By Anthony Tan
Jason McCartney is consistent if nothing else. An appointed domestique since he was 15 years old, the native Iowan has a developed a sick passion for burying himself into the ground in the service of others.
After two years at Saxo Bank, he likens his new life at RadioShack as a return to family. For the 36-year-old, the dream would be part of The Shack’s nine-man squad for the Tour de France, where his team leader Lance Armstrong will be gunning for a record eighth title.
After dinner with the man they call ‘The Boss,’ VeloNews caught up with him during the season opening Tour Down Under in Adelaide, Australia.
VeloNews: Obviously you had some familiarity with this team, as it’s like another incarnation of a previous team you were on, Discovery Channel. So what are your first impressions of RadioShack?
Jason McCartney: It’s like coming back to family and friends; it’s a real comfortable feeling, it’s really nice. And it seems like the organisation is still there: it’s the same structure, same kind of goals – going for the Tour – but we also have sprinters now and can do stuff in the Classics, so it’s pretty exciting.
VN: Where does Johan and yourself see your role on the team – why did they bring you on?
JMc: I’ve spent six years in the ProTour, and I think I fill a role of the domestique. Obviously, I’ve had some good results myself, but the main thing I do is a good job for the team, and there’s guys that can definitely win – (such as) Levi, Lance – and I’m there to help them. I can climb, I can time trial… I can kind of do a little bit of everything.
VN: Your last two years on Saxo Bank was the only time you’ve raced on a European-based and owned team, if I’m correct. What were some of the highlights and lowlights?
JMc: I think it’s a good experience for anyone to go out of your comfort zone, and get thrown into something new. That was pretty exciting… from the first days of the boot camp that Bjarne (Riis) runs, to meeting the guys – I have some great friends now from that team. And just seeing how a different organization works; their training, those aspects.
The highlights were riding California with the Schlecks, getting a stage win in the Giro, (and) I had the KOM jersey both years in California and Georgia. I didn’t perform so well on a personal level, but I was kind of close a lot of times. It was just a great experience.
VN: Throughout your career, you’ve been a consistent performer on the U.S. scene. But aside from your stage win at the 2007 Vuelta, maybe not so much in Europe. Why do you think that’s the case?
JMc: I think, if you look at the teams I’ve been on like Discovery – Saxo Bank was kind of like the first time I was on a team where I was on a team where there was more opportunities – but with all my years at Discovery, for the most part, we went to the race with someone that could win the GC. So that was the goal – and you don’t mess around with the goal (smiles).
VN: Do you aim to correct that part of that imbalance, though? In 2010, will you have any individual opportunities?
JMc: I don’t really want to stir the pot. I’ve kind of created this mould and it seems to work – I keep getting hired – and I really like my job, so… It’s not like all of a sudden, I’m going to be a team leader at 36 years old.
VN: Where does your race schedule take you this year?
JMc: It starts off here at the Tour Down Under, then I go to a training camp in Spain, [and] then Tour of Murcia, Catalunya, Pais Vasco, Castille Leon, and then back for California; so far it’s a nice race program – it’s really good for me.
VN: I don’t want to harp on your age, but you did say you’re 36! At 36, what do have left to accomplish as a rider?
JMc: I’ve accomplished more than I ever (thought). I stepped away from cycling when I was younger and never thought I’d really ride again, let alone race in Europe, or do two Olympics, or win a stage in a grand tour. So I’ve kind of accomplished more than I really thought. For me, the big goal would be to be on the Tour team this year – that’s the dream, the goal that I’m going to strive for.
VN: Towards the end of last season, did you ever doubt your ability to get another contract, or did you always have faith in yourself?
JMc: No, not really, because I’m a consistent performer like you say, and I think I do a good job. And as long as you’re doing your job and I love what I do – I have passion for it; if you’re 25 and don’t have passion, you can’t do it. I still love what I do, love to train, (and) love to grovel myself into the ground. (Smiles)
VN: Have you ever thought about life after your professional cycling career, even though it might not be now, or next year, or even the year after that?
JMc: Not in depth. I toy around with things, think about little things. I’m pretty focused on what I’m doing now, and I think the thing with cycling is that you get exposed to different sponsors and I get ideas from them, or you have friends that have gone on to do something in the corporate world.
So I think there are a lot of opportunities out there. I think cycling kind of opens your eyes to that. It shows you don’t have to work right here in this little spot – you can branch out and create things; I have friends that own restaurants. I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there – you just got to take a hold of it.
VN: Throughout your career, you’ve ridden for guys like Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie. You said you’re happy to do that role, but what has that been like? Obviously, there’s differences in those three leaders.
JMc: It’s kind of funny; when I started out as a junior – 15, 16, 17 – I rode this race in Bisbee called the ‘Tour of the Future’ for Kevin Livingston. So I’ve actually been doing it my whole career, and just kind of continued (that role) as a professional.
I really enjoy it. I think for myself, I try and be a helper person, someone that helps others. So for me, I get a big satisfaction out of that, riding for Levi and Lance and George – people that know they can win, and they really take it upon themselves. You don’t want to let them down, so I think it’s a really exciting job. If you come through and even have a bad day, they understand; they’re human, too.
VN: You said your big goal is to make the team for the Tour de France. All things being well leading all the way up to (Tour of) California, do you believe you’re a, say, 80 percent chance of making that squad of nine?
JMc: I don’t know. I mean, we have 25, 30 riders and it’s an incredible team. I think it’s hard to make the Tour on any team.
With Saxo Bank, that team was stacked (with talent), this team’s stacked… I think you just got to perform and you’ve got to be there and you gotta do a good job. So I’m just going to do my job and see where it takes me.
VN: Do you like the stress – I’m not sure stress is the right word – of not knowing whether or not you’re going to make the Tour team? I mean, sometimes the team sport directors decide a week and a half out. That’s pretty crazy – it leaves you about enough time to pack your bags, water the garden, feed the cats and get some training and rest?
JMc: It’s not easy (waiting). I don’t like the stress at all. I was on Discovery when Lance was going for the last one he won, the seventh one, and then with Saxo Bank, so I’ve always been on the list… I’m kind of over it; I’m not worried, I just do my job, and let them decide.
If I do the Tour, now that would be a lot of stress, but I tend to perform well when the pressure’s on the big leaders. Otherwise, I’ll go to the Vuelta and do something else.
VN: You must have seen last year’s Tour de France, even though you didn’t ride. Would you regard Lance’s performance as almost as good as winning the Tour after a three-and-a-half year hiatus? He told everyone he drunk plenty of beer and lived on a staple of Tex-Mex .…
JMc: (laughs) He did a few marathons in between, too, so I don’t think he was totally on the couch. I don’t know what other people were thinking but it is Lance. The way I see Lance or Johan is that it’s just that mentality; it’s probably what propelled them to reach third. He (Armstrong) has the mentality of a winner.
So it wasn’t so surprising, but still at the end of the day, after three-and-a-half years off – because I’ve taken time off and come back – so I know how impressive it was.
VN: What chance do you give Lance of winning the Tour de France, against the person who most consider the best stage race rider in the world, Alberto Contador?
JMc: I think the thing that he has over Schleck and Contador is that he’s got the experience and he’s a good tactician. And maybe those guys are still young enough that they’re going to make mistakes, and that’s going to give him the advantage.
And then there’s Levi, who crashed out (of the Tour) last year. I think Levi’s a real dark horse that no one really talks much about, and maybe he likes it that way – but I think he’s pretty incredible. And they also have Klöden, so they have this power trio that’s probably going to take on the world.