The first thing to say about Charly Wegelius is that his sharp intellect is obvious from the opening exchanges of our conversation; the tenacity that marked his career on the bike is tempered by a cool intelligence off it.
Sat low in a plastic chair in the mildly incongruous surroundings of an ‘event village’, sporadically smoothing down the legs of indigo blue, drainpipe jeans intent on rising high above the sockless feet he has plunged into running trainers, Wegelius provides considered responses to questions ranging from the personalities of his Cannondale-Garmin team's young stars to his own transformation from domestique deluxe to directeur sportif.
“I’d say first of all that it was something that I never, ever considered doing,” he says of his current métier, where he is mentor, confidant, and strategist to some of the peloton’s brightest prospects, Davide Formolo and Joe Dombrowski among them (more of whom later). “In fact, quite the opposite.
“If you’d ask me when I was riding, I would have just turned away in horror at the idea of doing that. I think that if you look at the role of a domestique in a cycling team and the role of a sports director, there’s a lot of crossover, because as a domestique you’re looking not at your own interests but that of the entire group. Essentially, that’s what you do as a sports director, too.”
Wegelius documented the experiences of an 11-year professional career as servant to some of the peloton’s biggest names in the book Domestique, released in 2013 to widespread acclaim. His unflinching portrayal of the demands of arguably the toughest job in the peloton, told with clarity by Wegelius’ former team-mate Tom Southam, revealed him to the wider world as a rider whose ultimate professionalism brought him at times to the brink of physical and emotional collapse.
The book certainly left an impression on Dombrowski, another prodigiously talented, highly intelligent rider whose entry to the professional ranks with a grandee team intent on changing cycling (Mapei for Wegelius; Team Sky for Dombrowski) did not ensure a trouble-free ascent.
Dombrowski’s career is very much back on track with Cannondale-Garmin (he has won the Tour of Utah, finished second in the American road race championship and fourth at the Tour of California since joining Jonathan Vaughters’ squad in January) and is quick to acknowledge Wegelius’ part in his return from the exile of undiagnosed injury.
“He’s very intelligent,” Wegelius observes, “perhaps too intelligent to be a bike rider. That’s not a derogatory statement towards bike riders, but sometimes thinking a lot isn’t always your best friend as a rider.
“I think he’s got a lot of talent and I think often he shows a spatial awareness that you don’t usually see in elite athletes – when they’re deep in the moment, to be able to see things a little bit further around them – and I think that’s going to help him if he’s going to go for general classification at big races in the future.”
Wegelius, as might be expected, is familiar with Dombrowski’s story: winner of the Baby Giro, famously ahead of Fabio Aru, he hit the WorldTour with the biggest team in the sport, but after failing to gain Sky’s support for treatment outside of the team for the condition iliac endofibrosis – a furring of the arteries at the top of the leg – his progress rapidly decelerated.
“That could have affected a lot of people in a permanent way; really rattled their self-confidence. But he’s got the intelligence to look at things rationally and make a plan. The way he dealt with that and the way he came back from that proves that he has the mental ability to do the job.”