Dominique Rollin experienced all the good and bad that comes with being a top European professional in his rookie season with Cervélo TestTeam.
Last year, the brawny Quebecois was rock solid in the spring campaign, earning a podium spot at Scheldepris and playing a key support role in Cervélo’s spectacular spring season.
Then mononucleoisis sidelined him for the middle part of the season. Now he admits he probably came back too soon, scoring a top-10 overall at the Tour de Limousin and helping ex-teammate Simon Gerrans win GP Ploauy before abandoning his grand-tour debut at the Vuelta a España with a fever.
Rollin has taken those lessons to heart and rolls into his second season with Cervélo with a stronger base and added motivation to do well. Rollin sprang to fifth at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. VeloNews caught up with Rollin just as the classics season is clicking into gear:
VeloNews: Dominique, looking back at 2009, how would you characterize the season?
Dominique Rollin: It was kind of up and down. With the sickness, trying to fight it, then coming back but not as good as I expected. You think you’ve recovered well, and you think you’re healthy, but I think we might have rushed things a little bit. Unfortunately, I paid the price in the Vuelta and just still being fragile with the health, then getting sick halfway through the race. That was a great disappointment, but that’s life. You got to build through that. Otherwise, it was a good start of the year. A couple few results, nothing major, still, a third place in a semi-classic (Scheldeprijs) is nice. Good time, fun, and looking ahead and forward to this year.
VN: You’re a classics rider, so what did you learn most in last spring racing in Belgium and France?
DR: There are so many things to say, but confidence in myself in what I am capable of doing, learning more and more to preserve energy, to not waste it in a useless manner. You lose a lot just from being nervous, knowing how to fight on the bike. Even though you think you know how to fight from racing criteriums, you get over here in the classics, and a criterium is like a piece of cake. Doing those cobbled classics, it’s like every cobblestone section is like a final sprint, so it’s all about getting that position, that excitement, that rush, learning to control that anxiety and nerves. I think it’s something it will take me a few more years to get relaxed and be able to defend my positions.
VN: Describe what the approaches are like to the cobblestoned sections.
DR: It’s a big rush right before the cobblestones. Take the Kwaremont for instance. For 6-7km, you’re slightly downhill and twisting road, everyone is pushing and shoving. There is no room on each side of the road, only ditches, so you cannot use the grass. You have to use the road, you have to fight for position. If you lose concentration just for one moment, you’re halfway down the road and there you go. You make that final corner, if you’re not in the top 20, the race is over. You have one kilometer that you go 20kph because you rest from that rush, you cannot move anyway. You’re stuck in that position and you cross your fingers that no one puts their feet down. Then you go as hard as you can and figure out where you are.
VN: Andreas Klier is an experienced hand in the classics. How did he help you last year?
DR: He’s the team captain, he’s the leader. He’s got the experience to be that kind of guiding light for us. Klier was a great help last year. Not only does he know all the roads, he knows where to be, what to do, where to be careful, which ones we can ease up on a little bit. There are so many of them, you cannot go up 100 percent on them all, so he was so important to help us. He knows what comes afterward – for instance, he’ll say after that climb, there’s a big highway afterward, so we can rest up because the bunch is going to come back together.
VN: Was your personal highlight third at Scheldeprijs or was there another result that was important for you?
DR: That’s the one that really stands out for me. Being on the podium for the first time in Europe was amazing. Toward the end of the season, helping out teammates was pretty good and I liked that, too. There were a couple of races when I really learned about how to lead-out a teammate in the sprints. Roger (Hammond) and I having a great mutual work in the Vuelta and other races. We could go our own way, and then with 500 meters to go, we can go together. Like at Franco-Belge, he was in the last stage, suddenly he didn’t expect to be there, then I heard him screaming, he was on my wheel. Unfortunately, J.J. (Haedo) was too fast, but he managed to get second or third that day.
VN: You have a good sprint, so is leading out for others something you like?
DR: I think I am working through it. I had good fun doing it with Ivan Dominguez, learning a lot from them. Now here with Thor (Hushovd), we’re trying to make it a better train for this season, and hopefully come up with something to put a stop on that little guy who has been on a streak. Who is going to put a brake on him?
VN: Cavendish was all but unstoppable last year. What do the others make of his comments about his rivals?
DR: He’s got to learn to pay respect for his rivals and I think one day he’ll pay the price. We’re all working hard and we’re all doing the same job, so you need to learn to respect when the other rider wins. Like Thor said, yes, today, I got beaten today by a better sprinter. Even when you put on your best game, sometimes people are going to be better.
VN: Talk about your bout with mono last year. When did it strike?
DR: Right after the classics, I started Romandie, I just couldn’t follow on the climbs. I was getting dropped every time. I was wondering, what’s happening to me? I was doing so well at Amstel, but every false flat there, I am having trouble to follow. A lot of things go through your mind. When you finally get the answer (mononucleosis) — ah, OK, that explains it all. It’s never a good thing to hear, never fun to have to endure.
VN: How did you handle getting sick and having such a long recovery?
DR: We have great support from the medical side of the team, this was never an issue. First year in Europe, you want to prove yourself, you want to show you’re capable of doing well. Then you’re getting sick. Not only you’re fighting sickness, I was getting worried and anxious – would I still get a spot on the team next year? From the earliest moment, they reassured me and told me there was no problem with your spot on the team.
VN: How did you fight through that anxiety and rest when you want to train and race?
DR: All you can do is rest. You try to find the best way to rest. I had to go home finally to really get away from cycling and take my mind off what was happening. You see teammates still racing. I went to do a group event at the Giro. They wanted me to ride. I needed to rest, but you get on the bike, and you start to feel a little bit better, and then you start to push. That’s the problem with that disease. If you start a little bit too early, you dig the hole too deep. Then you have to rest another month. That’s what happened unfortunately.
VN: When you finally came back, how was the second half of your season?
DR: I stopped racing a week or so after Romandie, so I was off until mid-July. My first race back was Brixia Tour. I picked a good one. Hilltop finish every day, 20km climbs, 30mph on the flats, easy! I was searching for the gruppetto every day. Then I raced Tour of Denmark, that went well, then Limousin. I had great feelings there. Florencio was third, I was top-10 (ninth), so I was pleased with that. The French always make it hard. They don’t know when to stop — they just attack, attack, attack, for three hours. At Plouay, I helped to protect Simon (Gerrans) and helped him get in the decisive move.
VN: Then off to the Vuelta, your first grand tour, with four Canadians in the race.
DR: That was like a family reunion! We’re five Canadians now in Europe, so the only one missing was Michael (Barry).
VN: Was it mono again at the Vuelta that forced you to abandon?
DR: No, no, I think it was swine flu, just because it turned out to be fever in bed for about a week afterwards. The night after the real first mountain day, I finished the stage with shivers and fever, so I had a rough night. The next morning was the Sierra Nevada stage. I picked the right time to get sick! That was the hardest stage in the Vuelta. In the neutral zone, we climbed 4-5km and then they dropped the flag, and it was another 8-9km to the first King of the Mountain. It was over for me then. Later, I raced Franco-Belge, Paris-Bourges, Paris-Tours. In the end, I had about 60-65 racing days. Ninety would have been better, but considering what happened. …
VN: What did you learn from those experiences that will help you this season?
DR: I learned a lot. I learned to manage stress and adapting to a new culture. That was a main thing, in terms of getting comfortable in Europe. First I decided to stay at the team house, being close to the team in Switzerland, but that was a mistake of my own. Now I have found a place that I can call home. Moving to Girona was a good move for me. I am already feeling that I have a little home there, I can discover the culture and enjoy living. I had a great time over the holidays there. Overcoming certain issues I had with my health. Nutrition was a big issue for me last year. We’re cyclists, you have nothing to do, we stare at the fridge and it becomes your best friend.
VN: Do you have good stuff in your fridge or is it stuffed with pizza?
DR: No, I always had good stuff in the fridge, it was the quantities that was a problem. You’re not even hungry, but you’re just looking for something to do. Then you have a second bowl of cereal. It’s a huge difference at this level, how to maintain a certain quality of life. Those extra calories have to go somewhere.
VN: But you will never be accused of being too thin.
DR: We are always a little worried about our weight. We are always looking at ourselves and thinking, am I skinny enough? But you risk losing the fun of it. You learn to find a better balance. When you have a better social life, you stop thinking about being fit, being skinny. You do it out of reflex, because it’s part of your lifestyle.
VN: What was the biggest surprise in transition to the European pro level?
DR: Things were harder than expected, for sure. I had worlds as a reference, but every race is like that. Just the intensity, I never expected these races to be so intense. The classics, it’s a full-on six hours, you’re exhausted physically, your brain is out of service after being so focused and so much attention all the time. The craziness of the crowds, especially in Belgium. I’ve never seen or lived that before. Yeah, Manayuk Wall, it’s one race a year. No, no, wait, there’s Athens Twilight. The best way to describe Belgian fans is it’s like Athens Twilight, but at 9 a.m. Everyone is drunk, everyone’s got a beer, but it’s nine in the morning. Then it goes from there.
VN: What kind of improvements have you noticed so far in training over last year?
DR: I’ve seen good improvement from last year. My numbers are up, my fitness is better, weight is down, the mind is sharp – everything is good. I am producing 30 watts average higher on normal rides, so that’s a good improvement, especially on a five-hour ride. I am maybe 2kg lighter than this last year. I’ve been weighing myself, everyone is saying that I’ve lost weight.
VN: You must be more comfortable coming into your second season in Europe compared to last year when everything was new?
DR: I am more focused, but my approach is totally different than last year. That was one mistake that I made last year, is that I approached it more like I need to gain experience, it’s all new to me. It wasn’t laid back, but it wasn’t confronting the races, not being involved enough. This year I really want to race, to be part of the race, and not just say I am there for experience and coming there like a little kid. I want to race and I want to get back on the podium. I miss the podium! I want those kisses from the podium girls! I know now that after 200km, I can still be there. Just getting that experience and having that confidence, that will help me so much this year.
VN: After getting a taste last year, is there one event that you really enjoy now?
DR: It’s hard to say. Every single race was a great experience for me. Different approach, different vibe, going from one-day full-on classic, where there’s the thrill and rush of it, then the more relaxed approach of a week stage race, OK, we know this day and this day are the key ones, the rest of them you’re more at ease. Then you have the craziness of the grand tours. It’s like a circus every day.
VN: What do you like most about living in Europe as a professional?
DR: Just being recognized as a professional cyclist. They don’t recognize me, but they realize I am a pro. People will honk, give you encouragement, support you, there’s a different view of the people of what you’re doing. You meet more people knowing what you do. There is more understanding in Europe of cycling, especially you get into those regions where cycling is part of their lives. There are more bikes in Holland than cars.
VN: Will you race the new events in Canada this year?
DR: I’d love to, you never know, there’s always that big dilemma, Vuelta or home. I’d like to do another grand tour this year for the experience and then help the team this time.
VN: And will the worlds be part of your season this year?
DR: This year’s course could be great for me, a classics-style race. I could play a bit of an underdog role. I’ve always had a good spring, back off in the summer, then get back pretty good in the fall. Missouri has always been good for me. Sun Tour is good for me. So perhaps.