Friday, January 30, 2009

A conversation with Pedro Delgado

Part 1 of a two-part interview

By Martin Hardie

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been 18 years since Pedro Delgado took a hard-fought victory at the 1988 Tour de France. These days, Delgado — “Perico” as he’s known in Spain — spends much of his time serving as a regular commentator for Spanish national television’s coverage of cycling. Working with colleague Carlos De Andres, Delgado offers viewers insightful and articulate commentary, often able to add that little extra to make viewers feel like they know what it’s like to be right there in the peloton.

VeloNews contributor Martin Hardie recently spent an afternoon with the former cycling great to discuss how the sport has changed since he competed and where cycling may be headed in coming years.

Given the length of the interview, we present the first of two parts, the second of which will be posted Wednesday here on

VeloNews: Can we talk about how cycling has changed during recent times? Some suggest that you can trace the beginning of these changes to the era of Miguel Indurain, but that they have consolidated themselves during the time Lance Armstrong dominated the Tour de France? I am not saying these changes are because of Armstrong but that they have become visible and more the norm, during his time.

Pedro Delgado: Yes, I think there has been a change, a very profound change, since Miguel Indurain. It’s been an important and fundamental change. Primarily, now cyclists compete much less than in the years before. In my time I raced on average 120 days a year. Armstrong was nearly the opposite. Now many a cyclist's racing calendar is designed principally with only preparing for the Tour de France in mind. When Armstrong raced after his cancer, he did only about 40 days of competition a year, at the most. In my view, that affects everything that has to do with professional cycling.

For cycling, it is very important to have a star. It is what draws people's interest to the sport. Furthermore it is very important for the sport to have a star who races, since it is the stars that give a race its prestige. No matter where the race is, Spain, Switzerland, Italy or Germany, it is important for the prestige of any race that the big stars compete. It is important for all of those smaller races and it is important for everyone involved in cycling.

Now, what has happened is that the big stars ride very little but the still the interest in the sport remains high. For example, if Lance raced in Spain it would be great. If he didn't, well, it is not really a great problem – but the point is that if he had raced here it would have been better for the overall interests of the sport.

In my time, it was easy for the big stars to race all year long, throughout Europe, in Spain, France, Italy, wherever. But now things are not like that and it is a very important change for cycling in general. For the individual cyclist it can mean a better more comfortable life, he can spend more time at home, but for cycling it is not as good.

VN: How do you believe this approach affects a rider when it comes to the time for competition? Does it, perhaps, mean that some are not able to cope with the change of pace within a stage or between stages in a race? For example we often see riders who should be in contention not being able to follow those that they should be able to follow when faced with the first day in the mountains after a number of flatter stages? I'm thinking of for example the Pyrenees in the Tour this year, or during the Vuelta at La Covatilla for example, where people who should be up there are simply not able to follow.

PD: The problem is that because the riders who race less - or little - don't really know what their true state of physical form is. For many riders now any race, other than the Grand Tours, is just training. If, for example, they race the Tour, between then and the Vuelta they don't race, or possibly one or two events and that's all. In my career, we raced at least 10 days of competition over that month. So now, because they have raced so little, they come to the Vuelta not really knowing what sort of form they have and the changes of pace and terrain play a certain amount of havoc with their plans. VN: In your day, or earlier in the days of Merckx, or of Simpson, you had to ride all year just to make a living – it was almost a form of labor – physical labor. Salaries now come from both racing and marketing, so we see a rider that can race 40 days a year and fill his other time with race preparation, public appearances, photo shoots, television commercials, all of which fit very neatly into the packaged world of globalized markets and lifestyles.

PD: Yes, for sure and I lived through this change. In my time, team budgets were very small and a rider's salary was much smaller. So you had to ride criteriums and other invitational races just to make a living. You could make a lot of money doing these races. Now days, this has clearly changed. Big businesses sponsor teams and pay them a lot of money and as a result the cyclist is not compelled to ride these sorts of races to make a living.

This all started to change during my career. In 1985, 1986, cycling started at a world level started to grow. Before that, for example, we always traveled by car. I would travel from Madrid to Paris by car, always, and we came home by car, everyone. But not now, I lived through this time of change in cycling. Now, everyone travels by plane, stays in very good hotels, everything has changed. But I see this aspect of it as a good change.

VN: Like most changes, there is some good and bad there, no?

PD: Yes, for example, the criteriums and the invitation races are now in a state of great crisis, even though they still pay very good money, in the main the stars tell them that will not ride them. Why? Because now they earn a lot more money from their team salaries. And you arrive at a situation where some teams, like some in Spain, have actually prohibited their riders from participating in criteriums. They say “well if you fall, get injured, we lose money….”

VN: Riders represent something of an investment these days. Those races have a certain quality about them. They’re not so much as races but as events. The post-Tour criteriums in Holland give you a chance to see the Tour winner take on a 100km criterium while you down beers all afternoon. I even saw Armstrong compete in one of these after his first victory in the Tour, winning a criterium in Holland in 1999.

PD: It was the same for me. Here I was a climber winning criteriums in Holland after my Tour victory… but it’s not like the others could really attack in those races.

VN: One thing that I have noticed in relation to Lance Armstrong, is that wherever you go, South Africa, Latin America, Australia, of course the U.S., everyone spoke of “Lance, Lance, Lance,” as if they all owned a piece of him, or they all knew him personally, because they were all so familiar with the story surrounding him. This era of Lance coincided with an increased speed of globalization and the rapid growth of cycling outside of Europe. in that sense, we have a new cycling world – in Asia, Latin America, Australia and even in Africa; and this new cycling world is one that owes as much to the USA and to Lance for its inspiration ... and maybe a little less to Europe.

PD: Yes, it is more open, that is true, but cycling will always be European – la Europa vieja - the old Europe.

VN: You may have noticed a few post-Tour conspiracy theories floating around the USA as a result of the Landis situation. Do you think that there is a feeling in Europe that this is “our sport” and that somehow Europe needed to recover something from the seven - now eight - years of American domination?

PD: No, I believe that cycling always has been - and will be - from Europe. The sport has its roots in France, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Holland. Cycling was born a hundred years ago and its points of reference are still Old Europe. For cycling to have started in other countries or now for other countries to overtake Europe is difficult. Prestige in cycling will always be European and will always be given to any rider or created by the Tour de France, the Giro, the Vuelta or the Belgium Classics. You might be able to find a route anywhere in the world that is as difficult as these, but no matter what you do, no matter what you call the race, it will never be Paris-Roubaix, it will never be Fleche Wallone and it will never be the Tour de France.

There is a prestige that has grown up and been earned over 100 years and the interest is in these races and not in the Tour of California, the Tour of Georgia or the Tour Down Under. There are many races in the world, but none have the prestige or the character of the races of Old Europe. The point of reference for cycling for one hundred years has always been these races. Cycling is not like the Olympic Games which you can move from place to place every four years and still remain the Olympic Games. You simply cannot hold the Tour de France in Australia, the USA or in Japan.

So I don't think Europe fears America in this respect. Lance Armstrong’s greatest victories came in Old Europe – at the Tour. If you can win the Tour, you are set, you have no problem. What other races in the world can set you up for life like that? For the purpose of international, global prestige and investment there is only the Tour de France. Thus if you have an American business that is going to sponsor a team, that team must win the Tour, this is where the prestige is and not in the USA, Japan or Australia.

VN: Euskaltel-Euskadi director Julian Gorospe said in 2004 that he hoped that Lance Armstrong would not win that year because cycling had to reinforce or regain its European identity – he said cycling was “from here.”

PD: This is the problem that the North Americans, the South Americans, the Australians face. The problem for them is they have to come and live in Europe and in the end it is the only thing that matters. In my time I went and rode in the USA with Greg LeMond, but in the end the best cycling only exists in Europe.

But you have to give credit to those that come and live here. A great example is the work of Neil Stephens. He came and rode and he made his life here and now he continues to work bringing young Australian cyclists to Europe, to develop them, to learn and to compete.

VN: Are we seeing a change to or the re-emergence of a more attacking style of rider? Someone who can go in a breakaway can attack in the mountains, can not lose too much time in a time trial. Are we at a point in time when we are seeing the emergence of this type of all rounder? For example Vinokourov, Valverde or Bettini even? It is much more exciting, but why is it happening now after so many years of victory by time trial?

PD: This is a problem that exists in the space between the great dominators. When you have a great time trialist like Miguel Indurain or Lance Armstrong, the race is less exciting, interest wanes on one hand. The spectacle in cycling is made by riders that attack — riders like Vinokourov — who enliven a race.

At the moment, there is a big problem with attacking cycling: those radios. With radios now, it’s the team director who gives orders most of the time. Many a rider will speak to their director and say for example “Manolo, Manolo I want to attack,” and the director replies, “No, wait, wait, wait....”

That often means that they wait until it is too late to attack. Before this system of managing the race came into being, the question was whether you had good legs or not. If you felt you had good legs, you attacked. Now the situation is that the directors control the riders too much. But you still have some riders that don't want to listen to anyone, who put their earpiece into a back pocket and attack. It’s very difficult, though, as the director has a lot of power and he manages and administers the riders a lot more during the race than was the case 20 years ago.

VN: Is it because the teams are bigger and there is more money at stake?

PD: No it is because when a director gets in the car he wants to have everything under his control. He prefers that if someone attacks, it is near the end of the race, later when maybe it is better because the opposition is weaker. It is better, however, to attack with fifty kilometers remaining because from that far out you can always create a bigger advantage. But directors are always the same and it’s for this reason that I say that the spectacle of cycling has been lessened because the directors give too many orders.

In the old days, they gave orders at the start and at the end they might throw a tantrum, but now they just give orders all the time. It is useful, for example, for the director to tell you the gap you might have, or to organize to get water and food. Radios, though, have taken away a lot of the soul of cycling.

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