How Greg Henderson went beyond the call of duty to make Tour de France team

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MONTAUBAN, France (CT) – Strong climbers such as Alberto Contador are known for their ability to ride out of the saddle for long periods of time but they have nothing on Greg Henderson.

The tough Kiwi has revealed that he did entire training sessions without once sitting in the saddle in a bid to make Lotto Soudal’s Tour de France team. It was a goal he ultimately achieved.

Speaking to CyclingTips at the Tour, Henderson said that he had to spend weeks training indoors while suffering from bad saddle sores earlier this season.

“There was the option of surgery but our doctors decided against it as it can flare up again,” he explained. “We just took the time to let it heal. I was confined to a wind trainer in my basement, riding out of the saddle the whole time.”

Henderson said that he raised the front of his bike to mimic climbing and then gradually ramped up the training.

“The problem is to stay out of your saddle for 20 minutes is really, really difficult,” he stated at Wednesday’s stage start in Limoges. “So I had to build that up. It was 20, then 30, then 40 minutes. All of a sudden, once I got to 40 minutes I was adapted.

“So then I got up to two and a half, three hours out of the seat no problem. It was out of the saddle the whole time…I had to do it like that.”

Adam Hansen has competed on the same team as Henderson for many years. The duo rode alongside each other for three years with the T-Mobile/HTC Highroad setup and then, after a period of two seasons on different squads, were reunited on their current Lotto-Soudal setup in 2012. They have both been there for the past four and a half years.

Hansen is known as a very tough rider but he’s impressed by what Henderson did.

“He’s worked very hard to be here. When he had his saddle sore problems, most guys would take a rest,” he told CyclingTips on Wednesday. “But he was doing everything out of the saddle, training indoors. He has done everything possible to be at the Tour. He wants to be here for the team. That just shows his character.

“He wants to give everything for it. That is one of the good attributes of Greg and having him on the team.”

A key lieutenant for one of the sport’s quickest riders

Henderson has been an important part of the squad during his time with it, and has used his strength and speed to be a key leadout man for André Greipel. The big German is one of the most successful sprinters in the sport, and is frank in his praise for what the Kiwi does.

“I think we have a really good relationship. We are good friends on and off the bike. You can trust him 100 percent. He is just a must-have in a team like we have,” he stated, talking minutes prior to the start of the Tour’s fifth stage in Limoges.

Henderson will be pleased with the latter point, although earlier this year he wasn’t able to be there for his teammates. He rode the Santos Tour Down Under but was then a non-finisher at both the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne.

He was then forced to take a long break from competition. “The injury was pretty hard,” he admitted, reflecting back on what was a tough period for him.

Stuck at home, he improvised by doing those hours of training out of the saddle, and also added an extra element which helped him build extra form.

“I did a lot of altitude training at home in the basement. It worked well for me. I was confined to riding on a wind trainer, but I had one of those masks [to simulate altitude training],” he said. “I did all of my sessions with the mask and I was also sleeping in an altitude tent.

“Normally my resting heart rate is like 40, but I was waking up every morning with a heart rate of 65 or 70. So it means the whole night you are doing extra work.

“I started about 1800 metres and then I had to gradually build it up. By the time I got out of tent and went to Turkey, I was comfortably sleeping at 3200 metres.”

The level is higher than at many altitude camps and placed a huge demand on his system. In addition to boosting his fitness, he says it also had an effect on his body composition. Those two factors together helped him achieve an impressive sixth overall in the Presidential Tour of Turkey.

“It was my comeback race. I lost a lot of weight just from the altitude,” he explained. “I hadn’t done any sprint training or anything like that, but I was climbing a little better than I normally do. The level in Turkey was also down a little bit.

“I raced every day hard. Normally on a hilly stage I would normally pull it up and just ride up the mountain, but even on the hill stages I rode hard.”

‘I lost a lot of my arse’

Spending weeks out of the saddle during his recovery brought an unforeseen result for Henderson. Using different muscle groups to normal had an effect on his body: while his arms didn’t build up significantly, he lost bulk elsewhere.

“I lost a lot of my arse and a bit of quad,” he explained. “It was from being out of the saddle. The team did make a special seat for me after four, five weeks, and then I could sit down.

“I had to work a lot again on my seated power because I had lost a lot of it. But coming from the track, I know a lot of the exercises to do to bring it back. So now I have put my big fat arse back on, my cottage of wattage.

“Now my seated power is better and my overall power is better.”

Although he didn’t finish the Tour of Norway in May, Henderson was solid in the Skoda Tour of Luxembourg. He helped Greipel to victory on stage one and placed a solid 42nd overall himself.

He was then 46th in the Ster ZLM Toer and, having also ridden that race alongside Greipel, was deemed important for the Tour de France team.

Greipel wanted him there and so too his teammates.

“He is not just strong, he is strong in adapting, in taking decisions,” said Greipel on Wednesday. “I think at the end, everybody is in this mechanism we have. So everybody needs to be there for each other.”

Hansen also underlines his worth. “He brings heaps of knowledge and experience. He keeps everything under control. He is very good like this. He gives great leadouts and gives us confidence, which is good.”

Like Greipel, Henderson’s intimidating appearance belies a softer nature underneath. On stage two, the day after Sam Bennett and Michael Morkov had a huge crash at the race, he gave them – literally – a helping hand when they were under pressure.

“I just felt sorry for them,” he said. “I have been in that situation where you have crashed. They are not getting dropped because they are shit bike riders, they are getting dropped because they are injured.

“I have been there, I know what it is like, so I thought a little push won’t hurt.”

Hansen gives him a thumbs up in terms of general character.

“He is a nice guy. He’s full of knowledge, funny, witty. He is always entertaining, which is always good. I like his sense of humour. It is good.”

Retirement plans on hold as racing bug continues

Being appreciated by key people on the Lotto Soudal team is important to Henderson. It underlines that his work is recognised and it will, hopefully, lead to more time with the squad.

Although he said over the winter that he planned to end his career at the end of the 2016 season, he has now changed his mind on that. He wants to do one more season, and is clear where he hopes it will be.

“I am not going to retire. Originally in December last year I was thinking of retirement and it sort of went pretty viral. But no, I definitely want to ride another year.

“I am obviously hoping to extend with these guys, for sure. These guys are like family.”

Greipel and Hansen underlined his attributes and may well urge Lotto Soudal to keep him on. But, other than serious horsepower in the leadout, what does Henderson himself think he brings to the team?

“Just calmness,” he answered. “Calmness is the main thing. And experience. Jens [Debusschere] and Jurgi [Jurgen Roelandts] are in front of me, they are fast as me no question, but it is just when to go, to relax. I say, ‘calm down guys. If someone passes us don’t panic. We can pass them on the next corner.’

“We have worked together now since 2009, so we have complete trust in each other.”

Henderson has not yet secured an extension with Lotto Soudal. However he hopes that a strong showing in the Tour de France will secure that deal. He said that he hasn’t spoken about the subject much with the squad, preferring instead to concentrate on the race.

He knows though that he’s got a perfect platform. “It is the best place to show them that I can still do it,” he said. “I showed them on stage one, I was the fastest there. Unfortunately we just didn’t have Andre on the wheel. We did do it perfect. It was just one of those situations where the crowd was involved, the barriers were involved, the next thing Andre lost the wheel.

“Once he lost the wheel, the guy who had my wheel [Mark Cavendish – ed.] ended up winning the stage. If he [Greipel] had my wheel, it might have been a different story.”

Greipel was fourth there and was incredibly close to victory two days later in Angers. He picked up second behind Mark Cavendish, who triumphed in a photo finish.

Although Tuesday didn’t work out in the big sprint into Limoges, Henderson has full faith in Greipel.

“His form is incredible. The best I have seen it, actually. He is going really, really well.

“You can tell when he is going really well too because he goes quiet on the bus. He goes in on himself a little bit. So you know then that he knows he is going well too.”

Ditto for Henderson, who is lean and motivated. He’s had a difficult time this season but literally rose to the challenge, spending weeks off the saddle in thin air conditions to be ready for the biggest race on earth.

If that dedication is rewarded, he – via Greipel – will achieve his goal in the race.

He’ll also go a long way towards securing a ride for 2017 and prolonging a very solid career.

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