Robert Wagner – I’m More Of A Helper Than A Killer
If you have read my interview with Blaz Jarc earlier this year, you might remember that I have a passion for road cycling. Sure, the causa Armstrong is more than annoying, but with the gentleman rider and “fastest mod on wheels” Bradley Wiggins entering the stage, road cycling has also become part of pop culture finally.
Beyond Wiggins and the other well-known names in the peloton there’s also a whole new generation of riders doing their job with passion and ambition. One of them is Robert Wagner from the RadioShack Nissan Trek Team. Robert was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1983. He started his professional career in 2006 and joined RadioShack Nissan Trek in 2011. Recently he announced his transfer to Team Rabobank.
We met him the day before the Cyclassics in Hamburg, Germany, took place and talked about the very beginning of his career, his idols as a young rider, victories and injuries, the future of pro cycling and much more.
Robert, welcome on bushwah! Let’s start with giving us a brief insight into your family background. Your family has been addicted to cycling for decades …
Yes, there’s a long tradition of cycling in my family, but the origins were quite different because it all started with weightlifting long ago. Later my grandfather and my father became very successful cyclists and even my parents got to know each other through cycling. That said, also getting into cycling seemed to be pretty obvious for me because it always surrounded me.
The enthusiasm for cycling affects my whole family. If I’m back in Germany for a race, like the one tomorrow here in Hamburg, my whole family will be at the track to support me, including my grandparents. That’s amazing!
I also still remember, that in 1992, when I was nine years old, I got a purple Diamant road bike (Editor’s note: “Diamant” was a former GDR bike manufacturer) as my Christmas present. I was pretty disappointed first, because my biggest wish was a mountain bike but the disappointment was gone soon.
After it started with this purple bike: how did it proceed?
Well, I was lucky to win races almost from the beginning, which was in March 1993, and so the story continued. I went through the remains of the former GDR training school of cycling, which also included strength training and swimming. Actually there wasn’t much spare time at all besides the training and most of my friends were also cyclists.
Well, Miguel Indurain was definitely my biggest idol and there’s one particular story regarding Miguel Indurain, because one year we decided to travel to the Tour de France with the family in summer holidays, which was an amazing opportunity for me. I absolutely wanted to meet him there. When we found out in which hotel he and his team stayed, I went there, positioned myself in front of the hotel door and waited. I wanted his autograph on my race cap so desperately.
I stood there at the entrance for hours, waiting and waiting but Miguel Indurain didn’t show up but just when I turned away a little from the entrance someone ticked on my shoulder from behind. It was Miguel Indurain! I still have the cap with the autograph, hanging on the wall of my children’s room with all the other memories. By the way, the room still is in the same condition as it was when I was a growing up boy. My parents didn’t change the slightest thing. It’s kind of a little museum today.
What do you think, what the 10-year-old Robert Wagner would think about today’s Robert Wagner?
Sure, as a 10-year-old boy you dream of winning the Tour de France … but when I look back I think I did fairly well. I’m very proud of becoming German road champion last year, when I was able to beat several strong riders. If somebody would have told me as a ten-year-old, that I would be the national champion one day and a rider in such great team like RadioShack, I think I would have thought that this sounds pretty cool.
When you started as a young professional you also had to get used to the hierarchy in a pro team. Was it an integration you did willingly because you knew you might benefit from the knowledge of the older and more experienced riders?
I think I was – or still am – smart enough to know “I’ll be part of a new team, I’m young and I showed my pace, otherwise I won’t have become a pro” on the one hand but on the other hand I knew that the game will start over from on the beginning which meant that I had to prove myself to climb up the latter. That’s still the same these days and I feel comfortable with it. Maybe, to be honest, I’m more of a helper than a „killer“ who I perhaps better should be from time to time.
Can this way of thinking be considered as a change of mind compared to your early days, when you only went for the win?
Yes, definitely! Maybe I just became more adult. I knew and I still know my abilities. It was in the youth and junior category races already that I recognized that it’ll always be tough for me in the mountains but I was a fast sprinter. So it wasn’t hard for me to accept that I won’t become a climber. Maybe I didn’t push hard enough some times, maybe, but looking back at my career so far, I think, that I didn’t do much wrong. I think that I’m a pretty realistic person.
The victory at the German national road championships in 2011 was your biggest success so far in your professional career and everything seemed to run perfectly for you until your knee injury meant a heavy setback in spring this year.
I never had any issues with my knees since my very first days on a bike. Many riders are complaining about knee injuries but I didn’t know them at all. It happened all at a sudden and without any warning. Even more: it was the right knee first and I thought, „Okay, this can happen somehow.“ I had the surgery and was back on the bike 10 days later, full of ambition and with the will to perform well in the season because I also had in mind that I’m in a contract year, which means that my contract ends this season and so there’s definitely some pressure too.
The training went well but after 3 ½ weeks I had to call my doctor again to tell him „I think, I have the same issue with the other knee.“ I couldn’t believe it! It was truly unbelievable, but I wasn’t concerned about my future because I had good results in the last years. Although it means a lot of pressure when you’re injured in your contract year. But I wasn’t afraid that this was the end of my career – I know that it won’t happen so soon.
Exactly. I had to cancel Paris-Roubaix, which is one of my favourite races. Actually I should have participated in the spring classics and the Giro d’Italia afterwards. It was a tremendous program! The team really built a dream schedule for me but the injury upset my plans from one day to the next …
Which meant that you sat in front of the TV at home watching these races? Did you suffer?
Yes, definitely. Especially because of Paris-Roubaix. I would have loved to be in it. It’s such a crazy race, indeed! If you would ask a hobby cyclist to ride along this track he would probably say, „I’m sorry, but I don’t think I want to do this!“ You have to be kind of crazy to enjoy it, and I really do enjoy it!
When you see all the other riders on the TV, competing in this race, it really hurts. But in the end the injury also strengthened my motivation. I’m not the guy who gives up. I have a family and a handicapped daughter – I’m riding for them. That’s the reason why I’m riding. I don’t do it to buy a Ferrari or a second house. I’m a cyclist because I’m enjoying it, because I’m doing a living from it and because I have to feed my family.
That leads me to another point. Looking at the performance a cyclist delivers almost 12 months a year and comparing it to other sports like tennis, golf or soccer: do you ask yourself sometimes if your performance is well enough honoured in terms of money? There are not so many cyclists earning „big“ money …
Well, people keep asking me this a lot: tennis or football players are working so much less compared to the cyclists which are up six or seven hours in the saddle a day and are doing 3-week-tours, no matter if it’s hot or cold or rainy. On the other hand a football game can be cancelled if it’s too rainy …
I keep telling them, that every man is the architect of his own fortune. Theoretically spoken I also could have become a football player to earn lots of money but in the end it was my decision and so I would never complain about unfairness or injustice. At least I could have tried to become a football player for instance, but I didn’t, so I’m not jealous at all because I chose to become a cyclist – nobody forced me. Looking at a day like this: who would complain? We’re in a nice hotel, the sun is shining and I’m fine. Tomorrow I’ll do the race and have a day off on Monday. Most people have to get to work on Monday morning, getting up at 6 or 8 am, and I can stay in bed for another hour or two …
Money is just the one side of the medal, the amount of credit you receive the other. When we’re looking at the UK right now, Bradley Wiggins moved cycling to a whole new level in the public awareness. He’s treated like a pop star and enjoys celebrating himself and presenting himself with other celebrities. What do think about this development and what it means for cycling at all?
That’s great! No doubt! I’m really excited about the impact Bradley Wiggins has on the overall awareness of our sport. It was amazing to see how many people attended the road races at the Olympic games in London this year – and they didn’t only watch the men’s races but also the women’s, even though it was raining cats and dogs. What an enthusiasm! I don’t think that someone who isn’t enthusiastic about cycling would wait five hours or so on a street in pouring rain just to watch the peloton passing by within seconds. I think this is great for cycling!
Do you sometimes imagine how it would be to play the role of Bradley Wiggins? Would you like to be such a public person?
Not at all! I didn’t grow up that way and I don’t want to have it like that. Sure, I’m not in the position for it, too. I’m not a rider who wins lots of races. It’s a topic for the local newspaper when I’m winning my two or three races a year and that’s okay for me. I’m lucky with that and as far as I’m concerned, I know that I’ll never win the Tour de France or even become second or third or at least one of the top 10 riders – so I know I’ll never encounter what happens to Bradley Wiggins right now.
And it was a smart idea by him to use his sideburns as a trademark …
Yes, pretty smart, but I don’t think that there was a plan behind it. Bradley Wiggins already had the sideburns when he was a successful track cyclist. With his latest victories in the Tour de France and the Olympic games he has become an icon, a trademark and people like it.
Let’s talk about the future of professional cycling. The race calendar is getting more and more international. ProTour races are even held in Qatar and China now. What do you think about this development?
One thing is obvious. The UCI (“The International Cycling Union“, editor’s note) arranges these races in China for one main reason: they are paid a good amount of money for it and if the races are declared as ProTour-Races each ProTour-Team is committed to take part in it. There’s nothing bad about it, but for me the roots cycling are still in Belgium, France, Spain and Italy. I don’t think that it will change much in the next couple of years. Maybe in 20 years the Tour of Beijing will be an established race but a Paris-Roubaix will still be a Paris-Roubaix and can’t be replaced, just like the Tour of Flanders or the Tour de France.
Another part of the story is that races are happening all over the year by now. Do you sometimes feel like a puppet in this game of internationalization that the UCI plays?
Sure, you’re a puppet somehow. I can speak my mind as a rider but if I wouldn’t agree, the first thing they would tell me or any other guy would be: „Why don’t you quit and try to find another job?“
On the other hand, I like travelling around the world. I have been in China last year and I really enjoyed it. Furthermore I can say that I participated in the very first Tour of Beijing. That was a really exciting experience! Unfortunately the military mostly isolated the spectators from the race track. That was really a pity because the public interest was much much bigger! There also were crowds of people waiting at the entrance of the Olympic village where we lived but the weren’t allowed to get in or to get access to the track. It’s just a different kind of culture …
In the peloton the number of riders from countries outside Europe also rises …
Someone once said to me: „Let’s see what happens when the Africans discover cycling as a sport!“ There’s no doubt what great runners they are, so maybe there can be a similar development in cycling with their strengths in endurance and agility.
Just take Daniel Teklehaimanot from Eritrea in the Orica Greenedge Team, for instance. Only two or three years ago no one would have thought that a rider from Africa would become a pro rider – and this guy is really really talented! He’s a great climber and has legs like steel – no need to think that someone who comes from Africa or any other place on earth must be a complete greenhorn. It’s also pretty amazing to see which feedback he gets in his home country.
On the other hand, when we take China and think about the billions of Chinese people and that there are only a few who do cycling as a sport right now – maybe an event like the Tour of Beijing can start an evolution which will make China much stronger in cycling as it is today.
Let’s get back to your role as „puppet“ as a rider. Sponsors played a main role in cycling ever since. In your team Leopard Trek, which later became RadioShack Nissan Trek, you went through unsecure times when one of the sponsors ended his commitment last year.
I was a pro for four years already, in smaller but well-structured teams like Skil Shimano, when I got the offer in 2011 to join Leopard Trek. This was an amazing opportunity, like suddenly playing in the Champions League in football. It was like a dream coming true.
Everything was perfect and then the rumours spread at the Vuelta. We didn’t know what was going on and just thought that it couldn’t end like this. There were definitely high expectations because of the huge number of big names in the team and maybe the team didn’t fulfil them all but it wasn’t a bad year at all, but there were debates about the team’s performance anyway. I wasn’t really concerned about my personal future because I already had some good results that year, but I didn’t want to make a step back in terms of professionalism and general support. Finally I was one of the first team riders who were informed about the merger between RadioShack and Leopard, with Fabian Cancellara and the Schleck brothers leading the new team, and that I would be part of it. Fortunately it was just one week of uncertainty for me compared to other riders who had to wait much longer.
If you look at Bradley Wiggins this year, he’s in peak form since March and if you’re asking for the reasons you have to see the bigger picture: Team Sky has made terrific improvements in the training methods, supported by new scientific studies. They also have a huge impact on the complete way of living of their riders regarding regeneration and nutrition, just to name a few topics. So, the reasons for their success become much more obvious.
Let me give you just one example: as you might know, sleep is very important in a well-planned training. All teams know this fact, but Sky takes it one step ahead. Before this year’s season started, each rider got his own and individual mattress. They carry these mattresses to the most important races in an extra van for all the eight or nine riders. Even more the physiotherapists not only change the mattresses in the rider’s hotel rooms, they also do some additional hovering and are cleaning the air condition to avoid illnesses. It’s a very professional approach in Team Sky, which hasn’t only the cycling itself in mind. This all might seem like minor changes but in the end you see, how it affects the team’s performance right now.
You just announced that you will leave RadioShack Nissan Trek to the end of the season and join Rabobank.
Yes, that’s true. My former coach in the Skil-Shimano-Team will also join Rabobank in 2013 and he asked me if I would like to join the team to support their sprinters Theo Bos and Mark Renshaw. I don’t think that I already reached the peak of my personal development as a rider and think that the intensity and quality of the Team Rabobank’s training-concept will help me to get one step further, so it was a pretty fast decision join them.
I think it’s going to be a pretty hard winter in terms of training and I’m looking forward to the benefits of a professional and well organised team structure at Rebobank which hopefully will give my performance a real boost when I stay healthy, which is he most important requirement.
There’s no pressure for me, but I hope, if there’s the chance, that I can reach for the one or the other win.
Do you already have an idea how long your career as a pro rider will last?
I think I’m not old enough yet to have an idea when it might be the best time to quit the job. As long as I enjoy cycling and I’m having a good contract I’ll keep on riding!
Your team member Jens Voigt gives the best example how long such a career can last.
Yes, he’s awesome! He turns 41 this year and he still is on the level of the much younger guys. He has a fighter’s heart and still gives the younger ones the lowdown. He’s one of the real heroes of cycling – no matter if in France, Spain or even in the US. In fact he never won the Tour de France but due to his personality he’s so popular that I can’t imagine pro cycling without him. I also think that he has a good contract and that he knows that he can still perform on the highest level. I think these are the main reasons why he added another year.
In an interview with the „Neue Züricher Zeitung“ Jens Voigt recently said that he would lock his bike after his career and would throw the key into a lake …
I won’t do that. I still would keep on cycling. Just for fun. Riding the hills on a mountain bike with some friends for example, but I won’t do races anymore. I don’t have to prove others or myself what I’m able to. I didn’t ride the Tour de France yet but Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders … I know how hard these races are. I know that I won’t be on the podium in one of these races, maybe I’ll be in the top 10 at Paris-Roubaix one day, when everything runs perfectly and with a little bit of luck … maybe …
Finally, here are our five incomplete sentences:
- Without chocolate … I can’t be.
- If I had just one last race … it would be the Tour de France, just to see the all the buzz around it in person.
- If I had not become a pro rider… I think I would have become an ADAC breakdown service employee. (Editor’s note: the ADAC is the biggest German Automobile Association)
- What hurts me most … were my two knee-surgeries.
- My iphone … is almost as important as chocolate.
- Please, never ask me … to ride the Tour de France again, perhaps, if I did it once.
Robert, thanks a lot for this amazing interview and all the best for your future!
all photos © Jens Herrndorff