Having climbed from his saddle as a professional cyclist for the final time at the Tour of Beijing, Juan Antonio Flecha admits his final season was the perfect swansong to his illustrious career.
After three years as a domestique at Team Sky, having joined the team when they were founded in 2010, Flecha spent what proved to be his final year at Vacansoleil-DCM.
And having impressed at the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana – where he was no stranger to the breakaways – and, as ever, rode strongly in the cobbled classics, Flecha is pleased to have ended his 14-year professional career in such a way.
“Having a very good season, racing the way I like to race and having fun on the bike like I wanted to – it was perfect and I’m very happy with my decision to retire,” he told RCUK.
“I really enjoyed the way I got to race this year, and that’s the way I always wanted to end my career.
“The good thing about being at Vacansoleil-DCM was that I was able to race every single race I wanted to, and also I was able to race the way I wanted to.
For this season I really wanted to race my way. That’s the way I always wanted to stop my career
“If I wanted to get in the breakaway or if I wanted to go easy on a mountain stage, or if I wanted to go deep – it was no problem. It allowed me to have a lot of freedom.
“I raced a very aggressive Tour de France and I enjoyed it a lot. I was very happy with it. I also enjoy working for other riders, but for this season I really wanted to race my way. I had the opportunity to do it, and it was great.”
Argentinian-born Spaniard Flecha earned a reputation throughout his career as a specialist on the cobbles, particularly at Paris-Roubaix – despite never capping a string of top ten finishes with victory in the Queen of the Classics.
But the ‘Spanish Flandrian’ says it is not a source of regret to him, and insists he ends his career with nothing but fond memories of the race.
“The cobbled races always suited me a lot,” he explained. “If you don’t like them it’s a waste of time going there because it’s so hard, so tough, that you really need to love the races.
“I really liked the adversity of having the cobblestones and also the technique that you need for that race. My energy was better in those races than in other races.
“My favourite was probably Roubaix. When I look to the future and Paris-Roubaix comes, and I’m not going to be on the start line, I don’t know how I’m going to feel, but I can tell you there will be a little bit of sadness.
“That’s been my race for years and I can say that’s the one I really don’t want to miss. That was the Queen of the Classics, the one of my dreams and the one I really wanted to be in my final year.
Paris-Roubaix was the Queen of the Classics, the one of my dreams. There will be a little bit of sadness when I don’t race it this year
“When you look at Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, who won that race so many times, that was probably one of the reasons I was never able to win it but I don’t really think about it.
“When I look back I’m really proud of what I’ve done and the way I’ve raced over there. I have very good memories of that race and that’s what I’ll keep – I don’t keep my results, I keep the moments.
“Being in some of the final sprints, that’s something I can always think about and always have with me.”
And Flecha paid tribute to Boonen and the ‘King of the Classics’ Cancellara, believing he shared his career with two all-time greats of one-day racing.
“Cancellara and Boonen are both amazing,” he said. “It’s not just that they won races so many times, it was the way they won.
“You see they were able to win races with long attacks, sometimes up to 50km – we’re talking about true specialists. They are actually great champions.”
Reflecting on his career, Flecha admits he always felt better suited to the one-day races attributing it to the different mentality and energy required to a stage race.
“I think it’s all to do with your energy,” he explained. “I can perform very well in a one-day race but with a stage race it’s very hard for me to perform like that every single day.
Cancellara and Boonen are both amazing. It’s not just that they won, it was the way they won
“It’s a different mentality, a different energy, and I found that for me I could have a good stage race by going for the victory or joining some breakaways, but when you talk about going for one-day races I was always better.
“A good example was this year at the Tour of Lombardy – it was a very hilly race, but with it being a one-day race I featured quite near the front, not for the victory but it was still quite good.
“I was good at one-day races and I think that’s to do with my mentality but also probably because of the energy I have – it was spent more on one-day racing than stage races.”
Having featured in breaks throughout his career – and earned combativity awards at several Grand Tours – Flecha’s final day in the saddle was typically spent doing exactly that.
However, despite joining fellow retiree Marco Pinotti (BMC Racing) in the break during the final stage of the Tour of Beijing, Flecha admits it was not actually pre-planned.
He admitted: “It was a bit weird! Me and Pinotti, at the start, were talking. In my mind, I had retired at Lombardy so while Beijing was my last race you’re not in Europe, it’s a proper race but it was different.
“It didn’t have the emotional feeling of being my last race – that was more Lombardia. Before the start of the last stage we were talking, and Pinotti was saying ‘come on, let’s get in the break’.
“I was saying, ‘all the breaks I have joined in my life – I have been and done it’. I was very sure about that.
I was very happy about being in the break and finishing my career that way
“But then at the start there were lots of guys trying to get into the attack, trying to form a break. I was taking it easy and then I just followed one attack – and that was the good one!
“Then Pinotti joined us and it was funny how it worked out.
“We worked really hard, we averaged 48km/h so it’s not like it was an easy race. I really enjoyed it. Once I was there I was fully committed to it, I was thinking ‘OK, this is my last race’ – I was not really emotional but I was having fun.
“That describes a little bit the kind of rider I’ve been. I was very happy about it, being in the break and finishing my career that way. Now when I look back, I can think about it that way.
“How was my last day? Well it was nice, it was in Beijing, next to the Olympic stadium. I’ve never been in the Olympics so it was special. I think it was the perfect way to finish it.”
Despite opting to end his career at Vacansoleil-DCM however, Flecha paid tribute to Sir Dave Brailsford and his fellow Team Sky founders.
While the British team have achieved phenomenal success in their four years – not least Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome’s Tour de France wins – not all riders have felt suited to their ‘marginal gains’ approach to training and preparation.
But Flecha, having experienced Team Sky’s somewhat radical way of thinking, believes the pioneering approach has changed the mentality of the other professional teams.
Being at Team Sky was one of the nicest periods of my career. I can only have a big smile about it
“I have to admit I really enjoyed racing with Team Sky,” he said. “To be there at the beginning, it was a great experience.
“For me, Sky have become the best in cycling. It was the beginning of a big team, and the team that has really changed cycling. I have a lot of respect for the guys who started it.
“It changed the mind and the way of cycling a lot. I always say, there was a ‘before Team Sky’ and an ‘after Team Sky’. That was nice, it was great to be a part of and I think it was one of the nicest periods of my career.
“I will always look back and can only have a big smile about it. It was great, honestly.”
Now looking to the future, Flecha admits he needs to take some time to consolidate before choosing his future steps.
He concluded: “It’s not like you can ride your bike for the rest of your life. Someday you have to stop and of course I could have gone one or two more years.
“But at the same time this was the way I wanted to stop, and the way of racing I wanted to end on was how I raced with Vacansoleil-DCM, so it was perfect.
“It’s allowed me now a period of relaxing and thinking about my plans for the future.
“There are many options, but I really need to find myself and start to see myself as not being a cyclist. If I want to get involved in a team, I first need to see myself as not being a cyclist anymore.
“It’s quite a change in your life. I want to work out what sort of lifestyle I now want to have. Once I have a goal for something I will move on and see what happens.”