With the retirement of David Miller, Scotland has just one representative left in the World Tour, Sky’s Andy Fenn; but with MTN-Qhubeka morphing into ‘Team Dimension Data, riding for Qhubeka’ for 2016 and moving up to the first division of professional cycling the nation has another man at the heart of world cycling. Brian Smith is General Manager with the South African team and is always happy to chat to VeloVeritas.
Here’s what he had to say to us as the day before his riders Cam Meyer and Nathan Haas grabbed second and fourth behind Jack Bobridge in the Australian Elite Road race Championships in Ballarat.
An easy question to start with Brian; your personal highlights of season 2015?
“That’s actually a hard one!
“There are three; Steve Cummings Tour de France stage win on Mandela Day was very special and it was great to see Daniel Teklehaimanot in the mountains jersey at the Tour, too.
“But Kristian Sbaragli’s Vuelta stage win was proof that we’re not just a team which is about taking on successful guys to get wins – Kristian has been with us since 2013 and has grown with the team.”
Rolf Aldag has come aboard.
“We’ve brought Rolf on board for his technical skills, so we can get the best out of our equipment for our riders.
“Jens Zemke was in the roll last year but has moved across to being a DS this year, I was trying to help Jens last season but you have to recognise people’s strengths and Rolf is our man to be ‘Performance Manager’ working with our partners like Cervélo and ENVE.”
And Roger Hammond as a DS.
“I spoke to Roger a year ago but he had a three year contract with Madison and wanted to honour that – which is fair enough.
“Roger wanted to step up a level to Pro Continental or World Tour so it was a perfect fit for him to come to Dimension Data as DS.
“Madison was very much his baby so if they need to speak to Roger in his own time for advice then that’s fine but he’s 100% with us for season 2016.”
You have three riders in the Australian Elite Road race at Ballarat, do they have back staff up down there with them?
“They have Alex Sans Vega, a mechanic and soigneur with them; personnel who’ll be at the Tour Down Under – they went down early to support the guys in the Nationals.”
The Tour Down Under means an early start for riders, how do you decide who goes?
“Well, the three riding the Aussie Nationals self selected so we needed another four – a couple, who like the sun put their hands up.
“With the Tour Down Under starting so early it interferes with the traditional start to the season training camps.
“As well as Australia we have a training camp at Calpe and one in Johannesburg taking place at the same time – it takes a lot of planning.”
I was intrigued to see that at your November training camp you ask the riders to bring their goals for 2016 with them…
“We don’t compare ourselves to other teams and an important part of our ethos is ‘FUN’ with the first letter of that standing for ‘freedom’ – the freedom to go after what’s important to you as a rider.
“The biggest factor in cycling is the riders’ mentality and motivation – giving them the opportunity to perform well in the races that are important to them plays a big part.
“There might be conflicts but we work that out so that every rider has his opportunities.”
Cav’s on board with road AND track goals – a lot to ask in a ‘specific’ cycling world?
“Some riders have the constitution to deliver big seasons and whilst Mark didn’t set the Revolution track alight the other day you have to remember he’s been under a big work load – all of the stuff that the track squad want him to do plus his road work.
“Some might say he’s biting off more than he can chew but both he and I believe that he can deliver.
“He’s set himself some major goals – Tour stages, the Olympics on the track and the World Road race Championship.
“He’ll miss the Tour Down Under due to riding the World Cup in Hong Kong but then he’ll be down in Australia for a two week block of training where he and I will be looking at how his season will pan out – the Track Worlds in March are a possibility.”
Has Cav’s arrival upset your sprinter Kristian Sbaragli – the lad who won the Vuelta stage?
“Kristian is a different kind of sprinter from Mark, he’d say himself he’s not the fastest in a bunch sprint – he likes a tough finish where it’s been whittled down to maybe 40/60 guys with climbs on the run in – albeit he’ll go top ten in a bunch sprint.
“Youcef Reguigui is quick too; that’s one of the reasons we brought Nathan Haas on board, to support those two – and that’s a good trio of fast guys we’ve created.
“Obviously there’ll be times they have to work for Mark but they’ll all have their opportunities.
“I think that after they all spent time with Mark at the first training camp they realise what kind of guy he is and they’ll all have their chances.”
And you’re allowing Theo Bos to pursue track goals, again.
“Theo is a likeable, lovely person and he approached me to ask if it was possible to do both road and track – 2015 was a difficult year for him with crashes and he needed to get his confidence back.
“He’s already repaid our faith in him with three Netherlands track titles; the sprint, kilometre and omnium – very good for his confidence.
“We’ll see how things develop from here – his plan for season is a work in progress at the minute.”
Igor Anton has come aboard – does that mean Grand Tour GC ambitions?
“No, we don’t have GC ambitions in three week races but we do think we can win stages and also week long stage races – this year we want to win as many races as possible.”
Serge Pauwels had a good Tour for you, not so far off the top ten.
“Serge went in to the Tour with the goal of stage wins and with his aggressive riding put himself in a good place – at no stage did we put any pressure on him and it’s just such a shame he punctured on that stage into Gap where he lost a lot of time.
“A top placing wasn’t a goal for him but his consistency put him there – and that’s also what gave us fifth team in the final standings, ahead of so many of the World Tour teams.
“But going back to Serge, as the race drew to a conclusion we told him he didn’t have to go in the breaks; but he still did – he’s our ‘forgotten Belgian!’”
And you’ve got ‘big beast’ Konstantin Sivtsov on board.
“He made contact with us; I’m pretty sure he could have stayed with Sky but he’s been a pro since 2005 when he was with Fassa Bortolo and he just wants some opportunities to ride for himself – he’s spent so much of his career riding in support of others.
“He can ride on the flat, in the mountains and he’s a great team man who’s ridden with Cav before at HTC.”
Who are your African guys we should look out for in 2016?
“I think we have to put a little more pressure on Daniel Teklehaimanot to perform, I’d like to see a bit more from him.
“Merhawi Kudus was the youngest rider in the Tour de France and the way he rode in the last stages was amazing.
“Jacques Jense Van Rensburg, Jaco Venter and Johann Van Zyl are all gaining in confidence and I think we’ll see much more of Reinardt Jense Van Rensburg this season.
“In 2012 when he rode for us when we were a continental team he had 17 wins in UCI races – then he went to Argos/Giant for two years before he came back to us.
“I think he lost his way a little but we’ve had a long chat and I think this year will be different for him.”
And what of Matt Goss, are disappointed in how he performed for you?
“I’m not disappointed in that, no – as a previous Milan-Sanremo winner race organisers wanted him in their races and his presence got us a lot of starts in races we might not otherwise have ridden.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t get the best out of him and I’m pleased he’s got a ride with OnePro – he was a big help to the team in a lot of races, he supported the team well and I wish him well for the future.”
Louis Meintjes going to Lampre; did you see it coming or was it a surprise?
“A complete surprise, I was shocked!
“But then when you think about it, Brent Copeland who’s the Lampre team manager is South African and was Louis’s mentor earlier in his career (Copeland was also Damiano Cunego’s coach/mentor, ed.) so it’s not so surprising.
“I have huge respect for Louis and would certainly have him back – a rider can’t learn everything from one team so it’ll be good for him to see how another team works.
“It’s a good decision for him and we wish him the best of luck.”
Final question – the ASO v. UCI wrangle, is the sport in a good place right now?
“I don’t think so; whilst I think that Brian Cookson’s drive for a cleaner sport is a good thing and I understand that he’s trying to get more power back into the hands of the UCI there are certainly flaws in the World Tour format.
“I don’t claim to be a politician but I think we need to get the UCI, ASO and the Velon organisation in a room together and thrash it out – power struggles are never good for the sport.”
With thanks to Brian for his time, and as we finished our chat over the phone, a car turned in front of me; ‘so what ?’ I hear you say.
The registration was CAV – it’s a sign!