Interview: Michael Rogers on swapping Grand Tours for business conferences
Australian at peace with retirement and excited for future after medical conditions forced him to quit the peloton
Bloomberg’s London HQ is an unusual environment to find a professional cyclist, even one so recently retired.
It’s in a large, glass-fronted building on Finsbury Square however that we find Michael Rogers, three-time world time-trial champion, three-time Grand Tour stage winner, and, until an abrupt end to his career in February, road captain to Alberto Contador at Tinkoff.
Rogers is not your typical Australian. His considered responses come in a quiet, even tone, and it’s hard to imagine him grinning maniacally and ‘playing’ an inflatable guitar in an Orica-BikeExchange video. Only during the frequent, but well-intentioned interruptions to our interview does he give any indication of his background.
The host of a conference on the ‘gamification’ of cycling that we have come to Bloomberg to attend invites Rogers to join him for beers when he is next in the Netherlands. Rogers accepts. “I can drink ‘em now, too!" he laughs.
Risk vs gain
Since February, following a predictable, sprint-centric, second stage of the Dubai Tour, Rogers has been an ex-professional cyclist; an existence begun on the Mapei development team and ended by the sudden acceleration of an innocuous heart condition that he had been aware of since his earliest days in the peloton.
He explains: “If you look into the Wikipedia side, about my particular issue, it’s in your mid-30s that it really drops off a cliff, right? Maybe dropping off a cliff is not the right word to use, but it starts to become more important, and that’s what it’s really all about: the balance between risk and gain.
“I’d planned to end in more or less this period of my cycling career - the later months of 2016 - so to risk something bad happening for another six months of career to me made no sense. The specialists all basically said, ‘You can keep going, but what for?’"
The condition to which Rogers refers is a malformation of an aortic valve. Team doctors noticed an irregular pattern during the Dubai Tour, in which Rogers’ heart rate accelerated as soon as he produced an effort, rather than after a slight lag. Even when backed off and reduced his power output, his heart rate continued to rise, sometimes for more than a minute.
Calling time on a 16-year career became a logical decision, if not an easy one. Rogers did not start stage three in Dubai, but what might have been a painful end to a career he had pursued for his entire adult life was eased with a job offer - from Saxo Bank co-founder Lars Seier and former team boss Bjarne Riis.
“I’m thankful for this new job here because literally the day after, it’s a true story, Lars and Bjarne called me and said, ‘We’ve got a project for you to do’. I was grateful for that," Rogers says.
The ‘project’ has become Virtu Pro-Veloconcept and in May Rogers was announced as its CEO. The company has developed a sophisticated static training bike, an accompanying app and offers a luxury base in Lucca for business hospitality.
Things are moving quickly. Virtu Pro-Veloconcept has already acquired a Danish team registered in professional cycling’s third tier, and the ambition is that business activities will ultimately fund a WorldTour squad.
Rogers is sanguine. Professional cycling’s total dependence on corporate largesse has long been recognised as its Achilles heel, but few have been able to suggest an alternative method of generating funding for a sport that is free to spectators at the roadside. The Riis-Seier project is an attempt to square the circle.
“It will take us a long time, but who knows, in 20 years, what we’re trying to do now may be the foundation of all cycling teams," Rogers says. “We don’t know, but we’re willing to try."
Rogers has ridden with the biggest teams in the sport, including the aforementioned Mapei and latterly Team Sky. The Italian outfit’s development squad has some illustrious alumni: Cancellara, Eisel, Evans, Wegelius and, of course, Rogers. While the senior team, led by Johan Museeuw, was mired in the controversy of the sport’s dirtiest era, the respected Dr Aldo Sassi oversaw the development of the younger riders.
Rogers sees a parallel with Team Sky in the Mapei team’s attention to detail and in the ambition, partly realised, of the late Mapei founder Giorgio Squinzi that the team would have a permeant base that would allow the riders to train together. “I know Dave Brailsford has thoughts on that," Rogers reveals. Sky, he believes, is “10 years ahead" of other teams, in logistical terms.
A more significant parallel exists in the commitment Mapei showed to all levels of cycling, Rogers believes. Sky’s funding of cycling in Britain goes a long way past the sum invested in Dave Brailsford’s squad. So it was with Mapei in Italy.
“I think it’s a great shame that cycling lost Mapei. When I was growing up as an amateur in Italy, whether it was a junior race, an under-15 girls race, U23 or professional, Mapei was everywhere.
“They were probably putting in the money to cycling that Sky is now - 30m, 40m, 50m Euros - but spread across the whole Italian cycling system. Probably not many people know that and they didn’t get the credit within the cycling world for doing that."
Rogers says he misses none of the physical demands of professional cycling, but does miss the camaraderie of his former team-mates and directors, a group he describes as a “high energy" bunch of people.
Conferences in financial centres are unlikely to offer the same adrenalin rush as winning atop the Zoncolan, as Rogers did at the 2014 Giro d’Italia, or receiving rainbow jerseys. On the plus side, he is no longer required to train in the cold and sleet, to miss social functions or time with his family.
His role at the head of an organisation trying to change the game on the funding of pro cycling teams has been hard-earned. Still lean, he is unlikely to be planning to make a comeback any time soon, however.
“I see the mountain stages and for me that’s just another life, already. I look at that and just say, ‘No way!’"