He is younger than some riders in the WorldTour peloton but Charly Wegelius believes the rapid rise of cycling makes the sport unrecognisable from when he first climbed onto the saddle – particularly in Britain.
Finnish-born Brit Wegelius, 35, has just completed his second season as a directeur sportif at Garmin-Sharp, after a career in which he built a reputation as a key mountain domestique despite never winning an individual race.
And Wegelius, who earlier this year published his autobiography, Domestique, about life in the pro peloton, admits a rider in his mould would be unlikely to make it at professional level nowadays.
“When I started cycling it was a sport for eccentrics and people who couldn’t afford cars,” Wegelius told RCUK. “Now it’s a highly-respected mainstream sport that people are slowly beginning to understand and respect, so that’s a positive thing.
“People now come into the sport in a different way, they buy posh cycling clothes and posh bikes and I think they’ve got a lot of enthusiasm but they don’t know side of the sport I grew up with.
“For the general cycling public nowadays they see the reality of young riders developing and becoming successful in a world of lottery funding, British Cycling and Team Sky. That isn’t the experience I had or the riders of my generation had.
When I started cycling it was a sport for eccentrics and people who couldn’t afford cars
“I think along with David Millar, I was one of the last to go through the process the ‘old’ way, so it was a good time to write Domestique because I don’t think it’s ever going to happen again.
“Another reason it was good to write the book was it was also very possible that I was one of the last riders that could do a 12-year career and still be considered to be successful despite never winning a race.
“I think the whole world’s changed, what’s required of riders is changed. To be valued in the sport you have to be a lot more versatile than I ever was.”
However, despite the rapid rise of the sport in Britain at a professional level, Wegelius believes there is still more to be done to bring the country in line with European cycling powerhouses like Belgium, France and Italy.
“I think the results in British Cycling speak for themselves,” said Wegelius. “But I still think there are a lot of things they could improve on.
“And to a degree it’s also possible that the amount of money that’s in British Cycling can slightly falsify people’s perception of just how healthy it is.
“From where I stand I don’t see an extremely healthy domestic road racing scene and that isn’t at all compatible with the standing of the sport on an international level. Domestic racing just isn’t up to speed.
“Obviously in Britain there is always going to be a big problem about the roads – the use of the roads and how tight things are traffic-wise in the UK. That’s always going to be a big obstacle.
I don’t see a healthy domestic road racing scene in Britain and that isn’t at all compatible with the standing of the sport on an international level
“That’s obviously something we have to work on. On balance though, I think you can say it’s an extreme positive situation for the sport at the moment in Britain.”
Since stepping off the bike in 2011 Wegelius has become a valuable member of the back-room team at Garmin-Sharp despite never intending to take on such a role.
However, in spite of some reservations before taking on the role, Wegelius insists he is reveling in his new position.
“It’s been quite a smooth transition to be honest,” he explained. “I never planned to do it and I think that gave me quite a free spirit so I didn’t really feel a great deal of pressure.
“Jonathan Vaughters, in the way he manages the team and different situations, gives you quite a lot of space to be creative so that makes it much more interesting for me.
“It allows you to deal with things rather than just driving around in cars, helping riders with spare wheels and drinks. I don’t think I could do that just for the sake of it.
“The way things are, in a team like Garmin-Sharp, I think it’s a really rewarding job. I have absolutely fallen on my feet.
“It’s extremely lucky in that I wasn’t actively trying to market myself to get into a job like that. It’s not the sort of thing that comes by very often so it’s a real gift that I’ve got that chance.”
Being a directeur sportif with Garmin-Sharp is a really rewarding job. I have absolutely fallen on my feet
While Garmin-Sharp boast a very young roster, there are also riders such as Millar and the retiring Christian Vande Velde, who are both older than Wegelius.
But any fears he had about having to deal with riders he used to ride alongside proved to be misplaced.
“There was quite a group of older riders at Garmin,” said Wegelius, “but honestly they’ve always been a great support to me since I started the job.
“They provide a good link between the management and the riders. For example with messages we’re trying to get across that perhaps younger riders don’t always find easy to accept from the management.
“When they hear a senior rider backing up what you’re saying it can add a bit of credibility to what you’re trying to do.
“I must admit that before I started I thought that trying to be the manager of riders who were higher up in the food chain than I was as a rider was going to be a problem, but they’ve always been hugely supportive.
“That’s really quite typical of how things are at Garmin, that’s really the culture they run.”
After a successful year for the team in Argyle jerseys, not least with Dan Martin’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege success, Wegelius believes the squad are well-set to build further in 2014.
A lot of the talents Jonathan Vaughters identified years ago are coming ripe now and paying dividends
“For the team it was a bit of a transition year – a generational transition,” he said. “We have seen some of the talents Jonathan identified years ago come to the fore and he’s been patiently leading them out to develop.
“Those guys are slowly now stepping up to the expectations that we put on them and we’re obviously seeing an older generation coming to the end of their journey – Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie.
“There are a lot of good results there for us this year and a lot of signs of what we can expect over the next couple of years from some of the riders Jonathan’s invested in.
“If you look at our roster for next year, the balance is clearly shifting towards younger riders and of the riders Jonathan signed last year, three of four finished in the top ten at the under-23 worlds so he’s obviously got a good eye for talent.
“Dylan Van Baarle has been riding extremely well with Rabobank’s development team and he could become an extremely good Classics rider over the next years, and guys like Johan Vansummeren and Sebastian Langeveld can help those guys develop while also going for results for themselves.
“We’ve got the pot boiling there with Andrew Talansky, Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal – he’s still got a lot to give, people shouldn’t read too much into his season. With good health and a bit more good luck he could do extremely again next year.”
And of all those riders, Wegelius admits Irishman Martin, nephew of 1987 Tour de France winner Stephen Roche, has the calibre to perform on the biggest stage of all – if he gets a bit of luck.
If Dan Martin finds the stars align in just the right way for him, he could pull off a really good result in a three-week race
“I think Dan is blessed with a good sprint and a good finish,” he added.
“I think if he finds the stars align in just the right way for him and he has a good, healthy period of form ,and it’s the perfect course for him then, if he gets lucky one time, I think he could pull off a really good result in a three-week race.
“I think it would have to be just right – with the balance of time-trialling and climbing, and with his health and crashes and so on. If it all fell right there is no reason why he couldn’t win a three-week race.”
Charly Wegelius’ autobiography, Domestique, is out now, and he will be speaking at Lord’s Cricket Ground on Sunday October 20, from 4.30pm-5.30pm, as part of the London Sports Writing Festival