Friday Feature EXCLUSIVE: Up close & personal with Sky’s Bobby Julich

Bobby Jullich Sky Pro Cycling Team  Race Coach (image courtesy of Sky)

Bobby Julich, Sky Pro Cycling Team Race Coach (image courtesy of Sky)

I’m sitting here on the VeloVoices terrace, conveniently relocated on the Cote d’Azur, drinking an espresso and chatting with Bobby Julich. After a long and successful career as a professional rider – 15 years, during which he won an Olympic medal, became the second American to stand on the podium at the Tour de France and the first to take overall victory at Paris-Nice – Bobby retired in 2008, remaining with what is now Saxo Bank in a management position, before leaving at the end of 2010 to join Team Sky’s coaching staff as a race coach, working alongside Rod Ellingworth. From the recent results of Chris Froome and Richie Porte, among others, we can see that Bobby’s really making an impact at Sky.

Sheree: Bobby, you were one of the first professional riders I ever saw close up. I was driving my car along the coast road when you whooshed past on your time trial bike and I thought “Whoa, who or what was that?”

Bobby: I’ve gotten a lot more cautious on the road since I’ve retired from racing professionally. I’ve also gained a much greater appreciation of the anxiety suffered by firstly my wife and then my daughters when I was riding, particularly in the Tour. Now, it’s me hunched over the screen, holding my breath, knuckles white, scanning any falls or crashes for Sky blue helmets.

Sheree: What was going through your mind when you saw Lars Petter Nordhaug fall at Amstel Gold last Sunday?

Bobby: I went from ecstatic to gutted in seconds. When you work with these guys so closely, day in and day out, you live through all their ups and downs. He’d done everything right, was in the best possible form, opened his sprint at the perfect time and was probably five pedal-strokes from taking it to the next level, having a life-changing result and the best result of his career to date. There’s two more Ardennes Classics, he’s switched on and dedicated but, not unnaturally, feeling a little sore. [Nordhaug went on to animate the run-in in a late break alongside Ryder Hesjedal at Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne – Ed.]

Sheree: If we’re talking crashes, your 2004 slip under the CSC team car during the Tour de France is one of my abiding memories of the film Overcoming. [A behind the scenes look at Team CSC’s 2004 Tour – Ed.] How did it happen?

2004 Olympics: Bobby Julich and Tyler Hamilton (image courtesy of USA Cycling)

2004 Olympics: Bobby Julich and Tyler Hamilton (image courtesy of USA Cycling)

Bobby: It was a hot day on stage 13 [naturally – Ed] to Plateau de Beille and I’d popped back to the team car for bottles for Carlos [Sastre] and Ivan [Basso] before the next descent. It was just one of those things. I remounted and finished. It was only afterwards, as I was sitting in the car en route to the hospital, with my wrist and arm ballooning, I was praying that it wasn’t broken. It was just before the Olympics, I’d been selected and it was probably my last chance to represent my country, as I’d missed out in previous years. If it hadn’t been for the camera, I’d probably have been bawling my eyes out.

Luckily the break was misdiagnosed [Bobby had a broken scaphoid bone in his right wrist] and I was able to finish the Tour, largely due to a rest day and riding on smooth roads the subsequent day. I rode the time trial in the Olympics and won a medal [bronze, behind gold medal winner Tyler Hamilton – Ed].

Sheree: I’m always astounded at the way you guys can withstand pain.

Bobby: Not any more, not after four years behind the barricades, I’ve lost that.

Nonetheless, you can understand why Bobby’s able to connect and establish a rapport with the riders in his care. He’s enjoyed longevity in a precarious sport – he truly has been there, done it many times over and got the t-shirt. He really understands what it’s like to be in their shoes – he gets them!

Sheree: You had a long and very successful career, what was one of your toughest moments?

Bobby: When I rode with Team CSC we were a very successful squad and my daughter asked me why I couldn’t win every time, like Uncle Jens [Voigt]? She set her sights on the Swiss cowbell Fabian Cancellara received in winning a stage [stage seven  – Ed] in the Tour de Suisse 2008. I thought if I won one I too might get a similar cowbell. I didn’t win one, but Fabian won another [stage nine – Ed]. However, this time he didn’t get given a cowbell.

That was effectively my last race for CSC and having not made the Tour team, preferring to let Kurt Asle Arvesen ride, I retired shortly thereafter. [Kurt is now working with Bobby as a race coach at Sky – Ed]

A couple of months later the guys asked me whether or not I liked my retirement gift. I said I’d been back to the States and hadn’t been in Nice for a while. So, as soon as I got back, I looked all over and found nothing. This made me wonder what they’d been talking about. Three weeks later my neighbour came round sheepishly bearing my retirement gift which he’d forgotten to deliver – an engraved Swiss cowbell – which now takes pride of place in my office along with all my trophies and jerseys.

1998 Tour de France Podium: (l to r) Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani and Bobby Julich (image courtesy of Tour de France site)

1998 Tour de France Podium: (l to r) Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani and Bobby Julich (image courtesy of Tour de France site)

I’m sensing that must be a sizeable office.

Sheree: My other take-away from Overcoming was the enormous feeling of camaraderie amongst the team.

Bobby: Yes, it was a novel experience for me too when I joined. I connected so well with so many of them on so many levels. We were like high school buddies and it was great to share a room with someone who, at the end of the day, you could just chat to about domestic trivialities. I’d not had that in previous teams. It was a bit of a magical experience.

Even before I took a management role, I’d started to mentor the younger members of the squad and it’s gratifying to see how well they’re all doing. I’ve remained in touch with a number of the guys, particularly Jens who comes and stays with me each year after Paris-Nice. And I met up recently with Andy [Schleck] who was down training on the Cote d’Azur with Maxime Monfort and I couldn’t get over how overawed everyone was around him. I still tend to see him as a 19-year old neo-pro and forget he’s a Tour de France winner.

Sheree: We fans somewhat unreasonably expect riders to perform all the time or, like Lance – the master of planning and preparation – at particular times of the year.

Bobby: There’s only one Lance! The most well prepared athlete of his generation.

Yes, there are a number of riders who perhaps aren’t at the level one might anticipate at this time of year, for various reasons, but I’m sure they’ll come good when needed. Consistency is very hard to achieve and a lot of it depends on gaining a harmonious work/life balance. Riders are only human and sometimes the pressures heaped on them by, say, the press can dent their confidence. But good guys will always bounce back.

Sheree: Sky seems to have taken a leaf out of Lance’s book. I’m constantly impressed with how well-organised they are. How are you enjoying it there?

Bobby: I love it! It’s a different way of working but I find the attention to detail, the planning and preparation, professionalism, passionate mindset to do and get things right is fantastic. I love it.

Sadly I had to explain to Bobby that a bit like the British eating a ‘full English’ breakfast every day this mindset is not common to all British enterprises.

Sheree: You’ve raised the topic of food. Perhaps you can share with me a bit of your own philosophy on weight management and what goes on at Sky in this area.

Bobby: I found when I was riding it was best to keep out of the supermarket aisles containing snacks but equally in the off-season I’d enjoy the occasional beer or hamburger. Nowadays, the riders pay a great deal of attention to power-to-weight ratios while the management team focuses on fuel management: the right fuel at the right time. I apply a simple rule which was explained to me by one of my trainers when I was around 18. A Russian guy whose name I can’t recall – maybe Anatoly or something similar – anyway, he asked me if I wanted some ice cream. I said I did. Then he asked me if I needed the ice cream. He said if I needed it I should have it but if I wanted it I should go without.

Sheree: Sounds like a good rule of thumb, I’ll try to remember that.

Bobby is perhaps best remembered for his formidable time-trialling skills and it’s worth remembering that Grand Tour winners are generally, although not exclusively, riders who can both climb and time-trial. How many Grand Tour contenders have had their GC dreams trampled by a poor showing in either an individual or team time trial? Who can forget Bbox Bouygues Telecom’s team time trial in 2009 Tour de France in Montpelier – exactly! [They managed to lose four riders in a spectacular display of formation crashing along the difficult route – Ed.]

Sheree: Time-trialling done well, particularly as a team, is a thing of beauty to behold. What’s key to turning in a great team performance?

Bobby: It obviously helps to have riders – or at least a couple of riders – who are pretty decent in the discipline. Then you need to understand each rider’s strengths and weaknesses. It helps that at Sky we’ve the gold winning GB team pursuit squad [Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh, Ben Swift], a discipline close to my heart, where we can learn much from their technique and detailed execution.

To give of their best, you need the riders to be relaxed. I try not to make a big thing of it and liken it to the job they do every day: taking turns, pulling on the front of the peloton, sheltering the weaker riders. Obviously line order is very important and it’s an advantage if the team rides regularly together, but that’s not always the case. Obviously, with Sky, a lot of the riders have ridden together since they were teenagers and have come through the British Academy system – some still even live close to one another. This familiarity and understanding is a big advantage.

Here’s how it’s done. Bobby in action as part of CSC’s winning 2006 Eindhoven TTT team:

I’ve had a fantastic time chatting to Bobby but I’m going to let him get back to work, studying the route of the forthcoming Giro d’Italia team time trial in Verona which we at VeloVoices will be watching with interest. Thank you for sharing with us some of your cherished memories and I think we can all agree the boys at Sky are fortunate indeed to have someone of your experience guiding them.

Other VeloVoices interviews:

Geoffroy Lequatre (Bretagne-Schuller) part 1, part 2

Marc De Maar (UnitedHealthcare)

Amael Moinard (BMC)

Photographer Roz Jones

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