The weather in Stockholm is terrible for a bike ride. Wet, heavy snow is melting on the ground and the air is cold and humid. But that is of no concern to Fredrik Kessiakoff. He lives in Monaco, but he’s here for job meetings, and to visit his parents. He doesn’t own a road bike and hasn’t touched one since last October, when he quit professional cycling.
When he was at his peak, the 34-year-old Swede could compete with the very best. Kessiakoff won a time trial in the Vuelta ahead of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, dueled with Thomas Voeckler over the polka dot jersey in the Tour de France, and beat Fabian Cancellara in a Tour de Suisse time trial. That was in 2012. The two years since have been all struggle and no results.
It is not until now, when he is no longer under contract with the Astana team, that he reveals exactly how hard it has been.
After he quit Tour of Austria last summer, he received his second and final letter of warning from Astana. The letters arrived by priority mail, and were written on behalf of general manager Alexander Vinokourov.
“I just thought that ‘this can not be true, this is just not happening,’” he says. “I was already feeling pretty bad because I couldn’t ride my bike fast, and that was all I wanted in life, to go fast; that was the key to success. Then I had this situation with the team as well. I felt so bad, and my girlfriend did too, so we thought that it’s better that we call them now and tell them we are breaking the contract. We let the money go, because it’s not worth feeling like this; no money in the world is worth feeling this bad.”
After the 2012 Tour, Kessiakoff extended his contract with Astana, and became one of its better-paid riders. The demands from the team changed, he says.
The worst part started when he crashed at Strade Bianche last March. The Astana riders were already under pressure. Everybody had gotten an email from the team that explained the management’s disappointment with the riders’ performances.
Kessiakoff slid down a gravel road in Tuscany and got deep flesh wounds on his leg, hip, and arm. Three days before his next race, Volta a Catalunya, the team doctor told him he had to stay home. But the team did not accept it. He was going.
“It felt like they didn’t trust what I said, that I really had an infected wound. But I didn’t want to show that my morale was low. I wanted to be loyal to the team, so I went.”
He raced with open wounds, got sick on the last day of the race, and was sent home again. Still, he felt he had done good. He had shown the team that he was committed.
“Then, two days go by, and there is a letter in the mail with a personal warning for me. It says that I let down my teammates and the staff at the race. They are wondering if I have trained properly and some other things. Going from thinking that the first email was not very nice, now I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Kessiakoff collected quite a few race days in the spring. After Catalunya he raced in the Vuelta al País Vasco, Giro del Trentino, Tour de Romandie. His string of results is odd. Almost every stage he finished among the last riders.
“The worst thing was that I couldn’t quit. I can’t quit the race, because then I get another letter,” he says. “It was extremely hard mentally. You just had to go there, with fear, and knowing that whatever you do, just finish, because then they can’t say anything. But, sure, I was completely worthless. I was probably run down. Many of my symptoms were hard to explain, when I look back at it. The only thing is that I was extremely worn out, so it was my body’s way of saying that, ‘You have to rest now.’ The smallest thing gave me infections, rashes, fever.”
Astana’s team manager Giuseppe Martinelli now regrets sending Kessiakoff to all those races but says the team’s intentions were good. “I know Fredrik’s personality very well, and I thought and believed that it was a psychological thing,” he says over the phone. “Even though he didn’t have great form, we tried to boost his morale by taking him to the races. Probably that was the misunderstanding with the team. We didn’t take him there to make a fool out of him, or because we thought he was lazy,” he says.
But the letters sent to the Swede had a different message. Martinelli says that the two letters “certainly” did not come from him, but won’t say much more. “You will have to ask someone above me, Alexander Vinokourov or someone, about that,” he says.
“I am defending the team, and on the other hand I also want to defend Fredrik,” says Martinelli. “It’s happened to a lot of other riders, and unfortunately the world works a bit like this. Two parties cannot always go together. There are also difficulties. In this case I think there were.”
Even when Kessiakoff had a break from racing in May and went to train with the Tour team, he didn’t recover. He couldn’t ride as fast as he had, or as fast as he needed.
“I was scared and sad. [The letter] came like a threat. If I don’t get better, they will take action. That to me is like a threat. My fear was that they would not pay my wages. And I felt powerless, I couldn’t do anything. Maybe that’s why I choose to talk about it now as well. I don’t want to be a victim, but I want to help, make sure that maybe it’s done differently in the future.”
He raced Tour de Suisse in June, despite having strange rashes on his body. One of the team’s doctors said that he didn’t have the authority to send him home.
When he arrived at Tour of Austria in July, he kept his hand inside his sleeve when he greeted everyone, because flakes of skin were falling off his hands and feet. After two stages, the doctor and sports director agreed he had to go home. Then, the second letter came.
“It says that they are very disappointed in my performances and the fact that I quit the race, and if this continues they will have to take action in accordance with my contract,” Kessiakoff says.
He thought about giving up, but writing an answer made him feel better. He pointed out that he was required to send in all his training data, so the team had all the information they needed about his work. No one replied.
In the summer, his teammates, brothers Maxim and Valentin Iglinskiy, both tested positive for EPO. It made Kessiakoff think, he says.
“Maybe that would have been an easy way to make my problems disappear. Dope and start racing fast, and the team would have been happy. I can see how that situation could appear if you treat a rider this way,” he says. “I’m not defending them, saying that they did the right thing, on the contrary. It’s extremely dangerous, to say that there are no excuses. That’s what the first email said, that there are no excuses not to ride faster and take podium places.”
Martinelli rejects this thought completely. “[The Iglinskiy brothers] are Kazakhs. I don’t think they have any pressure from Vinokourov or the team because they have their future secured. They would always have had a second job with Astana after their career. They are two persons without any pressure. These two brothers have nothing to do with any problems of Astana. These are completely their own personal problems,” he says.
Because of what happened last year during his time with Astana, Kessiakoff says his professional career ended earlier than he had planned.
“They didn’t succeed in getting the best out of me,” Kessiakoff says. “Instead it only got worse.”