RED DEER, Alberta (VN) — Across the pond, Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) is trying to rewrite the definition of what it means to be a relatively senior citizen in a young man’s sport. On the flatlands of Alberta, age is translating into experience, passed on by riders who although are still looking for increasingly elusive victories, are enjoying their sage status.
Two 40-year-olds who shared a birthday this week, U.S. road champion Freddie Rodriguez (Jelly Belly-Kenda) and Jason McCartney (Bissell), and 37-year-old Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) are nearing the end of the long season — or, in Vande Velde’s case, a long career. At the inaugural Tour of Alberta, where even the UCI ProTour teams are top-heavy with under-25 riders, the oldsters are the combination of teammates, coaches, and motivators.
“Basically, the biggest thing I try to give these guys is somebody who believes in them. That’s what it takes sometimes, somebody who can see that drive and want in a rider and then harness it,” Rodriguez told VeloNews. “That’s what these guys have, and they need to be in the right situation, the right place for it all to come together.”
Rodriguez is paying particular attention this week to Jelly Belly teammate Serghei Tvetcov of Moldova. “I worked with Serge back on Exergy [in 2012] and I believe in his talent,” he said after Tuesday’s prologue. “I try to take him under my wing a little bit and guide him.”
Tvetcov took that guidance into a break on Thursday’s second stage from Devon to Red Deer, bolting with Silvan Dillier (BMC Racing) to a breakaway that stayed away. He finished second, his best result in six pro seasons.
“He always keeps motivating me. Good results, and not so good results,” Tvetcov said of Rodriguez before the stage. “I try to follow his advice. His life and experience have been a good experience for me, for sure.”
It’s passing on life experience and not so much the on-the-bike knowledge that has jazzed Vande Velde in this, his 16th and final season as a pro.
“It’s sort of a learn-from-my-mistakes kind of thing, everything from which apartments I had in Girona to not buying stupid cars, to putting money in your 401(k) account,” he said. “I always enjoy that role especially with guys like Pete [Stetina] and Lachlan [Morton] and Andrew [Talansky]. Maybe a little bit more so because I haven’t had as much pressure on myself this year.”
Pressure is something that McCartney has seen a lot of, and it often weighs heavy on young riders who are trying to make a name for themselves, move to the next level, or just stay in the sport.
“The reason I’m still here is because I like riding my bike, and that’s something you hope all those young guys pick up on, that this is a job but it’s supposed to make you happy,” he said. “You try to pass that along, but not everyone gets it.
“I’ve seen it my whole career. I’ve seen it with guys in Europe who are way more talented than me and they’re gone because they don’t actually like riding their bike. They like the money but they’re not happy.”
At other times, older pros have a calming influence that comes out best on the bike. Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge), the 25-year-old Australian, rode alongside veteran Baden Cooke in California and with both Cooke and Stuart O’Grady in Switzerland. Neither is here in Canada (Cooke is in Spain; O’Grady has retired) but the lessons linger.
“I did the Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse with them, and I got my two best results in those two races,” Meyer said, referring to his fifth-place finish in California and 10th overall in the Swiss race. “A lot of it was them showing me things about the race and how to read it, and the best way of doing it as a GC rider. I learned quite a lot through those two tours.”
Not everyone is as willing to listen, either on or off the bike. The latter, Vande Velde says, is where traps often lie.
“It’s not about just the training and the racing, but it’s about going home to an empty apartment, away from your family and friends, and missing holidays and weddings and things like that. That’s the hard part,” he said. “It’s not the racing. We’re all good racers. Everyone who makes the ProTour is a good racer.”
Sometimes they just need a little nurturing. Rodriguez won the U.S. road title this year, will lead the Americans into the world championships in Italy later this month, and still hunts for wins (he was 18th and 25th, respectively, in the first two road stages here in Alberta). And yet the job he seems to relish is that of a nurturer on Jelly Belly.
“I still hope to have great results and win another championship and who knows what else, but there is this thing in me that wants to pass on and support a developing program,” he said. “That’s what it is. I look at it like Bontrager, or BMC-Hincapie, Jelly Belly is also fostering a lot of young talent and taking it to the next level.”