The last time we spoke to Justin Grace – the Kiwi who’s coaching skills had much to do with turning New Zealand into one of the world’s major cycling sprint nations – he’d just left his role at the Land of the Long White Cloud and signed up for – La Belle France.
It seemed like an unlikely partnership but with Francois Pervis blasting the world 200 and 1,000, records and winning world titles three at a time – sprint, keirin and kilometre – all looked rosy.
However, it was always going to be difficult for an ‘Anglo’ to be accepted as sprint coach in a land which has produced Morelon, Trentin, Tournand, Rousseau, Sireau and Bauge.
So perhaps it was no surprise to hear that Grace is now with British Cycling as sprint coach – with New Zealand and France among his toughest opposition.
As 2015 and the dreaded ‘one year ‘til the Olympics’ approached Grace took time before the recent Track World Cup round in Colombia to chat to VeloVeritas, again.
Your job as French coach, Justin – what happened?
“Well, it was really a job that many people said would be very difficult – being a foreign coach in France.
“As it turned out, it was difficult to communicate really well between staff, riders and the upper management.
“The objective was to bring an Anglo Saxon approach to the team, but I wasn’t well equipped to make some of the changes I felt were important.
“When the opportunity to move on presented itself, I knew that it was a good thing for me and the French Federation.
“Nonetheless, I learned a huge amount professionally that will carry through into my personal knowledge.”
It must be a pain uprooting the family, again?
“Actually, it was much easier the second time around, as we didn’t feel that we were moving from our home and family.
“We did have a very good group of expat friends in France from around the world.
“Leaving them was the hardest thing for the family.”
Did you enjoy your time in Paris?
“Honestly we miss living in Paris.
“It was such an amazing experience for my family living there learning French history and language.”
It must be nice to being back where everyone speaks English?
“For me it is brilliant at work.
“Picking up the nuances in track side chatter is a big part of being a good coach.
“Now I can actually (mostly) understand what the athletes and staff really think.
“And my daughters are loving being back in English at school.”
Your first World Cup with GB was in Guadalajara – are you happy how it went?
“Yes, the World Cup in Mexico was really good for me.
“It gave me the opportunity to see how the staff interact, how the riders cope with the stresses of racing and travel.
“And of course the results were great for us too.”
Is there a ‘next wave’ of GB sprinters ready to emerge?
“The squad is pretty large and there are a few other riders we have our eyes on outside of our GB squad too.
“So looking forward to Tokyo and beyond, I think we will be in great shape.”
Are GB now qualified for The Worlds in all the disciplines?
“Qualification isn’t completed until after the 3rd World Cup in Colombia this January.
“However, we are where we want to be and expect to have places in all categories.
“Strategically we will then need to look at what events are best to invest the riders’ energy in to maximise results.”
What’s your take on The Europeans and World Cups involving so much travel?
“Who would have thought we would have the European Champs in Guadalupe!
“For the last few years, unless you are from the Americas, there has been a huge amount of budget and time invested only in getting to the races we are required to race in.
“A group of nations are working with the UCI to try and minimise the travel for the future.”
The Track Worlds are in France – that must be a motivator for you?
“Ha ha! Yeah, that has worked out as one of those strange twists of fate we encounter from time to time.
“I actually have a Harry Potter style magic wand, hand carved out of a piece of the Paris track.
“It was a parting gift from someone there.
“I may not have magic but we will be working hard to perform well there.”
Do you think the ‘Olympic obsession’ with the big federations has devalued The Worlds?
“Becoming World Champion is still an absolute pinnacle of our sport, even more so for those nations struggling to meet all the Olympic qualification standards.
“However, public demand in almost all countries drives the funding models, and they in turn drive our absolute goals.
“It is true that sometimes a potential world title may be compromised in the pursuit of Olympic Glory.
“But everyone still wants to be World Champion.”
The Germans will want their team sprint title back?
“Yes, the Germans will be hunting hard for that particular win.
“They have a big squad to choose from also.
“However, there are really four or five nations capable of winning the Team Sprint on the day.”
Is Pervis as unstoppable as last year?
“That will only be seen in Paris.
“For sure his every waking minute will be focussing on retaining those titles in Paris.
“He lives only a few hundred meters from the track so it’s as “at home” as anyone will ever get.
“If Francois has even 95% of last year’s condition, he could still be very successful.”
What will it be like for you when GB lines up against NZ?
“I think that now enough water has passed under the bridge for me to not have any mixed emotions.
“I really respect those guys and the team for what they have done.
“However, my job is here and I am 100% committed to the GB team.
“Anyone we line up against is there to be beaten.
“End of story.”
Are you still racing Masters, yourself?
“No. I would like to race again, but the reality of my job is that I cannot compete against some of my less time constrained competitors.
“Perhaps I’ll try to do some sneaky training for next year.
“But the times now are very fast!”
A tech question – have the bikes gone as far as they can go?
“I think that there is still a lot of room for advancement in the technology.
“The constricting factor is the UCI regulations we must adhere to.
“We will try to push the limits all the time.”
What’s your number one goal for 2015?
“Goal number one: great preparation and planning towards the 2016 Olympics.”