116: “I love cycling and I feel lucky for that”

The first thing to say about 116 is that his sharp intellect is obvious from the opening exchanges of our conversation; the tenacity that marked his career on the bike is tempered by a cool intelligence off it.
Sat low in a plastic chair in the mildly incongruous surroundings of an ‘event village’, sporadically smoothing down the legs of indigo blue, drainpipe jeans intent on rising high above the sockless feet he has plunged into running trainers, Wegelius provides considered responses to questions ranging from the personalities of his Cannondale-Garmin team’s young stars to his own transformation from domestique deluxe to directeur sportif.

“I’d say first of all that it was something that I never, ever considered doing,” he says of his current métier, where he is mentor, confidant, and strategist to some of the peloton’s brightest prospects, Davide Formolo and Joe Dombrowski among them (more of whom later). “In fact, quite the opposite.
“If you’d ask me when I was riding, I would have just turned away in horror at the idea of doing that. I think that if you look at the role of a domestique in a cycling team and the role of a sports director, there’s a lot of crossover, because as a domestique you’re looking not at your own interests but that of the entire group. Essentially, that’s what you do as a sports director, too.”
Wegelius documented the experiences of an 11-year professional career as servant to some of the peloton’s biggest names in the book Domestique, released in 2013 to widespread acclaim. His unflinching portrayal of the demands of arguably the toughest job in the peloton, told with clarity by Wegelius’ former team-mate 12, revealed him to the wider world as a rider whose ultimate professionalism brought him at times to the brink of physical and emotional collapse.
The book certainly left an impression on Dombrowski, another prodigiously talented, highly intelligent rider whose entry to the professional ranks with a grandee team intent on changing cycling (Mapei for Wegelius; Team Sky for Dombrowski) did not ensure a trouble-free ascent.
Dombrowski’s career is very much back on track with Cannondale-Garmin (he has won the Tour of Utah, finished second in the American road race championship and fourth at the Tour of California since joining Jonathan Vaughters’ squad in January) and is quick to acknowledge Wegelius’ part in his return from the exile of undiagnosed injury.

“He’s very intelligent,” Wegelius observes, “perhaps too intelligent to be a bike rider. That’s not a derogatory statement towards bike riders, but sometimes thinking a lot isn’t always your best friend as a rider.
“I think he’s got a lot of talent and I think often he shows a spatial awareness that you don’t usually see in elite athletes – when they’re deep in the moment, to be able to see things a little bit further around them – and I think that’s going to help him if he’s going to go for general classification at big races in the future.”
Wegelius, as might be expected, is familiar with Dombrowski’s story: winner of  the Baby Giro, famously ahead of Fabio Aru, he hit the WorldTour with the biggest team in the sport, but after failing to gain Sky’s support for treatment outside of the team for the condition iliac endofibrosis – a furring of the arteries at the top of the leg – his progress rapidly decelerated.
“That could have affected a lot of people in a permanent way; really rattled their self-confidence. But he’s got the intelligence to look at things rationally and make a plan. The way he dealt with that and the way he came back from that proves that he has the mental ability to do the job.”

Wegelius’ confidence in Dombrowski perhaps exceeds even the rider’s confidence in his own abilities. The American told me that he was sometimes uncomfortable with the burden of leadership; with the issuing of endless demands that is the right of the protected rider.
“That’s what I meant when I said that that kind of intelligence doesn’t necessarily make it easy to do what you have to do, because you just have to be brutally selfish, and you don’t have to be there umm-ing and ahh-ing,” Wegelius explains. “That kind of empathy for somebody else doesn’t exactly help you, because it’s exactly the opposite of what you have to be to be a successful rider.

“I think it’s one of the great positives that he can take away from his experience at Sky, because he’s done that. Some of these riders, they come in with such talent that they go straight in at the elite level, and they don’t understand the cost of what they’re asking people to do, so that’s a really positive thing.
“I think in time he’ll learn that when asking someone to do something, you should think carefully about what you’re asking for, and what you require of the people around you, but in time he’ll grow to be a leader that understands that even though there’s a cost to that, there’s a great deal to be gained for the entire organisation through success.”
Cycling is rarely as straightforward as the business of pedalling, as Wegelius knows better than any. The manifest complexities of the professional game – internal politicking, deals struck on the move with rival squads, considerations for the following stage – mean that riding is only one source of expended energy. His own time is split between the needs of an entire squad, but he does not deny that a rider with similar experiences to his own is likely to enjoy his best advice.
“Obviously, I have to look at 28 riders, and 28 riders’ outlooks on the world; different kinds of riders. But it would be unfair to say I don’t find it easier to identify with riders who are either going through the experiences that I find it easier to identify with, or even with the type of rider that I see a little bit of myself in. I don’t see my talent in Joe, but in some of the experiences that he’s gone through – going into this big machine, coming out the other side, life alone in Europe – I can see a lot of similarities there.”

Dombrowski was approaching the end of the opening week of La Vuelta when I spoke to Wegelius; the rider’s first Grand Tour. The Amerian dug deep on stage 16, billed as the toughest ever in the pre-race hype, to finish alongside Nairo Quintana, despite crashing in the first kilometre. The effort has been typical of Dombrowski in 2015, who has ridden like a rider rejuvenated. His second place at the American road championships, owed in part to fearless descending in treacherous conditions, came from a similar place.

If Wegelius sees something of himself in Dombrowski, and the American has clearly responded positively since joining Cannondale-Garmin, then is there something in the culture of the team that Wegelius responds to as well? And if so, what is it?
“I think any organisation kind of mirrors the people at the top. If you look at Jonathan [Vaughters, CEO of team owners, Slipstream Sports], he’s serious about what he does, he’s got a rational approach to things, in the use of technology and science and stuff, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

“For me, and for a lot of people, that’s the most important thing: ‘Okay, we do what we do, but we’re all human beings. We try and have tight skinsuits and do everything right, but there has to be some kind of joy there… because when it feels too much like work, it gets to be too sterile and I don’t think a person like me would give the best of himself in an environment that’s sterilised.
“There’s room in this organisation for people to be themselves, and what makes a rider go fast, ultimately, is who they are, and if it means they want to have their hair a bit longer or a beard, so be it.”
Slipstream Sports has long been a home for maverick personalities, but as the first crop of riders age and move on (Wegelius asks, rhetorically, if I can name an original member of the Katusha squad who has since left the Russian team, illustrating the point that these things matter more at Slipstream than elsewhere), he and his colleagues have a younger squad to manage.
They have also had to accommodate staff and riders from Brixia Sport, the outfit behind the Liquigas-Cannondale (latterly Cannondale Pro Cycling) outfit. Wegelius draws the analogy of placing a new chain on a used cassette: sometimes it jumps, but in professional cycling, he observes, there is no time for jumping chains. It is a subtle acknowledgement, perhaps, of Cannondale-Garmin’s slow start to the season.
Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal are the biggest names departing at the end of the year: Martin for Etixx-QuickStep and Hesjedal for Trek Factory Racing. While the signatures of Pierre Rolland and Matti Breschel represent the acquisition of established talent, they are far from like-for-like replacements. Greater interest might be found in the signing of Ryan Mullen, the 21-year-old who won both senior Irish titles – road and time-trial – while still a teenager, and the latest to gradaute from Sean Kelly’s An Post-CRC team to the WorldTour.

The conversation turns to another young rider. Davide Formolo took a significant step to fulfilling his potential by winning the fourth stage of this year’s Giro. He credited Wegelius’ encouragement to attack when we spoke to him in August. How did the directeur feel about the victory?
“I have to say I shed a tear when I knew that he was going to win. That doesn’t happen very often to me, perhaps because…” Wegelius pauses. “I think what he did that day was just a demonstration of what his talent is. To me, that talent isn’t something that’s on a computer screen, because when he attacked and the way he did it wasn’t in the text book, but it was his instinct, and what’s under his fingernails.” He pauses again. “And that’s cycling to me.
“It wasn’t some radio command. It reminded me of when Freire won the Worlds in ’99 in Verona. The group went left and he went right and won the Worlds. And it’s so simple, because to me that’s also what cycling is. It’s just simple.
“I hope that what we manage to do is to do all these complicated things around the riders and put them in the right position, but know also when to take your hands off the steering wheel and let them go. That’s what he did and it was really beautiful to see.”

Wegelius believes that Formolo has the talent to one day win the Giro, but his analysis is about as far removed from the hysterical fanfare of the Italian press as can be imagined. Indeed, he was sceptical about starting Formolo in his home Grand Tour, knowing the expectation that would accompany the 22-year-old’s debut in Italy’s biggest race.
Now, he sounds as impressed by the manner in which Formolo has handled the attention as by his stage victory. Formolo, Wegelius says, “has his papers in order” and is aware of the need to continue passing professional cycling’s tests.

“I saw him change after the Giro, which most riders do after their first three-week race. A rider’s idea of what it is to be tired is different when you’ve done a three-week race. Their body changes and their head changes, and he’s kind of grown up a little a bit, and I think that’s a good step for the future.”
When we speak to Wegelius, he is only two days from steering his team through the Tour of Britain, a race they started with the defending champion, Dylan Van Baarle. Now based in Helsinki, and on the road most of the year with Cannondale-Garmin, Wegelius spends little time in Britain and is impressed by the development of the sport, as well as of the national tour, a race he says that brings significant challenges even to WorldTour outfits (“six-man teams, no radio, and a hill around every corner”).
Barely recognisable as the event he raced in the early 2000s, the Tour of Britain has become a ‘must do’ race for Cannondale-Garmin, he says. The squad performs aggressively, winning the overall team classification and placing defending champion Van Baarle in the top-ten on the final GC, just 53 seconds behind winner Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka) and only two-seconds off fifth-placed Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep).
The greater change Wegelius has picked up on is in the massive growth in amateur cycling, from leisure to commuting; a rate of growth unimaginable when he took up the sport. “It would have been very hard to imagine when I was a child and it was an eccentric’s sport, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping, which is nice.”

Next season will see Cannondale-Garmin field the youngest team in Slipstream’s history. In Dombrowski and Formolo, they have potential Grand Tour winners, and in Van Baarle and Mullen, all-rounders with obvious class. If they retain experienced campaigners like Sebastian Langeveld, Wegelius’ road captain for the Tour of Britain, the right balance might be attained.
“We’ve got an extremely young team this year, and the team is so young that it’s still going to be a young team next year. I think some of the changes that we’ve made will probably lower the average age of the team further, but I think the basis is really good, and I think that the way that the riders work together is extremely positive.”
For Wegelius, the future is bright. He is experienced enough to know that this happy state of affairs is earned, rather than arrived at. Wegelius tasted lows as well as highs as a rider, but always fought back. There were moments when he no longer cared for cycling, but they have passed.
“For me, removing the struggle of surviving as a rider, and also the physical element of it, allowed me, with time, to realise that I do love cycling. And I feel very lucky for that.”
His riders should feel lucky, too.
1 spoke to 116 at the Garmin Ride Out 2015, an event held to raise funds for Action Medical Research

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