ANDRE GREIPEL: THE LAST SURVIVOR
The successes of youngsters such as Egan Bernal, Tadej Pogacar, Remco Evenepoel and Mathieu van der Poel mark a new era, as does the endless list of veteran riders who have retired this season. André Greipel (Rokstock, Germany, 1982) is one of the last survivors of an endangered generation. Despite the fact that he was determined to retire in 2019, he has decided to stay in the professional ranks for at least one more year. “Without setting any goals, just enjoying myself, and trying to reach a good level again,” he says.
Greipel is one of his generation’s greatest riders, with more than 150 victories on his palmares after 15 years as a professional cyclist. Together with the Irishman Dan Martin, the German sprinter is one of the most important signings that the Israel Start-up Nation team has made for the new year, which will be its first in the World Tour. He is coming to this new team after a difficult year at the Pro-Continental level with Arkea-Samsic, which struggled to put the necessary pieces together to gain many victories, while he wasn’t able to perform at his best due to a bacterial disease. By the end of October, Greipel and the team announced the termination of their contract, which was set to link them for the next two seasons. “Maybe I was a little bit optimistic when I went to the ‘ProConti’ level, but it was quite a step to be honest”, says Greipel. “The contact with Arkea was made pretty early in 2018. I was drawn to their vision, their aim to join the World Tour, the budget they had, and the riders they wanted to bring in to support me… But then one sponsor backed off, and I couldn’t bring any riders with me, so I didn’t have much help, and it wasn’t easy for a rider like me. I know the riders did their best, but it was not enough. In modern cycling it is difficult for sprinters to win alone, especially for me, as I’ve always been used to having a train, which has brought me to a lot of success. I was too optimistic in thinking I could do it alone, and I wasn’t able to do so”.
When he signed his contract with the French team, Greipel recognises that he was probably more concerned about leaving Lotto Soudal after eight years, and was still affected by the way the Belgian team treated him. “I could have stayed in the team, but I didn’t feel respected anymore. The contract they offered me wasn’t what I deserved by far. Instead of offering me this contract, I would have preferred it if they would have gone straight to me and said, ’ok André, this is the end of our relationship’. I knew everybody in the team wanted me to finish my career with Lotto Soudal. I was not happy, but at the same time I was excited for my next chapter”.
After his only victory of the season in the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in January, Greipel never returned to his level. He believes he got sick in Gabon, and was affected by the bacteria when he continued racing the following months, without understanding what was going wrong with him. Despite his poor performances, he does not think that he has deteriorated as a rider. His family and his trainer helped him to deal with the pressure of not being the same rider he was used to being. “My trainer told me: ‘you have always had pressure on you, but now it’s your turn to set that bar not so high, because you run the risk of breaking. Set it really low and you will succeed in reaching your goals’. It was a life experience. It was good for me to relax my mind and stop putting myself under so much pressure. Winning races is not as important as it was before”.
Despite the fact that he decided to end his career after the Critérium du Dauphiné, he was able to handle the stress and ride the Tour de France, without any preparation and with no other ambition than reaching the Champs Elysèes. It was one of his best experiences in cycling. “The Tour is something that you dream about when you’re a child and you’re just starting cycling. But there’s so much pressure during the race that you can’t enjoy it. So to get to know the Tour in that way, without any pressure, was like going back to childhood, enjoying everything around me, going to the village, taking my time in the signature control…without thinking about the next sprint. It was like a holiday. Every morning, I woke up and had a coffee with my soigneur. It was really good fun, despite the suffering in the mountains”.
On the 31st of October, Greipel announced the termination of his contract with Arkea-Samsic. Reading between the lines, it seemed that he intended to retire from competition. As soon as the news was published, a few teams got in contact with him. “When I made the decision to end my contract, I took time for myself to think about what I wanted to do. Do I still love what I do? Do I still love riding, racing…? Do I still I love the atmosphere? I do”, he says. The decision to sign with Israel Start-Up Nation has much to do with his friendship with Rick Zabel and Nils Politt, who are among the riders from Katusha who have found places in the new Israeli team, which purchased the Russian team’s license. “I like the vision of the team, the way they respect the riders. It’s something I have not experienced so much in other teams. There are many familiar faces and a very good atmosphere between the riders and the staff. The first impression is very good”, Greipel says.
The team presents itself as a conglomerate of nationalities and hopes to send a message of peace and brotherhood. Signing three German riders to an Israeli team is historic; they will ride alongside the first Israelis to race the Tour de France. The team’s first training camp took place in Israel, starting in Tel Aviv for the Sylvan Adams National Velodrome Open Day and to visit one of their Gino Bartali Schools in Ben Shemen, which is one of the team’s projects to promote cycling in the country. Together with local kids, the riders built an XC track. Greipel was very enthusiastic about sharing some time with the little dreamers. “As I have two daughters, I know you have to give them the best possible example”, he said, as he was helping a girl ride through mud. The team presentation took place the day after in the Start-up Central headquarters, and from there the team moved on to Jerusalem, where they visited the Museum of the Holocaust, Negev Desert, and the Dead Sea. Supported by Canadian entrepreneur Sylvan Adams and Israeli Ron Baron since its creation in 2014, the team will have the support of sponsors such as Israel Start-up Central, Vini Fantini, ReiNvent and Factor Bikes in 2020. The fact that the team will be new to the highest level of the sport is not something that Greipel is worried about. They will have the best possible material and have the capacity to respond to the riders’ specific requests.
In 2020 André Greipel will return to his old calendar, starting with the Tour Down Under. “I have no goals. I just want to leave 2019 behind me and enjoy cycling and racing again. I have the support of the team management; they believe I can return to my best level and I hope I can make that happen”. At 37 years old, the German sprinter is very motivated to start the new season. He is aware that it could be one of his last years as a professional cyclist. Thinking about all of his retired contemporaries, he reflects: “I was close to making that move too. You have to be honest with yourself and give space to the next generation. I think I speak for all the riders who have retired when I say that they didn’t have the same passion they had before and that they couldn’t perform as they used to do. Of course it will be strange to see so many new faces in the races, but sooner or later I’m going to be part of that field too”.
Inevitably, he looks back and reflects about the great achievements of his generation and Germans in particular. They have experienced major transitions: from sending their contracts by fax to being contacted on Facebook; from riding according to their sensations to calculated training systems and racing based on numbers; from the darkest era of doping to taking a clear stand to restore the credibility of the sport. One year after Greipel became a professional in 2005, the Spanish Operación Puerto exploded, with German star Jan Ullrich directly involved. Those were bad times for German cycling.“Nobody wanted to hire a German rider”, Greipel says. No bank wanted to give him a mortgage to buy a house, because he was a cyclist and might test positive. “It was not only about sport. It affected the way people saw us. Despite this, I never stoped loving and living for the sport. I’m proud to be a part of this generation and this change”. For many years, German national television ignored the Tour de France after so many doping cases. In 2007, the German T-Mobile team presented a new image, bringing a young team to the Tour de France and adopting a drug free attitude. It wasn’’ long before Patrik Sinkewitz tested positive in an anti-doping control and the TV channels ARD and ZDF decided to stop their live broadcasting of the Tour. They returned in 2008, but cancelled their broadcasting again after Bernard Kohl and Stefan Schumacher tested positive in 2009. Not until 2015 did the Tour de France return to German television consistently, just on time to see German riders Andre Greipel, Simon Geschke and Tony Martin win a total of six stages, with Martin leading the race for three days. “As a sprinter, it was not always easy to get the attention of the German media, because they needed a rider who was competitive in the general classification, but on the other side, I’m proud of the way we performed at the Tour de France and other important races. With these successes, we helped bring some new talented riders into cycling. This is what we need: attention from sponsors and parents who share their passion for cycling with their kids. We have to make them believe that we are riding in a clean way”.
Ready to start his sixteenth season as a professional cyclist, Greipel doesn’t want to call it a new beginning, but a new challenge.
Cover Photo: Noa Arnon