Eighteen years as a professional cyclist. Did you envisage that when you started?
No, because when I started, riders were retiring at 32 or 33. As my career went on, it became more of an accepted thing to keep going. Plus, having the two-year ban refreshed me, I think. It was like a renaissance.
There are only so many years you can ride at that level, I guess.
Exactly. That’s what it is. You have a sort of credit and you use it up. Very few people go beyond 18 years, that’s for sure.
Is it the body or the head that gives up first?
Oh, the head for sure. You can’t suffer as much; you can’t hurt yourself. You get to a point where you have lost that chip off your shoulder and that deep down need to fuck yourself up. I think it happens to all of us eventually. Thankfully.
Does self-preservation come into it too – fear of crashing – once you become a parent and have other responsibilities?
A little bit. But it’s the training that becomes hard. I lost my edge with my racing last year, but it was the training that went first. But the sport has got more dangerous as my career has gone on anyway. There’s more crashes than there have ever been. It’s pretty messed up now.
There’s a chapter in the book where you describe the notion of “flow”, where riders move freely around the peloton, going about their work. That seems to have been lost.
Everything is so robotic now. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: the more crashes there are, the more teams are ordered to be at the front; the more teams at the front, the more stressful it becomes and the more crashes there are – an infinite loop. Before, there was much more flow, two or three riders per team floating around at the front.
You’re not saying this as an old timer, are you? In that “it was so much better in my day” way?
No, I’m not. It has just changed, simple as that. It’s different. Every race is important now. There are not days when you have training races, the season following arcs of condition. Now there are riders in amazing shape from January to October. I’m sure it will find some balance eventually, because the change has been so rapid, but it may take a while.
Plenty of people from my generation like to hark back to a time when riders rode everything going and competed flat-out all season long, but it was different in so many ways.
It was easier then. Races weren’t as fast for one thing. They were doing bunch sprints on 52x14 gears in the ’60s. I can time-trial on that now! They weren’t exploiting their full potential back then. Now, in order to win, you have got to tap into everything you have got. That’s just the way the world is now: everything is so finely tuned.
It’s nice that someone like Brad can do Paris-Roubaix, for instance, but you have got so much more to lose that you have to gain. Doing it in your final year, like Brad did, is the only way.
The Grand Tours have gone over the top in making increasingly harder parcours, don’t you think?
The harder you make it, the worse the racing generally becomes. It just becomes attrition. There is only so much your body can do. If you want proper bike racing, make it short, in a way that our bodies can use tactics, rather than massive amounts of training and genetics. Hopefully, race organisers will start to wake up to that. Some of the best races we see are not on the hardest courses, because riders can use tactics. Otherwise, it might as well be Ironman triathlon… and no one wants that.
No, nobody wants that… Do you see any hope for the maverick racer in the coming years, or has their day passed?
I think we have got the ultimate maverick racer in Peter Sagan. It is possible. He should be the archetypal role model. We have got one of the greatest bike racers that ever lived in Peter Sagan. You can see how much fun he is having. That’s a great role model. And that’s a good story: keeps chipping away all year, doesn’t quite do it, but then lands the big one at the end and becomes a fitting world champion. There’s a good moral there.
Was it a bit strange towards the end of your career, being on the bus with 20 year olds and being the old man of the team?
It was a bit, especially with the massive shift in the sport in recent years, from the doping years to what are effectively now the clean years. When other guys started retiring, I realised that what we went through made us who we are – we saw shit, we had experiences. Then those guys are gone and you are left with all these young guys. And I don’t fit in to that world in a sense: we don’t share the same experiences; we don’t have the same history.
So Ryder [Hesjedal] was the last guy still racing last year. VDV [Christian Vande Velde] had gone, Zabriskie… all of a sudden you feel, maybe I did this sport because I Iike my friends, and without them, it doesn’t feel the same anymore, which is a lovely realisation.
You go into the sport in a very selfish, driven way and I, especially, didn’t give a shit about making friends in pro cycling. But by the end of it, my best friends in the world are my pro cycling friends. So without them, I didn’t really want to do it anymore. But at least I had Ryder.
I saw an interesting question on Twitter last week: What does a road captain do? Your book provides the answer, in fascinating detail. Run it by me.
In football, being captain is like a figurehead, wearing the armband, saying a few words in the changing rooms, that sort of thing. As a road captain, we don’t do big speeches, it’s not a motivational job, but very practical. It’s more military: you have to rally the troops, be aware of everything that is going on, what the other teams are doing, how your riders are doing, what their condition is, whether the pre-race plan is going to be adapted, and if it’s going to be adapted, how do we adapt it.
You might need to strike a deal with another team’s captain, pull in a friendship favour, negotiate. It is a very full-on job. There’s no time off anymore in a race. When done well, it makes a massive difference to a team.
I kind of grew into the role. We had never even called it ‘road captain’ before. It was something that the older guys in the team did but without a formal title. And now it has become the norm. It used to just exist. The oldest, smartest guy on the team would be the one to make decisions. You are the conduit, if you like, between the team car, the tactics and the actual riders. You can’t rely on the radio.
Having ridden most of these races many times over must give you invaluable insight too: where it is going to kick off, what the danger points are.
Exactly. You need experience and you also need somebody who has had great results, who has raced at the sharp end, been there and done it. It helps to have been a leader. Ex-domestiques don’t tend to handle the stress as well.
That road captain aspect seems to carry over to your TV punditry work. If anybody has said anything bad about it, then I haven’t heard it.
That has been really good for me. I enjoy it so much, and I guess people can hear that. I have never actually watched a bike race before this year! I’ve been in them, doing it. Being lucid and not tired, I can see everything happening before it even happens. And that brought home why I was in the road captain role. There is a lot more to it than I thought. You do it for so long and take things for granted. And you think: “Yeah, I raced 1,087 times professionally. I do know every single race and how it will unfold.”
How do you know that race day statistic? That’s random…
I saw it on Twitter once. It also had my team-mates I had raced the most with. Ryder Hesjedal was first, David Moncoutié second, Christian Vande Velde third. No wonder me and Ryder are so close: we have done something like 250 race days together.
What is it about certain races that makes your heart sink when you see them on the programme? The hotels? The food?
And the weather. Or that the race itself is going to be stressful. The Giro always had that effect on me. It was just horrible, the whole experience…
But the journalists love it!
I just never had a strong affinity with Italy. I love France, I love Spain, Belgium is quirky, Switzerland and Austria are beautiful, but Italy just never clicked for me.
The Montpellier team time trial at the 2009 Tour: I’m glad you had that down as one of the proudest racing moments of your career. It’s also one of my favourite stages – total chaos, teams flying off the road on the same right-hand corner. To name it as one of your highlights, for a stage you didn’t win, was interesting.
[The Garmin team was down to five riders by the halfway point: time-trial specialists Millar, Wiggins, Zabriskie and Vande Velde smashing away on the front, while Hesjedal clung on for dear life at the back. They lost to Astana by 18 seconds]
At the party after the Hour record with Bradley, I asked him how hard it was. He said it was hard – not hard like Montpellier though…
It is the toughest thing any of us have ever done. What we did was ridiculous. Because we were such good friends as well, we went deeper than we could have done otherwise. I’m glad the book has given me an opportunity to write about it, because I wanted us to remember that. I want the five of us to go back to Montpellier one day, go for a bike ride on the same course, then have a long lunch. That would be really cool.
Missing that last Tour de France due to not being selected because of illness leading up to the race: is that still raw, not being there?
It still makes no sense to me. That’s what it is. It doesn’t add up.
You are confident you were fit enough to come good during the race?
I was already feeling fine on the Thursday before the start in Yorkshire. I was 76kg, I was strong, I’d stopped coughing. Sure, if it was another rider you might not take them, but I’ve done this before. I know what I’m doing.
So I am very raw with Charly [Wegelius] still. I think it was very unkind, what he did to me. I said to myself: what would Matt White do? He’d have taken me, even if I was coughing the night before the race. He was my friend.
And the same with Dave Brailsford and the  Worlds. I had a broken hand, but he wasn’t going to take that away from me.
The rationality of the Tour decision just didn’t make sense to me. And I think Charly did it to empower himself within the team; to show he could make a big decision and shift the power. It was a political play by him.
I’d have been fine for the Tour and then fine for the Commonwealth Games too, and Charly took them away from me. And Jonathan [Vaughters] and Doug [Ellis] didn’t have the courage to override the decision.
Are you still blanked by the team management?
Even Jonathan Vaughters. When Ramunas [Navardauskas] won, I sent a message congratulating him, because he was my replacement. And I sent an email to Ramunas before the Tour saying if anybody is going to take my place there, I’m so glad it’s you, and I think you will win a stage. Do it for me.
And he did, and he dedicated it to me on that penultimate day. That’s what it’s about. Charly never got it. Jonathan doesn’t get it.
I have friends in the sport who will be friends for ever. But others who I don’t think will be, somehow.
So, yes, it’s a little bit raw! [laughing heartily]
The big chunk of your final Vuelta towards the end of the book had the potential to be deadly dull – a stage-by-stage account type of thing – but you made it come to life on the page. Did you make notes as you went along?
No. The postcards to my son were a massive help. And I tried to put Tweets in there as well. But the postcards were like historical notes, something to help me remember, and also my boys to remember. Because I love it all so much, it was very easy for me to recall it all and write it down. I made a conscious effort last year, knowing it was my last, to fix every moment in my brain.
The thing I wanted to capture with the Vuelta, doing every single stage in the book, was it is 21 days long. This is what we do. I have done 24 of these [Grand Tours]. It’s a fucking long time. It is relentless. I wanted to capture the daily roller coaster, physically and emotionally, that is our life as pro bike riders.
What do you miss most about not racing?
I don’t know yet. I’m still coming to terms with it. I’ll show you something. [A message on his phone from Zabriskie.]
I just asked him at the end, how are you doing? And his reply simply said: “Still not sure how I am.” That sums it up. It’s the same for all of us. Nobody prepares you for it. All you have ever done is raced. None of it was normal. It became normal, but it was extraordinary and we didn’t realise.
Do you look for something to replace the buzz, or is that not needed?
Not yet. I don’t have the time. I drive my car occasionally. That’s about the closest I get.
I get the feeling a lot of retired pro cyclists really look forward to a relaxed life at home with the family, but struggle to cope with it and can’t wait to get back on the road in some capacity, whether it be with a cycling team or something else.
By the time we get out of it, it’s like we are institutionalised. You’ve been de-mobbed. And then because we are scattered all over the world, we can never share it with anybody.
Make sure you organise that Montpellier get-together then.
I would love to do that. Just got to wait for Ryder to retire. I think it would be massive for all of us.
This should probably have been the first question, but why write this book?
Because I have the good fortune of perspective – having had it and lost it when I was younger and got banned. With everything I did in the second part of my career, I was always very aware of how lucky I was. And I didn’t want to forget that.
It was almost closing a circle after [first book] Racing Through the Dark and the whole doping era; to be able to write the book that I always wanted to write about bike racing, not doping. I feel I have done that, paid my dues, fixed everything I broke.
So I have done this for myself, first and foremost. I see how ex-bike riders forget what it was like. My boys will have something next to Racing in the Dark, which was also what their dad did…
That was very important for me, and for Christian and Dave and Ryder. This is what we did. Our time.
A fitting final question for you, I think: what’s the best post-race party you have ever attended?
My first Tour de France party. My sister organised it at Les Bains Douches. I was 23, she was 21. We had the coolest club in Paris and Jean-Maris Leblanc was handing out invitations for me on the Champs Elysee to the podium girls. It was cool as fuck, just the best party.
I remember being there with my best friend Harry at seven in the morning as they were cleaning up around us, and we were still drinking. We’ll never beat that. It was old school. Proper.