Q: I have a son who is almost 4 and has been riding on two wheels for 6 months. At what age would you recommend a young person begin a career in cycling?
A: It's always fun to ride a bike when you're a young kid. It's a way to get around, a form of transportation. But there's no rush to start competing. For serious competition, I started when I was 14 1/2. I have known riders who started at eight or nine, but if they went on to a professional career they usually burned out. Cycling's a sport where it's more tactical and conditioning than a lot of technique, whereas if you're a tennis player you start really young. I don't think it's ever too late too start. If you're 17, 18, 19. I also know some dominant riders who started late. Tony Rominger started when he was 20. It's a matter of your basic natural talent. It's a healthy time to start at 13 or 14. The great thing about cycling is it's a fitness sport. When you're a teenager you want to do something healthy. It probably kept me from messing with my friends and doing stuff that I shouldn't have been doing. Cycling takes a certain discipline to try and race and do well. There's a lot of sports w here you can kind of fool around and still perform, but in cycling you can't.
Q: Throughout your career, did you ever resent the indifference of the American public toward bike racers, especially given the fame racers enjoy in other countries?
A: I might have when I was a young teenager. You kind of have an attitude, the feeling that you're doing something superior. As I raced I kind of understood that really every culture has their idea of what sport is. Americans probably can't believe that Europeans don't like baseball more. But I've learned to grow with that. But I've actually grown quite amazed at the acceptance of cycling. And I'm amazed at the current popularity of cycling. People recognize me when I go places. And people on the road are more polite to bicyclists now. They don't stare at you when you walk into a store with Lycra on anymore. People thought I was from outer space when I was a teenager.
Q: How widespread is drug usage among the riders in the Tour? If it's widespread, is there any hope of reducing it or eliminating it?
A: That's always a tough question because I don't think even the riders know [if others are using.] Cycling is the most controlled sport. That's where the most drug tests are conducted. They do test and find riders positive. Several of them with testosterone, several with caffeine. But it's like anywhere else. In the past couple of years there has been stuff that's more dangerous than previous years, like growth hormones. With that kind of stuff you don't know the outcome until later down the years. I can honestly say I never saw anything on my team. It's something I never want to say, but I do wonder how the dominance of the Italians has risen so high. I shouldn't say that, because they have incredibly talented riders in Italy, and the best development cycling in the world. But some very normal riders have gone on to become Supermen. I wouldn't want to say for certain, because you never really know.
Q: I am a former swimmer who retired from 14 years of competing because of health problems. I had a difficult time coping with that for over a year--but I am doing well now. I am wondering how you are coping with your own situation, and what you have done to facilitate your transition from top athlete to regular guy?
A: Well, I have to say I haven't had the easiest of retirements. I don't think I retired the way I wanted to. I had a frustrating last three years of my career, because I had hundreds of people saying I was too old, lazy. It's because I was always tired, and I was tired for a reason. I had something wrong with me. It was frustrating to retire that way. I had a falling out with my parents two years ago and that was really hard. The whole combination was really hard to get through. It's been one y ear since I stopped the Tour, and I'm really finally starting to see a focus in my life. The hardest thing as an athlete to find a focus in life. When I see the Tour now I get so sad, basically sentimental. I get so choked up. I really want to be in the T our again. I sometimes think I'm just on an injury period, where I'll race again in three months. Then I sometimes say to myself, "My God, I'm never going to race in the Tour de France again." It's really a hard adjustment. Only time is going to get me to where I don't have those feelings anymore. I'm just going to have to stay busy--I'm the kind of guy who has to stay busy.
Q: Two weeks ago I crashed on my bike and was carted off in an ambulance. I'm not really comfortable riding now. Do you have any suggestions how to get my confidence back?
A: I think the best way is to actually get back on your bike and ride, even if it's just a short trip around the block. When I crash it's sometimes hard for the next couple races to take descents as fast as I could. By doing it you kind of get over your fears, and you realize, Hey, it's not so bad. But it's always a good learning experience, even if it's being hit by a car. Riders always need to be aware of what's around them. I have a way of riding where I'm always aware of what's behind me, an d I look over my shoulder a bit and I always respect the road laws. I don't run red lights. Once you get back out, definitely go out on country roads where there's not a lot of traffic.
Q: This year Indurain has raced more aggressively than in Tours past. He has taken more risks and attempted to make things happen as opposed to hanging in the road stages and crushing everyone in the time trial. Indurain seems more well-rounded and potent than ever before.
Given this newer style of racing, what, if any, special strengths will a challenger need to dethrone Indurain in next year's Tour? How can a challenger best compete against Indurain? How would you do it?
A: I don't think there is anybody out there with the raw talent of Indurain. I think Eugueni Berzin, the Russian, could potentially move out there and be with them. Rominger's had his day. I don't think Rominger will ever come close to beating Indurain now. I thought this was his only year to have the chance.
If I was a rider who wanted to beat him it would depend on the strength of the team. If I were a sponsor and I wanted to beat Indurain I'd recruit at least two or three riders capable of being third or fourth and have them constantly play off Indurain. I think Indurain's capable of winning six or seven tours. But [top talent] can change all of a sudden. Indurain just popped out of nowhere. Nobody would have considered him capable of doing what he's doing when he turned pro seven years before.
Q: What is the daily caloric consumption of riders during mountain stages of races such as the Tour de France? What would the daily menu look like?
A: It varies between 6,000 and 10,000 calories a day. Our typical diet would start when we get up and have some cereal. They would have pastas for us, too. I would have eggs, a little protein three or four hours before the race. A lot of people, a lot of American athletes, are saying "how do you eat a lot of fat and protein?" At the Tour de France level you need a lot of fat and protein. You need to keep your hormones at a very high level and you need to rebuild your muscle. They've done studies where riders eat very little protein, very little fat. They basically wilt away, lose all their muscle mass, and are not capable of taking enough calories in.
Anyway, a breakfast would be pasta, cereal, eggs, bread, and coffee. Then during the race you'd have some kind of carbohydrate food. I personally prefer liquid food than food food. In the long stages when the speed is slow you can eat a little food. By eating a lot of food when it's high intensity, you risk dehydration and will risk not getting enough carbohydrates. It depends. Immediately after the race we'd eat a lot of carbos and fluids. It's most important to have some right after the race--that half an hour is the best time to recover. After that we'd have dinner. Ideally, if I had my way with my team, I'd have a bowl of pasta. They'd always have a ham-and-cheese sandwich. Dinner would be one meat, then soup, pasta, vegetables, cheese, and dessert.
Q: Which stage route of the Tour de France did you dislike the most? Why?
A: The Tour de France is the one race where there's no boring leg. The last day of the race, if it's not a time trial, it's a slow day. Nobody races for anything until the sprint at the end. The last day is always a great race, just because it's over.
Q: What would you suggest a young person with a dream to ride in the Tour de France do? Does it take luck? Hard work? Opportunities? What would be your advice for young riders trying to make it to the top?
A: I would say the best thing, as I said in the question about the fat coaches, is you've got to learn the basics about conditioning. The more educated you are about your training, the better you can train and the more reasons you'll find why you can perform and why you can't. The secret is to race. You've got to get into races and race with good riders. You'll figure out where you sit with each race. The only way to race in the Tour de France is to race locally, then nationally, then in Europe, get on the national team, get a pro contract, and then do it. That's basically what I did.
Q: Greg, we're seeing a swing in the U.S. towards off-road riding among our top cycling athletes. What will it take to get more of the top talent back on the road? And are the two forms of cycling really mutually exclusive? Do the top riders really have to choose one or the other to be at or near the top of either?
A: Well, I don't really think so. Mountain biking is a really new sport. There's no doubt there's some uniqueness in the techniques. But if you look at most of the top mountain bikers, they were once road riders.
At one point in a career you have to make a decision. But at 18 or 19, by doing both you get the complements from both. You have to remember mountain bikers do about 80 percent of their training on the road. And for road bikers there's no reason not to train off road. Unless you're afraid of breaking an arm--and then they should quit cycling if they're worried about that.
I really think in the future there'll be fewer hard road races. It's unfortunate because I love both. I've always tried new things. I always have loved mountain biking, and have always used it to complement my road racing. But there's something appealing about road racing since it's tactical and very high speed. That's the same with mountain biking. It's unbelievable ripping down a mountain on a singletrack. I love them both.
The choice given in America sends most people to mountain biking and I think the reason is it's so much harder to make it to the top in pro cycling. Mainly because it's not an individual sport. There's team tactics and its just harder for people in America to get access to top road cycling. I think the top road cyclists are well above the mountain bikers.
Q: Is there much talking in the peloton? Does one language become the main language? French? Is talk in the peloton the sort of "trash talk" you see in the NBA or is it more general stuff or kibitzing?
A: I'd say French is definitely [the peloton language]. It could be changing, but the trash talk is English. You'd be surprised, I think there's a lot more English in the peloton. You're getting younger riders who've gone to school a little more, and actually have traveled to the United States and want to learn. The one thing about professional cycling is you compete 100 days a year. Well, you're aggressive on a football field, and maybe kill each other on a football field, but it's unlikely. T o be aggressive on a bike, well you can be aggressive in the right way--and that's with your legs, and there is a little jostling. Let's just say if there's a little aggression in a road race, usually at the end in the sprint, it's purely instinctive. Nobody's premeditated about anything, because one time you do something bad, it comes around, and, hey, the next time you're on your bike, those guys can take you down. One thing I said, you crash on a bike and there is a good chance you could die from it, s o people are pretty sportsmanlike. Everybody's pretty friendly. It's not like in American Flyers where when they're breaking away, they shove the pump in the front tire.