A four-time Czech national champion, František Raboň, spent his career riding in support of some of cycling’s biggest stars and now works for the Czech sports-clothing company Kalas.
In 2016 Kalas, a relatively small company and unknown brand in Britain at the time, saw off some stiff competition in a tough tendering process to win the contract to supply British Cycling.
Rouleur caught up with the former HTC and Quick Step rider to find out more about his work at Kalas and his past career in the professional peloton.
Rouleur: How did you start working for Kalas?
František Raboň: When I retired I wanted to do it on my own terms. I was actually surprised by how many offers I got – from bike manufacturers who had distribution in the Czech Republic through to commentating for Eurosport.
One of the calls came from Kalas and I started testing clothes for them. Within a couple of months I got the offer to work for them full-time. It felt like the right move for me.
As an ex-cyclist I don’t like the title but for almost two years I’ve been the global marketing manager, building relationships and, through my contacts, searching for good sponsorships.
Can you talk about the process of winning the contract to supply British Cycling?
It was a six or seven month long tender process. We went through three rounds of tendering, creating many blind samples and British Cycling visited our facilities [in Tabor, Czech Republic] to find out how the company is run and see our manufacturing processes.
What surprised you about the process compared to other organisations you had worked with?
They hired independent experts to look at the blind samples we provided – to look at how the shorts are stitched together, how the anti-bacterial pads are placed in the shorts etc. I think that surprised me most when comparing to other organisations where maybe the performance manager makes the decision. It was a much bigger picture with British Cycling. They employed real experts to view and test the products. That made it even sweeter for us to win because it proved we are doing the right things.
How much development has there been in clothing technology since you rode professionally?
Back in 2006 and 2007 no clothing manufacturers were coming to the training camps asking for measurements or things like that. Around 2008 that changed. At HTC, I could see some big improvements, suddenly testing skinsuits and helmets in a wind-tunnel. Now I travel a lot to visit British Cycling or our other teams and we are constantly innovating, changing the cuts of jerseys and so on. It is crazy how much focus there is now on small details. Comparing ten years ago to now is like comparing night and day.
You started riding for the Czech team PSK in 2002.
I had to choose between the Czech Republic, where I would know the environment, or move to Italy and try my luck at a bigger team, which was a popular route back then – many juniors and under-23 riders were moving to Italy. I wanted to be in a safe environment so I spent four years with PSK. My best year was 2005, I won the European Championships, was Czech champion and won pretty much half the races I started. I was 21 or 22 years old when I got an offer from T-Mobile.
They were one of the biggest teams in the world at that time. It must have been quite a culture shock for you?
It was massive. The amount of clothes, soigneurs … nice hotels, travelling everywhere by plane … They were probably one of the top three teams so to get an offer from them was a privilege.
Looking back, maybe I would do things slightly differently. I had other options but being offered a team like T-Mobile, as a 21-year-old kid, it is like: ‘Wow, of course I’ll sign for you guys.’ They were perfect but I paid for signing with such a successful team. Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden were big champions and I quickly realised it would be incredibly hard to find myself the freedom I had in 2005.
In two years I got a reputation as a loyal domestique and I think that probably affected my career in that I was never able to think of trying to win races. Once you are in that box as a reliable helper, someone who never says no, someone who is a loyal teammate, it is hard to say: ‘Guys, I want to try to win today. Please ride for me.’
You rode with Mark Cavendish from his early days with T-Mobile. What was your first impression of him?
Cav and I were the youngest in the team so we were doing a lot of races together. You could see immediately that he was a winner, he had that mentality. Sometimes he didn’t do what he was told by the team managers, to lead out the German sprinters. He just did the sprint on his own. But he won and then, of course, it is really hard for the team manager to say he had done it wrong. It was obvious that in his head he was a winner straightaway and he has proved it ever since.
Cavendish and [Andre] Greipel had a widely reported rivalry when they were both on the same team. What was it like to be in the middle of that as a teammate?
We were all really young. It probably elevated a bit around 2008 when Cav rode his first Grand Tour [Giro]. We won a bunch of stages, Cav won two, Greipel one. Then they had one big clash [Cavendish had gifted the stage to Greipel, something Greipel refused to acknowledge]. But I think HTC [the team] managed them very well. The management did a great job of separating the race programmes.
Now I think they have become good friends. They have families so you think about things differently than when you are younger and are just going with your head against the wall. But for us as teammates it was never as if they were screaming at each other or anything.
Finally, can you recall your hardest day on the bike?
My first Giro, in 2006, the stage to Aprica over the Gavia and Mortirolo. That was simply an incredible day. It hadn’t been planned for me to ride a Grand Tour just four months after joining the team but I then got selected with Jan Ullrich leading.
After the fifth stage we had the pink jersey so I had to ride at the front. I remember the manager saying to me, ‘Franti, after stage 12 you have to stop, otherwise you’ll destroy yourself,’ but I said, ‘No, I’ve got this far, I’m not stopping.’ But that stage  to Aprica, seven or more hours on the bike.
Afterwards I was so weak I couldn’t stand in the hotel shower so I just lay down. Later the soigneur told me that they found me sleeping under the shower with the water still running. I guess I was pretty tired but I made it to Milan. I always did hate to quit a race.