The professional: Simon Gerrans on moving to BMC and riding for Richie Porte
Simon Gerrans doesn’t give much away. A decade and a half in the sporting spotlight has taught him it’s best to say as much as he needs to, but not a whole lot more. Speaking over the phone from the Victorian seaside town of Torquay he’s polite, friendly but above all, professional.
“I look back fondly on my time with GreenEdge,” Gerrans says, reflecting on his six seasons with the Australian WorldTour setup. “It was such a big part of my career. Being part of that organisation from the start was fantastic.”
For much of his time with GreenEdge, Gerrans was the team’s marquee rider. When the team first debuted in 2012, Gerrans got wins on the board early. He started by winning the Australian national championships and the Tour Down Under, then went to Europe and won Milan-San Remo.
In the years that followed, Gerrans would take the team’s first Tour de France stage win and yellow jersey, he’d wear the leader’s jersey at the Giro d’Italia, he’d win Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and much more besides. But by the end of 2017, his time with the team was up. The way Gerrans tells it, the separation suited both parties.
“I think the team was going one direction and had been going that way for the last couple of years, and I was sort of keen on going in a different way,” he says. “It was very mutual.”
Was it GreenEdge’s increased focus on the general classification at Grand Tours, with riders like Esteban Chaves and the Yates twins, that Gerrans is referencing? “Yeah, amongst other things,” he says.
It seems there’s more to the story, perhaps including his disappointment at being left off the 2017 Tour de France team. Regardless, it’s clear Gerrans doesn’t want to elaborate.
While many riders speak openly with the media, Gerrans has a reputation for playing things straight. It’s not that he shies away from speaking with the press — rather that he’s noticeably cautious when doing so. He speaks succinctly, giving exactly the answers that are required of him.
It’s an approach borne of experience, but also of wariness towards the media.
“There’s plenty of things that go unsaid in cycling, just because people have got to be very correct with the way they go about answering things,” Gerrans says. “There’s consequences to every statement you make and everything you say.
“Whether it’s your current situation, your previous employers or what may lie ahead in future. So it’s hard to speak too much in depth about [these] things. Always that concern is the repercussions it’s going to have.”
In mid-2017, with his GreenEdge contract ending, 37-year-old Gerrans was out of work. The future was uncertain.
“I was exploring all options,” he says. “I definitely hadn’t made up my mind what I was going to do for the 2018 season, whether that was continue to race, or step away from the sport, or look for another role within the sport, or change teams. It was totally up in the air at that point.”
It was August when Richie Porte called, kickstarting the next phase of Gerrans’ career. Porte had some time on his hands and had heard his compatriot was at a crossroads.
“I think he was probably recovering from his crash at the Tour de France at the time and maybe assessing where he’s at and what he could do differently moving forward,” Gerrans said of Porte. “[He] came to the conclusion that he wanted someone there by his side that had a bit more experience potentially than what he’s got, that could really be that road captain type role in a lot of the races he does.
“He approached me, knowing I was at the end of my contract with GreenEdge; he approached me about the possibility of coming on board. And to me it sounded like a great new challenge. It’s sort of a role that I was hoping to take on in the latter stages of my career and sort of quickly evolved from there.”
On January 1 Gerrans swapped the navy of Orica-Scott for the red of BMC. By January 7 he was in action at the Australian Road National Championships, riding the front of the bunch on Mt. Buninyong in support of Porte. A week later he’d be doing the same on Old Norton Summit Road at the Tour Down Under.
It was a striking role-reversal for Gerrans. As a multiple-time winner of both races, Gerrans previously had teammates riding the front for him. In 2018, at BMC, he’d gone from team leader to loyal lieutenant.
Indeed, riding for Porte is how he anticipates he’ll spend much of his season.
“Predominantly what I’ve been brought on board for at BMC is really to help Richie,” Gerrans says. “To help Richie get the best out of himself and for me to try and help him get the best out of his teammates around him. Whether that’s tactically on the road or a few of the leadership traits I’ve been able to pick up over my career and pass those on to him and really assist in that way.”
Gerrans sees his role as a varied one. He’s not just going to hang back, calling the shots for the team. Nor is he going to spend all his time riding the front.
“I think in this day and age, particularly with teams reducing sizes at races, you’ve gotta basically come with a few feathers in your cap,” he says. “You can’t just basically sit back and call the shots and not really contribute to the work that needs to happen. Or you can’t be a rider that just rides on the front and doesn’t go back and get bidons as well.”
Gerrans is still working out exactly how he can help Porte get the most out of himself, but after just a few weeks, he’s already seeing some opportunities.
“Straight up I can see … Richie has the confidence within himself and he races aggressively and knowing that he is one of the best guys on the road,” he says. “That’s a big step in the right direction. If we can see him racing similar to how he approached the [Criterium du] Dauphine last year — where he was clearly the best climber, best all-rounder there, and just come unstuck on that last stage — if he approached the Tour de France with that same mindset I think that will put him in a great stead.
“Knowing how to get the best out of the guys around him and really motivate his teammates to go that extra mile is a really important part as well.”
While Gerrans will spend much of his season riding in support of his compatriot, he’ll also “peel away from Richie’s program” and focus on races where the team wants him to perform; to get results of his own.
He did just that at Sunday’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, fighting his way into the lead group and sprinting to a commendable fifth.
“The team still want me to take my chance and have a go at getting some results,” Gerrans explains. “They sort of see that I’ve still got a few race wins left in me, or that’s what they hope anyway and so do I. So there’ll be a few opportunities throughout the year where, if I’m in the right condition, I’ll have that chance.”
As a proven performer at races like Milan-San Remo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Gerrans might well get his chance in the Spring Classics. But with other contenders like Greg Van Avermaet on the team, there are no guarantees.
“It will depend on my condition basically, what the preparation’s like,” he says. “Basically races like Milan-San Remo and the Ardennes Classics — the team’s sort of said ‘If you’re in the right condition there, you’ll have that opportunity.’ Hopefully everything goes to plan until that point and I am in the right shape and then I can go for a result there.”
Gerrans will be 38 years old by season’s end but he’s not entertaining thoughts of retirement yet. At least not publicly.
“I’m on a one-year contract with BMC and just seeing how this year plays out,” Gerrans says. “Whatever happens I don’t think I’ll be making any decisions until much later in the season. The focus this season [needs] to be about winning races and not the fact it’s potentially my last time turning up at any one particular race.”
Regardless of when Gerrans decides to call time on his career, it’s clear he won’t be short of options. He’s among the most successful cyclists Australia has ever produced and finding a job within the world of cycling shouldn’t be difficult. But does he want to remain in cycling? Or does he want to leave the sport behind, to move his life in a different direction? It’s little surprise he’s keeping his cards close to his chest.
“I’ve got a few ideas, yeah, but I think the most important part at this stage is it looks like I have a few options which is a nice place to be,” he says. “I think for any retiring athlete the key to their future career after their athletic career is to have few options.
“So yeah I’m very much looking forward to the next stage of my life and what that is I think only time will tell.”
In the meantime, Gerrans is Portugal-bound to race the Volta ao Algarve alongside Porte. It’s the pair’s first European race together and the next step on the road to the Tour de France. Assuming all goes well between now and July, Porte will go into the Tour as one of the big favourites, just as he was last year before crashing out on stage 9.
“I think he’s obviously a genuine contender for the Tour de France,” Gerrans says. “And if his preparation is similar to last year and he has a smooth build-up for the Tour de France I think he can definitely be a big chance of finishing on the top step.”