In October it was announced that Heiko Salzwedel would return to Team GB. For the third time in the coach’s career he will be part of the British track cycling program. He will be the men’s team pursuit coach, a specific position for a dynamic team that has won gold at the past two Olympic Games.
The 57-year-old former East German began coaching at an international level at the age of 22 before the fall of the Berlin Wall. “This,” he admits, “was difficult because most of the riders were older than me.” He’s been most persistent, as well as successful. Salzwedel has helped riders from around the world achieve bold objectives.
Salzwedel was a choice of the coaching and management staff who have known him for years and respected his work and achievements. Sir Bradley Wiggins nominated Salzwedel as an ideal coach of a team that he hoped to be part of in Rio come 2016.
Salzwedel was in Australia for a few weeks in October before returning to Europe to take up the position with Team GB.
RIDE Cycling Review’s editor, Rob Arnold, caught up with Salzwedel in Sydney and hit the ‘record’ button during his visit to RIDE HQ in October.
Early in the interview, we get some background to Salzwedel’s cosmopolitan coaching exploits and discuss two of the characters from the peloton whom he has had quite a lot to do with: Wiggins and the current holder of the world hour record, Jens Voigt.
Heiko Salzwedel Interview – 17 October 2014 (part 01)
RIDE: Heiko Salzwedel was the Australian road cycling coach between the years of 1990 through to 1998. He’s [recently] taken a new role as coach of the team pursuit team in the UK, leading up to the Rio Olympics. He’s in Australia for a few days and it’s a pleasure to have him in the office.
Heiko, welcome. Is it good to be back in Australia?
Heiko Salzwedel: “Of course, it’s always good to be back ‘home’ here. For me it’s still my adopted home country and I’m always happy to come back here.”
You have a home in Berlin and you’ll be working from Manchester, is that the new arrangement?
“Yes. My family and I moved back to Berlin – back to the roots – and I’m going to commute to Manchester… I’ll live between Manchester and Berlin.”
This is your third time back with UK cycling, is that correct?
“Yes. It’s a pretty unusual step that we have done but Shane Sutton and me are old mates. We’ve known each other for many years. We know what we are good at, we know what we are bad at. So from that point of view it’s not a new situation for me. It’s just a homecoming as well.”
It’s my understanding that Bradley Wiggins was asking to work with you again. Is that how it worked?
“Yeah. Bradley realised that he wants to make one big last thing and that’s unfinished business, the Olympic gold medal in the team pursuit [in 2016] and to concentrate fully on the track for the next two years… that means after Paris-Roubaix [in 2015] he’s going to focus fully on track cycling, fully on the team pursuit. And he wants to finish his career with a gold medal in Rio.”
What’s your history with Bradley?
“We’ve known each other for a long, long time. I remember the first time I met him was in 2001 at a little kermesse race in Belgium when I started my job as a performance manager of British Cycling. I introduced myself to the riders at a training camp over there and I had one-to-one talks with every rider just to get to know each other.
“Bradley, he stunned me with very specific questions about the East German team pursuit team in 1988 – with very detailed information. And he surprised me when he suddenly said, ‘I’m going to win Olympic gold…’ and I told him that’s going to be a long way to go. But it didn’t take so long for him. By 2004 he was already there [as winner of the individual pursuit].”
So, here’s an interesting guy with a track background, and [who is] a Tour de France champion, and now the time trial world champion – one of the most charismatic guys in cycling. What do you expect from him in the next couple of years?
“Everything in all directions. Bradley is full of surprises – positive surprises. And when he sets his mind to something he’s really on it with every single little piece of his mind, of his body. So from that point of view it’s going to be a very interesting time and I’m looking forward to that.”
What do you make of it: him stepping aside from a road career which was really just starting when it seemed to come to a bit of a halt. Obviously he’s still racing on the road but after winning the Tour de France he hasn’t done a hell of a lot of racing on the road.
“I think after you’ve won the Tour de France and after now winning the world championships in the time trial there’s no point to prove anymore.
“So I wouldn’t call it losing focus but he’s shifted his directions and, as I said before, when he sets his mind on something he’s fully into that. And that’s why he really motivated me to accept this job offer in Great Britain, to come back [to Team GB] and work there as the Olympic team pursuit coach.”
There’s a long history of you [working] with various nations, on road and track. Can you paraphrase – from the East German team back in 1988 at the Seoul Olympics through to now – who you’ve worked for?
“Oh that’s going to be a long story! But I’ll try to cut it short. Of course the best and most memorable job I had was with the Australian Institute of Sport with a young, ambitious Australian team including Matthew White, Nick Gates, Jay Sweet, Robbie McEwen, Patrick Jonker… that was my first group and it was such an exciting bunch of people. I will never forget this period.
“We had so many fights – verbal fights with each other – but we really loved each other like… I wouldn’t call it ‘brothers’ but we had a very close relationship to each other which lasted more than just a cycling career. [There was] a lot of emotion and a lot of personal experience included.
“After I left Australian cycling in 1998, I had a very short period in Germany as a performance director of the German cycling federation before I moved to Great Britain as the performance manager of the British track cycling program. That lasted about three years.
“[Then] I started my own cycling company in 2003, SL Sports, which offered expert advice to various government and non-government organisational teams, individual riders, etc. That was a very, very interesting period of my life because, at the same time when I was working as a team pursuit coach for Canada – not in cycling but in speed skating – I worked with Swiss triathlon as an expert advisor on the SRM power meters and on cycling training… and I was [also] a consultant for Danish cycling.
“That was the start of another very wonderful chapter of my life.
“I started, in 2003, just as a consultant for Danish cycling, and this connection became closer and closer until they asked me to become the national coach for the Danish Olympic team in preparation for the Beijing Olympics. I accepted [the Danish offer] in September 2005 and this set up was until 2008.
“In 2008 I went back to Great Britain in the same position that [I held] before. But, I have to say, British cycling had changed a lot.
“When I came to British cycling in 2001, it was a new organisation. They had a lot of things to learn. They had a lot of room for improvement. [Then] I came back in 2008 and it was a perfect situation, a perfect environment. Everything was set up, everything was in line, everything was very professional. It was, in my eyes, a little bit too professional because there was not much of a challenge for me anymore.
“I just did my job there like an office worker and that was not really challenging for me and, as people who know me [will testify], I like a challenge.
“So it didn’t take long for the Russians and others to give me a job offer – a challenge – and I accepted this Russian offer in 2010 and left British cycling for a three-year stint in Russia. It was a very exciting prospect and it was a very exciting situation there but the Russians are just Russians and it was not very easy to handle the whole situation. And the whole project which started with much excitement came to a stop in 2013.
“After being at home and recovering from this Russian experience the Swiss cycling federation came and we spoke about the prospect of being the under-23 coach of Switzerland. Which was, for me, initially very good. It was a good comeback into cycling because I was about to just leave the sport completely.
“Swiss cycling gave me the opportunity to come back into the sport and it was just a 40 percent job – it was not a full-time job. It was enough to get me hooked on the sport again. And it was enough to experience another wonderful time with the young Swiss guys. It was really professional working with these ‘kids’ – getting to know people who are working in [such a professional manner] at such an early age.
“The biggest difference I noticed in Switzerland, for instance, whilst I was the Swiss under-23 coach all of my riders of the national team all had a job. They were just part-time cyclists. They were amateurs like back in the olden days… and they did their cycling after their work! And it was amazing what level of performance they still could [achieve]. It was an eye-opener for me. It was really good.
“But, to cut a long story short, British cycling and I never lost contact with each other. Shane Sutton and me had always been in touch… we spoke already a long time before I picked up the Swiss job about the prospect of coming back to Great Britian for a third time. Then, after the European championships, I agreed to British cycling that I’d come back after the world championship in Ponferrada.
“So the [worlds] in Spain [last month] was my last appearance with Swiss cycling. We had some wonderful results there with a bronze medal for Stefan Kueng in the individual time trial, under-23s; with the 12th place of Fabian Lienhard [in the road road]… and it was a good finish of a short but very exciting time with Swiss cycling.”
It’s hard to paraphrase all of that and if we start talking about all of the characters you’ve been involved with there’s a veritable influx of superstars. One of the guys who I think is interesting to talk about because he’s able to get people to think about cycling is Jens Voigt. You were responsible for getting him [started] with a pro career. He started with an Australian team, Giant-ZVVZ-AIS – those were the principle sponsors – can you tell us about your time with Jens. He’s from Berlin. You knew him as an amateur. What’s your experience of watching his long and illustrious career?
“It’s very interesting that you mention that name because Jens was one of the last [riders] I spent some time with, that was just in preparation of his hour world record attempt in Switzerland.
“Jens and me, we [go back] a long time. I’ve known him since he was a kid in East Germany. We are both from the same area in East Germany and from that point of view, I’ve followed his career for many, many years. But, ironically, I offered him the contract with the Australian Institute of Sport professional team in Australia at the Commonwealth Bank [Cycle] Classic. That was one thing that we were really connected by: Jens and I shared the same passion. We both love Australia and we both have [a strong connection] with Australia and with Australian people.”
The hour record is going to be something that Bradley [Wiggins] is going to focus on after Paris-Roubaix. Jens himself said that when the ‘specialists’ start to concentrate on the hour, they’re going to smash [the record]. But still, 51.115km in an hour, for an ‘old guy’ is a pretty impressive performance.
“It was, really. I knew that he was going to beat the old record, that was a no-brainer. But that he still improved [from his trial]… I was there when he did the testing with a 50.4km/h average and I predicted that he was going to make it even better but that he was going so fast…! That was another big surprise for me.
“And Jens is always good for surprises.”
– By Rob Arnold