Interview: Charly Wegelius on life as a DS and why talent alone does not guarantee a successful career
Former British pro turned Cannondale-Drapac directeur sportif excited by new signing Hugh Carthy
There are few more respected men in professional cycling’s travelling circus than Charly Wegelius.
As a rider, he earned a reputation as the professional’s professional, one prepared to give everything in service of his leader, calling upon a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of stubbornness and a rare ability to read unfolding events to shepherd his team’s protected rider across the shifting sands of a race.
Now the experience gained from riding 14 Grand Tours is put at the service of Cannondale-Drapac’s riders, members of a comparatively youthful squad where many, like Wegelius in his early days, are finding their way in the cut-throat world of professional cycling. The experience of such a knowledgeable DS must be invaluable.
Wegelius, however, is not one for easy compliments. He is the first to admit the DS role was about the last thing he had dreamed of during his final days as a rider, when he had grown increasingly disenchanted with professional cycling and longed to experience a different world. His increasing dissatisfaction with a sport he had loved is set out in unflinching terms in his 2014 book Domestique, co-written by Tom Southam.
“The stimulus behind me wanting to stop was the fact that I was pretty much fed up," Wegelius confirms. “You can see that in the book. I’d always hoped and dreamed that I would take a different direction in my life and do something else. I’d always thought about going back to school and studying. I had big ideas about doing something completely different."
As Wegelius prepared to hang up his wheels at the end of the 2011 season, exhausted, disenchanted and uncertain about where life would lead him, Slipstream boss Jonathan Vaughters called.
We return to Wegelius’ reputation with those inside the sport: Vaughters was keen to harness the Englishman’s talents in the DS role before rival teams did so.
While admitting that he took the role merely as a stop gap, a chance to “buy some time" while he considered his options, Wegelius has grown to love being a DS and to become, as he was as a rider, one of the most respected members of his profession.
Key to understanding the DS role, he argues, is to recognise its breadth, and to appreciate that it is not just about calling the shots from the team car on race day (though there are some who do just this, and with success).
For Wegelius, the work of preparing the riders begins long before they roll off the start line.
“Much of it is co-ordinating events before a race: managing the rider’s lifestyle and the way they approach things and getting the best from them," he says.
"It’s about removing things that are blocking them from giving their best performance and giving them clear ideas about what we want them to do."
Slipstream’s marquee signing for 2017 is Taylor Phinney. While the talented Boulder, Colorado native with hipster moustache is an excellent ‘cultural’ fit for Vaughters’ Ride Argyle squad, Britain’s Hugh Carthy, a more low key acquisition for Cannondale-Drapac, might be the prototypical Wegelius rider.
Like Wegelius, Carthy has made his own luck in this toughest of sports. The 6’2", 10 stone pure climber was never likely to find success in British Cycling’s track-focussed Academy Programme, and he has shown considerable reserves of determination and self-sufficiency to make his way with the Spanish Pro Continental squad Caja Rural, winning the Vuelta Asturias in May, six weeks after finishing in the top 10 at the Volta a Catalunya.
Typically, Wegelius’ assessment of Carthy isn’t focussed on his palmares so much as his character. The DS has been reading scientific literature on the importance of grit to elite athletic performance. Carthy, it seems, has this intangible quality in ready supply.
“The scientific literature stands up for [the fact] at the moment that talent alone isn’t enough," Wegelius explains. “At the elite level, that’s truer than ever. If an athlete doesn’t apply themselves with pretty exceptional determination over and over again on a daily basis, they’ll never fulfil their highest potential.
“Basically, Hugh has shown pretty exceptional determination to succeed and apply himself, without a massive amount of infrastructure around him and the support that other riders benefit from.
“He’s gone the hard way. The fact that he’s got those results shows that he can work autonomously, which is of great value to a pro rider, and we know any support we can give him will have a benefit. He’s a tough nut and that’s one of the most important qualities."
One senses Wegelius sees something of himself in Carthy. He was another who went “the hard way", though admittedly in an era when British riders with ambition to succeed at the highest level had no choice but to go abroad.
Wegelius’ journey took him firstly to Vendée U, then arguably the best amateur team in France, where he learned under Jean-René Bernaudeau, now general manager of Direct Energie.
The vaunted Mapei team offered Wegelius his breakthrough into the professional ranks, where he was part of an exceptional intake of young talent (Cancellara, Eisel, Evans et al), that enjoyed unheard of support in a bid to raise a new generation who could ride clean at the highest level and still be competitive.
When Mapei walked away from cycling in 2002, Wegelius faced a shocking return to reality, one that included a brief stint with the ill-fated Linda McCartney team.
Such experience hardened Wegelius and has stood him in good stead, one imagines, for the realities of helping a team with comparatively meagre funding to compete on even terms with the peloton’s grandees.
“It’s pretty well documented that the WorldTour is a very challenging environment. It’s also well documented that we operate with a fairly modest budget and that presents challenges when we’re trying to be competitive. I enjoy that challenge," Wegelius says.
“That’s where we get the value in the work we do. Jonathan [Vaughters] doesn’t rely on very strict hierarchies. He just wants input.
"It gives people a chance to develop themselves, without being constrained by being an assistant for any number of years before they can make a contribution. If you’ve got good ideas and motivation you will be able to put those things out there. It’s a nice environment."
The new season will bring new challenges, but for a few weeks at least, Wegelius can relax with his wife and two young sons at their home in Finland.
The travel demands faced by the DS are no less than those faced by the rider, but can be tougher on the manager, typically an older man with greater commitments outside of the sport.
Wegelius admits that the demands of being almost continually away from home are “very tough" and getting tougher as his children grow up. He mitigates time away by being “100 per cent present" when at home.
In a sport so dependent on corporate backing, results are everything and the 2017 season, the first in which the WorldTour will have been shaken up by relegation, promises to be no different.
Rigoberto Uran, last year’s marquee signing, did much to aid Cannondale-Drapac’s points tally with a strong Italian campaign in the final throes of the season, and it will be interesting to judge Phinney’s contribution in the year ahead.
Greater interest, however, will lie in the development of young talent like Carthy, Ryan Mullen, Davide Formolo and Joe Dombrowski. Wegelius’ insights, gained from an 11-year career at the highest level, will prove invaluable, one suspects.