Changing scenery just the ticket
Zuelle thinks he can win riding for Festina
Posted: Sunday July 12, 1998 09:54 PM
Special from L'Equipe, the French sports daily
Alex Zuelle is very polite, he never says something harmful, but he still knowswhat he wants and how to say it.
People felt like he was disavowing the Once team and coach Manolo Saiz when hesigned a contract with Festina last year. With Once, which was more like afamily, a very tight clan, than a team, he'd spent six years learning everything he knows about cycling. Riders seldom leave Once, or if they do, they usually come back quickly, like Belgium's Johan Bruyneel did.
But Zuelle didn't hesitate and showed unusual determination, signing a contract with Festina just before the 1997 Tour de France. "Manolo couldn't match Festina's offer. There was too much of a difference, that's when I was convinced, all the more since the French were offering me a three-year contract. At the age of 30, it was unhoped-for," Zuelle said.
This transfer, the biggest in recent cycling history, was controversial in many ways. The fact that Saiz knew that Zuelle would leave Once after the tour gave people in Spain a new perspective of Zuelle's expeditious recovery after he broke his collarbone during the Tour of Switzerland, two weeks before the Tour de France.
And in France people were doubtful about Zuelle's impact on the team after Festina coach Bruno Roussel announced the transfer during the Tour de France, thus obviously disturbing the team's leader, Richard Virenque.
"Today, it's all settled," Zuelle explained, almost surprised to be the source of so much trouble. "With Laurent Jalabert, on the Once team, everything went well, always, nobody intruded on the other's territory. I don't see why with Richard, things would be any different. I know that on a big tour, there's always one of the leaders who doesn't fare as well. I wouldn't mind it if I was that one and I had to work for Richard. I've done it before with Once."
No matter how hard he tries to turn his back on the past, Once and Manolo Saiz keep coming back in the conversation. "It's not so easy to make a complete break with the first part of my career, which will certainly be the most important one," Zuelle said.
"I've spent more time, so far, with Saiz than with [my] fiance. I've been lucky enough, when I turned professional, to be in touch with the very best there is in modern-day cycling with Once. I've left Once for Festina, a similar structure, organized just as well. I needed a change of scenery, it was high time. With Manolo, everything was too well-ordered, every season resembled the past one, with the same guidelines always. I think that meeting other people,with different mental approaches, will push me further, will make me give as much as I can. This wasn't possible with Once anymore. I really never had second thoughts about leaving them. They brought me a lot, but I also gave them a lot," Zuelle added.
Little by little, Zuelle relaxed and let go. He didn't want to hear about a special relationship with Saiz. "I know I've often been described as Manolo's spiritual son, but to me it was strictly business."
Then there was the controversy surrounding his accelerated recovery last year.
"We've been criticized a lot. Me, but also Manolo, who was described as a slave owner. But you have to understand that back then we just tried to avoid wasting all the preparatory work we'd done. I'd never prepared for something the way I prepared for the Tour last year, and I had to give it all up because of a stupid fall. Manolo only helped me make up for the time I'd lost. Only when I withdrew from the Tour did we understand how crazy we'd been. Manolo acted like a boss then, not a father. But beyond our professional relationship, which was very strong, I often felt about him the way I do about great friends," Zuelle said.
Their separation didn't prevent his former coach, who was on the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) for business, from paying Zuelle, who was more depressed than he ever was with Once, a visit.
During the Giro's first two weeks, he'd been masterful, but he then faltered, both mentally and physically. Everybody pointed fingers at his fragile mental approach, which has been described for years as his main handicap. "The real reason I failed is my lack of experience in races that take place in Italy, and the Giro, which is really particular, most of all. Obviously, there also were health problems, with my blood, it seems, which prevented me from being at 100percent during the last week. But if I come back on the Giro next year, I will have learned my lesson," Zuelle said.
He seems to have forgotten about that week and to be preoccupied only by the Tour de France, which he's competing in for a French team for the first time.
"It may be impressive. I can already imagine the pressure there's going to be for three weeks. It must be incredibly motivating," Zuelle commented.
The Tour de France has always been his biggest objective, even though he's fared better in other races, winning the Vuelta (Tour of Spain) twice, among other things. Ever since his second-place finish in 1995, Zuelle has thought he could win the Tour one day.
"That year, I understood that with a little luck, it was possible to arrive in Paris wearing yellow. You also need to know how to force your luck, but up to now, I've been doomed. 1995 was the only year there wasn't any problem. But I know that if I'd stayed with Once, I certainly would never have had a shot at it. I needed a change, maybe bad luck will run out, too," he said.
Zuelle also denied that his bad eyesight was the source of most of his falls. "My glasses have never prevented me from winning races," he said, getting carried away. "Obviously, I can't be happy with them, but it's always been out of the question to have surgery. I don't want to have bigger problems when I'm 50. My life is not only riding a bike."
Now that he isn't under Saiz' hold anymore, the kind Swiss is a lot more talkative and self-assured. "Begrudging me with being too kind is easy. I'm not going to change today, all the more since I haven't won less races because ofit," he claimed.
But even at the age of 30, Zuelle still has a hard time not being pictured as a sweet, sluggish student. He even surprised Virenque when he showed up for the Festina team's first training sessions. "It's crazy how discreet he is, sometimes you even have the impression of dealing with a rider who hasn't turned pro yet. But the most surprising thing about him is that he doesn't know himself well. In time trials, he could have brought us his knowledge, but he's incapable of telling us how he felt. At times, we felt like he was a robot," Virenque said.
Saiz made Zuelle a Tour de France contender, but he knows that he's never been closer to achieving his goal now, with Festina. "I don't have much time left," he added.
He still holds on to the memory of the yellow jersey he took from Miguel Indurain for one day in 1992. Back then, he was this prodigy Saiz had discovered a year and a half before following advice from Australian Stephen Hodge, who lived in Switzerland.
Copyright (c) 1998 L'Equipe
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