It was 2009 the Tour of Ireland when I first spoke to big Slovenian Aldo Ino Ilešič; but the rolling Emerald Isle countryside didn’t really suit his ‘brick built out house’ sprinter’s build.
The tall man from Ptuj had first caught the eye in 2003 with a stage win in the Tour de Slovenia.
In 2004 he turned pro with well respected Slovenian team Perutnina Ptuj and took a stage in the super fast Olympia Tour of Holland.
The following season, a stage win in the Paths of King Nikola stage race in Croatia was the high light.
The top class Italian U23 Giro delle Regione gave him a stage win in 2006; but it was 2008 when he really found his feet – with eight wins, from Croatia to Charlotte, North Carolina in the colours of Slovenian squad, Slava.
And it was 2009 when he turned pro with Team Type 1 and rode in Ireland.
The following season a slimmed-down Aldo grabbed three stage wins in the Tour of Morocco plus a stage win in the Vuelta Telmex in Mexico and then two stages in the Tour do Rio in Brazil.
In 2011 TT1 went Pro Continental and the level of races and travel commitments were higher – despite this, Ilešič had a solid season which he kicked off with two top ten placings in the early season Etoile des Besseges in France.
Season 2012 saw him drop into the role he was perhaps designed for all along – lead out man.
Along the way he took three major wins for himself, was second in Philadelphia Classic – the best known and largest one day race in the USA – and was instrumental in many of TT1’s wins on the UCI circuit all over the world.
Last year he again played the team role but for United Healthcare, after TT1 decided their future lay with a team where all the athletes were diabetic.
But despite all the hard work for others, he managed a big wing along the way in the USA’s longest – and one of the most prestigious – criteriums; the US Air Force Clarendon Cup.
His 2014 season started in the desert and we thought it would be good to hear ‘from the horse’s mouth’ what the Tours of Qatar and Oman are really like – and how he copes with UHC’s cosmopolitan race schedule.
Your first time in the desert, Aldo?
“Yes: it’s interesting racing and I think every professional rider should experience it at least once during their career.
“You think you know the wind from racing in Belgium in The Netherlands; but when you go there it’s completely different because you head in one direction for maybe 50 or 60 K out across the desert and the group you start in is the group you finish in.
“Position is everything; you’re flying even in the neutralised zone.”
What about that 56 kph stage?
“That was the third stage and the first stage where I started to feel better; I put in a good winter but went down with flu just before Qatar – I was in bed and just empty.
“I had two flats that day but still finished in the second group, just a couple of minutes down, I was in the 11 and 12 sprockets all day.”
You made the break on one stage.
“Not in Qatar but I did in Oman; you have to be realistic, our goal was to race aggressively and to get noticed, we were battling for our place in Paris-Roubaix – which we’ve since had confirmed – at that time and we wanted to show in front of the cameras.
“I was in the break one day and whilst you know you’ve no chance of staying away you have to be out there getting noticed.”
That Green Mountain stage in Oman looked pretty tough.
“To tell you the truth, the day before where Sagan won was harder.
“On the Green Mountain stage it’s just a waiting game until the climbers do their stuff – then you just settle in to the gruppetto and ride to the finish.
“But on the Sagan stage there were three/four K climbs and a lot of head winds – that was a tough day.”
What was UHC’s best result?
“We had Robert Forster fourth on stage two in Oman; the team is happy with how it went.
“You have to be realistic, you have the best Classics and Grand Tour guys in the world there but we were in the race, participating, not just sitting in the wheels.”
I’ve heard the race hotels are nice?
“They’re super-nice! And the organisation is very good, too.
“In Oman we were staying in a beach resort hotel; after every stage we jumped in the sea then had our massage – perfect!”
Qatar is an early start to your season, isn’t it?
“Yeah, you have to be ready – half the guys are really ready to race and the other half are thinking; “well, let’s get started…
“You have to be aware all the time, positioning is vital, you have to be in the right place from the start; even if you’re name is Tom Boonen if you miss that front group there’s no getting up to it in the crosswinds.”
How was your winter in Slovenia?
“I was really lucky, the weather was good and stable, 10/12 degrees then I went to the team training camp in Tucson in January.
“I’m back home just now and it’s 15/20 degrees – incredibly good.
“There was only one bad week all winter and that was when I was in Tucson; so the winter has been perfect for me.”
Then after the Middle East there was Taiwan.
“It was a good race for us, Luke Keogh won stage one then we had John Murphy third on stage three. I’ve done a lot of racing in Asia now and it’s really aggressive – it goes from the gun just like in Belgium.
“And I’d say that the Tour of Taiwan is one of the best organised races in Asia.
“I was in the breakaway twice; one stage I was caught just 300 metres from the line and then on another I was going for king of the mountains points but again was caught just 200 metres short of the line.
“But like I say, it was a good race for us; we got a lot of publicity from it.”
Don’t you have to watch the food?
“It’s not so much the food as the water – the hotel food is always pretty much the same, rice and pasta with meat or chicken but you have to be careful of the salads and vegetables because of the water they’re washed in.
“It’s the same when you brush your teeth; you use bottled water – and you avoid beef, our team doctor warned us about that.”
Isn’t all that travel hard on the system?
“That’s a good question – and the answer is ‘yes.’
“It usually takes me around a week to 10 days to recover from coming back from somewhere like Taiwan.
“I find my legs are OK in three or four days but my heart rate takes another seven days to get back to normal.
“Usually I recover from a stage race in three or four days but you have to double that or even treble it if it’s a long haul flight through a lot of time zones.
“There are no rules to recovery in these situations – you just have to know your body and listen to it.”
And I believe you have a ‘real’ race programme coming up?
“Yeah, ‘real’ is the word – Waregem, E3, De Panne, Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix.
“I’m really excited about riding Paris-Roubaix; it’s part of cycling history and I’m going to be part of that…”
Aldo will be speaking to us again after The Hell of the North; meanwhile we wish him ‘all the best’ for all those Flanders bergs, cobbles and cross winds.