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Michael Rogers: life on civvy street

James Witts
23 Sep 2016

Forced to retire in February 2016 with a heart condition, Mick Rogers was one of the peloton’s most diligent and tactically astute riders.

Looking up from my notepad and coffee I can see Michael Rogers approaching. Somewhat unexpectedly, though, the man I am here in Bern to interview on this sunny Tuesday afternoon is not alone. The person accompanying him is none other than his former team boss at Tinkoff, Bjarne Riis. I’ve been preparing to discuss the illustrious 16-year career of one of the toughest and most intelligent riders to grace the peloton and what his plans are now that he’s retired, but all of a sudden I feel a bit flummoxed. What is ‘The Eagle from Herning’ doing here?

‘Bjarne’s asked me to come on board his new project as CEO,’ Rogers immediately offers up, his Antipodean accent still strong despite being based in Europe for nearly 20 years now. Riis has joined forces with Lars Seier Christensen, the founder of Saxo Bank, which sponsored Tinkoff when Riis ran the team, to create the Riis & Seier project. 

‘My role will be to head up a number of corporate-type events starting next year, from cycling training camps to cultural weeks,’ Rogers says. So it transpires his old boss is now going to be his new boss.

In with the old

For many ex-pros returning to civvy street after hanging up their race wheels, the obvious course of action is to stick with what they know. And so, long before their newly found dietary freedom has had the chance to manifest in an expanded waistline, they’re back trawling the world for up to 250 days a year as a directeur sportif, coach or – perhaps the most humbling form of professional purgatory – a team ambassador. 

‘For two months I enjoyed the break and spent time with the family,’ Rogers says. ‘Then I began to realise that the way I’d measured myself for the past 30 years was changing. How do you judge your day? Previously it was all about how many miles you rode or how many metres you climbed.

‘I went to the start of the Giro in May and spent a couple of days with Tinkoff, helping out with guests. I still had the mentality of a rider but I could already see that my ex-teammates were treating me differently – like I’d changed from cyclist to team management. I came away from the Giro and said I didn’t want to see another race for a long while,’ he says.

End of the road

But let’s not forget Rogers’ path to retirement was far from how he would have wanted it. While at the Dubai Tour in Feburary, some worryingly erratic heart-rate data at the end of the second stage prompted team doctors to step in and prevent him from starting the next day. It would turn out to be the end of his professional career. 

‘I was diagnosed with a congenital bicuspid aortic valve in in 2001,’ says Rogers. ‘Most people’s [aortic] valve opens and closes in a three-flap fashion (think of the Mercedez-Benz logo), but mine only works perfectly in two. Because of that it’s unable to seal completely, leading to a regurgitation of blood back into my heart.

‘As a result, I have an irregular heartbeat which has become worse over the years. If I’d carried on, it could have become a life-threatening issue.’

So how has Rogers’ life changed in the months since his enforced retirement? ‘I’ve a bit of fat on my tummy now.’ he says – although he still looks lithe enough to me. ‘I always had a firm stomach but it’s gone. Hundreds of cycling miles a week have been replaced with a few half-hour rides and a couple of runs.

‘I do the absolute minimum that’ll appease my cardiologist,’ he admits.

That’s not to say Rogers isn’t busy, however. Rather than dwell on his misfortune, the Australian, much as he did as a rider, dug deep, refocused his efforts and decided Riis’ business opportunity would direct him down an enriching path to the future.

Rogers sets off in pursuit of his new goals content with a career that featured three consecutive gold medals in the World Time-Trial Championships from 2003 to 2005 – the first of which came retrospectively after the original winner, David Millar, was disqualified for doping.

In a bizarre coincidence, Rogers was also retrospectively given an Olympic bronze for the time-trial at Athens 2004 after original gold-medalist Tyler Hamilton was formally stripped of his title by the IOC some eight years later.

Rogers forged a reputation as one of the peloton’s captains, a domestique who could read a stage with his eyes closed. His astute tactical mind was one of his greatest qualities, and proved a valuable asset over the years for teammates such as Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish, Alberto Contador and Peter Sagan.

It meant he invariably played foil to the bigger stars, but Rogers rode into the limelight in his own right in 2014 by winning two stages of the Giro and ‘the win that fulfilled my career’– stage 16 of that year’s Tour de France, which Rogers celebrated with an elegant bow to the Bagneres-de-Luchon crowds.

‘We had stage 16 in mind,’ recalls Rogers. ‘At 237.5km, it was the longest stage of the 2014 Tour but it was the last opportunity where the leading teams would let the riders go who weren’t in contention.’

Rogers joined a 21-man breakaway that quickly carved out a 10-minute lead. Twenty-one had been whittled down to five by the time they crested the day’s biggest climb, the Port de Bales. With 20km to go, Rogers lined up beside Sky’s Vasil Kiryienka, Lampre-Merida’s José Serpa, and Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler and Cyril Gautier.

The stage seemed set for French team Europcar to deliver glory to sprinter Gautier, but Rogers, executing the strategic acumen that became his signature, surprised all by attacking with over 4km to go. Gautier, caught off guard, couldn’t catch Rogers’ rear wheel and the former Australian national pursuit champion powered on to take his first, and only, stage victory at the Tour.

‘In hindsight it was a bit of a suicide mission,’ says Rogers. ‘But I’d been around long enough to know that when a chance arrives, you have to take it.’

Early signs

Rogers’ primary cycling education was pretty rudimentary. He grew up in Griffith, New South Wales, a town Rogers describes as ‘tough’.

‘We moved there because my dad was a civil engineer setting up irrigation systems in the outback. Griffith happened to have a lot of Italian immigrants. It had lots of tomato farmers – and a few marijuana ones, too,’ he coughs.

‘But there was also a really strong Italian cycling community and they used to have this race every Sunday. My dad, who’s up for anything, had hardly ridden a bike before but bought a Gitane and entered. That started off my two elder brothers, Dean and Peter.

‘I was only five at the time so was too small at first, but by the time I was seven I was doing it with them. I had to race with the grown-ups, so they set me off 15 minutes before anyone else. I suppose that’s where I learnt my time-trialling skills,’ he says with a smile.

Rogers was an early developer and as a youngster he quickly rose through the ranks. His family moved to the Australian capital Canberra, another strong cycling community, and Rogers hardly spent a minute off his bike.

‘Monday nights we had an 8km TT; Tuesday was velodrome racing; Wednesday criterium; Thursday flat-track velodrome; Friday day off; Saturday road racing; Sunday was a long bunch ride. As kids we never trained – always raced. And I absolutely loved it,’ he recalls fondly.

It’s easy to see why he developed such an intuitive style and a great awareness during races. Rogers was picked up and coached from an early age through the Australian Institute of Sport, renowned as the world leader in the application of sports science. After winning the Junior National Time-Trial Championships, Rogers caught the eye of Italian team Mapei, where he would begin his professional career in 1999.

He remained with the team when it was incorporated into Quick-Step in 2003, winning his trio of time-trial golds before joining Columbia-HTC (then T-Mobile) in 2006, where he helped propel Cav to numerous victories.

Then came two seasons with Team Sky in 2011 and 2012, where he experienced first hand the meticulous ‘marginal gains’ philosophy under team boss Dave Brailsford. 

While many argue that Sky’s recipe for success – particularly in the Tour de France – seems based around strangling the joy out of the race, Rogers calls their dominance and appliance of science ‘progression’.

‘Sky are simply light years ahead of everyone else. The average cycling team is working on projects next week. Sky are working on projects eight, nine months down the line. But that’s what you can do with that stability and budget.’

Rich returns

Money certainly helps, though a report published by L’Equipe prior to this year’s Tour suggests they’re getting plenty of value from their budget, unlike other big spenders. While Team Sky’s annual outlay came in at €35 million (£30.4m) for 2015, Katusha weren’t far behind with €32 million and BMC Racing at €28 million.

Looking just at the Tour, that considerable outlay netted the latter pair little more than Ilnur Zakarin’s stage 17 victory and Ritchie Porte’s fifth overall respectively. And while pro cycling is about far more than just the Tour, some teams receive up to 90% of their annual media exposure in France, so it’s not a matter of them not trying.

‘Sky have Dave Brailsford,’ says Rogers simply. ‘You need a leader to have vision, who’ll direct and steer the boat. Dave’s great at that and he’s even better at creating and filling roles.

Rogers credits head of athlete performance Tim Kerrison with implementing ‘proper’ training schedules and recovery. ‘You saw it with Bradley when he won the Tour in 2012. That was the first time a Tour winner followed a schedule that might see him compete at two races in a row and then have a three-week “break” to actually train.’

That approach allowed Wiggins and his team to analyse the data, identify weaknesses and work on them. ‘Basically, if you’re not taking those three-week periods off from racing, it’s more about maintaining rather than improving.’

Rogers’ final career move came in 2013 when he left Sky to ride alongside Alberto Contador at Tinkoff-Saxo. The mention of the diminutive Spaniard is the perfect segue into something I’ve been hesitant to raise: Rogers’ positive test for clenbuterol after winning the Japan Cup one-day race in October 2013.

Testing times

A temporary suspension followed, but on 23rd April 2014 the UCI announced that Rogers was cleared of any wrongdoing, accepting that there was a significant probability that the clenbuterol came from eating contaminated meat while Rogers was competing in China, as the drug is often used in China’s farming system.

‘It felt like I’d been raped,’ Rogers says bluntly. ‘We should never have been sent there. Only afterwards did I discover that a 2011 study in Frankfurt found that 80% of people coming off a plane from China tested positive for clenbuterol.’

Despite Rogers being officially cleared, cycling’s history with doping means even the potential for wrongdoing can permanently tarnish a rider’s reputation. But what’s fact is that Rogers was one of the strongest cyclists of his era, and one of the most tactically astute riders in the peloton. He helped Wiggins slip into yellow, marshalled Contador and occasionally found time to grab his own glory along the way.

It’s also fact that despite his new role, Rogers, the ultimate professional sportsman, continues to wrestle with life away from the sharp end of the peloton. ‘We’re going back to Australia for a bit and I’ll keep putting together the pieces of the puzzle,’ he says. ‘But if I can learn something along the way, that’s a good thing. Who knows where it could end up?’

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