One of the best British riders of recent times, and among the last to forge a career in cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour before British Cycling’s vaunted Academy made the graduation to cycling’s top-tier almost a formality for the best of subsequent generations, Hammond knows what it takes to achieve in this most demanding of sports. At the start of a second year as manager of what might accurately be described as a development team, despite the seniority of some its riders, he will again attempt to impart all that he has learned from a 22-year career as a professional cyclist.
Closely linked in the minds of most cycling fans with the cobbles of Belgium and northern France, Hammond is well known to Mallorca’s cycling community and to those on its periphery. A sometime resident of the island, his preferred training ground for the last six years of a professional career that brought numerous top 10 finishes in the cobbled Classics, including a podium finish at Paris-Roubaix, he is something of a celebrity, though he would blanche at the description. There was a time, however, when the term applied to those celebrated for their achievements, and the recognition Hammond has earned on this Balearic isle stems from his athletic ability.
Three men pour like schoolboys from the doorway of a tiny shop in the village of Deia, a mountain hideaway for the wealthy. They have noted the approach of the Madison Genesis team car and believe they know who will step from inside it. Their disappointment when your correspondent emerges rather than Hammond is palpable, though they try their best to conceal it. “Where is Roger they ask?” clinging to a residual hope that he might yet appear. They will not suffer further disappointment. Hammond is only minutes behind, riding with his charges and bestowing the benefit of his experience upon them.
We have enjoyed a close-up view of Hammond at work on the climb into Deia. Sam Hayes, the mechanic, has rolled out from the hotel with the team, and although he has battled gamely as the road has risen, the time has come when the team car has dropped too far behind the riders to be of service to them, and Hammond, himself ‘off the back’, instructs Hayes in the art of accepting a tow. His instructions are brief and to the point. There is traffic behind the car and, more urgently, approaching. It must be positioned carefully to give the rider space against the curb, but without forcing it into the path of oncoming traffic. Hayes is instructed to hold the window pillar and press his elbow against the glass of the rear door to steady himself. The scene is revealing. Every last detail of the professional bike rider’s existence must be learned; skills that are not apparent even to those close to the sport, like Hayes.
One of the best British riders of recent times, and among the last to forge a career in cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour before British Cycling’s vaunted Academy made the graduation to cycling’s top-tier almost a formality for the best of subsequent generations, Roger Hammond knows what it takes to achieve in this most demanding of sports
On a different day, Hammond swaps his place in the team car for more time on the bike. His riders have begun the descent and he has ground to make up. A snatched glance through the rear window reveals Hammond in close proximity to the bumper, his face a study in concentration. In the blink of an eye, he is past, pedaling expertly through the corner while the team car brakes heavily, maintaining his cadence where a rider less familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the road would undoubtedly ‘lift’. He crouches low as he approaches the tighter bend, dropping his elbows and maintaining impossible speed as the road twists in front of him; his position able to serve as the very definition of ‘compact’.
This superb demonstration of descending technique is an unexpected bonus for the passengers in the team car, but serves a practical purpose and passes unseen by Hammond’s riders, who began the descent before him and are up the road, necessitating his chase back on, and maintaining a pace more suited to the final 20km of a five-hour training ride. As such, it is an incident highly revealing of Hammond’s management style: deploying the experience of a once world class bike rider for the benefit of his team, in a manner that most will have no direct awareness of. Hammond seems embarrassed when I ask later, joking, if he is considering the dual role of rider-manager. “I can still do it on the descents,” he smiles, “but that’s all.”
Hammond’s intentions for the training camp on Mallorca are illustrative of a wider approach to the welfare of the team and his ambitions for his riders. Many of them are in the early stages of their careers, with little experience in the sport, and adopting the ruthless approach faced by more senior riders in cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour would be unfair, he concedes. Equally, Hammond is keenly aware that a career in the saddle lasts, on average, ten years, and that by frittering away even a season, the rider is wasting ten per cent of a period that could shape the rest of his life. The harsh realities of athletic success demand a greater maturity from a young rider than his non-cycling peers.
“Part of what I want these guys to do is explore their capabilities,” he says. “If you start pigeon-holing these guys, they’ll never find their limits,” he says. “In that regard, I feel we have a little bit of responsibility not only to encourage that, but to support them when it goes wrong. If you don’t support them when it goes wrong, you’ll breed inhibition. The worst thing I can have from this team is having riders too afraid to fail.”
It is the prospect of sunshine that has brought the team to Mallorca, but as the riders roll out from the hotel in Playa de Muro, a stiff wind picks up, and as they climb higher into the mountains, the temperature falls. Trips to the car follow and gloves, warmers, and jackets are pulled on, waffles and bananas are eaten, and an easy chit-chat unfolds between rider and manager that suggests a team already in harmony. The process of building camaraderie has been shortened in this, the team’s second year, by the retention of many of the riders, but even the new signings seem at ease in the company of their new colleagues.
One rider ready to make the most of a dramatic change in weather conditions from those he has left in the UK is Ian Bibby, the team’s leader at last season’s Tour of Britain, and one widely regarded as having the physiological and tactical abilities to compete in the WorldTour. Rewind 12 months and Bibby demonstrated that the hunch of many observers was correct, climbing the Puig Major with Vuelta a Espana winner, Alejandro Valverde, Team Sky’s Colombian climbing sensation, Sergio Henao, and future world road race champion, Rui Costa on the mountain stage of the Vuelta a Mallorca.
A Preston-native, Bibby has suffered as badly as any rider in the country from the appallingly wet winter, reduced at one point to riding up and down the A6, his typical training routes cut off by the continual downpour. Ten days of Mallorcan sunshine will offer him the first opportunity this year for a sustained period of training.
There is a gulf, however, in the fitness levels of the professional who believes he has struggled for mileage and even the most dedicated amateur. Bibby ascends Mallorca’s iconic climbs – the Puig Major, the Sa Calobra, and the Soler – without difficulty, though the nature of an early-season training camp means that none of the riders are pushing to their maximum. When Bibby does, the results are impressive. Preparation for last year’s Tour of Britain saw him work with Hammond’s former Garmin-Sharp team-mate, Daniel Lloyd. The numbers Bibby produced convinced them that he had the form to threaten his WorldTour counterparts. Were it not for the dreadful luck with which much of Bibby’s career has been blighted – crashes before and during last year’s Tour of Britain eventually forced his abandonment – he might have demonstrated the top-level ability many feel he possesses.
The biggest domestic races are those Bibby admits to getting ‘geed up’ for and he identifies the Lincoln Grand Prix, the RideLondon-Surrey Classic and the Tour of Britain among the best of the home events. The last two he says offer an opportunity to ride against the biggest names in the sport and for the domestic riders to show what they can do against them. “It’s a pretty amazing feeling,” Bibby says of races where even riders from the WorldTour are taken back by the scale of support at the roadside. “RideLondon and when you go down south for the Tour of Britain – it’s brilliant. It’s what basically motivates you to try and get to that level and do those races more often.”
He has first hand experience of the effect that riding against the world’s best, and on home soil, has on the domestic teams. One insider describes Bibby as the strongest rider in the race at the 2011 Tour of Britain, and he was part of the race winning team in 2012. This year he will race in a squad with Pete Hawkins and Mike Northey, two riders whose aggression and refusal to be cowed by reputation helped light up last year’s race. “The British teams always step it up a bit,” he says. “It shows the level in Britain is pretty good. It just proves that it’s not easy to win here.”
One insider describes Bibby as the strongest rider in the 2011 Tour of Britain, and he was part of the race-winning team in 2012. This year he will compete in a squad alongside new signings, Pete Hawkins and Mike Northey, two riders whose aggression and refusal to be cowed by reputation helped light up last year’s race
“If you look at the Tour of Britain in the last few years, it’s got bigger and bigger and bigger,” he continues. “The racing on Dartmoor is pretty unbelievable. You hear a lot of the foreign riders who’ve done the Giro and stuff like that say there are bigger crowds on Dartmoor than on the Giro climbs they’ve done.”
Crowds are conspicuously absent from the Mallorcan roads as Bibby and his Madison-Genesis colleagues lay the foundations for the season ahead. The team has checked in to the Iberostar hotel at the Playa del Muro resort and with the assistance of a three-man support crew, head out each day for rides of between four and six hours. Soigneur, Andy Evans, has worked with many of Britain’s top riders in a four-decade career. He identifies helping others to achieve their goals as the most rewarding aspect of an immensely varied role in which hard graft appears to be the only consistent factor. Need your cleat position assessed? See Andy. Who can drive the seven-and-a-half tonne van from Milton Keynes to Mallorca, via France and Spain? Andy’s your man. Need 120 bottles prepared for tomorrow’s race? Andy’s on it. No prizes for guessing who Keith Flory, now performance director at Australian Pro Continental team, Drapac, called when he worked for the UCI and needed a training programme written for soigneurs.
From nutrition to treatment, post-ride massage to protecting the riders on the road, there isn’t much that isn’t required of the ‘swanny’, and Evans has experienced it all, from consoling the heartbroken rider too injured or exhausted to climb back on the bike for the following day’s stage to watching his charges return from Olympic Games and world championships bearing gold medals and rainbow jerseys.
“It’s not for everybody,” Evans’ says of life as a soigneur. “You either enjoy it or you don’t.” While the riders and press flew to the Madison Genesis pre-season training camp in Mallorca, Evans drove the team’s converted horsebox the 1,000 or so miles from Milton Keynes. A six-hour training ride for the team means a six-hour drive in the support car for Evans. And when the riders have finished their day, his is just beginning: sterilization of bottles, massage, and preparing supplies for the following day’s expedition will be on his post-ride ‘to do’ list.
If this sounds like all work and no play, the job is not without its pleasantries. Evans’ ‘workmates’ have included some of Britain’s most talented riders, Ian Stannard and Ed Clancy among them. Driving the mountainous roads of Mallorca is a serious business, especially with a cyclist travelling at 60mph two-inches from your bumper, but there are infinitely worse commutes. And watching a rider step onto a podium knowing that it is the hard work of an entire team, riders and support crew alike, who have helped to put him there is likely to rank highly among factors likely to create job satisfaction.
And then there is the inescapable sense that the work is worthwhile. Anyone who has watched a cycling team at close quarters will have witnessed the immense physical demands placed upon the riders, many of whom, racing at the Continental level at which Evans plies his trade, have little experience of life, much less of the demands of professional sport. “The younger riders here are not that far removed from my eldest son’s age,” Evans says. “I’d like to think that if he was in a team like this that there would be people looking out for him.”
The rising star
One of the youngest riders on the team is new signing, Scott Davies. The 18-year-old is widely regarded as one of Britain’s brightest road talents. Winner last year of the junior Tour of Wales (see also Hammond, Wegelius, Van Summeren, Martin, Dowsett) and a seventh-placed finisher at the junior world road race championships. With such impressive results, the ease with which he climbs the mountains of Mallorca is not entirely unexpected, but is impressive none-the-less.
Here’s the thing: Davies’ increased effort is discernible only by his increased speed. His position, pedal stroke, what might be described as his body language on the bike and what seasoned cycling observers recognise as form, remains unaltered. While sprinters are routinely described as explosive, and the men of the cobbles as ‘hard’, graceful is the adjective that best describes riders who excel in the mountains. Davies, at 18, already has grace in spades. Just don’t expect him to tell you so. Unfailingly polite and modest to a fault, he rejects any suggestion that he is gifted. “I wouldn’t describe myself as the most naturally talented guy,” he says. “I’ve put a lot of work in.”
Hard work is a phrase that recurs throughout our conversation, whether describing the challenge of balancing A-level studies with a burgeoning career as a bike rider, or a more recent 10-week period on the boards, riding the track as an imperative to improving on the road. The adage that youth is wasted on the young is unlikely to apply to Davies, a meticulous individual able to detect a post-crash shift of 1mm in his cleat position, and still uncertain if this is a useful trait or not.
He is also the latest rider to add to a growing sense that we are living through a golden generation of Welsh cycling talent. With Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe established in the WorldTour, Becky James a double world champion, and Elinor Barker a fully-fledged member of Great Britain’s all-conquering women’s team pursuit squad, riders like Davies and Owain Doull might already be described as a second wave, despite the youth of their immediate predecessors.
The success of men like Thomas and Rowe, riders who graduated from Welsh programmes to British Cycling, and from there to Team Sky makes the WorldTour dream seem possible, Davies concedes, and perhaps more realistic, but he is under no illusions about the hard work demanded by such an alluring career path. “It’s how much you want it,” he says.
Davies’ performance at the worlds would have placed him on the radar of many professional teams, but Hammond had made an offer from Madison Genesis before the rider travelled to Florence with Team GB. “I liked the way we discussed things,” Davies recalls of his pre-worlds conversation with Hammond. “I went to the worlds with that at the back of my mind, but he’d said I could give him an answer afterwards, which really meant a lot to me: the fact that he didn’t want to pressure me into a decision. I think that says a lot in itself. The worlds came and went. It seemed the right thing to do.”
Cycling is still a minority sport in west Wales, although growing fast. Davies was, in sporting terms, the odd one out at school. “The weird one who shaved his legs,” he laughs. The area lacks facilities for the aspiring cyclist – Davies believes the outdoor, concrete velodrome in Carmarthen is the oldest in Europe – but it does not lack the terrain. There is little doubt that Davies relishes the roads of home, despite his international experience. Even those of east Wales disappointed him. “Hard terrain” is the phrase he plumps for to describe his training loops. “Even the flattest road I can think of in west Wales is pretty lumpy by most people’s standards, but that’s a good thing in the long-term, I think,” he says. “It makes you a bit harder.”
The roads of west Wales may be lumpy but they cannot match the opportunities for sustained climbing found on Mallorca. The terrain and climate experienced by the Madison-Genesis riders in their 10-day sojourn has lifted the sprits of riders who have suffered in the wettest UK winter for generations. The miraculous power of sunlight, combined with good advice from Hammond, has made the Mallorcan adventure a success. Maintaining the optimism almost inevitably found at a pre-season training camp, where sunshine and the arrival of new riders combine to form the impression that anything might be possible in the season ahead, will be Hammond’s challenge as the races unfold. Few are better equipped.