTour licence.
“I do believe the outcome was the right one because if they had lost the licence, in my opinion the people being hardest punished would have been the cyclists,” he said.
“I feel that there are no riders on the team [breaking rules], apart of course from the ones who doped and who got caught. Most of the guys on the team that I know are good guys and I don’t feel they are the ones who should be punished if it is a management thing.
“So, for the sake of the riders I am happy they kept the licence. But it is good that the team is monitored a bit extra, the management especially. Because I do feel that they cannot go on like this.
“Sooner or later, in my opinion anyway, you drive people into doping. I think that is the dangerous thing here. At least this was a wake up call for them.”
“It felt like Vincenzo could have started crying”
Kessiakoff’s book is initially only in Swedish, but he hopes that it will be available down the line in English. In it he details his career, tracing his path from an early mountainbike career which yielded world and European championship medals plus a World Cup race win in 2007.
From there he turned to the road, racing with the Fuji-Servetto, Garmin-Transitions and Astana teams. That phase produced his Vuelta time trial stage win plus seven days in the polka dot jersey.
The 2013 season was a difficult one, with allergies affecting his Giro d’Italia participation and then a fractured wrist putting him out of the Tour de France. But last year was much more difficult, and led to him disillusioned, drained and walking away from the sport.
He said he didn’t know what he was going to do post-career, but last December he was approached by the organisation of the Velothon Stockholm. The new race will be held on September 13 and he has been working hard on that. His career may be over but he still has links to cycling.
Looking back, he has many memories about the sport. One of those relates to Vincenzo Nibali and his victory in the 2013 Giro d’Italia; the Italian had won stage 18 but, upon learning that the following day’s mountain race over the Stelvio to Martell was cancelled due to snow, was deeply upset.
This contrasted with the eight other Astana riders, who were delighted with the unexpected rest day plus not having the stress of defending the Maglia Rosa.
“It felt like Vincenzo could have started crying,” Kessiakoff said.
“I asked, ‘aren’t you happy, it would have been so hard and it is much better that we get the day’s rest?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘now people are going to say that I won only because they cancelled the queen stage. Now I won’t get the change to show my fellow countrymen how strong I am and the fact that I am the best.”
Nibali was able to prove his point by winning the following stage to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, but the story shows how driven the Italian is.
Because of that, Kessiakoff wasn’t hugely surprised when he won the 2014 Tour de France. He acknowledges that Alberto Contador and Chris Froome were missing, having crashed out, but lauds the result.
“Vincenzo won the Tour fair and square because he needed to be in the right position and avoid the crashes; he showed that he executed that perfectly.
“I look forward to this year again and seeing if he can repeat the win, hopefully with Contador and Froome being there all the way to the finish.”
Now watching from the sidelines, Kessiakoff ends the interview talking about the changes to the sport. He said he believes ‘without a doubt’ that cycling is in a better position than it was ten years ago.
“I know for a fact that I got my results 100 percent clean,” he said. “Not even grey zone or anything. I was 100 percent clean. I don’t believe I could have got those results ten or fifteen years ago. Five years ago, yes, it’s possible, but ten years ago, probably not.
“It is obvious that some riders are still cheating, because they are being caught. But I think it is individual cyclists now taking stupid decisions, maybe because of pressure or whatever. It is not as bad as ten, fifteen years ago when it was organised.
“I would be happy to see friends or my family racing, because I think it is generally a clean sport.”