A conversation with Andrew Talansky: “The journey isn’t always what you expect”

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FOLSOM, CA (CT) — He’s won the Criterium du Dauphiné. He’s been second at the Tour de Romandie. He’s been national time trial champion, and finished in the top 10 of the Tour de France and Vuelta a España. And he’s still only 27 years old.

But in the cutthroat “what have you done for me lately” world of professional cycling, those results seem like ages ago for American Andrew Talansky.

The Cannondale rider quietly finished 11th at the 2015 Tour, and then dropped out of the Vuelta in the third week. And his spring campaign has been forgettable; he fell ill at the Tour de San Luis, and did not finish. He crashed on a descent from a breakaway at Paris-Nice and did not finish, and at Romandie he rode in a support role for Rigoberto Uran and Pierre Rolland.

So it wasn’t a complete surprise to hear that it was Lawson Craddock, not Talansky, who was appointed Cannondale’s leader for the Amgen Tour of California.

Yet when the race reached the summit of Gibraltar in Santa Barbara at the end of Stage 3, it was Talansky crossing the finish line just ahead of Craddock after working to keep his team leader as close as possible on a day the team also protected the race lead of American Ben King.

On Wednesday, Talansky was at the front again, attacking at 10km; BMC Racing’s Samuel Sanchez chased down the move, and in the end, Talansky and Craddock finished in the front group behind winner Peter Sagan.

It’s an unusual role for Talansky, to ride as a super domestique for a younger rider at the biggest stage race in America, but it’s all part of what he says is a return to form after a what he calls a “terrible” past three months.

“Lawson’s had a great spring, starting early, at Provence, Paris Nice, Pais Vasco, the Ardennes. The way he’s been riding, when you perform that way in the spring, you deserve to be a protected rider here at California,” Talansky said. “Obviously I’ve struggled a little bit in the spring, so I think the team was doing the right thing. They’re backing the rider who has the best results.

“Lawson is a good friend of mine. I was really happy to have him on the team, and we’ve definitely gotten closer since he’s been on the team. I was happy to see the team put their support behind him. I know that feeling, and it is a nice thing when the team 100 percent backs you, and when you’ve been targeting a race like Lawson’s been thinking of this since the winter, it’s a huge opportunity for him. You need to feel supported by your team, and you need that 100 percent support. I’ve had that numerous times. I would say it’s absolutely the right call, and I’m happy to be part of it.”

Cannondale took a second stage win on Thursday, when Latvian Toms Skujins won from a daylong breakaway in South Lake Tahoe.

Talansky will have a chance to show what he can do on Friday’s time trial in Folsom, wearing the stars-and-stripes skinsuit of national champion for the first time on U.S. soil. he heads into the TT sitting 11th overall, 1:15 down on Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep).

“For me, [the Amgen Tour] is kind of rebuilding,” Talansky said. “Spring was rough, but since I’ve came back to the US, I’ve been feeling good. I’ve been feeling more myself.”

“People who have lost faith in me really don’t matter”

Pressed for details on what led to his “rough spring,” Talansky preferred to keep his personal life just that — personal.

“There’s a few factors,” he said. “I mean, I don’t really feel the need to dive into it, but as far as I’m concerned, it just … I mean, obviously, there’s no putting any sugarcoating on it. It was pretty terrible by any standards, and especially by my standards. The team’s been supportive, and I feel like I’ve come out the other side of it better, and I’m just looking forward to … Well, number one, the rest of this week. Since coming home two weeks ago, the training’s been good and it’s felt like a bit of a reset button, getting back home. I’m a lot more focused on what’s to come, and really this week, and what we’re doing right now. Then, as far as I’m concerned, the last three months can disappear.

“The one thing I’ll say is that the results I’ve achieved, you don’t achieve those as a fluke. I’ve done those because of, number one, you have the talent to do it, but number two, the hard work that I’ve put in, and that’s something that hasn’t changed.

“Sometimes there are things and factors out of your control that happen. Same way I did when I was younger, to get onto a World Tour team, and to get where I am, you just have to kind of battle through it, and if you can get through it, I think you come out better for it. The journey doesn’t always look like what you expect, sometimes. I mean, I would say for me, 99 percent of the time, the way I get somewhere doesn’t look like how you might plot it out on paper.

“But at the end of the day, when I set out goals and I have things I want to achieve, I really don’t stop until I do. I think people who truly know me, they know that about me, and people who truly know me haven’t lost any faith or any belief in my ability or what I can accomplish in this sport. And, to the people who have, they really don’t matter to me.”

“I’m capable of winning the biggest one-week race in the world”

Asked about his goals for the remainder of the season — or his career, for that matter — Talansky said his first focus is to get back to the form he had in 2014.

“You know, I’ve said it a few times before, but I think it’s true now more than ever — I don’t think you can put a limit on it,” Talansky said. “I’ve been on the podium, and won, big one-week stage races. I’ve been top 10 in Grand Tours. I’ve almost won stages of Grand Tours. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’ve never gotten to do the ride that I’m capable of in a Grand Tour. Not even at the Vuelta, when I got seventh.

“In a Grand Tour, there’s always going to be adversity. Maybe you crash, maybe you get a little bit sick, but it’s all about overcoming that. But, you know, in 2014, I showed up to the Tour in the best form of my career, and I crashed, and I was out. That’s it. That’s the way that year went, and thankfully I’d won the Dauphine. You know, it was some sort of salvaging of that summer campaign.

“Last year, it was a scramble. I showed up to the Tour nowhere near what I’m capable of, nowhere near my best. At the end of the first stage, I’d already made it further in this race than I did last year. We joked about that during the first stage. I was with Ben [King], because he was here last year, and after 65km, we were like, ‘All right. Made it further than I did last year, so that’s a win!’ So, in some ways, last year just felt like battling back all the time, and this year, to an extent, with the difficult spring, I feel like that a little.

“But with the team, we made a choice to not just keep trying to race. I got a good bulk of training in Tenerife, and went to Romandie. I suffered a bit there, and now I’m here and it feels like it’s building some momentum, where last year I kind of scraped, and clawed, and fought my way to 11th in the Tour. I had a good ride on that one stage, and I was up there the whole last week. It was just kind of a gritty ride. You know, it wasn’t a, ‘Oh, I showed up here in perfect form and now I’m just going to show them.’

“I think once I get back to the level I’m capable of, then we can look at going beyond that. I’ve shown that the level I’m capable of is winning and podiums on the biggest one-week race in the world. Climbing with the best guys in the world, and time trial with the best guys in the world. So, getting back there is a good step in the right direction.”

Asked if he expects to race at the Tour de France this summer, Talansky couldn’t say.

“The team has never… like I said, they’ve been very supportive, as far as my race program. As far as looking at where I am, taking everything into account and figuring out what the best plan is to get from Point A to Point B, and you know, everybody always harps on July and the Tour, and, that’s fine to do, it is the biggest race in the world. But you know, like I said, I’m excited about this week [in California]. I’m excited about Tour de Suisse. Certainly, if there are opportunities to do something in either of those races, I won’t let it pass by, because as you see, you can show up in the best form and have a terrible July, or you can show up in terrible form and get something decent out of July. Whatever the case. Anything in between, you just don’t know.”

“I’m not doing this for anybody’s approval”

Asked if he feels that unrealistic expectations are placed upon athletes to perform consistently, regardless of the same life obstacles everyday people must also face, Talansky said that it’s all part of being a professional athlete.

“I would say, it’s not really limited to cycling. I would say that’s sports in general,” he said. “Obviously, I’m very thankful to do what I do for a living. I love doing it. I wake up every day, and even during the hard times, you have to remind yourself. But 90 percent of the time, you’re in a good place, and you’re waking up and riding your bike, and that’s your job. You’re getting to do what you love for a living, which I realize the majority of people don’t get to do. People are doing a job because they need to support their family, or they need to get by, or whatever the case is, and I’m really glad I get to spend my life doing what I love.

“That said, it could be football, it could be basketball, it could be cycling, it could be whatever — we are professional athletes, but we’re also people. And the same issues that somebody who goes to a nine-to-five job might have on a personal level, or if they’re sick for two weeks, whatever it is, it’s like, you can just amplify those, because we’re not able to do our job if things are going wrong with our body. We can’t sit down at the computer and still program, or still invest in stocks and bonds, or still type essays, or solve math problems, whatever the case may be. We can’t do that.

“If our body’s not functioning, we can’t do our job, and we’re no different just because we made it to this level. Professional athletes in general, we’re obviously athletically gifted, and we work very hard at it, but I would say, on the whole… I wouldn’t say the expectation is unrealistic. I mean, everybody’s entitled to their opinion. Everybody can expect what they want to, but that’s part of the job of being a professional athlete, is balancing the opinions of the people who really matter to you and a lot of the critics out there.”

“I think you see it more with football or basketball players, their personal lives, their everything, they’re completely exposed to the public, right? And they’re held to such a different standard, because you are a public figure, and I would say the scrutiny you get placed under, whether you’re sick or you have something going on in your personal life, or things that you don’t really want out in the public… they’re personal. That’s just so highly scrutinized that it is different, right? If somebody’s just anonymous and doing their thing in their day-to-day life, nobody’s looking to them and saying, ‘Oh man, what’s wrong with this guy?’ on the local group ride or something. Nobody cares.

“But because we are professional athletes, that’s just part of the job. I’d say everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and at the end of the day I’m not doing this for anybody’s approval, or to appease anybody’s opinion of me. I’m doing this because I love it, and I like the process. I like the racing, and I just want to get the best out of myself.”

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