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Farrar: ‘The stars aligned there for a few years’

Tyler Farrar is ready to slot into a helper’s role in the lead-out of the man who was once his most bitter rival, Mark Cavendish. Five years ago, the pair battled in the sprints, but Farrar is a realist and optimist at heart, and he’s excited to be part of the Cavendish Express for 2016.

Cavendish’s high-profile move to Dimension Data this season means that Farrar will become an ally to the rider who he once battled against in the sprints. During his magical run from 2009 to 2011, Farrar was one of the few sprinters who could match up against Cavendish. A half-decade later, the pair is linking up at Dimension Data as Cavendish looks to regain his crown as the king of the sprints.

Now 31, Farrar admits his fastest days are behind him, and he is more than willing to help his former nemesis turned teammate. In fact, Farrar said there’s a budding friendship replacing the sometimes bitter acrimony that once existed between the pair. VeloNews sat down with Farrar to talk about sprinting, Cavendish, and the African explosion in cycling.

VeloNews: How would you measure last year’s season both for you and for the team?
Tyler Farrar: We have to call our season last year a success. We set some high goals, and we met almost all of them; winning stages at Tour and Vuelta, putting a guy on the leader’s jersey. The team had already won Milano-Sanremo a few years ago, but last season went a long way to establishing this team. When I signed with this team in the latter half of 2014, their goal was to get into the WorldTour, so when last year went so well, it accelerated the whole process. And here we are now.

VN: You used to be the main sprinter at Slipstream, but when you came to this team, you’ve taken on the role of road captain; was it easy to make that transition?
TF: I’ve enjoyed it, but it was an interesting transition. I’ve been around for awhile now. I am 31, but this is also my 14th year as a pro. We have so much young talent, and it’s been so much fun to be part of it. These guys are going to be successful if I am here or not telling them to do that or do this, but I am happy to have the opportunity to share a bit of knowledge. I remember how much that meant to me when I was 23 or 24, to have some of the older guys on the team who were willing to lay out a plan, and not just do their own thing. It’s coming full circle, and now I can help those young guys on their progression.

VN: Who helped you when you were younger?
TF: I was lucky, and I touched on a lot teammates over the years. When I was really young, it was Gord Fraser. Those two years with him were massive in my development as a sprinter. Then I went to Cofidis, and I had Nick Nuyens, and riding with him in the classics with him was a huge learning experience. Then I went to Garmin, where I got to race with Dave Millar, Julian Dean, and Christian Vande Velde, and then Andreas Klier came onto the team. I was lucky throughout my career to always have one or two experienced guys to kind of sponge off of.

VN: Looking back at that sweet run you had from 2009-11, what happened, and can you pinpoint what went wrong?
TF: You look back on it, and try to figure out what was working, and what wasn’t. It’s tricky to say. There are so many different factors, both on and off the bike, in what makes you successful on the bike. The stars just aligned there for a few years, and I had a ton of success. When you have a run like that, when you’re really at the top of the game for three years, and when you’re not winning with that consistency, you’re always chasing it, and trying to rediscover it. When it happens, it just happens, and you fall into it, and when you try to recreate it, after you’ve slipped out of it, it’s not so easy sometimes. I’ve had moments when it’s clicked since then, and moments when it hasn’t. All things considered, I still don’t know why it worked, but it definitely worked for those few years there.

VN: You won stages in all three grand tours, and then you started coming very close, with a lot of podiums, but no wins, what’s the difference from winning or not?
TF: Sometimes it’s a very small difference between first and second, but in the world of cycling, seconds and thirds don’t count anywhere near what a victory does. You can get second or third place 15 times in a year, but one big victory can out-weigh all those. That’s the sport of cycling.

‘Cannot remember this kind of depth in sprints’
VN: How much has sprinting changed over the past decade?
TF: It’s really evolved. At least since I’ve been aware of professional cycling, I cannot remember when you have this kind of depth in the sprinting talent. Not just depth in the sprinters, but also in the teams that are supporting them. There are so many very good dedicated sprint trains. Historically, there was always been two or three teams that dominated the sprint trains, and then a handful of sprinters who would operate off those trains. You look at the sprints now, there are five or six dedicated trains now in the sprint finishes. It makes for some crazy sprints. It’s the natural progression in sport. The sport evolves, and each generation builds off what came before them. The sprinter’s today have evolved off the first guys, like Cipollini and Zabel, who were putting together the first true sprint trains, and you see the way that’s kind of evolved and dispersed into the sport. Here we are now.

VN: Is it frustrating that just as the sport sees a bounty of sprinters that the grand tours are making sprints a rarity?
TF: I remember doing grand tours early in my career, when as a sprinter, you would have eight or nine opportunities in a 21-stage race. Now, if you get five or six sprints in a grand tour, you should be happy. And of those sprints, you might have to drag yourself over 2,500 meters of climbing before you get to the sprint. That’s also part of the evolution of cycling. That’s what the organizers want, and the fans seem to like it. You have to adapt to the races as they’re designed. As a sprinter, or now as a helper to a sprinter, it was nice doing those grand tours, because if you missed out, you’d know you’d get a lot more chances. It’s not like that anymore.

‘Cav is a cool guy’
VN: In the past, you and Cavendish were bitter rivals, is there any trepidation about riding with him on the same team now?
TF: Not at all. We were down at Cape Town, and Cav and I now get along quite well. I thought, if we were teammates when we were 24-25, we would have been really good friends. It’s different when you’re sprinting against someone. You both want to win, but we’ve both grown up a lot since then. Cav is a cool guy, and I am really looking forward to this year.

VN: When did you first hear about the possibility of Cavendish joining the team?
TF: They started talking last summer. I chatted with him during a few races, but discussions were moving along pretty fast. I think it’s fantastic. This is a team that has a lot of fast guys on it, but we never had anyone who was a true, consistent closer for the big sprints. You cannot ask for much more with a guy like Cavendish, who is arguably the best sprinters of all time. I’m excited about having him come to the team, and being part of that train. On paper, we can put together one of the best lead-out trains in the peloton. I’ve certainly raced against Cav, and his leadout train, so it will be fun to be part of a that for a little while.

VN: Has the team worked out who will ride where in the lead-out for the sprints?
TF: We’ve talked about it, and bounced some ideas around. That starts in these early races. We’ll try to get the system worked out, and we’ll all be together at the Tour of Qatar. You’re going to get it wrong from time to time, but you get it wrong now, not at the important races later in the season.

VN: Any idea where you will fit in?
TF: We’ll try different things, and move guys around a little bit, to see who fits best where. I don’t think we’ll mess with the Renshaw-Cav combo, and that will stay as it is. I am excited to be part of it, and see exactly where I fit in during that whole process.

‘Worlds will be a big goal’
VN: What would be an ideal season for you?
TF: I want our team to win a classic. That was the big objective that we missed in 2015. Last year was tough, losing Edvald [Boasson Hagen] with a broken collarbone at Gent-Wevelgem. He is our main guy for the classics, so we’ll see. If we put a Dimension Data on a podium, we’d call that a success. Also, having the world championships in Qatar is a pretty big deal for sprinters. This could be the last chance for a guy like me to chase a result in the worlds. The upcoming courses look quite challenging. The worlds will be a big goal, and it’s a big honor to race for your country, so that will be important for me to make that team, and ride well. On this team, I try to slot in and do well when they need me. Whether that’s the Tour or the Vuelta, we’ll wait to see.

VN: You’re still young, but as you said, you’ve been around awhile, how much longer do you see yourself in the peloton?
TF: This is my 14th year as a professional. You cannot do it forever, but I am not hanging it up just yet. I am very happy on this team. I am very happy to be part of it, and I hope to continue for a few more years.

‘Africa has a massive talent pool’
VN: You’ve talked about how this team is different, is there a certain African flare that sets it apart?
TF: It’s a unique environment. Every cycling team is international these days, but having the African side of things, it’s so different than any other team in the peloton. We have guys coming from completely different cultural backgrounds, and it’s really been eye-opening. You hear guys talking about how hard it is to make the pros, to race as juniors in Europe and being away from home, and then you talk to a guy like Adrien Niyonshuti, who survived the Rwandan genocide, and then it puts everything massively in perspective. It’s fun to race with these guys. They have great attitudes, and they’re so talented. They’re so fired up, and so eager, and there is a lot of positive energy on this team.

VN: How long before the peloton sees a an East African Tour de France winner?
TF: Africa has a massive talent pool. They dominate endurance track and field events, so if you can win a marathon, you’ve got the engine. You just have to translate that into cycling, so once that is truly tapped into, you will see more and more riders coming out of Africa. We are not the only team with riders coming out of Africa. Before, it was just Robbie Hunter. Now there are guys on all kinds of teams. A big part of the future of cycling is Africa. The talent pool is there. I think it’s very realistic.