08 November, 2014

interview with Jani Brajkovič

Today, a different kind of post. I just have to share this great interview with our boy Jani Brajkovič, looking forward to more luck in future. After everything that went wrong in 2014, this guy really deserves some happy moments and all the best with UnitedHealthCare. 
Translated from SIOL.NET - make sure to stop by there for the photos ;)
Saturday interview: cyclist Jani Brajkovič 

"I got rid of the weeds, now I'm surrounded by the right people"

Jani Brajkovič, born in 1983, professional cyclist. Father of three children, living in Dubai and Novo mesto. The 5th most followed Slovene athlete on twitter with more than 40.000 followers. He was U23 World Champion (2004), winner of the prestigious Dauphine (2010) and the most important Slovene race, Tour de Slovenie (2012). Numerous people lined the roads of Slovenia back then, especially around his hometown Metlika. He remains to be the best-ranked Slovene cyclist in the legendary 3-week Tour de France (2012), which he finished 9th overall. This year however, he will try to forget as soon as possible, except of the 3rd place at Burgos. He learned many new things, things about people and relationships, too. On January 1, 2015, he will be on a new path. Improvement or setback, take it as you like. He'll put on the jersey of the American based team UnitedHealthCare, which expects a lot from him.

The 2014 season was for sure your worst one in the past ten years. Would you agree with that?
Yes, the worst by far.

Have you already analyzed your moves, the reasons for such a bad season?
I think there was a whole set of circumstances, with things piling up and getting worse. Like every spring, I had problems with allergies, but I put myself together in time for the Giro d'Italia. I was well prepared and really motivated, I think at about 97% of my abilities, but then came the crash and elbow fracture and everything went to hell. It was a big setback. I hoped the things would settle as they should, but they didn't. I think at that point it would be better if I broke my collarbone, as an elbow fracture is much more difficult. It was a complicated fracture, and that's why I lost a lot of time. May, June and half of July. It's true that I rode my bike, but it was a regular bike ride rather than something serious.
In August I performed well at the Tour of Burgos, where I finished 3rd overall. I was really well prepared, I got more confident, I was happy and optimistic, and expected to be nominated for the Vuelta. In the end, that did not happen and it became more or less obvious that Astana won't extend my contract.

Who has told you the news and how did they do it?
Nobody has told me anything, I just assumed it. The management of Astana never explained anything to me, nobody told me anything. Only Gorazd Štangelj (one of Astana's sports directors) gave me a hint that they probably won't extend my contract. This was probably the reason why they didn't pick me for the Vuelta. 
Truth is, there were other races after that where I got my chance, but those were races that don't suit me. Take the Tour of Canada, everything was decided in the final sprint, and even if I was in top shape I couldn't have finished in the top 10.

Which results counted for Astana? Top 3 only?
The only thing that counts are the top 3 places, in the big races like the Tour probably the top 10. The rest doesn't matter. After the races in Canada, I focused on the last World Tour race in Beijin, and skipped the World Championships in Spain. I trained on the Canaries and I think I was really well prepared. Then, we didn't go to Beijin at all (due to the cycling codex, a team with two positive cyclists within one season can't participate in the next scheduled race), and the season was over quickly. All in all, I had a really sad season.

In older interviews you expressed satisfaction about team Astana. Have the things changed much with the arrival of Vincenzo Nibali (this years' Tour winner)?
Actually, I didn't have problems with my position, the greatest problem was that I didn't settle in their way of work. There are two important things to consider, in the first place money motivates me least, and secondly nobody can motivate me by threatening me and putting me under pressure.

Did things like that happen with Astana?
Yes, during races sports directors via radio told us things that don't belong there. That we are bad cyclists, that we'll never get our contracts extended and things like that. It's not that everybody is like this, but some are and these things really hurt me.
Already last year I suggested to the team that I would not demand salary till the end of season if only they would let me race the way I can, not putting me under pressure and talking things like that.

How did they react?
As they have to pay cyclists according to what the contract says due to UCI rules, that did not happen. But it still had a very negative effect on me.

In your interview for Cyclingnews (*Cyclingtips actually ;)), you mentioned that you realized who your true friends are while looking for a new contract. What exactly did you mean?
People have often deceived me in life. Many people considered me as a source of money and attempted to use that. Not once, but a couple of times. I trusted too much. In the past two or three years however, I realized that things aren't as I imagined they would be. In the end, the only ones who stood by me were my family and two friends, the rest left after they obviously realized they couldn't benefit from me anymore.

You have stated a couple of times that the American way of thinking suits you better, and that this was the reason why you were looking for an American team. How does this way of thinking differ from others?
Personally, it's very important to me to feel like part of the family when I race, to feel this special connection between team members.

That they are interested in you as a person?
Exactly, to feel like a group that works, enjoys and suffers together. Not that you come to a race and within 10 minutes feel so depressed that you'd like to go home. You can't race that way! Or, that cyclists gather in small groups and stay by themselves, you gain nothing from that either.
The Americans are more open minded regarding things like that. They might sometimes seem weird to us Europeans, but fact is that one can really discuss everything and come to an agreement. I spent most of my career in American teams and things worked well there. Also in my new team UnitedHealthCare they surprised me with how organized they are. Considering the fact that they are ranked lower than World Tour teams, for which I've raced so far, I can say that I've never been in such an organized team. Really. The budged is several times lower than the budget of a World Tour team, and yet...

Is this the reason why you said that signing with a ProContinental team after riding in a first class World Tour squad would be an improvement rather than a setback, even though people might think the other way round?
To me, this is a new beginning. I will have a lot of opportunities to race for the GC. Additionally, the atmosphere in the team is very important to me. If I don't feel well, I can't perform well, no matter my shape.
For sure, Astana isn't the only one to blame, I'm probably taking part of the blame, too, as I didn't settle in the team, but that's how it is. It's really hard for me to change, to be what I'm not. But I'm not a hypocrite, and I often pay for that.

You mentioned the importance of good relationships in a team. What are the chances that such relationships develop?
In professional cycling, we meet on training camps in December and January, and after that, only at races. It's not like soccer where the guys are together all the time. We get our plane tickets, arive at the scene one day prior to the race, have a dinner and breakfast together, then comes the race and we go home again. We spend little time together.

When will you have your race schedule for 2015?
I'm with Astana till December 31.

New year, new beginning...
On January 12, I'll be going to Italy to meet one of UnitedHealthCare's sports directors, and discuss the programme and way of racing. Before that, we'll have a training camp in North Carolina from December 5 to December 18, where they'll take measurements for our jerseys, bikes and stuff like that.

How did the communication go with the new team? Who made the first call?
The biggest problem was that my former manager didn't really make efforts to find a team for me.

He was probably too busy with other clients?
Yes, the problem with big managers is that they're working for 50-60 cyclists at the same time, and they'll try to find teams for top riders in first place, because for a top contract they get the highest commission themselves.

How much does he get?
Five percent.

Of the annual contract?
Yes, that is if you get 100.000 € per year, he gets 5% net.

So, who got in touch with whom?
Already in August I knew how things are, and said I'd like to get into an American team. Since nothing happened till mid September, where major teams have no more places left, I started making calls and sending emails. As nothing happened till October, I decided to change managers. My new manager (Baden Cook) is in the business for only two years, he has ten clients and really devoted his time to me. It wasn't easy for him. Apart from the fact that the teams were full, there will be one World Tour team less next season, meaning 30 cyclists will lose their jobs. There was an Italian team, which was rather a plan B, so I insisted on an American team.
About two weeks ago, I first got a reply from UnitedHealthCare's manager, and that's when things began to develop really quickly. Three days after that, we had a conference call which lasted for two hours. They introduced their programme, and I was very excited. At that point, I was determined to turn down even a World Tour team, if they offered me a chance. Considering everything UHC presented to me, I was surprised in a very positive way and considering this years' season, everything turned out very well in the end.

Did they say they'd count on you as team leader?
Yes, even the fact that they offered me a two-year contract in these times, says a lot. Right now, you sign one-year contracts in cycling. They have rather long-term plans with me. They expect to ecome a World Tour team within two years. There were chances it would happen next year already, but their budget was too low, neither they had the cyclists, as most of the good cyclists have signed with other teams already. But they plan to do so in two years.

Do they expect to be invited to the grand Tours like Giro, Tour and Vuelta, where ProContinental teams can race with special invitations only?
Next year, they hope to be invited to the Giro, but I think the chances are small as Italian teams have priority there. We'll see. They have a good race schedule. I won't be having as many races as in the World Tour, but when I'll race I'll be able to go for the overall.

There is probably little chance to participate in the race of all races, the Tour de France, with this new team. Have you stopped dreaming about the prestigious French race, which has always been among your priorities?
Yes, for one year. But I think there'll be plenty of other opportunities.

Can we expect you to be at the Tour de Slovenie next year?
Maybe, why not.

Let's talk about crashes. They are quite frequent in your career. Have you ever considered that you attract them with your way of thinking?
Yes, there sure is some truth about that, the problem is also that I wasn't enough confident. The combination of all those things, lack of self-esteem, bad shape and the atmosphere in the team, leads to a point where you don't trust yourself, you hesitate while racing, and then things like that can happen very soon. On the other hand, a self-confident person is ready to go head-through-wall to reach their goal, because he knows what he is capable of, and crashes don't happen to such people.
Fact is that cyclists who race for themselves, not only as domestiques, also race in a way that matches the team leader, and on the other hand, those who aren't sure about what to do or not to do, give in during critical moments.
I think that most lay people don't realize how much fighting for positions happens during races, that all kinds of things happen which are never shown on TV. The races are very stressful, especially in the final 20-30 kilometers, in the first week of tree-week races, or in the first days of week-long races. If you are self-confident, you are focused on the race alone and things are a lot easier.

Are the cyclists in the pro peloton looking differently at you now, compared to 2012 when you were on top of your career?
Yes, there was more respect back then.

How does this become obvious?
In fighting for positions. When cyclists respect you, they leave you in peace, they let you race in the front. But if they know you don't belong there, that you're not racing for top places in the overall or for a stage win, they'll make you drop back. Everybody is afraid that your mistake will lead to a disadvantage for them, so they want to race in front of you.

I can imagine the races are stressful, but if you keep on racing, you must still enjoy it.
Well, it certainly isn't nice, actually that't the thing that is most nasty. But when cyclists are getting dropped and you can still be at the front, it's nice. That's the thing that gives you additional motivation. Even if your legs burn and you are at your limits, you can get an little more out of yourself.

It's no secret that Lance Armstrong is your role model, at least he used to be a couple of years ago. How did you accept his confession about using prohibited substances through the years?
I don't want to defend him, but fact is, at least in my opinion, that he wasn't the only one to do so in his time.

What time? Can you be more precise about that?
Late 90s and beginning of 21st century. However, truth is that Armstrong is the only one who is paying the price, which doesn't seem right to me. Lance Armstrong pays for mistakes cycling has done in that period of time. Everybody should pay, or nobody.

The general opinion is that everybody who finished in the top 20 at the Tour back then, used performance enhancing drugs. Your comment?
We can't know that for sure.

If Armstrong is a role model from the past, which cyclist would you point out today? Who stands out as a cyclist and personality in your opinion?
Uf, I prefer cyclists for three-week races. Looking at character and abilities, I'd expose Chris Froome. The Tour victory didn't change him a bit. He remains to be friendly and is always ready to chat, never aggressive, not even in the most critical moments, during position fights before the ascents. If he'll touch your handlebars, he will always apologise, even if it wasn't his fault. Yup, I like him very much.

What about your compatriots?
I think we pay too little attention to Kristijan Koren. We never hear anything about him.

Generally, there is too little talk about domestiques in cycling.
Yes, Koren, doesn't have many top results, but nobody sees how much efforts he puts in working for the team leader during the race, and from time to time he can race for himself, too. We could talk more about him. Cycling is a very thankless sport, especially if you are a domestique. Even if you're a top domestique, only a few people and some reporter will know about that, while the layperson won't know about you at all.
Luka Mezgec stands out as well. Considering the fact that he is a sprinter, he is really friendly and outgoing. In the last two or three kilometers he really does switch to sprinter-mode, but during the race itself, and outside of cycling, he is extremely friendly.

What about Matej Mohorič?
Mohorič is an incredible talent, one Slovenia never had before, all he needs to do is develop. Looking at how he raced and what he showed in 2012 and 2013, I believe he has great future ahead. He has no problem with what people talk or journalists write, he has such a strong character that things like that don't hurt him.

People talked about your great talent, too. Considering your promising beginnings, do you think you made what was possible with it?
I think I can make a lot more. I'm 30 years old and there are at least 5 years of professional racing ahead. Now I'm surrounded by the right people, I got rid of the weeds, and so I expect to achieve a lot more than I did in the past.

So, your statement that next season will be your best, didn't come just like that?
No. If I wouldn't honestly believe it, I wouldn't say it for sure.

Alenka Teran Košir, 8.11.2014

ps: Who noticed the "father of three" in the first line? Congratulations!

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