Now in his third season as general manager of Continental team Madison Genesis, Roger Hammond is determinedly not a waver of the big stick. If that’s your remit, he is not your man. It didn't work on him as a rider, and he is not interested in working with those who require such heavy-handed motivational targets.
“They are in control of where they want to be. If they don’t want to race, there’s nothing I can do about it, realistically. If they want to, then my job is easier. If you want me to be the person with the stick, then I’m the wrong person for the job.
“I don’t understand that concept. I didn’t understand it as a rider. Anyone waving a stick at me was always detrimental, because I was already pushing myself as far as I could possibly go.
“I always saw it as a bit of a derogatory comment: questioning my application, which was as much as I could give. Whatever I did, I did 100 per cent. I’m trying to find those guys, really: guys that have got the application, got the desire, got the hunger. From the inside, it feels like I’ve got that team.”
Not just from the inside. Hammond’s instincts were borne out again at the recent Tour of Britain, where the riders were prominent in breakaways and the King of the Mountains competition. Tom Stewart, the hero of the breakaway on stage five of last year’s edition, was again to the fore, leading the mountains competition for three stages.
To the outsider, Stewart gives every appearance of being a ‘Roger Hammond rider’. He is intelligent and determined, level-headed and eager to improve, despite the large strides already taken in a short career.
In the team's brief, three-year existence, Hammond has recruited protégés for Madison-Genesis, with Alex Peters and Scott Davis, now with Team Sky and the Olympic Academy respectively, serving under him – albeit briefly in Davis’ case – but Stewart gives the impression of a grafter from the old school, rather than a gifted princeling.
The Yorkshireman’s talents are perhaps less eye-catching than his former team-mates, but there is an obvious foundation of hard work to his success, not to mention a massive engine. “He has the same desire, the same talent, the same engine, and he wants to learn," says Hammond, comparing Stewart to Sky new boy Peters.
"He’s educated. He has a university degree, so he understands what education can give him. He’s awake enough to know that every day is a learning day, and everybody has a valid input. It’s what you do with that. You can either disregard it, or take it on board: sift out the rubbish and take the good bit. That’s the difference with Tom: he’s always absorbing.”
It is a willingness to learn that Hammond requires most in his riders. Mark McNally, the 26-year-old who joined Madison Genesis this year after five seasons with AN Post-CRC, widely regarded as a superior finishing school for riders bound for the WorldTour, is another eager to add to his sum of knowledge.
Presented as a team the many functions accompanying the Tour of Britain, Hammond’s men seemed a grounded bunch, and so a credit to the manager’s recruitment policy. Hammond chuckles, deflecting the implied compliment. Signing riders remains an inexact science. He describes his approach as existing “somewhere between having no clue, and being lucky, and educated guesses.”
“When I’m going through the process, I think I’ve really got no idea, and then I end up with a really good group of lads, and afterwards I think, ‘Maybe I do know what I’m doing.’ Then you get a curveball and you sit back down thinking, ‘No, I don’t know what I’m doing!’”
Hiring individuals is only one part of the equation. The team dynamic – what Hammond describes as the ‘x’ factor – is of at least the same importance, and possibly more. Hire ten talented individuals and you end up with a score of ten, he says; hire five riders who share the same mentality, and the ‘x’ factor multiplies their combined effort by three, registering a score of 15. Hammond admits that judging the ‘x’ factor is “incredibly difficult”, but believes he has a good core of riders, and that the core is of greater importance than individual talent.
Having made such a definite impact on the 2014 race, this year’s Tour of Britain had something of the ‘follow that’ challenge about it. Hammond is realistic – Madison Genesis was a team few of its WorldTour competitors would have heard of, he says – but equally, reveals that his greatest concern in pre-season was retaining the momentum the team had built up last year.
His riders rose to the challenge as early as May’s Tour de Yorkshire, with Erick Rowsell (more of whom later) finishing in the top 10 on GC and McNally close to pulling off a coup on stage two. In the weeks building up to the Tour of Britain, Hammond took his team to the Pyrenees; a move necessitated by the absence of top level racing in the UK in the weekends building up to the national tour.
On his return to the UK, Stewart was dropped in a national B race, sparking momentary panic in the rider, and amused reassurance in the manager. Hit top form a week before the major goal and you are screwed; suffer at the hands of lesser talents, and you can be certain your peak is still to come.
“If ever I was good the week before the world cyclo-cross championships, I was worried. If I got dropped, smashed, kicked into the ground then…” Hammond tails off, chuckling.
“The whole point is that you are in this recovery phase, and if you’ve recovered already, you’ve not trained hard enough, and if you’ve not trained hard enough, you’re going to have a tough Tour of Britain. And of course, he had a great Tour of Britain.
“The good thing now is that I overheard Tom telling someone else the same story. We have history now, and once you have history, the belief is there. These guys have got the talent, they’ve worked hard, and as long as they’ve got the belief, I know they’re going to be good. The one thing we can’t control is luck.”
Erick Rowsell has found luck a scarce commodity in recent years. The Academy graduate got off to a flying start as member of Brian Smith’s rapidly-rising Endura Racing team, surviving the first merger with NetApp to rise to the Pro Continental ranks. There, his career stalled, through no fault of Rowsell’s, who found his willingness to help counter-productive, subtly altering perception of his qualities from rising star to tireless drudge.
“As a young rider going into the WorldTour, you’re quickly pigeon-holed,” Hammond says. “You’re either the winner, or you’re the domestique, and if you’re the domestique, you’re battered into not thinking about winning, because that is contrary to doing a good job as a domestique.
“Erick had been pigeon-holed as a domestique: the super-reliable rider who will ride on the front all-day long, because he’s got an engine second to none. He’s a very nice lad. He doesn’t complain. Ask him to jump off a cliff and he’ll do it with a smile on his face, so he’s an easy rider to pigeon-hole like that. He has talent way above that. He just needed to grow within a team and have the confidence of the manager, and things would have taken off for him pretty quickly.
“That’s the story of cycling, isn’t it? Sometimes you need a bit of luck; to be in the right place at the right time, and unfortunately he was in the wrong place, so he’s come back to us. I love working with him. I think he’s a great bike racer.”
Rowsell’s performance at the Tour de Yorkshire – eighth on GC in his first race against WorldTour opposition since leaving the team now known as Bora-Argon18 – illustrated the rider’s new mentality, Hammond believes; one that had him “thinking like a winner from day one”.
A badly broken arm ruled out Rowsell from this year’s Tour of Britain, but Hammond hopes his rider will return to the top level. Should he do so, the manager will again face the conundrum of all who run development teams: losing the product they have worked so hard to finish.
For Sean Kelly and Kurt Bogaerts at An Post-CRC, a Continental outfit that aspires to the WorldTour, the rub lies in the absence of financial compensation (a transfer fee). For Hammond, running a team that meets its owner’s goals precisely by remaining at the sharp end of the domestic scene, the disappointment is more personal.
“It’s always this double-edged sword: we’d love him to move on to bigger and better things,” Hammond confides. “The reality is that secretly, I’d like that core, those guys who are really good to work with and make my job so enjoyable, to stay.”
ELDER STATESMEN AND NEW BOYS
The remit of the team has broadened. Conceived solely as a vehicle to develop young talent, it became apparent almost immediately that an experienced rider would be required to serve as road captain on the bike, and to help keep order off it. Dean Downing performed the role in the team’s debut season.
“When we’re in a race scenario, I have very little input once they start. I also like the structure of a little bit of hierarchy. If you’ve got nine 19-year-olds all wanting to turn pro, it’s not really conducive to riding as a team. they’re all trying to kill each other. The hierarchy of having an elder statesman, so to speak, as a rider settles all of that hormonal fighting.”
McNally, after five seasons with An Post, might be considered the team’s elder statesman this season, and embodies another aspect of the team’s tutelage. The 26-year-old does not require advice on training or tactics, but Hammond is able offer a broader support.
“Hopefully he’s getting some help from me in the background on the life journey of being a bike rider, because it is a journey. I learned mostly through mistakes in mine, so even if I tell him the mistakes I made, he’ll save a couple of years there.”
MADE IN BRITAIN
Nowadays, the team’s raison d’etre is to support British cycle sport; an extension of its sponsor’s position at the heart of the British cycle industry. Hammond talks of keeping a British mentality, and rules out any ascension to Pro Continental status as counter-productive.
“We also realise that we can actually do quite a nice international programme without being Pro Conti, so hopefully with contacts and me making a few phone calls we get into races that give us the exposure we need internationally, but also support the British programme and the British riders.”
An Post is widely recognised as the gold standard for Continental teams, a finishing school where national federations and WorldTour teams send their brightest prospects to further their education before being summoned to the top tier.
Madison-Genesis, a younger team, still only in its third year, and with a stronger domestic agenda than the Irish-Belgian squad, is rapidly attaining a similar status. Peters has signed for Team Sky; Davis is the national under-23 time trial champion and on the same Academy path once trodden by compatriots Rowe and Thomas.
Hammond considers the comparison. As a rider from the WorldTour, he probably doesn’t use other Continental teams as a frame of reference for his own, but he identifies consistency as the unifying factor. An Post-CRC have pursued the same programme for years. Riders touting their CVs around know what they will get if the join the team. Additionally, they are well-supported, well-equipped, and professional in their outlook.
All of these qualities are shared by Madison-Genesis. Hammond is too modest to mention the shared aspect of a figurehead, but any young rider with a spark of intelligence will realise that there is much to be learned from a rider of such formidable pedigree in the Northern Classics.
Dealings in the transfer market have become easier, Hammond concedes. In the team’s first season, he received no applications from riders with international experience; now the majority have.
“I think a little bit of it comes from just time. The biggest worry as a rider is going to a team that you don’t know has longevity. The great thing about Madison is that we do have a stable sponsor that’s involved with the industry, that has given long-term goals for the team.
“Is it better to go to a team that’s a flash in the pan and is flashing money everywhere, that might not exist after a year, or go to the team that’s well structured, and has a stable structure for the riders to develop, and will give them time?”
Longevity and trust in the manager are the two most important aspects for a rider, Hammond says, and it is when discussing matters from the rider’s perspective that he seems most at ease. This is perhaps his greatest strength as a manager: that he is still able to see things the rider’s way. Having shown total commitment as a rider during his own career, he is not interested in working with those who are not motivated, but neither is he interested in waving the big stick.
Behind the wheel of a team car, Hammond shows glimpses of the ferocity that marked him out as a rider, but it is encouragement he offers to his riders, rather than aggression. Those who arrived at Madison-Genesis as recognised talents have progressed, and in Stewart, Hammond is quietly nurturing an intelligent young man with the physical gifts to go all the way. If he puts Rowsell back on the path to the WorldTour, he will have another success on his managerial CV.
A week after our conversation, Madison-Genesis deliver another strong showing at the Tour of Britain. With Hammond at the helm, the Milton Keynes outfit is likely to continue establishing a reputation among the best of the Continental teams.