John Lee Augustyn is probably best known outside of the Aftrican continent for his head-first lunge down the scree slopes of the Col de la Bonette-Restefond descent to Jausiers in the Tour de France a couple of years ago, and this after leading the race over it’s summit in glorious solitude – only Frederico Bahamontes and Robert Millar share that particular accolade.
Last season was difficult for John Lee; despite some strong performances in the Giro d’Italia, he was plagued by injury and sickness during the race, and didn’t quite achieve what he wanted to during the year.
Now though, things look like they’re going to change for the 23 year old from Kimberley, in South Africa’s Northern Cape; signed by new ProTour outfit Team Sky, he’s busy preparing for his fourth season in the Pro ranks, with his first race for the new team at the end of the month.
Once he’d purchased new chargers for his phone and laptop after his bags went AWOL following the Team Sky launch in London, VeloVeritas were able to find out how things are shaping up for the ambitious young man.
You raced with Konica Minolta in South Africa?
“That’s right, I first raced for Konica Minolta back in 2006.”
And you won the U23 SA Road Champs that year, was that the clincher for the Barloworld gig?
“Yes, I won the U23 SA road champs, and I also came 2nd in Tour of Japan and also won the King of the Mountains… at that time Barloworld was looking for new, young talent from SA and I guess I was the lucky one…”
You’ve joined Bike-Pure, and back in the 2008 Tour de France your teammate Moisés Dueñas was notified of a positive control – what was the effect of all that on you? – and on your three remaining team-mates in the race?
“Yeah, I have joined Bike-Pure.
“I must say Dueñas’s failure was a big shock for us all, and it certainly made things a little more difficult for us, but at the same time it made us more motivated.”
Was this event a factor in your motivation to go on the impressive attack on the Cuneo to Jausiers stage which came afterwards?
“Definitely. It made us more motivated, and it also created a chance for us to ride a little for ourselves; the managers wanted us to get in the breaks to gain some TV coverage.
“I really had to dig in to get into the break on the Cuneo stage!”
Your Wikipedia page only details *that* crash in the ’08 Tour. Tell us what happened.
“Well, the crash happened so fast and there is so much that goes through your mind at the same time.
“I was definitely very tired, and the altitude of course makes it even harder… and then you think of the finish…I mean, ‘there is a chance here that I could win a Tour stage’.
“At the same time, we were going really fast on a tight right-hand bend — I had riders passing me on the inside, and I was looking back.
“As I looked to the front I saw the corner, and that I was on completely the wrong line… so I had to make a quick choice of either falling on the tar or to try and stop in time before the cliff!
“I chose the latter, but unfortunately I didn’t stop! I went over… luckily on the other side it wasn’t a cliff but a nice slope of gravel…”
The descent down into Jausiers is very fast – has the crash on that road affected your descending or your confidence?
“I must say it was a very technical descent…
“The fear of descending will be there of course, but for a Pro bike racer we don’t have a choice but to push it to the limits – and to try and clear the mind of getting scared!”
The TV footage from the following motorbike shows just how steep the scree slope was, no wonder you needed a hand to clamber back up. How long did it take to get you another bike?
“The slope was pretty steep — in fact as I was sliding down on my hands and knees I was thinking ‘how am I going to climb back up with these cycling shoes?’
“Luckily, one of the spectators was brave enough to come and help me!
“It maybe took about 2-3 minutes or so to get my spare bike.
“I didn’t have any bad bruising — just a few scrapes on the knees, not even the bike was damaged. Very lucky!”
You broke your leg the year before, so what went through your mind when in mid-air in France?
“Yeah, I broke the head of the femur the year before in Tour of Portugal – on the last day, in a rainy Time Trial.
“Well in mid-air I really thought ‘that’s it… I am going to brake legs and arms here!’
“I really was so, so lucky.”
You showed strongly in the Giro last year, but overall you raced a lot fewer days than the year before – what were the reasons for that?
“Yes I had a tough year last year… I’m not really sure why.
“I really did try hard to get the form up there and was pretty confident in the Giro, but sometimes you also need some luck on your side — and I just didn’t have the luck!
“I got a bad stomach virus on the first rest day and then after that I had some really hard days to fight through.
“Towards the end of the year I had big goals but had some bad luck again – particularly with my bad leg – and couldn’t do the proper training that I needed to… so I had the pins in my leg removed…
“I had to do a lot of rehabilitation back in South Africa after that, but now everything is good and back to normal.”
Steve Cummings didn’t have a particularly happy time with Barloworld, did you have a similar experience?
“Yes, I think there where some problems here and there, but it was a really good team – everything was perfect, and it was a good running team.
“But towards the end of the year you could definitely feel a vibe in the team…
“I do think for some of the English riders it’s a little bit harder to get along with the Italians… the language barrier is hard sometimes.”
You’re with Team Sky – how did that come about?
“That’s right, riding for Sky now.
“I think its partly because I speak English, and perhaps also because I am still a young rider that can grow a lot in the sport.”
What were your first impressions of the Sky setup when you met them and got the details?
“I was totally blown away with everything at the first Team Sky camp in Manchester.
“Everything is so well organised: right down to the tiniest detail.”
Your ex-Barloworld teammates Steve Cummings, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome are all with Sky too, does that help you settle in?
“Yeah it helps a lot having ex-team-mates in the new team.
“It makes it easier to settle in since they’re not just good team-mates, but they’re good friends as well.
“A big thing though is the staff – they are so good and they always want to help, that makes things so much easier.”
What do you reckon to the somewhat understated designs of the team cars and kit?
“Actually I really like the kit, and the cars… the designs are plain and simple and really stand out!”
Scott Sunderland has said you’ve got the talent to get to the top, but “you’ve never been taught much technically” – what was he referring to?
“Maybe he meant that I just need the right help in the right direction… some good guidance from the right people.”
Your time trialling hasn’t been your strongest aspect – any plans in that regard?
“Yes! This will be one of my goals to work on for the year, and I definitely have the right team to help me with this!”
You’ve been quoted in the past as wanting to excel in stage races, and the Tour in particular – with that in mind, what’s going to be your role with Team Sky?
“Well… the goal in the long run will be big improvements in my week points, to become a strong Tour rider and to progress as a stronger rider in the mountains.”
What’s the shape of your season? When does it kick off?
“The season starts for me on the 31st, at the Grand Prix Cycliste la Marseillaise.
“Goals? Mine are the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon which starts on April 14th, the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré in early June, and then at the end of August the Vuelta a España.”
With thanks to John Lee for his valuable time, and wishing him all the very best for those targets and for the rest of the season; may your bags never go missing again! Keep up with John Lee at the Team Sky site, and on twitter.