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Keegan Swirbul: “Winning the Nationals was the best moment of my life”

Three years ago, a lanky teenager defeated Lance Armstrong at the Power of Four 36-mile long mountain bike race that took place in Aspen, Colorado. Surprised, but also impressed by what he’s seen and the potential of that kid, the 1993 world champion gave Axel Merckx – Bontrager-Livestrong’s sports director – a call and told him to keep an eye on the 16-year-old. Just one and a half year later, Merckx offered the young rider a place in his team and so Keegan Swirbul embarked in a new adventure, with one of the best development teams in the world.

Stoked, but at the same time nervous about being a newcomer to road racing, Keegan Swirbul took each thing at a time, his first races providing him a massive learning experience. Once things began to fall into place, the Colorado native began to show his talent by finishing second at the National Championships, in 2014, following a great ride. One season later, he won the title after an excellent race, taking his biggest result to date and thus confirming his huge talent, which makes him one of the most interesting prospects of the U23 scene.

Despite this success, Keegan Swirbul – who is a natural born climber – remains with his feet on the ground, as he knows he’s just started the road leading towards a pro career in the years to come. That’s why now he’s focusing on improving and making sure he’ll add other big wins to the victory he notched in June. Before the first big appointment he has in the second half of the season – the Tour of Utah – Axeon’s cyclist sat down and talked for Cafe Roubaix about his results so far and his future goals

– Keegan, what do you feel you’ve improved since coming to Axeon?

I’ve improved in every aspect as I was starting from scratch, but I’d say my biggest improvement would be my general strength power wise. I am now able to ride harder, longer and recover quicker than I expected. When I was first offered the place on Axeon in the fall of 2013, I wouldn’t have even been able to complete even the lower level American races, so I actually made pretty crazy progress that winter and similar percentage gains during the 2014 off-season. I have also made some progress with my pack skills, but I’m still working on that aspect.

– Last month you won the U23 national title. Were you expecting such a great result?

Nationals was a good memory for me. Going in, I was confident as I had been feeling consistently good during training the weeks before. I am more happy with the long climbs, and the final one at the Nationals was under two minutes, so I wasn’t thinking of myself as the top favorite at all. But, I attacked hard in the finale a few times and no one was able to follow.

– What did it mean for you to take the victory?

I was seriously stoked on that win. Probably the single best moment of my life, if I’m honest. I have dreamed of that jersey for years.

– When it comes to stage races, which was your highlight so far?

Stage race wise, my favorite moment was probably the fourth stage of the Tour of Utah in 2014. The first few days of the race I was hanging for dear life and I was questioning my place at this level of the sport, so to have a decent ride that day really helped my moral.

– Besides road cycling, you’re also into mountain bike and cross country from time to time. How do these three get along?

I had been into mountain biking and building trails and all that jazz for a long time. It was good fun, and honestly I didn’t take it too seriously really. I was interested in a lot of other summer time activities that made being a top rider impossible. During high school, I quit freestyle skiing and began XC skiing. My junior year, I stopped screwing around and set the goal of winning the Nationals and I ended up doing it. I stopped skiing after that.

– Giro della Valle d’Aosta was your first European race. With what thoughts did you go there?

Heading into Aosta, I was pretty stoked. It was the first time that I would do a true mountain race. I trained pretty dang hard for a good while before the race, and I was feeling way good. Numbers were way higher than I had ever seen, so I was very confident. When I arrived to Europe, something was missing though. I felt bad in the training the week before and couldn’t produce the same numbers at sea level that I was producing at altitude a week earlier. I went terribly the first days of the race and I was very upset with myself. The last few days I somewhat found my legs, but still not the level I know I’m capable of. Not the best way to start in Europe, but I certainly am incredibly motivated to try and do everything perfectly this winter to hopefully avoid these bouts of inconsistent form next year.

– And what’s next for you?

Next up for me is Tour of Utah. I’m heading into Utah with questionable form. Utah has always been a big target for me, and I hope to be going well. But after the bad sensations in training and a bad performance at Aosta, I’m not sure what kind of shape I will arrive with. Regardless, I’m sure Axeon will have some riders up there on GC, so hopefully I’ll be going well enough to help them do a good ride.

– I know it’s still early, but did you give a thought what races would you like to win?

I really have no idea what races I’d like to win. Winning any race is massive for me. But certainly, I would love to win any race in the mountains. Hopefully, next season I can try to target as many European mountain races as I can. Also, I’d really like to try and get in some races that aren’t my speciality, in order to learn the ways, but in the end of the day, my program is not designed by me, so who knows. If I were to say one country in which I dream of taking a big win, that would be Italy, because I really love the races there. The mountains of Italy are the most spectacular I have ever seen, and the roads are very appealing to my characteristics as a rider.

Loïc Vliegen: “I’m happy to turn pro with BMC”

Born in Rocourt, a suburb of Liège, Loïc Vliegen didn’t need too much time to put his cards on the table, standing out from his early days as a Junior, before signing with BMC Development, a team that nurtured his talent and helped him develop his qualities, thanks to which many began talking about Loïc as the new gem of the Belgian cycling for the hilly one-day races.

After a strong first half of the season in 2014 – during which he won a stage and the GC in the Triptyque Ardennaise – BMC offered him a role as a stagiaire and he didn’t disappoint, scoring top 10 placings in both Ride London Classic and the Arctic Race of Norway, both races being known not only for their tough course, but also for the weather which always makes an impact on the final classification.

Fast forward to 2015, and Loïc Vliegen’s palmares for this season already includes Flèche Ardennaise, stage wins at the Tour de Bretagne, Course de la Paix and the Tour des Pays de Savoie, as well as runner-up spots at the Tour de Bretagne and Course de la Paix, all these results (four victories, three podiums and seven top 10 placings) making him one of the most successful and consistent U23 cyclists of the year.

An impressive puncheur, Loïc Vliegen is also a very versatile rider, who seems to have an unlimited potential that allows him to make further developments in the years to come and turn into a protagonist also on the mountains. Until then, he’ll have a busy summer, as the 21-year-old recently became the third cyclist to be promoted from the US-registered team to BMC, after Silvan Dillier and Stefan Küng, and awaits his pro debut with a lot of confidence, especially after his string of successes in the U23 ranks.

– Loïc, how did you start cycling?

I come from a family of cyclists. My father and my grandfather were good amateurs and my granduncle was a pro in the ‘50s. So it was logical for me to become a cyclist.

– How were your first years, what do you remember from that period?

I began racing when I was 14-years-old and I scored four victories back then. I have nice memories of my first race, which took place in Achene (Namur), where I came fourth. It was really exciting and I was happy for coming so close of winning the race.

– As an U23 rider, you joined BMC Development. How was your spell with the team?

It was a good choice for me in 2013 to go to BMC Devo. You can’t wish for a better staff and equipment. I had the perfect environment to improve as an amateur and I learned a lot in races like the Tour du Normandie and Tour de Bretagne. Another important step for me was becoming a stagiaire last year, because by doing this I got to gain valuable experience in pro races.

– In the first half of 2015, you scored many important results, stage wins and GC placings alike. Which was the most important for you and why?

I’d have to say that the best victory of the year was Flèche Ardennaise, because it was really special for me. It was my home race, with the finish taking place just 500 meters from my house. A lot of supporters and people were waiting me to win this race, I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders and I showed that I can win this race as the favorite. This is important for me if one day I will encounter a similar pressure in a pro race. I have good memories of this event, because I’ve never seen so many people supporting me during a race. It was a really nice feeling to get the win.

– You’ve now turned pro with BMC. What does this transfer mean for you and your career?

I’m really happy to turn pro with the BMC Racing Team, because I’m in my third year in this structure and I’m content to see they have confidence in me for three years now.

– With what hopes are you embarking on this adventure?

I would like to learn a lot and to see how things are going at World Tour level. If I’ll ride with a leader in such a race, I’m sure I’ll gain experience, which will be very good for the years to come. Also, if the team will give me some freedom, I’ll try to get results in smaller races.

– And in which races will you go in the next weeks?

I’ll do the Grand Prix Pino Cerami, the Tour de Wallonie, Clasica San Sebastian and the Eneco Tour.

Tao Geoghegan Hart, guest of the week at Cafe Roubaix

Tao Geoghegan Hart

20-year-old Tao Geoghegan Hart is riding his second season with Axeon Cycling, the team managed by former pro Axel Merckx, which throughout the years has put many riders on the World Tour map. Since joining the US-based squad, the Hackney-born rider – touted by many to be a future Grand Tour winner – got to take part in big events, like the Tour of California, the Tour of Utah and the Tour of Britain, as well as in some of the most prestigious U23 races out there: Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Tour de l’Avenir.

Each time, the British cyclist – who remained down to earth, despite his impressive showing – has made the most out of it, gaining experience, strengthening his confidence and scoring some nice results, which more than sure brought him on the radar of the important Pro teams. Recently, I caught up with Tao Geoghegan Hart and got to ask him a couple of questions about his 2015 campaign and the targets he has for the second half of the year.

– Tao, you’re halfway into your second season with Axeon Cycling. How was this experience?

It has been a good year so far. We have some new riders from last year, but developed a really good group straight away, which I think showed as we had results right from the first race of the season. The biggest difference has been the return of our brilliant Head Soigneur Reed McCalvin. He works tirelessly for his riders and I really enjoy being able to work with him.

– How did Axel Merckx and the Axeon project help you develop since joining them?

The team exposes its riders to a very high calibre of racing, for instance this year with California, Utah and the US Pro Challenge, we will have 24 days of 2.HC racing. This is combined with 2.2 and U23 races in Europe to give us a great variation of races in which to develop. From the climbing races to something like the U23 Paris-Roubaix, we have the opportunity to experience a wide variety of race days.

– What are the differences you’ve noticed between the European peloton and the US one?

The obvious difference is the size of the roads and how this affects the peloton. The racing in the States can be more relaxed, but not always, with some Criteriums and also tighter circuits in the American NRC races.

– You raced many big races, so I’d like to know what caught your attention while riding against the pros?

It is a very different style of race. I think switching between the U23 races and big Pro races is something that keeps us on our toes and shows us how different races can be, not necessarily in the terrain, but in the way that they are ridden and controlled.

– What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt so far?

I don’t think there is one thing to pinpoint. It’s all a lesson and I think the most important thing is to constantly try to absorb both experiences and information. There is always something to learn, so it is an ongoing process.

– In terms of results, which would you say that was your highlight?

I was pleased with my top 20 in the individual time trial of the Tour of California. My TT isn’t something I have had a huge opportunity to develop and I feel I have a lot of room for improvement with my position and training on the TT bike. However, my TT’s in races are improving almost every time I race, so that is reassuring for me.

– In what races will you go in the following weeks?

The first week of July I took a mid-season break. I will have a training block through the remainder of July and then race the Tour of Utah in August.

– And what goals do you have?

To keep improving. I would like to continue to target the GC in big stage races and improve upon my results so far in 2015.

Pascal Eenkhoorn: Dreaming of turning pro and winning “La Doyenne”

He’s just 18-year-old, but has already established himself as one of the most talented and versatile Junior riders in the peloton, as he can time trial, tame the cobbles, ride over the short hills and get solid results in stage races. In the past 12 months, Pascal Eenkhoorn took many impressive victories, including the Bernaudeau, an event in which the likes of Bryan Coquard, Florian Senechal or Romain Sicard have shined in the past.

Coming from the Netherlands and having a love for his métier equaled only by his ambition of succeeding, Pascal Eenkhoorn hopes to continue building an impressive palmares in the years to come on the U23 scene, in order to secure a World Tour contract at some point. More on this you can find out from the following interview he gave to Cafe Roubaix this week, while preparing for the big goals he has for the second half of the year.

– Pascal, how did you begin cycling?

When I was younger I did speed skating and ice skating, and with time I started to cycle as part of my training for skating. But I loved cycling more and that’s why I’m riding my bike right now.

– Did you have an idol back then?

My first idol was Alexandre Vinokourov, but I also like Frank Vandenbroucke, because I just love his racing philosophy and the way he always found a way to respond to the media.

– After scoring some very impressive results in cyclo-cross, you decided to switch to road cycling. How come?

I didn’t like cyclo-cross anymore and it was really hard to do road and cyclo-cross full time. On the other hand, thanks to it, I became better in handling my bike, and for that reason I see it as an advantage over other riders.

– Speaking of this, what would you say that are your strong points at the moment?

I’m strong on small hills, but I would love to improve myself in every single matter. Right now I’m just a junior and I don’t know what are my limits for the future.

– Of the victories you scored so far on the road, which meant the most for you and why?

Bernaudeau Juniors (ed. – which he won in March), because it was my strongest and longest race ever. I also had many second places during this season, but I don’t have any regrets, considering that in every race I got beaten by a better rider that moment. Just look at the ITT Nationals: I was really prepared, I rode a good race, but there was a faster cyclist and he won.

– You’re a rider who has a very clear picture of himself. Did you give a thought about when you’d like to turn pro?

Hopefully after three years in the U23 ranks I’ll make that step, but it depends on how much I can improve, of course. I know I have to be very strong to get a pro contract.

– What type of races do you want to focus on?

I want to target one-day races like Liège–Bastogne–Liège and short stage races. Actually, “La Doyenne” and the World Championships will be my biggest goals after becoming a pro.

– And how about these last months of the season?

After getting some rest, I’ll turn my attention towards Niedersachsen Rundfahrt and the Tour of Flanders, but my biggest goal will be the World Championships in Richmond, as I’ll try to end my season on a high note, as I began it.

Tony Gallopin: “I’m ready to go on the attack”

In 2014, Tony Gallopin became the first Frenchman to wear the yellow jersey in the Grande Boucle since 2011, an impressive feat for the Lotto-Belisol cyclist, who also went on to take a beautiful solo win in Oyonnax. Since then, he established himself as one of the most consistent and versatile riders of the peloton, capable of scoring impressive victories and important placings, as underlined by his showing in Paris-Nice, Amstel Gold Race, the Critérium du Dauphiné or the National Championships.

Now, after gaining confidence from all these results, the 27-year-old is ready to make another strong stance on the Tour de France, where he’ll be one of Lotto-Soudal’s leaders. But more on this and his targets for the next three weeks, in the following interview he gave to Cafe Roubaix a couple of days ago, before the start of the race.

– Tony, are you satisfied with your season so far?

Yes, I can say it was ok and I’m pretty happy with the first part of the year, as I nabbed stage victories in Etoile des Bessèges and Paris-Nice, but also had some good results in the Classics. Now that I’ve seen I can finish in the top 10 in the Classics, I really want to focus on these races in the future and finally land a big result in Milan-Sanremo or Amstel Gold Race. The most important thing is that I’ve made some really good progress in the Classics.

– What are these improvements that you are talking about?

I feel that I’m doing much better in stage races like Paris-Nice, which was obvious this Spring. I must say that I was surprised with my GC result, but on the other hand, at the end I was a little bit disappointed with my overall placing. I also felt stronger in the Classics over long distances, as my 6th place in Amstel shows. All these things are giving me huge confidence for the future.

– This year you skipped the Tour of Flanders in favor of the Ardennes. Will you follow a similar path in the future?

Yes, my focus will be on the Ardennes Classics, but I’ll also be interested in Milan-Sanremo. Anyway, this doesn’t mean I can’t try new things at some point.

– Recently, you came second at the National Championships. What were your thoughts after the race?

It was a good result and although I missed on the win, I wasn’t disappointed, because I knew I wasn’t the fastest in the sprint and it wasn’t possible for me to attack earlier. I gave my best and overall I’m content with what I got. The race has helped me find out how my legs are ahead of the Tour de France and also become more confident.

– You’re riding the Tour de France for the fifth time in your career. What do you think of the course?

The race is nice and it reminds me of the one in 2014. The last week is really difficult, but until then I’m sure I will have some chances on the Mur de Huy and Mur de Bretagne.

– And what goals do you have for the race?

To be sincere, my best result will be to win a stage and for sure I will try to take one. I will also help André Greipel in the sprints; basically, my role in the team will be more or less similar with the one I had last year, except that now, as we don’t have a GC rider, I’ll get more freedom and more opportunities to go on the attack.

Ralph Denk: “We hope to bring home a stage win”

Ralph Denk

Jan Barta, Sam Bennett, Emanuel Buchmann, Zakkari Dempster, Bartosz Huzarski, Jose Mendes, Dominik Nerz, Andreas Schillinger and Paul Voss the nine cyclists selected by Bora-Argon to ride the 102nd Tour de France. The Pro Continental teams is returning to the biggest stage race in the world one year after making its debut and being among the protagonist in the general classification, where it scored a very impressive top 10.

This time, the German Pro Continental team comes with a line-up spearheaded by Sam Bennett – one of the most talented sprinters of the new generation and winner of three races this season – and Dominik Nerz, the 25-year-old who showed his GC potential by finishing twice in the top 20 at the Vuelta a España. The two of them are expected to take advantage of the many opportunity the Tour de France will provide in the next three weeks and bring Bora-Argon’s biggest victory of the year, as underlined by Ralph Denk, in the following interview he gave to Cafe Roubaix.

– Mister Denk, the team is coming back to the Tour de France after making its debut last season. How important is to have got a wild card for the second year in a row?

For us it is very important since we have a new sponsor. To present the biggest platform in cycling to a new sponsor is the best thing that can happen to a team and our project. We all know that the bar we set last year is very high. Already then we exceeded all expectations. But the riders are fit and motivated, so we hope that we are able to convince and surprise this year again.

– How was the process of selecting the riders who eventually made the cut?

Our management team tried to find a mix of cyclists to support Sam Bennett in the sprints, as well as Dominik Nerz, who is focussing on the GC. The clock was set to zero in January and every rider had enough races and chances to prove himself and qualify for the Tour squad.

– Is it safe to say that Sam Bennett is the leader of Bora-Argon for the Tour de France?

Well, actually we are going with two leaders into the race. Meaning, Sam Bennett takes the lead position in the sprint stages, while Dominik Nerz will be our leader regarding GC. I hope Sam will get his chances in the sprint stages to fight for a podium position.

– And how about the other cyclists?

Mainly, we hope that we arrive to Paris with as many riders as possible. If we are lucky enough to also bring home a stage win, our target would be reached. Basically, we would have all expectations fulfilled.

– What does it mean to have the national champion of Germany in the race? How did you receive the news of Emanuel Buchmann winning the race?

I received the news live through radiotour, as I was in the race car myself. It is a great story for German cycling and of course for our team. To go to the Tour de France with the German Champion in your team is really great. People are much more aware of us and truth is this scenario simply fits to a German team.

Alain Gallopin talks of Trek’s goals for the Tour de France

Trek Factory Racing is one of the teams to watch at this year’s Tour de France, as the squad led by Alain Gallopin and Kim Andersen is coming with a strong line-up, thanks to which it can fight on both fronts, stage wins and general classification. The US-based team has two captains for the biggest race in the world, Fabian Cancellara – who holds the record for the most days in the yellow jersey without winning the race (28) – and Bauke Mollema, who hopes to leave his mark on the overall standings in an event he previously finished twice in the top ten.

Joining them will be Julian Arredondo (best climber of the 2014 Giro d’Italia), two-time Tour of Flanders winner Stijn Devolder, Laurent Didier, Markel Irizar, Bob Jungels, Gregory Rast and Haimar Zubeldia (8th at the previous edition), making up for a strong squad, which can show itself on almost any terrain.

Just days before the start of the 102nd running – which will take place in the Dutch city of Utrecht – I’ve contacted Mister Alain Gallopin, one of Trek’s sports directors for the Tour de France, and he agreed to talk for Cafe Roubaix about the team’s goals and expectations for this event, where the team comes with high expectations.

– Mister Gallopin, how would you rate Trek’s season so far?

The start was really good, but then, after the crash of Fabian Cancellara in E3 Harelbeke and the crash of Bauke Mollema in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, things didn’t go as we have planned in the cobbled Classics and the Ardennes Classics, respectively. Nevertheless, the spirit is good in the team and we await the start of the Tour de France with a big level of confidence.

– For this reason is the race a chance to turn the tables around?

Exactly. Our first focus is to place Bauke Mollema into the top five and then, with Fabian Cancellara, to win a stage in the first part of the race and take the yellow jersey.

– How do you see the team’s line-up for the Tour de France?

We have found a perfect mix between the climbers and the Classics riders. Looking at the parcours of the race in the first half, it was important to have some strong Classics guys to protect our GC leader and also to help Fabian Cancellara get a victory. I don’t know if Fabian will have a free role on the fourth stage or will stay with Bauke, this is yet to be decided by Kim Andersen and I, but what I can say is that it would be very important for us if he could win the cobbled stage and take the yellow jersey.

– You said that the team’s goal is to have Bauke Mollema in the top five in Paris. What are his chances of doing so?

He didn’t have a good Criterium du Dauphiné, but if you remember, last year he was very strong in the Tour de Suisse, but afterwards was tired in the last week of the Tour de France. Also, in Dauphiné he had that back problem and our plan was to have him hit top form for July, and not for the Dauphiné.

– Making his debut in the Tour de France will be Julian Arredondo. Can he go at some point for the polka dot jersey?

It remains to be seen, as we provides us with many options, but the main goal will be to try and win a stage at the Tour, especially in the second half of the race, as there are a lot of opportunities for a breakaway to succeed. He is in good shape and I’m sure will spot him on the climbs.

– Also Bob Jungels will race the Tour de France for the first time. What can we expect from him?

He can have the same focus as Fabian, and that is to try and take the jersey at some point thanks to a break. Bob is a complete rider, good on the cobbles and also on the climbs, and I’m sure he’ll help the team. Last year he didn’t finish the Vuelta, but I’m confident we’ll see him at the front as he will gain a lot of experience here.

– You’ve been to many editions of the Tour de France as a sports director. What do you think of this year’s course?

My opinion is that it’s a very interesting, it’s certainly one for the climbers, but they have to avoid all the problems that can arise in the first ten days. A complete cyclist will win, not a climber, I’m sure of that. The winner will have to show himself not only on the climbs, but also on the cobbles and in the windy stages.

– And would you say that the first half of the race is more important than the second one?

Anything is important in the Tour de France, because every little detail counts and you can lose the race anywhere. It’s a very complicated affair. But, besides these Classic-type stages, I’d say that also the summit finish of Pierre-Saint-Martin will be very interesting, as it will be provide the first real fight between the overall classification riders.

Laurens De Plus: “Tour de l’Avenir is my big goal”

Laurens De Plus

He started cycling as a 15-year-old, in Flanders, but soon he discovered the Ardennes and decided to focus on the climbs, as he realized that his future lies in the hilly Classics, as well as in the stage races with arduous climbs. In 2013, he caught everyone’s attention with top 10 placings in the Tour du Valromey and Giro della Lunigiana, and eventually signed a contract with the U23 Lotto-Belisol team, where he showed glimpses of his potential, inspite of the fact he had to work for the likes of Tiejs Benoot and Louis Vervaeke.

Starting this season as one of the team’s leaders, the 19-year-old Belgian confirmed his huge talent, first in Flèche Ardennaise, where he came 5th, and then, more important, in the prestigious Ronde de l’Isard. In the four-day French race, Laurens De Plus put on a great ride, coming twice on the podium, before finishing second in the GC and first in both the points and young classification. Soon afterwards, he racked up other strong results, this time in the Course de la Paix, just 12 seconds behind the winner.

This impressive series proved once again that Laurens De Plus is absolutely flying in 2015 and that the best things could be yet to come, as the next months will bring some important races in his calendar. But before tackling his future goals, the young Belgian rider – who dreams of winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège as a pro – made some time to talk for the following interview with Cafe Roubaix.

– Laurens, what were your goals at the start of Ronde de l’Isard?

I wanted to do a good GC, because last year our team won the race with Louis Vervaeke so we had a good reputation in this event. Another reason was because I like this race and it really suits me.

– How was the race?

Good. The first day I ended up second on Goulier Neige. The second day I felt great before Plateau De Beille, so I put my teammates in front to go for the victory and the yellow jersey. But unluckily I had a puncture just before the climb and lost a minute. I got a wheel from my teammate Dries Van Gestel and did the climb of my life. I still ended up second. I felt great that day, so I was really disappointed. The last stage I expected a big war between me and Simone Petilli, but the wind was not my friend that day. The whole stage we had the wind in front. I ended Isard with just 10 seconds off the victory, so that was unfortunate.

– What feelings did you have at the end of it?

I was not happy with my second place, I think the victory was possible. But that is cycling, and Petilli was also very, very strong. It is a cliché, but without a good team you can’t do anything. I really have to thank my teammates/friends. I also learned that having bad luck is part of cycling. Wearing the real leadership of the team was also a bit new for me.

– Do you think that a major step in your development was the fact that you have now become the leader of the team?

Yeah, true. Last year Louis Vervaeke and Tiesj Benoot were the leaders of the team and they felt the pressure. It was fun to work for the guys, but now I’m one year older and stronger, so it is the moment to do good results, and to take the leadership. That is indeed a step you need to take in your development of U23.

– After finishing four times on the podium in the Ronde de l’Isard and the Course de la Paix, do you feel that a win is much closer?

Yeah, after my second place in Course de la Paix I was like: “not again”. I really wanted to win that stage, so I was too enthusiastic, and didn’t have the punch for the sprint. But to win you also need some luck and I hope I will have some in the next upcoming races.

– In what other races will you go in the following weeks?

In the second part of the season I want to focus on the Tour de l’Avenir, of course, but I also want to be good in Giro della Valle d’Aosta and Tour Alsace. With pain in my heart I can’t ride Tour des Pays de Savoie, but I have to skip it because otherwise I’d be racing too much.

– And what goals do you have?

I want to continue what I did the last months. Have good results and a lot of fun with my teammates in the nice races like Aosta, Alsace and Avenir. But Avenir will be my big goal, because it is a really huge challenge for me to do a good result in this race. I think it’s the highest level you can have in the U23 category. I saw the stages and they look very nice.

– In September you’ll turn 20. Did you give a thought about what would you like to do next season?

I want to continue what I’m doing this year and learn even more of course. I’m still studying (ed. – Accountancy at the Ghent University) and for me that is also important to get a diploma.

 

Mihkel Räim: “My goal is to turn pro in 2016”

Mihkel Räim

How many of you have heard of Jaan Kirsipuu? Most likely, many, as the former rider from Tartu was an important figure of the peloton more than 15 years ago, when he was fighting at the Tour de France sprints, scoring along the way four stage wins, while riding for AG2R and Crédit Agricole. But how many of you have heard of Mihkel Räim? At the moment, not many can say that, but be sure you keep his name in mind, as the 21-year-old is flying this season and the results he scored so far are helping him build a nice CV that ultimately will take the Estonian cyclist to the pro ranks.

Although young, Mihkel Räim – who rides for Team Pro Immo Nicolas Roux – doesn’t lack the confidence which is so important in such a tough sport, where everyone is trying hard to make a name for themselves. On top of that, he’s hard-working and displays each time a very aggressive style (which is a trademark of Baltic cyclists), and that has helped him get not only some impressive results, but also many plaudits. Recently, Mihkel accepted to sit down and talk for Cafe Roubaix about his first years in cycling, his 2015 season, the most interesting and funniest situations encountered so far and his goals for the future.

– Mihkel, how did you start cycling?

Actually, it’s not surprising that I discovered cycling. My father is an ex-rider, he owns a bike store, and he is DS and President of a cycling team (Saaremaa Jalgrattaklubi Viiking) in my home island. He organized one of the most popular cycling races in Estonia, named Saaremaa velotuur for over 20 years. All my uncles have been cyclists at different levels, so it was pretty obvious that I have to try it.

– At that time, did you have an idol or a rider you looked up to?

I had plenty of idols, depending on the day. Some days, my biggest idols were my uncles. Some days, when I watched races on TV, it was Marco Pantani. In the flat races I was always supporting the Estonian cyclists, like Jaan Kirsipuu and Lauri Aus.

– How were your first years, what do you remember from back then?

When it all started, I only raced the local events. When I began for good, I didn’t win races, I was just in the top 6 sometimes. When I got a better bike, I started to win local races, and one of my favorite memories is when my father helped me make custom cycling clothes. It was a really nice day, he made the custom ones, because cycling in Estonia wasn’t very popular back then and there weren’t proper racing clothes for me in the bike stores. Afterwards, when I went to national races with my dad, I finished in top 10, but the victories came a couple of years later.

– How popular is cycling in Estonia nowadays? Did something change?

It has really changed a lot. Cycling is very popular in Estonia and it keeps getting bigger and bigger and I am really proud of that. For example, our national cycling calendar is packed with races, so the riders have to choose if they want to do MTB race or road race. There are even week-ends when you have to choose from two road races. Honestly, I am really looking forward to the development of cycling in Estonia.

– How would you describe yourself as a rider? What are your strong points and what would you still like to improve?

That’s a tricky question. First word what comes to my mind is aggressive: that means I really like to attack and make others suffer. Also I am pretty good in the sprint, I have the sprinter’s speed, but sometimes I am not too crazy to fight with the elbows before the sprint. Breakaway sprints are for me, that’s my cup of tea. This year I made some important progress on the climbs, so I can get over some climbs now and this is very big for me. In the past, when the road began to rise, I was immediately suffering at the bottom of the ascent and then was dropped in a flash. This year, in France, there have been situations when I have made even some climbers suffer and that’s cool. If I can go over the climbs with skinny guys, then it’s pretty easy to sprint with them. My weakness is the time trial and of course I believe I can be better on the climbs also. I think I am psychologically strong, but I have also cracked in the past. It happens.

– After a couple of years in your home country, you came to France. How did this happen?

For an Estonian cyclist is a natural step to move to France after he graduates school. There are a lot of guys who did it before me and I am pretty sure that in the future there will be plenty of guys who will follow in my footsteps. After having strong results in the 2012 Juniors Paris-Roubaix, where I finished in 12th place, a local French cycling enthusiast, Jean-Claude Comby, contacted with me and made me an offer to come to France. He came with a nice racing schedule, gave me place to live and it was all perfect for me to prepare for the World Championships. So I did some good races in France, won two of these and got several podiums. Then I signed with a French DN1 team CR4C Roanne. It was my first foreign team.

– Some riders have a cultural shock when changing countries. Was it the same with you? 

I think I have adapted well. Of course, there were some funny things that happened along the way. For example, shaking hands with teammates in the morning and when you leave. It was weird, we do it sometimes in Estonia, but mainly we just say “Ciao” and wave hands. The second thing was eating white bread. Oh, my God, how many French people eat that, and in considerable amounts. Third thing was kissing the ladies on the cheek when saying hello. There were also the never ending dinners, almost 5-hour long, which was softly brutal. I am sure there were some more things, but these are the ones I remember very well.

– Of the many wins you got so far, which was the most important for you?

It’s a tough question, because every victory is special. Tour de la Region de Lodz stage victories and win in GC are special, as those were my first successful international races. Winning a stage in the Baltic Chain Tour was also important, because it was my first – and I hope not the last – pro win. Stage victory in the Saaremaa velotuur was psychologically important, because my father and mother have organized this race for many, many years and it was like gift to them. But I really hope that best victories will come in the future.

– How about the most interesting or unusual situation you encountered in a race? 

I think it happened this year in Flanders, when I ran up the cobblestone climb of Koppenberg. When I started to ride it, I thought “damn, this is not real”. Running it in a cycling race it was fun, but because of that I lost a top three placing there. Looking behind, I’m sure that I had the legs to win Flanders.

– This year, while riding for Team Pro Immo Nicolas Roux, you already scored a victory, three podiums and finished 6th in Flanders. Was this first part of the season above your expectations?

I am surprised by my strong first half of the season, but on the other hand I worked really hard in the winter, so I think I deserved it. Being 6th in the Tour of Flanders was like the cherry on the cake. Inside my heart I believed I can have results like that, but there were still some question marks. When I raced Flanders for the first time, in 2012, I knew that this can be a race where I can do well.

– What’s next for you?

I recently finished the Tour d’Azerbaijdan, and although I didn’t got any super results there, I saw that I can ride well at this level and opponents didn’t underestimate me. Now I have some Elite races in France, then the Tour of Estonia (UCI 2.1), the European Games in Baku and the National Championships. Of course, there are also the European Championships, which will be held in Estonia, at Tartu. My goal in these races is to get strong results and I hope that some pro team will see me and I can sign a good contract.

– So your big goal is to join the pro ranks soon.

I was pro once before, in 2013, with Amore&Vita, and that year was really difficult for me, both from a physically and psychologically point of view. I really hope it’s going to happen at the end of this year. If not, then I will try again next year. If I can’t do it then, I don’t really know what to say, maybe I’ll have to stop cycling. It depends on what conditions I can ride in the French amateur level and what will my motivation be. But one thing that’s certain is that I am doing all that I can in order to earn this desired pro contract.

Ivan Basso: “I’m prepared to help Contador win the Giro”

A two-time winner of the Giro d’Italia – a race in which he took six stage victories – Ivan Basso is one of the most successful Italian riders of the past 15 years. A pro since 1999, he raced for such teams as Fassa Bortolo, CSC and Liquigas, before eventually signing a two-year contract with Tinkoff-Saxo, where he joined Alberto Contador in his quest of making the legendary Giro-Le Tour double. Although he was the leader of his previous squads, Basso isn’t unsettled by the fact that he’ll now ride as a “lieutenant” of Contador in the mountains, where he’s expected to play a key role.

A couple of days ago, I had the opportunity to interview the 37-year-old cyclist from Gallarate and find out more about his preparation for the Corsa Rosa, his best memories from here and Alberto Contador’s chances of winning the Trofeo Senza Fine for the second time, after the 2008 edition.

– Ivan, the 2015 Giro d’Italia is your 9th since turning pro. Were you nervous before the start?

The days before the start are always nervous, because I feel like I’m ready to make my debut here. I’m focused to be at 110% and give everything, both for my fans and my team.

– You’ve won the trophy twice: in 2006 and 2010. Which of these triumphs you rate higher?

It’s impossible to pick one of the two trophies, considering the wins came în different moments of my career. What’s for sure is that each time I was very touched and the feelings I had are unforgettable.

– And how about your stage wins? Which is the most important one?

One of the victories of which I can say it means a lot for me is the one I got on the Monte Zoncolan, back in 2010, because it came on one of the most toughest climbs in Europe, and also because it came after a very difficult moment of my career. It was a turning point, one which I’ll never forget.

– How did you prepare for the race?

I trained for this race like I was going for the general classification, in order to be ready to give everything in case the team needs me. I’m very motivated for the Giro and fueled by the support I get from my fans. I also went on the recon of a couple of stages, like the Valdobbiadene individual time trial (ed. – stage 14) and the Monte Ologno, which comes in stage 18. Anyway, in a Grand Tour you always have to stay alert, because anything can happen, even on a flat stage.

– Is Alberto Contador the main favorite for the overall victory?

Alberto is prepared, both from a physical and a mental point of view. He didn’t leave anything to chance, he studied the profile of the race and wants to win this race. Il Giro is one of his biggest goals of the season. He has a huge talent, he’s very determined and ready to give everything in order to succeed, and I’m happy to help a champion of his tally

– Who is his biggest rival: Richie Porte, Fabio Aru or Rigoberto Uran?

All three are powerful rivals and we have to watch out for them in every single moment. They proved themselves in the past and they can be dangerous in many of the stages. It would be a huge mistake to underestimate them.

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