DOHA, Qatar (VN) — Dirk Demol steps out from behind a team car in the parking lot of the stage 5 start in Qatar, his face lined with years of bike racing and its stresses. As he leans into the recorder, the call to prayer starts in what’s otherwise a ghost town.
There’s not much stress on this day for Demol, and he’s relaxed.
The start is essentially a parking lot at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place that’s held human life for thousands of years but is now empty and deserted, with only an old fort to keep watch over its history.
Demol’s Trek Factory Racing riders have come to the Tour of Qatar to find form not demonstrate it, unlike classics rival Omega Pharma-Quick Step. From his driver’s seat, Demol has watched Fabian Cancellara scratch out monument immortality and, as a rider himself, won the 1988 Paris-Roubaix, for ADR. He turned to bike racing as a 14-year-old, already working in a Belgian factory, because he had no other options to make a life for himself outside of hard labor. Demol is bike racing, through and through.
Things are never easy for the director of a major team saddled with major expectations, but they’re not getting any easier for Demol. His Trek Factory Racing team — new this year, a rebuild of the RadioShack years — still has Cancellara but is undergoing something of a youth movement. His challenge will be steering the ship when things get bumpy up north. And things always get bumpy up north.
VeloNews: What do you make of the new team?
Dirk Demol: I have a good feeling. The team changed a lot. We have 11 new riders. Most of them very young, never participated in a WorldTour race. We have to see in a certain way how they will fit in. But on the other side, we have also the riders of experience, we have leaders, especially Fabian. And also I’m hopeful and confident that Andy and Fränk (Schleck) will do well also this year. I’ve seen them on the training camps. After training camp I went home with a good feeling about them. In my opinion, I think we have a good team … ok, here we are not in the game, but this is a special race. It’s, for me, the third time. … The past years, the wind was less. Two years ago we had only one day that was a bit tricky. But this year is a fight from the gun. It’s difficult for the boys. Most of them are already 34, 35. They need one, two competition days to start the engine. We did good trainings, especially long trainings, and we didn’t train that much intensity. And here, you have to be ready to be in the game. And first day, ok, we were there with Fabian, but the second day we had too much bad luck.
VN: And what about Fabian? You think he’ll be ready?
DD: He did a good performance [in the time trial] if you calculate four days in Dubai and the flight in the night here, but already [his] seventh day in a row. I’m satisfied with his performance and the team. I’m not worried. I know how we made the program, training program, and the race program. And we’re still about to go the classics. And I’m confident that we have a good team.
VN: What do you make of this Qatar race, generally? It seems strange to be racing here, honestly.
DD: The past two editions, it was clear that it’s a good race. It’s a good race to do. Ok, when it’s windy, and most of the time it’s windy, it’s intensity. It’s high speed. If you did long, long, long training rides before and you come here, this is what you need, this intensity. For me it’s a good race to prepare the season, for the classics team. We’re here until Qatar and Oman. And there’s three days in between, so this is perfect. We have short distances, but it’s really intense. And Oman is some climbing.
VN: You’ve been around the block. Training-wise, what’s different now than in your day?
DD: [Laughs] I don’t want to talk too much about my time. It’s a while ago. We started on a road bike at Christmas. And if you see that we [Trek] had our last training day in December, 17, 18, and the last day they did five hours. They train a lot more, a lot earlier, and a lot more specific. Ok, but they race less than we did. Like when we go back, 120 competition days was just normal. While we have now between 70 and 80. They have more time to train, to rest, and they are better programmed. … It’s better, but more and more, it’s more and more strict. They have to be. When you go to race now you have to be ready. Yesterday … I was in the stage, I don’t know how many years ago in Spain at the Vuelta. It was a stage 55.5 kilometers an hour. I still remember the name. Gonzáles de Galdeano. Igor. And it was the fastest stage ever … but I know, [Wednesday] was even faster. We have a gearbox. I had to drive all the time in fourth gear. It was crazy. Super fast.
VN: Do you think all the science-based stuff is good for the sport?
DD: We improve in everything so that each team they work with one rider, sometimes two trainers. It’s much, much better prepared, programmed. We see evolution. I say also a little bit what is good in the old school is the winter period. They have to recover from the past season, have to build up reserves for the coming season. But you have to work hard on the base and this is what I was trying to do with our team, especially with the classics group. Paying attention a lot on doing distances, hours. … They always need the hours.
VN: Off topic, but … what of the new Sanremo climb?
DD: [Sighs, raises brows.] Hoh. Heh. It’s going to be hard. I haven’t seen the parcours yet, but Adriano Baffi [another Trek director], he said it’s really hard. But on the other side, we have a rider like Fabian on the team. When his form is good, as he is in the past, usually that moment, and we hope so … not too hard for him. He can pass a climb. We have seen in the Vuelta. Sometimes when he climbs and he’s really focused, he can even go over a longer climb. It will be explosive, but also this is what he has in his legs. He’s explosive. And the distance is not a problem for him. Mmm. It’s new. And we have to see. But I’m confident also that Fabian can be there in the final.
VN: I know you’ve spent your life around racing. But if you hadn’t been a rider, what would you have done?
DD: At the moment?
VN: What would you have been, if you weren’t you?
DD: I have no idea. When I go back when I was young … I’m a Belgian guy. My idol was Eddy Merckx, of course. I grew up with him when he was on the top of his career, so I was always dreaming about being a bike rider. When I was a bike rider, I was never thinking to become a sports director, because I could not imagine that you follow the bunch — ok, [Wednesday in Qatar] was exceptional — but like at 30, 40, average, 40km all day five, six hours. I couldn’t imagine that. But to be honest, after my career, I was working with young riders and say, “Ok, it’s not that bad.” They asked to come again in professional cycling. To be honest, I was never standing still. What could I have done? I worked as a young kid already when I was 14 in a factory. I didn’t have the chance to study and so I had to fight as a young kid to go somewhere. So when I was 22 I turned professional so I could escape from the factory. … And now it’s already more than 30 years. I have no idea. My life is the bike, and I still love it. It’s a passion and as long as it’s there, I’m going to go on with that. I don’t want to think on something else.