Simon Gerrans has never been one to follow the bunch much. True to form, the BMC Racing Team veteran retired from the sport twice in the space of a few weeks this autumn.
After this summer’s Tour de France, where he was part of BMC’s team time trial winning performance, he announced his retirement publicly, stating that his passion for the sport is not what it used to be. As desired, he bowed out at Canadian Grand Prix one-day races in Montréal and Québec, both of which he has won in the past.
Then an October injury crisis struck the squad and five weeks later, he was unexpectedly pinning on a number at Il Lombardia and the Japan Cup. “I hadn’t done an interval in training since before the Canadian races so I was a long way from top condition,” Gerrans says.
“Most people I saw at Lombardia said to me ‘wasn’t expecting to see you here, I thought you were done at Canada.’ And my response was ‘yeah, me too!’ To stay around for another couple of weeks was a good opportunity to say goodbye to a few people that I hadn’t seen in a while. It was a prolonged send-off, I guess.”
Bowing out in Japan, home to some of the most fervent cycling fans in the world, meant he was showered with gifts, including a white t-shirt with his surname on it in Japanese characters, local tea and chocolates. “I can’t even begin to imagine what the Olympic Games will be like there in 2020,” he says.
All killer, no filler
During his 13-year career, Gerrans was not a prolific winner, but his victories had undeniable prestige – 21 of the 33 came at WorldTour level, including the 2012 Milan-Sanremo and 2014 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, stage wins in all three Grand Tours, four Tours Down Under and the GP Plouay.
How does he reflect on his career? “I reflect really fondly. Particularly over the past few weeks when so many of my colleagues, adversaries and directors from other teams have come up and congratulated me on what I achieved and how I went about cycling throughout my career.
“But it’s interesting, I was just chatting to a mate of mine on the phone and I was explaining to him that I haven’t properly come to grasp how big a moment this is – to transition out of cycling, which has been my whole life for such a large part of it, and move onto something else.”
Gerrans picked up cycling as a way of recovering from a knee injury, and the man from Melbourne soon set out to make it in Europe. He arrived in northern Italy not speaking a word of Italian, a wide-eyed 19-year-old enduring a “baptism of fire” on a regional under-23 team, up for the challenge.
After moving to France, cracking their amateur scene and turning pro with Ag2r in 2005, all Gerrans wanted to do was win one pro race out there. He targeted the Tour du Finistère and succeeded there as a neo-pro. With every little milestone set then reached, he gradually worked his way up the sport till he was targeting – and winning – its biggest races.
Through his career, the fast-finishing puncheur was a canny operator who preyed on small breakaways and whittled-down bunch gallops. “I think being astute and meticulous with my preparation was my greatest strength as a rider,” Gerrans says. “I worked out from very early on in the piece that physically, I probably wasn’t the most gifted rider, but I always worked really hard on my goals and made sure I did everything possible to get the best out of myself on my day.
“Some of my proudest victories are the ones where I knew I wasn’t the strongest guy in the front break but I was able to out-manoeuvre and beat the guys around me, just through being astute tactically.”
I was stood on the Via Roma at the 2012 Milan-Sanremo, watching the big screen as Gerrans got in the break over the Poggio then outfoxed companions Fabian Cancellara and Vincenzo Nibali; I can vividly remember the stunned silence of the home fans. In the subsequent press conference, the first question – more of a statement – summed it up: “Fabian was the strongest, but you were the most cunning, Simon.”
How to win from a break
There’s a knack to it. Now Gerrans is retired, can he tell us the secrets to outfoxing competitors in an escape? “I think it just comes down to good preparation, knowing what your strengths are and the weaknesses of your rivals, and how to take advantage of them … I guess there’s no real secret to it because in the moment you’re not thinking too much, you’re just reacting – you can’t really hesitate for a second a lot of these times.
“When you’re coming to the finish of a race like Milan-Sanremo with a guy like Fabian Cancellara, you can’t contemplate whether you’re going to follow him or not or take a turn, or whether you’re going to try and attack him. I was probably really good on reflecting on races and learning what I did right and wrong and bringing those experiences forward every time.”
Through his career at AG2R, Crédit Agricole, then Cervélo Test Team, Sky, GreenEdge and BMC, he was consciously noting how he and team-mates could improve. For instance, picking up on something encountered at Team Sky, Gerrans helped to implement post-race debriefs at GreenEdge, discussing why they won or lost and assessing each rider’s role.
Gerrans says the biggest change since he turned pro in 2005 is professionalism: “Every single race now, you have to turn up so close to your best condition to be competitive. Whereas when I first turned pro, you could target certain points of the season where you knew the level of racing wasn’t gonna be as high.
“Then like in a lot of the French teams, you’d see some riders just switch off after the Tour de France. That was the big highlight of their calendar and then they’d just roll to the end of the season, doing as little as possible. I always thought if you keep your head screwed on end of July, there’s some really great races to try and target in August and September.”
In between the victories, there was plenty of adversity and broken bones. “I think that’s probably why I become such a resilient bike rider over my time because I did have so many setbacks,” Gerrans says. “Coming back from injury, that little unknown period till you know when you get back on the bike, and can start following a program again, they’re the most difficult times.”
From international star to intern
Forget that R-word: Gerrans emphasises he is merely changing career rather than retiring. The 38-year-old will be transferring his goal-driven, competitive approach to an internship with the Securities Division at Goldman Sachs.
“It’s something I’ve been putting in place for probably most of my professional career, with the activities I’ve been doing in my off-season like corporate events, charity bike rides and creating a really good network of people away from cycling,” he says. “It’s really interesting because not many cyclists have taken a path from a professional level into a new role outside of the sport.”
In some respects, it’s back to square one. He enters a working environment where the likes of Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Milan-Sanremo will be met with blank stares. “Exactly. And as daunting as this is, I’m really excited about it, about that process of working my way through from starting at the very bottom and seeing how far I can take it.
“This is just a new challenge for me with new goals. I really hope if I apply myself to this new industry the way I have to cycling, I can make a success of it.”