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by Shane Stokes
October 10, 2015
Photography by Cor Vos, Shane Stokes
He turned 39 years of age a month ago, he’s been a pro since 2002, but Greg Henderson is fully committed to continuing in the sport for at least one more season. The New Zealand rider has confirmed to CyclingTips that he will remain part of the Lotto Soudal setup in 2016, and that he is hungry to keep riding well.
“There was a verbal agreement before the Tour and then I signed a letter of intent during the race,” he said on Friday. “I was going to get it all teed away at the Tour but I crashed out, was in hospital and all that carry on. I signed the full contract a couple of months ago now. But I just really haven’t got off my arse and made it public.”
He’s doing it now.
“I am definitely staying for another year.”
Henderson has been part of the team for the past four seasons. In that time he’s been one of the most important part of Andre Greipel’s leadout trains, and contributed to many of the German sprinter’s successes. Henderson’s ability is exemplified by the work he did on stages in both Paris-Nice and the Giro d’Italia.
On both occasions he put in a massive turn at the front, ramping up the speed and heading the peloton for a sustained period. The effort enabled Greipel to swoop and add to his victory tally. It also illustrated why Henderson is so highly valued by his team.
Had things gone to plan, he would have been able to play a key role in Greipel’s four stage wins in the 2015 Tour de France. However Henderson crashed heavily early on, fracturing ribs and suffering other injuries. He was in serious discomfort until he was forced to withdraw on stage seven.
He went home, tried to keep his spirits up, but admits it was a difficult task.
“I was mentally down for a while, to be honest with you,” he said, speaking frankly about his emotions at the time. “I wasn’t a happy chappie. It was really difficult. I had my family support me. It is just that when you see your team-mates, you want to be there giving.
“That is why I rode three days with broken ribs and whatever else I had going on. I wanted to just hope, day by day, that I would get better. I tried and tried to carry on. But in actual fact I was getting worse.
“For a couple of weeks after I was mentally really down because I couldn’t do anything other than lie on the couch and watch the Tour.”
Henderson has a reputation as a tough rider. He was unable to finish the Tour, but he did the next best thing: knuckle down and set new targets.
“I wanted to get back to a really high level, just for my mind and for my wellbeing, physically and mentally,” he said.
“I raced Eneco Tour, I was a little underdone for that race but I trained hard, I raced hard through that. Then Hamburg… I could feel myself coming good there.
“After that I went to altitude with the family, going to Boulder, Colorado. I felt better and better there.
“Then I did the Quebec and Montreal races. They are super-hard races for me and I got around them both.”
Those races were all part of his build-up to the world championships in Richmond, Virginia. He’s pleased with how the road race went.
“I had a really good worlds,” he said. “I was really happy with how that went. Obviously I couldn’t follow on the second-last climb, I rolled in with a group that was about 40 seconds down. But I followed everything I could manage to follow right up until two climbs to go.
“It was a pretty good world championships for me. It was a really hard circuit. Those three times consecutively up the hills so close to the finish is what really took a lot of the pure, pure sprinters out of it.
“So I actually reached a really good level. It was based on a lot of hard work, which is what I enjoy. I got myself back to that level that I really wanted to be in.”
His situation was one that many other riders have found themselves in this season. Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Dan Martin, Simon Gerrans are just some who were badly injured and faced time on the couch as a result.
Each had to try to come back from that. Henderson explains what his primary motivation was.
“Basically, to prove to myself too that I can get straight back to that level,” he said. “I don’t like starting an off-season unfit…it is not a good way to start back the next season. It just makes it so much harder.”
Greipel is 33 years of age, a point where many start to slow down. He did the opposite this season; the German had one of his most successful years, winning four stages in the Tour de France, and also clocking up one in the Giro d’Italia plus 11 other victories.
Henderson played a part in some of those, and has that specific motivation again for 2016.
He’s committed to Greipel, and believes his leader’s run of form is down to sweat and application.
“I am not sure that he has done anything extra,” he said, when asked what the German had done differently this season. “It is just that he is consistently a hard worker, and it pays off. There is no substitute for hard work.
“Andre is the consummate professional. He keeps himself in good nick. Even in the off season, he will be running or he will be on his mountain bike. He is always fit, doing something. He has got young kids too…I am sure he is chasing them around half the time like I am..that would keep you fit.
“I don’t think you can attribute any majorly differences. It was just the timing of everything, and he is always in good condition for the right time.”
Henderson has a point, in terms of timing. Marcel Kittel, the rider who won four stages in 2013 and again in 2014, had a disappointing season and didn’t start the Tour. Greipel won a stage in 2013 and finished second twice to Kittel; had the younger rider not been there, Greipel might have taken home three wins rather than one.
Like the German, Henderson is also a rider who puts in the hard work. Despite the July disappointment, he’s satisfied with his season.
“Bar the Tour, I was really happy with how it went,” he said. “[Especially] some of the form I had in the early season, such as the leadouts in Paris-Nice and the Giro… The speed and the distance I can go for is still world class. I was in great condition for the Tour also, but I never really got to show much there.
“Then coming back [from the Tour crash], I was mentally happy that I could force myself back from injury. When everyone is racing, you are doing that hard yards, training, training, training, so you can actually get back to a super level.
“I think in terms of success, that would probably be my biggest this season, getting back to a high level for the world championships.”
Henderson plans to spend some time back in New Zealand this off-season, heading there in December when his children have time away from their school in Girona, Spain. He’ll ride the national championships there and, after that, continue his buildup for yet another European season.
He may be older than most of the peloton, but he swears his motivation is still high and his dedication to the job complete.
“I am definitely a racer. There is no question there,” he said, asked about his commitment. “I am still there.”
That he is, and he aims to be still there right in the thick of bunch finishes next season.