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Roger Hammond interview

Roger Hammond interview
Mark Bailey
10 Aug 2015

The Madison Genesis team manager tells Cyclist about sleeping in cars, Paris-Roubaix and what we can learn from F1.

Cyclist: Looking back to your pro career, did you ever think cycling would become so popular in Britain?

Roger Hammond: When I was a pro in Belgium [1998 to 2004] my teammates couldn’t understand the animosity between cyclists and non-cyclists in the UK. The issue was always about reaching a critical mass. Once there were enough people riding bikes it wouldn’t matter what people in cars or the press thought about the sport. But I never could have imagined it getting as big as it is now. I remember my grandma – bless her – saying, ‘When are you going to get a proper job?’ I’d tell people I was in advertising because after years of explaining whether or not I got a salary I was exhausted. A good friend bought a new bike recently and he said, ‘Roger, I never knew you were a pro cyclist.’ We’ve been friends for decades but we’d never even talked about it. Now he’s obsessed with cycling. It’s bizarre.

Cyc: Are you happy you took the old-school route into the pro scene?

RH: Yes and no. I remember when I first moved to Belgium I wasn’t sure what was going on. There was a mix of fear, worry, aspiration and excitement. If you follow a predetermined system like today it probably takes a little bit of the magic away, but you will achieve your full potential much quicker. The magic comes when you’re winning WorldTour races, rather than still working out what food to have for breakfast when you are 27 years old.

Cyc: You had a long career, from being World Junior Cyclocross Champion in 1992 until retiring in 2010. What are your greatest memories?

RH: All the races merge into one and I can’t even remember which years I was National Champion. But I can remember sleeping in a car in Belgium when I moved over there. And I can remember the first night I turned up at the home of the Belgian family who I would be lodging with, sitting in their front room feeling awkward while they kicked their daughter out so I could have her bedroom. I loved the fact that I went from sleeping in the back of a Vauxhall Nova to floating in a yacht offshore near the Cayman Islands with the owner of Walmart.

Roger Hammond portrait

Cyc: Was it tough to be a pro in an era wrecked by doping scandals?

RH: There was a lot of controversy and negativity associated with that era but I probably wasn’t the most unlucky one. I turned professional in 1998 [the year of the Festina doping scandal] so it was hard, but the other side of the coin is that rather than emerging into a world where drugs were part of the system I arrived at the time of a huge wake-up call. There was a big scandal and I never wanted to be a part of it. I never wanted to be in the same position as those guys who got the phone call or the letter or the knock on the door.

Cyc: Was sleeping in an altitude tent your way of trying to keep up?

RH: It was my way of finding marginal gains, but in a fair way. Altitude tents weren’t banned and I convinced myself that ethically it was OK. Some people live or train at altitude so I thought: why not bring the altitude to me? Cheating is getting something for nothing but altitude tents leave you absolutely knackered. It’s not a shortcut, that’s for sure.

Cyc: Why did you enjoy the Classics so much?

RH: They suited my skills because I came from a cyclocross background and I loved the drama. I also knew I was better off with one-day races. There are so many elements like tactics, skill, teammates, knowledge and timing, and in the bigger tours I didn’t know what other riders were up to. For me in the Classics it was more of a level playing field. I only did one Grand Tour in my whole career. That wasn’t a coincidence.

Cyc: What are your earliest memories of Paris-Roubaix?

RH: I can remember watching it on television when I was a kid. I remember the cobbles and the mud and the sheer excitement. When I got into cycling I had three goals: to win Paris-Roubaix, a stage of the Tour and the World Cyclocross Championships. It’s not a coincidence that all three of those were on television: if you’re exposed to things at a young age they capture your imagination. As a fan it’s good to watch all the Classics, though – the real drama comes from watching how tactics and form changes and how the whole story grows and evolves. That’s more interesting than just watching the last spin in the velodrome in Roubaix. 

Cyc: Can you ever be fully happy with your third place in 2004?

RH: It’s strange when I look back. I almost imagine it in the third person. For years afterwards I just remembered the pain of not winning. I felt it was a missed opportunity. But over time I recall only snapshots of the race. I can remember Peter van Petegem [a Belgian rider for Lotto] coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re going really well. On the next sector I’m going to attack. Come with me.’ This was a guy who had won it the year before and was leading the World Cup so I felt like a million dollars. I remember coming through the Carrefour de l’Arbre, taking every risk I could, riding at 60kmh on one of the worst roads in Europe, with the crowd inches away. I thought, ‘I’m dicing with death here, not trying to win a bike race.’

Roger Hammond Genesis

Cyc: Is Paris-Roubaix the hardest race you did?

RH: I’m probably supposed to say that it’s the hardest race and that the pain is ridiculous, but the truth is it was one of the easier races for me because it matched my skills as a rider. When I hit the cobbles I started to relax. You’re on the bike for about five hours but for me it felt more like five minutes. You are so focused, you can’t lose concentration and it feels like time flies.

Cyc: You’re known for your attention to detail. How important is it?

RH: You need to know every detail, every turn in the road and every possible scenario. A decision might only save you two seconds in the wind but that could be the difference. You need to know form, history and rider friendships. What happens at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad can affect what happens in Paris-Roubaix. I remember in one race a load of riders started attacking me and working together, and I couldn’t understand why. Afterwards I realised they had been roommates the season before. Little details matter. 

Cyc: What’s your biggest challenge as team manager at Madison Genesis?

RH: As a rider you are in control of everything and you have an excuse for everything because if you don’t have a reason for why you haven’t just won the race you can’t go out with the same gusto in your next race. On this side of the fence things are very different. You have to be more objective and the amount of time you put into it is not always directly related to the results. But I like to think that when I advise the guys, at least they know I have been there and done it. So when they kick my head in on a training ride they can go into a race with confidence. But I’m happy to watch now. When I see Tom Boonen battering people in races I remember the stress of what that feels like and I’m glad it’s not me. 

Cyc: What aspect of pro cycling would you like to change?

RH: That’s a whole can of worms. We need tremendous change. The sport needs to be more professionally run and we need more rider representation too. Cycling has developed so quickly and the organisers are still catching up, so it looks like they are just putting out fires all the time. But most importantly you can’t let riders avoid each other by dodging races. You need guys like Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador facing each other in all the big races. You wouldn’t have the Monaco Grand Prix with Fernando Alonso racing but Lewis Hamilton staying at home, or footballers dropping out of the FA Cup Final to play in another match. It’s absurd. When you think of all the new people coming into our sport, it is too confusing. We need to see the best riders, in the best races, smashing 10 bells out of each other. 

Madison Genesis recently won the Tour Series. Follow the team at @MadisonGenesis

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