When I first moved to the Cote d’Azur I used to regularly see a group of cyclists whom I dubbed ‘The Four Musketeers’. To me they seemed the epitome of professionalism and a credit to their team: always smartly clad, helmeted and on gleaming steeds. I’ve finally had the pleasure of interviewing all four of them for VeloVoices, with GC contender and former Belgian time trial champion Maxime Monfort now completing the quartet. I caught up with Maxime recently after the difficult stage three in Vuelta al Pais Vasco which finished on a 400-metre, 21% ramp!
Sheree: Nice to finally meet you, Maxime, though I confess to being slightly nervous interviewing someone who’s studied journalism. Please be gentle with me! A difficult day’s racing today with those short, sharp climbs and final steep ramp?
Maxime: Yes, but you tend not to notice when you’re racing. It’s harder when you’re training, it hurts more. In a race you’re focussed, you don’t have the same feeling. You just follow, you’re trying to do your best, you don’t have time to look around and you don’t really notice the pain.
Sheree: I’ll take your word for it. I read somewhere that you started riding at a very young age around your parent’s restaurant.
Maxime: Yes, my parents told me that I rode on two wheels from the age of three which is quite early. I don’t remember.
Sheree: Impressive start to your career! When did you start riding competitively?
Maxime: I pretty much rode my bike every day from the age of ten, and started riding competitively when I was 14-15 years old. It was around this time that I started to think about a career in sport. Cycling was more than a hobby for me. I was what you might you might call an ‘aspirant’.
Sheree: I first saw you and the other guys riding around the Cote d’Azur when you were with Cofidis and always thought you looked very professional. You always rode wearing helmets which I thinks sets youngsters a good example.
Maxime: I had a good friend who crashed really badly in 2005, when he wasn’t wearing a helmet in training and since that day I always ride in one, until the end of my career and even after.
Sheree: How has your role evolved on the different teams you’ve ridden for?
Maxime: In a way, I’ve almost always had the same job. It’s best for me to work for a big leader in major races and to have my own chance to ride for myself in smaller ones. I have this perfect team role since joining Leopard. I perhaps didn’t realise this when I was at Cofidis. I like having these two kinds of job.
Sheree: We’re in Spain, where you’ve always enjoyed good results.
Maxime: Yes, but I don’t know why. It’s true I was once fifth in this race.
Maxime is being overly modest. He was fifth here in 2008 and in the Vuelta a Espana finished sixth in 2008 and 11th in 2007.
Sheree: Do you like those steep climbs?
Maxime: No, not at all. I don’t like sharp, steep climbs – I prefer rolling ones. These are hard for me but, like today, I can do it if I have to but I’m not like the Colombians – there were three in the top four today.
Sheree: Is that how you see your career continuing to progress? Riding in support of Andy Schleck or someone similar?
Maxime: Yes, for me, it may be hard to understand but I’m strongest when I’m working for someone else. It’s strange but when I have to do a job like on the Galibier two years ago in the Tour, I wasn’t actually feeling super good, but I understood it was a big and important goal for the team and Andy.When I understood that I got stronger and I did what I could.
It’s a little bit my character – I like to take care of other people, make sure all my friends are good.
Sheree: Sure, everyone remembers that crucial stage 18 from Pinerolo to the Col du Galibier in the 2011 Tour where, as part of the early break, you provided key support for Andy in his decisive attack 60km from the finish.
Those are admirable traits for a rider but, if I were to look at your results, I would call you Mister Consistent, and I mean that it a very positive way. You’re always there or thereabouts on GC. That’s important for a team?
Maxime: Yes, what can I say about that? I lack explosivity, so I’m not a guy who’s going to win ten races a year. In fact I’ve only won six. I just want to be seen as professional, giving a good image of the team and of myself, and being honest. It’s simply me, that’s what I’m like in life too.
Sheree: I follow you on Twitter and I’d say you have an almost British sense of humour, quite self-deprecating. I particularly enjoyed the tweets about the house you’re having built which, as anyone will tell you, always takes twice as long and costs twice as much as planned!
From now I think I’m gonna train like the company who is building my house. 1h rain from 8am to 9am = no work the all day #easylife
— Maxime Monfort (@maxmonfort) October 15, 2012
Maxime: Yes, that’s about it!
Sheree: I also noted on Twitter last year that spectators at the Vuelta were confusing you and Basque teammate Markel Irizar.
Today I had a lot of support in the last climb because everybody called me “Markel”. Even on the way back to the bus without sunglasses!!!
— Maxime Monfort (@maxmonfort) August 23, 2012
Maxime: I’ve even heard a lot of people saying “Come on Markel” this week and he’s not even riding. I like him, we’re friends. People should realise he’s not here but it’s okay. Even though he’s like 10kg heavier than me. People say it’s because we have a similar position on the bike with a rounded back.
Sheree: Were you good at any other sports as a child?
Maxime: Well, like all small boys when I was young I played football in my village but I was always in love with cycling. I’m still in love with cycling. Now I sometimes play tennis and run, but because cycling is a non-contact sport, you have to take care, You can’t really do any other sports as you need to avoid injuries.
Sheree: Ah, but don’t all Belgians love cycling?
Maxime: Maybe to the north of Brussels, but where I come from in Wallonia, not so much. I don’t even come from a cycling family. Of course, it’s changed a bit because of the world champion, Philippe Gilbert, and maybe me too. We rode together when we were younger, although he’s a year older than me. We were in the same team until we turned professional. On Wednesday afternoons, my parents would drive me over to Philippe’s parents and we’d train together. For a long time it was like that. We went through all the age groups, side by side.
Sheree: How do you keep slim? Do you have any special regime?
Maxime: It’s a big question – I had a lot of problems with my weight as a child. It was a big frustration for me when I started cycling. So I visited a nutritionist and followed his advice for three to four years, until I was 21. I completely changed the way I ate and what I ate. When I turned professional, I already had lots of experience, so I know what to do now and I have the same approach to alimentation 365 days of the year which means my weight stays the same. I only don’t eat the things I don’t like, otherwise I eat pretty much everything. Of course, I like going out to restaurants too for Christmas, birthdays and special occasions but my weight remains the same all year. I’m lucky by comparison with some – I don’t have any problems. [I suspect Maxime’s talking about having a balanced diet with portion control – Ed.]
Sheree: You’ve been a pro now for ten seasons. What are some of your fondest memories?
Maxime: I would say that it’s a nice life: I’m living the dream. Of course my first wins in Luxembourg will always be special for me [Maxime won a stage and the overall in the 2004 Tour of Luxembourg in his first year as a pro – Ed] as it wasn’t expected but I’ve had a lot of good moments on all the teams I’ve worked for. In general, if 15 years ago someone had asked what my dream was, this is what I would like to be doing. I would have signed up then and there for this life. Sometimes I should remember it more often …
Sheree: Out of all those wonderful moments, which has been the most special?
Maxime: It’s difficult to say. There’s not only one, I have many. But it’s not only about wins, I don’t win a lot. If you were to ask a champion he will say this one was the best for me. Nobody would have bet on me when I was 20-years-old, second year as an amateur, to have this career. So I’m just happy with that.
Sheree: So, what was that breakthrough moment?
Maxime: I rode for Landbouwkrediet as a stagiare in September 2003 and straight away the manager told me that they didn’t have a spot for me on the team the following year, but maybe they would the year after. So I said okay but, finally, he called me on December 6th and he said I could sign tomorrow for the following season. I’ll always remember this call and when and where I was that day that moment, when I turned pro.
Sheree: I’m sure you’ll have more memorable moments in the future. Is there anything you’d really like to achieve?
Maxime: Yes, I hope so. In general, I want to continue to improve my level until I’m 35-36 years old, so 5-6 years more, and then maybe ride a couple of years more. Then I’ll be happy with my career. Obviously, I’d like some more results and I’m reminded regularly of the achievements of my teammates like Haimar Zubeldia, who’s 36, and, of course, Jens. He’s special. We will never know another Jens. He’s smiling all the time, even when it rains, he’s just happy. He’s crazy, we need him in the team – he’s a fantastic influence.
Sheree: Meeting you guys this week, it’s evident that there’s a really good atmosphere on the team and a special bond between you.
TC is almost over, it was the best ever for me. Good trainings, good food and above everything great team spirit #thanksguys
— Maxime Monfort (@maxmonfort) January 21, 2013
Maxime: Yes, it’s our third year together and we’re friends now. I never got this feeling in another team. It’s something the media normally never mentions and I hope that next year we can all stay together.
Sheree: I’m sure I speak for many fans when I say we’re all hoping Andy gets back to his competitive best and that the team finds another sponsor. Thank you so much Maxime for taking the time to chat to us, good luck in your forthcoming races and please pass on my regards to your charming wife and lovely daughter whom I met at the Tour du Haut Var.
Thanks also to RadioShack-Leopard’s PR supremo Philippe Maertens for arranging the interview.