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Juan Antonio Flecha: life after racing

Mark Bailey
15 Jun 2016

The ex-Team Sky pro discusses the magic of the Giro, Wiggo’s peculiarities and why hour-long rides are now enough.

Cyclist: You’re working with Eurosport at the Giro this month (May 2016). How does the race compare to the Tour?

Juan Antonio Flecha: The big difference is the participation standard. The teams bring their best riders to the Tour as it’s the biggest event of the year. The Giro isn’t short of big names, but if a team brings nine riders to the Tour, all nine will be completely ready. At the Giro, maybe five or six will be ready – maybe nine, but there could be young riders too. The reason some riders say the Giro is harder is because it is purely the best racing in the best country for racing. Italy has everything for racing: little hills, big mountains, and all those massive climbs like the Stelvio and Gavia. The climbs are steeper than at the Tour too. It suits light and skinny climbers like the Colombian riders. 

Cyc: Is it now impossible to win both the Tour and the Giro in one year? 

JAF: Well, last year the Giro was very hard, and Alberto Contador was not good in the Tour simply because he was coming from [winning] the Giro. His data was higher there than at the Tour. The Giro is not the same level of competition but it can be physically harder.

I got some good results in my career and that was that. I can’t say I was successful, but I am happy.

Cyc: You rode eight editions of the Vuelta and 12 Tours but only one Giro, in 2012. What are your memories?

JAF: The passion from the crowd. So many people in Italy follow cycling all year long, and the way they express that passion is very intense. I also like how Giro stages normally finish in a town or city centre, where at the Tour a lot of the finishes are now out of town. But it’s other things too: the landscapes, the racing, and the fact that it is held in spring, which feels like a time for renewing and restarting. It’s the first Grand Tour of the year and it comes with a special feeling.

Cyc: You were at Team Sky from its launch in 2010. What were the early days like?

JAF: I have very good memories of Team Sky. I was one of the first in the team, so I remember how we went from zero to the top. Dave B [Brailsford] is a great example of how if you really put in the effort, you can achieve what you want to achieve. He was not scared of changing things or doing things differently, and that is a very British way. At first, everyone laughed at the team. Their goals sounded like a joke. But Dave B and the team were not scared about saying what they wanted and I think that is very impressive and it set a great example. The truth is that their methods would work in any company, not just sport. Dave B created a cycling team but he could have created a car manufacturing company and he would have succeeded just as well. He would just apply the same methods.

Cyc: Was Team Sky completely different to your previous teams?

JAF: There were so many nutritionists and surveys; I had never seen anything like it before. After a race I was always asked: how was this? How was that? I had never known that before. I would like to know how many other teams were sending out surveys to their riders. Probably none of them. But how do you improve if you are not humble and you do not ask: how can things be better? Are we doing things right? If you know what is right and wrong, you can improve more quickly.

Cyc: Did Team Sky improve you as a rider?

JAF: It was their mission to make us all better through training, nutrition, psychology… everything. The French teams said they were already doing all that stuff themselves, but Team Sky took it to another level. The other teams were kidding themselves because really they had an old-school mentality. Today, everyone is trying to copy Team Sky.

Cyc: Did you enjoy working with Sir Bradley Wiggins?

JAF: I enjoyed it a lot and I learned a lot from him. He is quite a peculiar champion – very determined and a great example of someone who commits to their sport. He looked after himself, ate well and maintained the right weight but at the same time he was always funny, even in stressful races. Having some fun with the leader is good because it keeps everybody relaxed.

Cyc: Was he a very different character to Chris Froome?

JAF: You can’t compare Chris with Bradley. They are very different characters. Chris is one way and Bradley another. Bradley wasn’t as friendly with the press, but that’s him. With some riders you need to get to know them to get things out of them – it’s like that with Contador. But they are very focused. Maybe when these guys retire the press will get to know them properly because they’ll be more relaxed.

Cyc: As a domestique, did you have to adapt your own behaviour to fit the different personalities of team leaders?

JAF: Being a domestique requires an understanding of the leader, yes. Riders have different personalities but also a GC contender is not the same as a sprinter. They are completely different. I remember working with Oscar Freire [a sprinter at Rabobank] and we would have to be together in the last moments with maybe one or two people, knowing we were not as protected as we would be if we were riding with a GC contender. It is a different dimension. But the personality of the rider also makes it very interesting. For example, Oscar was capable of so many genius moments. He read the race in an excellent way. Some days I would be on the bus and he would say: ‘We need to do it this way tomorrow.’ Then the next day we changed things and he won the stage. That’s the kind of skill it takes to win world championships, a green jersey and Milan-San Remo.

Cyc: You loved one-day races, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2010 and achieving podium places at Paris-Roubaix in 2005, 2007 and 2010. What was it about them that appealed? 

JAF: The first time I ever saw Paris-Roubaix on TV, what surprised me was that it was completely different to all of the other races in the calendar. Cobblestone races are unique and the experience is very different. My kind of racing character was drawn towards that. As a person, I want to know about different things, so as soon as I saw these kinds of races when I was 15 or 16, I thought to myself: wow, that is what I want to do. The skills and the characteristics of one-day races really suited me and I was attracted to the adversity, with all the crosswinds and little roads and cobblestones. 

Cyc: Which races have provided you with the best career memories? 

JAF: I have very good memories of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Paris-Roubaix and the rest. The Tour de France was special but I can’t presume to be a big champion. I got some good results in my career and that was that. I can’t say I was successful, but I am happy.

Cyc: Which riders do you most enjoy watching today as a fan?

JAF: I have a lot! Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas at Team Sky – everyone enjoys watching ‘G’ on the telly. Contador is someone who is so unpredictable. He makes attacks you would never expect and it’s now the same with Fabio Aru. He goes so quickly: one minute he is there, then he is attacking and going for a stage win. And it’s impossible not to enjoy Peter Sagan. The way he races is amazing, he has got everything. I enjoy watching Tom Boonen too.

Cyc: Do you still get excited about cycling after all these years?

JAF: I just love how cycling is a sport which allows people of different sizes to compete at the same level. I love watching Mark Cavendish, and the way he fights for position and accelerates next to these big other riders like Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel. He is half the size of them but he just thinks: ‘I will barge my way through.’ It is so illogical, I love watching it. Nacer Bouhanni is the same: he is like a little kid trying to sprint past guys who are 20-30 kilograms heavier than him.

Cyc: Since retiring in 2013, have you done much riding?

JAF: I don’t ride much. I’m not still like a crazy cyclist. I do a bit of mountain biking and I hit the roads sometimes but I don’t invest much time in it. It just wouldn’t make sense. As a professional cyclist I invested myself 24 hours a day, riding and resting, with long six- or seven-hour sessions on the bike. Now one hour is enough.

Juan Antonio Flecha is a host of Giro Extra on Eurosport, which has exclusive live coverage of many cycling races in the UK.