Twenty hours after Simon Gerrans blasted into the lead of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the final 100 metres of the 263km race to become the first Australian to win this Classic in the Belgian Ardennes, his directeur sportif Matt White was on the phone. By then he was already back at his base in Spain after an early morning flight. He walked in the door and, 15 minutes later was talking about what he calls “the toughest one-day race in the world”.
He was ready to answer some questions about Gerrans’ win but first he wanted to know, “Did we get much mainstream media coverage in Australia?”
It’s only right to ask such a question. This was an epic performance in the 100th edition of one of five ‘Monuments’ on the cycling calendar. It was broadcast live by SBS and Eurosport. Social media was buzzing from the result and, despite the finish happening at close to 1.00am, there was a rapid spate of Twitter messages and Facebook exchanges taking place. “You good thing! Congrats Simon Gerrans. Fabulous win.” That was on RIDE’s FB page minutes after the Australian champion beat Alejandro Valverde and Michal Kwiatkowski to take the title. Within an instant there were plenty of “likes”.
Evidently, we like to see a victory by a good guy. You can put ‘Gerro’ into that category. He may have his critics but there are far fewer than many other cyclists cope with. And on Monday morning 28 April 2014, he was the talk of sports bulletins around the nation; often his victory was the lead story.
I could happily respond to White’s question with a positive answer: “I walked downstairs this morning and the first thing I heard on the radio was ‘Gerrans won Liège-Bastogne-Liège’. Hopefully it got some traction,” I continued. “I think people do understand the significance of it. Do you realise this or not?”
“It was pretty disappointing to note the interest that the Amstel Gold Race did not get,” said White. “I know Simon’s third place last weekend is not a win but still it’s a great result in a very big race. I was looking at the papers and I don’t think it got picked up by any of the print media in Australia.”
That was true. Cycling generates headlines, don’t worry about that. The sport can muscle its way onto the front page at times. Generally it tends to happen in July, though April is now also a month when people are paying close attention. But the first week of May was a time when Orica-GreenEdge could continue celebrating successes. Following the efforts of Gerrans in the final Classic of spring, Michael Albasini took three stage wins in the Tour de Romandie, and young GB recuit Adam Yates picked up a stage win and the overall title at the Tour of Turkey.
Below is a transcription of a discussion between Matt White and Rob Arnold from the day after Liège-Bastogne-Liège…
Matt White: “We knew that Simon would be very competitive…”
(28 April 2014)
– Interview by Rob Arnold
RIDE: There has been a lot of coverage on our site with you guys because Orica-GreenEdge just keeps on doing great things. But this Liège-Bastogne-Liège win, is that bigger than Milan-San Remo for you?
Matt White: “I think it’s on par with anything we’ve done within the organisation, that’s for sure. It’s hard to split up Milan-San Remo, a stage win at the Tour de France, or to put a rider in the yellow jersey with a team time trial win – they are all obviously big wins. They are pretty hard to put one over the other. It depends on who gets the result and where it happens.
“For some of the Classics guys, Paris-Roubaix is the biggest race in the world for them. For the Belgians and others with an appreciation of its history, the Tour of Flanders is what matters most. For climbers Liège-Bastogne-Liège is definitely the biggest one. It’s not easy to say one over the other.”
But Simon is not a ‘climber’. He’s not easy to classify. He’s a bit of everything, isn’t he? If he says he’s going to win a race, he tends to do that. Did you believe at the start of the day that it was actually going to happen?
“We knew that Simon would be very competitive. We had one clear leader going into the race. A few things worked in our favour this year. We obviously put a big emphasis into winning the Tour Down Under and it’s always tricky managing Simon between January and April. This year, due to illness and allergy problems – and then another sickness two days before Milan-San Remo – he was able to have a low period in March. This meant that, for once, he’d recovered [from the efforts in January] and was healthy and he could actually do it again; a second mini-peak was possible in April.
“Usually he’s been there for Amstel Gold these last few years but that has also sort of been the end of it. He’s gone really deep in Holland and he’s just been hanging on and not been able to recover for the next weekend. This year was different. We were very confident after the way he recovered from Amstel Gold that he’d be very competitive in Liège.
“But did I think he could win at the start of the day? No. It’s a very pleasant surprise. Did I think he would have finished on the podium? One hundred per cent! It’s a race that has always seemed to just have one climb too many. But the way it was raced was different. We’ve never seen a group that big at the end of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and when we saw that the leaders were coming back, that’s when we really knew that we had a very big chance of winning.”
It looked to me like there was a policy for Simon to sit on the wheel of Valverde at all costs. Wherever one of those guys is, the other is not far away. Valverde and Gerrans: that’s a big rivalry of late isn’t it?
“Yeah it is and last week I think it cost them both their chance to win Amstel Gold. Obviously Philippe Gilbert was on a big one but if they had cooperated with Kwiatkowski straight away as they went over the top of the Cauberg, I think they could have caught Gilbert. But because Alejandro was marking Simon – whether he was pinned at that period or he just wanted to call Simon’s bluff – it cost them the chance to win. A week later in Liège it was certainly another close one.”
One comment afterwards was that Simon was pretty much invisible until the very end. We could see that he was there in the pack of favourites, but he was very patient. Is that something he’s talked to you about?
“Gerro is a very canny bike rider. I’m of the opinion that Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the hardest one-day race in the world. Obviously Paris-Roubaix and those other races are hard for different reasons but this is harder than any world championship circuit, it’s a really complete bike rider who wins. I don’t know the exact tally of climbing but it’s up there with mountain stage of the Tour de France. And it’s over 260 kilometres with lots of smaller climbs. And the whole idea is to conserve energy whenever you can. You’ve only got so many bullets you can fire in a race like that.
“It’s a compliment that someone would say he was invisible.
“I’ve seen some criticism that Simon was never seen, but I see it as a compliment. If you can hide in a race of that standard and not be seen for six-and-a-half hours then that’s the smartest way to ride. That’s what team-mates are for and, as we proved in the race, we had everything covered.”
I didn’t see it as a compliment or a criticism. I saw it as a summary, and it was true. But he wasn’t invisible because we could see him often from the helicopter shot and it was great to have the national champion’s jersey – does that help for you because it allows you to see him a lot easier? Obviously there are personalised colour schemes for his helmet, you’re clearly trying to identify him in the bunch aren’t you?
“I’ve read some criticism of how the team didn’t do anything and this and that. It’s ridiculous.
“On Wednesday [about La Flèche Wallonne] there were people saying that the riders didn’t ‘race’ – that the Classics aren’t as exciting because they aren’t racing. Well, what do people want? Do they want to go back to the cycling of 10 or 15 years ago?”
It was an interesting race. It was different in many ways but the finale was still intriguing because it was almost shaping up to be like a bunch finish. I wanted to ask about Pieter Weening because without him, Simon wouldn’t have won…
“Well, everyone on the team definitely played their part. But the work that Pieter did was do-or-die. Having him there helped at the death. It made the difference between those guys [Pozzovivo and Caruso] getting caught on the last corner or not.”
It was amazing. But it was one of those time checks when nine seconds can go either to zero or to 20 and beyond… there was a moment of hesitation from the chase and I thought, ‘This is the end of it…’ the two were away and it seemed like they might just steal it. It didn’t happen because of Pieter. It was a very impressive ride.
“Yeah, Pieter is in great shape and he’s in the team for the Giro. We needed one guy there in the final and he was it – he certainly made the difference. That’s the quality of Pieter and that’s the quality of many guys we have in our team.
“He was in very good condition himself but he knew what he had to do and giving Simon the best possible run at winning was his job for the day. It was certainly a very commendable effort, it made the difference.”
Cam Meyer too. I know you’ve spoken to me about him a lot before about his ability in the bunch. He must be improving if he was where he was in the finale of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. How is he handling himself this year?
“Yeah, he’s… he is… oh, to be honest he’s still not great.
“He’s either the back rider in the bunch – rear left or rear right, that’s where you’ll find him… either there in at the front. There’s nothing in between.
“It just shows how strong he is. If he can get to the front but still can’t ride in the bunch very well. It would be frightening if he could race like Gerro or some of the other guys; that’s when he’d prove how good he really is.”
Ah okay. Well, I was going to try and quickly sneak through all of the team but let’s just cut to the chase. Let’s just talk about Simon. We’re going to see a lot of the race through the ‘Back Stage Pass’ but beyond what you know is in that edit, can you tell us how you’re feeling now and how the game plan was enacted for you… what insight can you give us?
“It was a very big week for us. We knew that those three races certainly suit the characteristics of the guys on our team. Simon obviously in Amstel; Michael Albasini is very consistent in form and in Flèche… and we had a few different cards that we could have played in Liège but it turned out that we picked Simon.
“There was a big emphasis on it and we had a good approach. We had half the team preparing at altitude – some form of altitude training in the three weeks beforehand – and they were all built to be at a very high level for this week.
“It was a big focus but now the excitement is high. When a team follows the plan, when riders execute what has been spoken about, it’s very gratifying for everyone in the organisation. That was the feeling we got yesterday.
“Obviously plans change and I don’t think anyone expected there to be such a big group in the final but the boys were very intelligent and they know that they have to adapt the plans. We can only give them a certain amount of information on the radio but they made some very good decisions and won it with class.”
– By Rob Arnold