It was just before midday and we had a rendezvous arranged on a car park in the deep south of Switzerland, which is surrounded on three sides by Italy, close to Lake Como. Switzerland has been the seasonal home to Cadel for a number of years now; “I’ve been in Switzerland since I was mountain biking, ever since I got involved with Tony Rominger (agent). But I was always in the north; we moved here a year ago to be closer to my wife’s parents in Italy.”
The area around Como has always been something of a hotbed for pro bike riders; “There’s always been a lot of top Italians in the area (Garzelli and Nardello are just down the road), and then the Motorola team (including a young Armstrong) came here, and it snowballed from there. The AIS team are also based nearby, and Michael Rogers is just off in the other direction”. That must be some chain gang? “I tend to train a lot on my own, although I like to get out with the young AIS guys, it’s fun training with them, they’re so keen”.
It was this very AIS system that helped integrate Cadel into the road scene; “Id been persuaded to try road racing to help my MTB training, and started with a few local crits in Melbourne, and then started to race some with the under 23 AIS team in Italy. Then I decided to take up an offer from my sponsor at the time, Cannondale, to ride part of the season with the Saeco team. I was not really enjoying the mountain biking at the time, things were not great in the team, and the schedule only worked out at half a seasons worth of racing”.
His pro road “part time moonlighting” job certainly thrust him to the forefront of team mangers end of season must buy lists; “I’d won the Tour of Austria, and shown I could climb. I did a decent ride at the world championships and then Mapei approached me, and asked if I wanted to join them as a potential grand tour leader. Wow, I’d always dreamed of the Tour de France; it was handed to me on a silver platter, I jumped at the chance”. The Mapei system was one of the most respected, powerful and largest organisations ever to be involved in pro bike racing. How was making the transition from solo mountain biker to a major pro road team? “The system at Mapei was second to none. They put me with Dario Cioni, who spoke good English, and had been a mountain biker. It really helped having him to show me the ropes. It really was like one big family, it was great. I’d never seen such attention to detail before. They would help with everything from bike set up and positioning to training.” It was during his time at Mapei that he had that unforgettable time in the pink jersey of Giro leader; “I’d never suffered so much before, I just blew, and could do nothing about it. I’d got through ok so far, but that was the day that told. I’d gone from racing a maximum of 3 hours a time, to the Giro”. But surely as a mere rookie he shouldn’t have been in that position? “My job was to play reserve leader, just in-case. Then when it came to the time trial me and Noe were about even, and I came out on top and so assumed the roll of team leader, he still ribs me about it”. They say riding a grand tour changes a rider. Has it changed you? “For sure I get stronger and increase my level every time. But the whole road and team thing has changed me a lot as a person too. I used to be very insular, the road had brought me out of that and made me more open, and more of a team player”.
With the unfortunate demise of Mapei Cadel moved to the Telekom team, which was to say the least not a great time in his career; “Well, it certainly was not the happiest of times. The whole atmosphere and set up was very different. You were pretty well left to sort yourself out, and there was very little in the way of information, I never knew what was happening. So I was quite happy to move on”. That move took him to Belgium, and the Davitamon team, where he’s now in his second season, and riding with a whole bunch of other Aussies, how’s that? “It’s actually the first time I’ve been on a team with other Aussies, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know them too well, and don’t race that often with them – but we do meet up and socialise and stuff back in Australia. It’s a lot more fun, that’s for sure. The team set up is very different too. It’s almost like a team was a decade ago; where they go to a tour with riders for certain rolls. It’s quite an old team too, so the riders are entrusted a lot to train and do things their own way, which is good”.
It had been a strange and worrying early season for Cadel, with a poor showing in his targeted spring classics, and then the announcement of some strange disease? “Every time the pressure went on I’d get blurred vision and headaches, which meant losing my balance, and so I could not perform. I went to a doctor. They asked for the symptoms and made a very rash judgement. They said it was Horton’s Syndrome, a genetic and life shortening disease. Luckily my cousin is a doctor, he called and said it was not possible, and eventually they came back and said it was Hunters disease, which is something that goes away after a month or so. It was caused by something getting behind my eye, and is all clear now”.
It was just a short time after this that he returned to competition in the Tour of Romandie, where he took the overall victory in the closing time trial; “It was such a relief to me. I finally had some pay back for the team. We’d had a bad early season, then at Romandie it all went perfectly. I didn’t realise at the time, but it’s my biggest ever win on the road”.
Originally from the Northern Territory, but brought up mainly in Melbourne by his mother, Cadel still considers Victoria as home; “That’s where we have our main house. And we spend a lot of time there in the European winters, but Europe will be home for most of the year for quite a while to come”. It’s back at home where he keeps his “cars”; “I really love cars, especially old Mustangs. I’ve got one back home. I’m also a life long fan of Tin Tin. My mum still sends me new or different books, he was my childhood hero”.
The year 2005 was a huge one for Cadel, with an impressive 8th place overall finish at the Tour, and some amazing performances in the mountains, where he stuck like glue to the wheel of Armstrong, How did it feel to be in such company? “Nobody, not even me, expected to be in that position. It was far more than I’d hoped for. I kept my head down and suffered so much. I just kept pushing into the red. At times I didn’t know whether I should push so hard and risk blowing, but I did. In hindsight there were times where I should of eased off some; I think I a lot from the experience, and for the good”.
Going in to last years Tour Cadel was an outside favourite for a podium slot, and as we know it all went pear shaped for the great race, ending in chaos, and the result of the race still hangs in the balance. As it stands Cadel finished 4th overall, but it’s quite likely that he could move up to the podium, how does he look back on the whole experience? “It’s hard to say, because nobody really know what the situation was. I think the day Phonak let Piero go was decisive, and a crazy move, without that things would have been very different. Then the day Landis went away, I was two wheels behind; we had to let him go, and thought no way would he survive. CSC and Telekom should of chased him down earlier, they had the race to win, I had only one rider with me for the finale. No rider has ever come back from anything like that in Tour history…….”
If progress goes to form the punchy Aussie will be one of the major contenders for this years great race, keep tuned here for reports.