Brendan Canty Q&A: On his Grand Tour debut and first season in the WorldTour

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Australia’s Brendan Canty is in his first season as a WorldTour professional, racing for the Cannondale-Drapac team after a rapid rise through the cycling ranks. He’s just completed his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España, where he managed to get into a couple of breakaways, including stage 12 where he finished an impressive sixth.

In this interview Canty reflects on his Grand Tour debut, his season so far, and on the recent period of uncertainty within Cannondale-Drapac as management sought to secure sponsorship beyond this season. The following interview has been edited for length and fluency.

CyclingTips: How did you find your first Grand Tour?

Brendan Canty: I think for me, one of the challenges — and I think many riders share the same thing — is to actually finish in Madrid. And a three-week Grand Tour’s something I’d never obviously done before; it was my first one. The next step [down] is mostly week-long stage races. So it was very interesting to see how my body was going to cope and how I was going to feel towards the end.

I was quite surprised actually in that I probably felt better than I thought I might have. But it came in waves. I mean, I had two days in the breakaway and typically you have a day in the breakaway and then you feel like rubbish for the next two days.

I was surprised with how I felt towards the end and I think even week two and week three I started riding better than I did in the first week. From that point of view it was great.

What were you and the team hoping you’d get out of the Vuelta? Was it a combination of looking after Michael Woods, and trying to get in those breaks?

We never stepped into the tour saying that Woodsy was going to be a GC rider. But we knew how strong he was riding — we were aware of it but we weren’t committing to it from the start. And it was more about taking each day as it comes and making sure riders had their own opportunities. Which is really good.

I think the staff did a really good job of managing the performance plan and curating it based on how the riders were going. And then Woodsy was obviously showing he was riding extremely well and after the first couple of tests on the mountains we kind of shifted focus quite a bit more to make sure he was in the right position at the right time at crucial moments.

Obviously the news of the team potentially not existing next year … We had no idea and we only heard that after stage eight, via email. So then every single person on the bus doesn’t know if he’s got a job for next year. But then that was actually a really strong moment for us during the race on stage 9, where I think we actually rallied more together and committed even more to Michael’s goal.

[It] was actually a very special moment for me and I think everyone on the team on the bus that morning when [sports director] Juanma [Garate] said “I understand the situation. You guys can either go out there and ride for yourselves and try and get results so you can have a job for next year, or we can continue with the job at hand and keep doing what we’re doing and support Woodsy and certain riders on the certain stages.”

Everyone put their hand up for the second option and then we went out that day and pretty much rode and controlled the race from start to finish. Michael finished third on that stage I think.

That kind of set the tone for the rest of the Vuelta. I think it was really great.

Canty rides the front for teammate Michael Woods on stage 15 of the Vuelta.

What was that period like for you? Were you looking around, trying to find another ride for next year? Or were you just focussed on the Vuelta?

It was obviously a pretty concerning thing. I was also a little bit … I wouldn’t say “relaxed” about it, but kind of didn’t want to really address it at that moment. I wasn’t really going and asking every man and his dog if there was a spot on a team for next year, for example. And to be honest the preference for me would be to just have my existing contract honoured and stay with the team. I’m happy here and I think the culture and environment is really good for me.

And that kind of sorted itself out before things got a bit too serious where it was like “OK, I really need to make sure I can try and secure a job next year.”

So you are staying with Cannondale-Drapac for next year?

Well, yeah. I mean, I had an existing contract and I didn’t sign elsewhere during the period in which JV [general manager Jonathan Vaughters] had given us the option to go elsewhere.

Back to the Vuelta – what was it like being in those two breakaways, and particularly on stage 12 where you ended up sixth?

For me I was actually really happy to get into two breakaways throughout the race. I think getting through to Madrid on its own was a really good achievement but then also having those two breakaway days and a couple of other stages where I was able to help the team quite a lot. It was hard though!

Both of my breakaway days took about 45-50 kilometres, I think, to get away. So it wasn’t one of those days where you can line up at the front of the peloton and wait till the flag drops and the first attack sticks with five or six riders. You’re actually battling on for an hour, an hour and a half. You’re not quite sure which move’s going to go.

And that can be a little bit of luck but you also spend a lot of energy trying to get into it sometimes and you think “This one’s gotta stick – I can’t go any harder than this”. And then you look over your shoulder and sure enough one of the teams is bringing it back. And then you spend the next 10 minutes just trying to recover while you watch other guys go and you think “Man, this is the break and I’m not in it.”

Canty battled his way into the breakaway on stage 12.

So I think it was pretty good to get in that break [on stage 12]. But then Tom Southam came up to me in the car on radio and said “Good job Brendan, how are you feeling?” And I’d just say “I’m feeling like rubbish. I don’t even know why I’m in the breakaway. I’m going to get dropped in five minutes’ time.” Because when you get into a break initially the tempo is still really hard and you’ve got to pull through at a solid effort to extend the gap while the peloton slows down.

But particularly with the second breakaway where I finished sixth, when I first got into it I felt really bad but then I actually ended up feeling really good on that stage to the point where I was coming into that final climb quite excited because I knew that I was feeling good and had an opportunity to do something.

And that was in contrast to the first break where we hit a climb which I thought would usually suit me quite well, and I got to the bottom of it and I just couldn’t really produce the effort that I know I’m capable of. So that was a bit of a shame because I thought that might have suited me even better. But to be able to get get up to the front of a breakaway that stayed away and try and attack or animate the final climb I thought was quite a nice feeling. And even when the winning rider [ed. Lotto Soudal’s Tomasz Marczynski] went away on the climb I thought I might have been able to go with him.

But then we were still racing for second place and until I did a barrel-roll over the guardrail, things were going fantastic.

What happened with the crash?

It was just a little bit dusty on the corner and it was a little bit off-camber and it came up quickly, and one of my wheels started sliding. So then I just, instead of trying to keep on going around the corner, I just committed to going straight and trying to reduce more speed before hitting something. Which worked out really nicely because I did absolutely no damage to myself. Whereas I think if you fall in the middle of the road you hurt yourself a bit more.

But I think a few guys ended up crashing on that descent as well. That’s the one Chris Froome fell two times on. And there was a few other riders that crashed in the middle or towards the back of the peloton on that descent too. It could have just been me but I think it was a little bit dusty as well. But I mean to have no injuries and just straight back up on the bike …

It was a bit annoying to just sit behind that group and see them and not be able to catch them and potentially ride on to a podium on the stage. But I think also sixth place on the day and doing what I did was a satisfying performance.

What was the level of racing like at the Vuelta compared to other races you’ve done?

I mean, it was obviously very high. It’s hard to say that it was a level above something like the Criterium du Dauphine. Very similar sort of riders. The level, I would argue, is quite similar but it’s just much longer. I was actually speaking to guys who had done quite a few Grand Tours and asking about how difficult this one was in relation to the other ones. And they said it was quite up there.

It was quite difficult because there weren’t any really easy days. There was maybe one or two days where a breakaway just went from the line and it was just a controlled day in the peloton. Most days it would take an hour, an hour and a half.

And they said that made it quite difficult because the racing was always on. The breakaway took quite a while to go and then you had to ride reasonably solid to actually control it. And then they obviously race in the final too.

So I’m actually pretty glad that they said that this year’s Vuelta was quite difficult and if not harder than some. I mean Simon Clarke was at the Tour this year and he did the Vuelta and he said potentially the Vuelta was more difficult.

How have you seen your season generally? Have you been happy with what you’ve been able to achieve in your first stint in the WorldTour?

Yes and no. I think I haven’t really done a race this year were I think I’ve performed to the level that I know that I can. But also I’ve been doing bigger and harder races and I’ve had more race days. So last year I think it was 47 UCI race days and this year I’m over 60. And 60 is not a big amount by any stretch of the imagination but for me it’s an extra handful of race days and they’ve been harder race days.

But I think I got off on the wrong foot a little bit at [the Volta a] Catalunya, coming into that not quite right, for whatever reasons that was. And you feel like you chase yourself a little bit to try and get better.

Canty was in the breakaway at the Amstel Gold Race earlier this year.

So I haven’t been disappointed — I think I’ve done quite a few things this year that I’m quite happy about. And I had a few good performances but there’s just been various things that have limited my ability to perform where I need to.

Whether that’s how I’ve been training at home, but also travelling, and I got sick at one or two moments that hindered my performance. I crashed once or twice, I had a couple of races and then even for the Vuelta … I had stitches in my shin from Austria, had a week off the bike, didn’t train that much and then really pretty much only had a 10-day training camp in Andorra to prepare for one of the hardest and longest races I’ve ever done.

So I was actually quite happy with how I felt and how I performed even given what happened in Austria. I got into the breakaway at Amstel Gold, I think I rode really well at Fleche Wallonne, I think I’ve learned quite a lot this year and I think what I’ve done this year will make me a better rider for next year.

Overall I think it’s been quite good but I’ve never really had that moment this year where I’ve been able to race up a climb and show people what I think and what I know I can do. So hopefully next year.

What does the rest of your season look like from here?

I’ve got a couple more one-day races sprinkled in around Italy over the coming weeks. And then I could potentially be down for Japan Cup or something like that. I’m not too sure at this stage but I’m definitely not finished as of today so I’ve gotta keep training and ticking on for another few weeks.

Are you going to race Il Lombardia?

Potentially. I think there might be a spot there but it also depends on other riders and what’s happening. But I think Juanma, who was at the Vuelta with us and who looks after me as the DS, thinks it’s a really good idea if I can get one on two races in following up from the Vuelta, just to see how my body has responded after a little bit of rest and relaxing after a three-week Grand Tour. Rather than just letting that form and experience finish immediately.

How have you found living in Girona?

I was here for a little bit last year [ed. while racing with the Drapac Pro Continental squad]. I’ve been here much longer this year. I’ve got myself much more sorted in terms of my bank account, my phone number, my residency card. So I can actually stay here without any visa issues.

I moved apartments from the start of the year to my own place now, more in the older part of town which I’m really enjoying. I’m really enjoying the place I’m living and there’s definitely a lot of people that you can hang out with and then ride and socialise [with].

My Spanish is improving which is quite helpful. It means I can actually feel more confident to try and chat to people on the street and at the shops. I’m in a one-bedroom place but Mum and Dad are sleeping on the fold-out couch in the living room and from what they’ve experienced over the last few days they’ve expressed that they’re quite impressed with the town as well and can see why I want to live here.

Have you found it hard being away from home this year? Or does Girona feel like home now?

Yes and no. I mean, when I left [Australia] it was quite sad. But then as soon as you arrive in Girona you kind of get into the swing of things and it’s fine. I wouldn’t really say I’ve missed it so much.

It would be really nice to go back home to see family and friends but I mean there was a similar scenario last year. And I even left late last year to come over to Europe and I came back home earlier after the Tour of Portugal. And I wanted to come home but as soon as I was home the Melbourne weather was still freezing cold and it was wet and I was like “What am I even doing? I should be back in Girona hanging out!” Even if I wasn’t racing, just to relax there.

I definitely don’t feel a rush to come back home and even when the season finishes it might be nice to spend another week or two weeks here just to relax and actually live a bit more like a local might. In terms of eating out, having one or two nights at a bar or something, and just waking up with no obligations to go training. That might be quite nice.

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