Two WorldTour teams to support. Twelve elite mountain bike racers. Ten top triathletes. And in his spare time, DS duties with an under-23 team. Andreas Walzer, team pursuit gold medallist at the 1992 Olympic Games turned team liaison for Canyon Bikes, is a busy man.
He cannot put a figure on the amount of days he spends travelling each year. His missions vary from Monument Classics to Grand Tours to Ironman events. Then there are deliveries to the team’s superstars, riders sufficiently important to receive deliveries of new equipment when they are merely training.
“Purito was the first rider to have the Aeroad CF SLX,” he recalls of the 1,600km drive from Koblenz to Barcelona and Katusha team leader Joaquim Rodriguez. “He came down from the mountains and we brought a mechanic from Italy. You are really happy if a great champion says to you, ‘I feel the bike is very fast.’”
Olympic gold medalist, Andreas Walzer, is one of two team liaisons for Canyon Bikes. The other is Erik Zabel. pic: Marthein Smit
He is fresh enough from his former career, however, to appreciate the psychological boost a rider receives from receiving newly minted and attractive machinery. “For sure, there is something going on in a rider’s head,” he smiles, a gleam in his eye. “If a bike is pretty and they like it, then it is also fast.”
Walzer too looks fast, the sort of chiseled individual you’d pick from a bus queue as a former athlete. Our first meeting takes place in a traditional German restaurant, and while Rouleur tucks into schnitzel, our host is satisfied with salad, smiling and pulling at his already hollow cheeks as justification.
In time away from duties like handing wheels to stricken Katusha or Movistar riders on the cobble-strewn secteurs of the road to Roubaix, he finds time to swim, run, and, of course, cycle. He offers this spare capacity as evidence that some are busier even than he. “Alfonso Galilea, the technical director of Movistar: I don’t know when he sleeps. I’m really impressed. I sometimes go for a run, or a bike ride, or a swim, but this guy…”
Katusha's Joaquim Rodriguez was the first rider to receive Canyon's Aeroad CF SLX, courtesy of Walzer's 1600km drive from Koblenz to Barcelona. Its predecessor served as his spare bike at the Tour.
Walzer is liaison to Katusha and to Movistar, duties he shares with another retired star of German cycling, Erik Zabel. Walzer takes the lion’s share of Canyon’s support for Katusha; Zabel, as a former sprint coach to the Russian squad, handles the bulk of the manufacturer’s responsibilities to Movistar, but both will help the other team and each other when the need arises. What sort of advantage is offered to the former athlete working as a team liaison? And could the job be done as effectively by someone who hasn’t spent a former life as an athlete?
“For me, in the first weeks with the job, it was a little bit strange,” Walzer reflects. “I was thinking like an athlete, but I was an employee for a bike company. This is exactly what I need: to be from the industry, but also to think like a rider, or a team manager. You have to find the right mix.”
He offers wind tunnel testing as a specific example. The former champion time triallist and track rider is able to tell at a glance if a rider will be able to maintain a position. But his first-hand knowledge of the riders’ pedigree, and the severity of the races, has more subtle application, too.
The teams competing in cycling's elite UCI WorldTour are far removed in budget and support from even the second-tier Pro Continental squads, Walzer says. pic: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com
“You don’t win a lot of times. A lot of the time, you get dropped or you puncture. I think my career helps me to accept this more.
“For me, it’s a little bit opposite to the normal marketing guy who has never ridden a race. Marketing guys say: ‘Second place - shit!’ and I say: ‘Second place at Liege-Bastogne-Liege - do you know what you are talking about?’ That’s what I mean with the mix of being an athlete and thinking ‘Only second place at Paris-Roubaix, or Liege-Bastogne-Liege.’ What can a marketing guy do with second place? But I am a little bit in the middle.”
Walzer’s position gives him a unique insight into the two very different cultures of two WorldTour teams, and, he stresses, an opportunity to learn from both. For the DS of a fledgling under-23 squad, working with Eusebio Unzue and Viatcheslav Ekimov must be like the manager of an amateur football team gaining insights from Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho. Unzue has decades of experience as a general manager, Walzer reflects – what couldn’t you learn from him? His respect for Ekimov is obvious, too: the Russian unafraid to take on board suggestions from his riders, such is his confidence in his own achievements and position.
Walzer describes a WorldTour team as a business that moves its headquarters every day pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Both have huge responsibilities, Walzer continues: CEOs of companies that change headquarters every day for a month during a Grand Tour; men granted control of significant corporate budgets, and, in the case of Ekimov, tasked with developing an elite cycling culture for a nation. The WorldTour is a world removed, both from Walzer’s career as an athlete and from the young riders he coaches. Does he ever look with envy at the resources placed at the disposal of the riders he supports? No, is the answer. He accepts cycling’s top-tier as an entity unto itself. Katusha even has a small pool on the team bus for the riders to chill aching legs – this, he understands, is not typical, even for second-tier Pro Continental squads.
Surprisingly, Movistar is the more structured of the two outfits. The Spanish team will hold fewer winter training camps, Walzer reveals: each rider is issued with a power meter and the team is able to monitor remotely their off-season condition. At meal times, however, the southern European culture is evident. Dinner is taken late and over several hours. For Katusha, meals are eaten earlier and with the entire team at the table. Neither team’s approach is superior, Walzer stresses, only different.
Canyon supplies 57 riders on two WorldTour teams, including Katusha's Alexander Kristoff
The teams’ management is not Walzer’s only point of reference. Feedback from the riders and mechanics is of greatest value to a bike manufacturer. He looks askance at the suggestion that a bike company’s sponsorship of a WorldTour team is solely a marketing exercise. “For sure, there are marketing reasons, because it costs a lot of money, but if you have the possibility to ask the best riders in the world what they think of your bikes, then you should take it. And you should take what they say seriously.”
He identifies Katusha’s Rodriguez, and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and Alex Dowsett among the riders who pay the greatest attention to their machinery and whose feedback, as a consequence, is of greatest value. In addition, the time-trial specialists are almost always more interested in the materials placed at their disposal than those whose principal weapon is a road bike. “Quintana is always interested in the bike. He is very young but he knows exactly what he wants. He can exactly say to you: ‘Arm pads, I need them 1cm wider.’” The result? Custom made arm rests for the Colombian's time trial bike, and for Rodriguez and Dani Moreno, made locally to Koblenz at not insignificant expense. Time trialists are more open-minded, Walzer says, and keen to understand what additional speed might be wrung from new machinery.
Also open minded are the younger mechanics. The time-served members of the WorldTour’s mechanical corps can require greater persuasion of the merits of a new product, Walzer says. He describes them as members of the “steel time”, comparing them to his father, who runs a small bike shop near Homburg, and who put his son on a bike as a four-year-old. Such practitioners have no need of a torque wrench, he says, smiling, preferring instead to work on ‘feel’. The feedback of all mechanics, regardless of generation, is valuable. A week after Walzer has delivered the product and given his demonstration, the mechanics know more about it than he does, he admits.
Alex Dowsett is one of the Movistar riders most interested in the mechanical side of the sport, Walzer says
The approach is consistent with Canyon’s commitment to its WorldTour teams, one that comes from the top. Employing former riders as team liaisons is the suggestion of Canyon’s founder: one specifically intended to provide greater input than that of an employee able to offer little more service than that of a de facto courier. “You could deliver the material and say now I am going,” Walzer explains, “but this is an idea [ex-riders as team liaisons] from Roman Arnold. He hates the word sponsorship: he prefers co-operation, to improve both sides. We also learn a lot from the teams, and from the triathletes and mountain bikers. We gain a lot of input from them.”
The off-season is no quieter for Walzer than when races command his attention. There are training camps, fitting sessions for new bikes, and, of course, deliveries. “Cycling is my passion,” he explains, simply. For such as he, there must be worse ways to earn a living.