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Steve Cummings interview

Steve Cummings interview
James Witts
8 Jul 2016

Cyclist caught up with the Wirral-born pro rider on the second rest day of the 2015 Tour de France, just 72 hours after his stage victory.

We first interviewed Steve Cumming at the 2015 Tour de France, but hot off today's victory thanks to an impressive and well timed attack, we thought it was time we reaquianted ourselves with his story of hitting the big time, and what drives him to acheive.

Cyclist: Your victory three days ago on Stage 14 was your first at the Tour de France. What was going through your mind as you neared the finish? 

Steve Cummings: Coming into the final climb, the second-category Cote de la Croix Neuve, I wasn’t really thinking about winning. All that ran through my mind was to unleash the best effort I could. For me, that meant two things: time-trialling up the climb [3km at an average 10.1% gradient] and letting the French riders [Thibaut Pinot of FDJ and Romain Bardet, AG2R La Mondiale] go at the bottom. I could see them attacking each other, which left them in the red early. I just went at my own tempo, hitting red as I arrived at the crest of the climb. How did I know I hit red? It’s a combination of looking at the power meter – which I’ve trained and raced with for years – and feel. It’s always a balance of wattage and feel. Anyway, that gave me momentum. I also gained confidence because I knew I could beat Pinot and Bardet in a sprint every time. 

Cyc: You race for African team MTN-Qhubeka and delivered victory to them on Mandela Day. Was that significant for you?

SC: Clearly we were aware of the day’s importance to the team and Africans as a whole. We had a special meeting about that before the stage start and wore orange-streaked helmets to symbolise the occasion. But when it came to riding, I remained rational and calm. The emotional side of the result hit me later on that night when I was celebrating with the team over a couple of glasses of champagne.

Cyc: Had you and the team targeted that stage before the race?

SC: It’s difficult to put all your cards on the table and target one stage. Rather, there were four or five that suited my profile. By that I mean when the race becomes more open, so when the sprinters’ teams aren’t controlling proceedings, and when the time gaps between the GC contenders and the peloton are significant. I like those stages because they give you the freedom to really go for it.

Steve Cummings MTN Qhubeka

Cyc: How does this victory rank alongside previous ones?

SC: This is on a different planet to anything I’ve done before, and really complements what I feel has been a successful season. It started really well in March when I finished sixth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, finishing five seconds behind Pinot in fourth and just one second behind Alberto Contador in fifth. Prior to Tirreno – and at my first race with MTN-Qhubeka in January – I beat Alejandro Valverde over a 3km climb of the Mirador d’Es Colomer at the Trofeo Andratx in Mallorca. I’ve also beaten Contador over a 4-5km climb this season. I guess that’s why I found it somewhat surprising when many onlookers thought it such a surprise that I won in France. It was never mission impossible. It’s just that sometimes I have better days than others.

Cyc: Does the ‘public surprise’ suggest that your career and successes have been somewhat overshadowed by other British riders such as Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome?

SC: People who understand cycling and know the sport, who understand my characteristics as a rider and the detail of cycling… I’m not overlooked by those people. But maybe the general public, who are drawn into the sport through the Tour de France, yeah, they might not be as aware of my riding capabilities and my potential. They might not quite understand the role I have in the team, which is fair enough as they’re new to the sport.

Cyc: In your career you’ve raced with two of the biggest teams in the peloton – Team Sky and BMC. How does your life at Pro Continental team MTN-Qhubeka compare with those WorldTour giants?

SC: The strategy’s a lot different than with those two, that’s for sure. There’s not the same pressure because we’re underdogs who are perceived as punching well above our weight. When you’re competing for the likes of Sky and BMC there’s a standard that you always have to achieve, and that can make the situation rather stressful and not particularly pleasant. But here at MTN, I’ve really enjoyed my time – except, of course, for that first week of the Tour…

Steve Cummings portrait

Cyc: The first week had far less climbing than the other two, so what made it so tough?

SC: In the first week, the nerves are far more raw. There’s the cobbled stages and fierce crosswinds. As a spectator it makes for great viewing but I think the organisers have to be aware of rider safety. If you lose 10 riders with broken bones in that first week, it’s just really sad. The Tour de France is the dream for every rider – they’ve spent near enough their entire life training for that one race. So to crash because of the route is disappointing. Also, many of the roads just aren’t wide enough for a pack of 200 riders. In my opinion, if they made the peloton a little bit smaller it’d be better. That could mean having fewer than nine riders in each team or simply having fewer teams [22 teams currently participate in the Tour]. As well as making the race safer, I also think it’d open things up and make it more exciting.

Cyc: It was certainly an exciting time for your teammate Daniel Teklehaimanot, who became the first African rider to wear a classification jersey at the Tour.

SC: Daniel performed brilliantly throughout the whole race, but he’s been doing that all season. In the Critérium du Dauphiné just before the Tour, he won the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey after leading the competition from Stage 1. He’s just so good at ascending. Winning that and wearing the polka-dot at the Tour is such a huge achievement for him. He’s an absolute hero in Eritrea. He was before the Tour de France, anyway. Now I imagine he’s king.

Cyc: MTN sports scientist Jon Baker recently told Cyclist how the Eritreans in the team are blessed because of physical factors conducive to elite performance such as naturally high haematocrit levels. What’s it like to train and race with them?

SC: They are super-strong, physical athletes but they have incredible mental strength too. They have so many difficulties to overcome – things you’d never think about. For instance, they have huge problems with passport visas, which can really set them back [part of the problem derives from up to 4,000 Eritreans fleeing their home country each month to avoid military service and human rights abuses]. The Eritreans are going to make an increasing impact in the professional ranks.

Cyc: It’s not just the Eritreans in the team. Young South African Louis Meintjes looks a strong prospect, despite withdrawing from the Tour before Stage 18 through illness.

SC: Louis is a good rider and proved it with a fifth place at the Tour [Stage 12]. But it’s not just the African riders who are helping the team – at the Tour we had a South African chef who was just fantastic. His name is David Higgs. He’s a bit of a celebrity in his home country and has worked at numerous Michelin-starred restaurants. He volunteered his services for nothing to work with the team at the Tour. That shows what MTN racing in France means to South Africa and the continent as a whole.

Steve Cummings Q&A

Cyc: You’re into the final week of the Tour. How’s the body holding up?

SC: It’s really tough by the time you reach this stage of any Grand Tour. Physically, your freshness has disappeared. Mind you, I often train and race better under fatigue, but you definitely lose that top-end speed from a constant build-up of lactate in your legs, which accumulates from breakaways and the hills.

Cyc: What about the mental aspect of a three-week race?

SC: That’s probably a bigger problem than the physical side of things. The Tour de France requires extreme concentration on the bike. If you or someone else loses that focus, there’s a big crash. So you have to stay switched on all of the time and that’s not easy. That makes it particularly hard to switch off, which can affect your sleep patterns. In fact, lack of sleep can become one of the biggest issues at the Tour, as well as missing your family.

Cyc: A family that has expanded this year, we hear?

SC: Yeah, my daughter is five months old and I miss her and my wife greatly. I saw them in Pau [the first rest day] but you’re in the race and aren’t entirely ‘with it’. It’s not easy for me or them. My daughter’s been on eight flights already. Some kids haven’t been on that many flights by the time they’re 15 years old. At just 10 days old she was on a plane. Sometimes you question if that’s right but she’s always smiling and laughing so she seems happy. 

Cyc: What does the future hold for the Cummings family?

SC: We’ll see how the legs hold up for a definitive schedule post-Tour but I’m contracted with MTN-Qhubeka until the end of 2016. It’s too early to say what will happen after that, but I’m really happy racing with such a strong team.

You can follow Steve Cummings on Twitter: @StevoCummings

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