Features Interviews Teams

Coming home: Roger Hammond interview, part 2

Madison Genesis team manager on why he prefers a smaller squad, the pros and cons of the Tour Series and how he dreams of another 'against-the-odds' victory in a big race this season

Roger Hammond has returned as the Madison Genesis team manager this season after a three-year spell at Dimension Data. In his first spell at Madison Genesis, Hammond oversaw victories in the Tour Series, Beaumont Trophy and Tour of the Reservoir. The team he now inherits is one that our British Conti Insider describes as a domestic ‘super-team’.

In this second and final part of our interview with Hammond, he explains why he prefers to have a smaller squad and single race programme, why the Tour Series is important but also poses rider form and fitness challenges, and how he dreams of another ‘against-the-odds’ victory – ‘à la Swift’ – in a big race this season. If you missed it, read Part 1 of the interview here.

Photo: Madison Genesis

I know Connor Swift said that the Tour of Normandie might be on the calendar again and I know that you asked for an invite for Tro-Bro Leon, but how’s the race programme shaping up?

There aren’t many teams, certainly not at our level, that get confirmation of races early on. The Tour of Normandie has confirmed. As for the rest of the races, we’ve got a mixture actually of some stage racing and some international one-days that we’ve requested. We’re just waiting for confirmation on some of those.

To be honest with you, the season is quite condensed in the UK. When you look on the outside it doesn’t look as if there’s that much going on, but then when you really plot the calendar out, there isn’t a great deal of time to go away and really get stuck into some international races over a period of time. So it just sort of popping over for a weekend here and then coming back into the UK for two weeks.

I’m quite keen to avoid having a double race programme this season. It becomes a really expensive and tiring thing to do for the riders. It’s actually quite difficult to do a double programme because you have to rotate people through the season. And then it becomes really hard to get the preparation and form right for the big races: the Tour of Yorkshire, the Tour Series period, the national championships period, and then the Tour of Britain period at the end of the season. It’s quite difficult to get those quite right with only enough riders for one and a half teams really, because as soon as you go to double programme with only 12 or 13 riders, it’s all hands on deck. You will have injuries or illnesses, so you’ve got to plan for them.

When I was racing I was churning out about 116 days a year in my biggest season, and actually most of those days were just about turning up and being a number. We don’t do that anymore

I think one of the things that cycling has done since I started as a professional back in the dark ages, is that there is a focus now on quality rather than quantity. When I was racing I was churning out about 116 days a year in my biggest season, and actually, most of those days were just about turning up and being a number. We don’t do that anymore. It’s more like you go in and you race to have an impact and then you come home and you prepare again. In my day, I would train until 1st February and go off to the first race and then I wouldn’t really train again until 1st November at the end of the season because the rest of the time would just be recovery rides between race days. Whereas now, the athlete is training or preparing more or less to be 100% in each event they do. Then they disappear and come back again. And that’s very difficult to do if we’re doing a double programme with what is realistically a single team of athletes.

Connor Swift. Photo: Luke Webber / Madison

So the Tour of Normandie will be your first race. Straight into the hard stuff?

We looked at racing beforehand, but there’s little gain to be had from it in terms of exposure for the team. There’s nothing in the UK, of course, so it would be all Europe based, and then we come back to this whole point of more isn’t necessarily better. So we are finding that to provide people with that stepping stone to turning professional, it isn’t about the number of races that you run. It’s not about winning a stage of Tour of Croatia, for example. It’s about winning a stage of the Tour de Yorkshire. It’s about winning a stage of the Tour of Britain. It’s about winning the Nationals. So, if you’ve got 21 riders, of course, you could extend your year. Brilliant, because you can book five guys to rest in June after they’ve done the first part of the year and leave them at home for a while and out of racing while you race the other part of the team. Whereas if you’ve got a single programme team and you ask to ride from January until October without having a rest, they just wouldn’t get through. That one rider’s got to complete the whole season with very little rest, so to extend it to race before the end of March and then beyond September, you’re on borrowed time I think.

I guess it makes it even more complicated given that you’ve obviously got the Tour Series, which involves all-out effort for an our, taking part in May. So you riders have to adapt from longer road races, to crit racing and then back again.

Exactly. So we’ve almost got to have a period after the Tour Series where the entire team has to re-adapt to road racing and that’s what makes national road race championships so difficult for the domestic based pros and why Connor’s ride last year was all the more spectacular than it actually looked on just the result sheet. The fact that you’ve done four weeks or five weeks traveling around the country doing hour long races which, okay, the flip side is you can say well he’s got lots of time to train around those races, but when you look at the geographical locations of where they are, it’s a pretty difficult, tiring period actually just traveling. It does become time consuming and energy consuming for the riders. Then at the end of May, they have to quickly switch to three or four weeks later being able to ride competitively in endurance road race, racing with the best guys in the world that are just coming off the World Tour circuit.

Winning the Tour Series in 2015. Photo: Madison Genesis

The Tour of Britain, the Tour de Yorkshire and the Tour Series are about the only things that are a regular fixture and provide guaranteed exposure

In terms of the Tour Series and riders having to re-adapt to road racing afterwards. I can imagine there’s a bit of tension for teams and managers because it kind of interrupts the road racing series in some ways but at the same time, it’s clearly really commercially important. Does it take place at the right time of year? Is there something that needs to evolve in the calendar to help make the Tour Series work a bit better in that sense?

It isn’t simple. I mean if it was simple it would have been solved by now, but where would you put it? Maybe in July, giving them all of August to prepare and train, convert back to road racing for Tour of Britain? There’s no real place in the calendar that makes it simple to do a series like that, and I think that therein lies a problem. But then if you take away the series then it loses its commercial value really. I think part of why the people like watching a Grand Tour – in a different level, in a different way – is because there’s a story that evolves each day, it grows and builds like nothing else in cycling. I think that’s one thing about the Tour Series. It has a following, there’s more to it than just an individual criterium. And it’s one of the few things that’s regular each year. The Tour of Britain, the Tour de Yorkshire and the Tour Series are about the only things that are a regular fixture and provide guaranteed exposure. In fact, the Tour Series is far more predictable in terms of exposure than Tour de Yorkshire and Tour of Britain, because continental teams need invites for those.

But where you put it on the calendar is difficult. You can’t have it any earlier because it will clash with the Tour of Yorkshire. Then later you have the nationals. And then there is a period after the nationals that seems to be reserved for the elite criterium series during July. So it would be in complete contrast or conflict with those. So that’s not an option. And August would completely ruin the Tour of Britain for all the British teams.

I mean our job is to find a solution to the problem, that’s all we can do. As you can hear from my answer, I haven’t really focused that much energy on how to change things because my job is to focus on how we can manage the race calendar and reserve as much energy as we can.

Madison Genesis at the Tour Series. Photo: Luke Webber / Madison

John Herety questioned whether we have enough riders in the UK to support 8 continental level teams with 15 riders in each and I have to agree with him. I don’t think we have that many riders in the UK to do that

With Madison, you’ve always had a squad of around 12 riders. And my understanding is that you’re one of the best-resourced teams, if not the best-resourced team, these days in the British Continental ranks. So is that very much a conscious decision to go for a smaller squad and a single race programme, rather than have a bigger squad and a dual race programme. Would you be concerned you would spread your resources too thinly doing the latter?

There isn’t a right way and a wrong way. But right from the beginning, we started off with 10 riders and then I think we eventually went up to 14 at one point. We’ve always said we want to be realistic about what we can achieve with the resources that we have. I have talked to Brian Holm [Sports Director for Deceuninck – Quick-Step] about this quite a lot, because in his early days as a sports director, he ran a little Conti team up in Denmark, and then moved it up to Pro Conti. He was saying if you go from a single programme to a double programme Pro Conti team, it’s not just doubling your team. You actually have to think about tripling your budget, tripling your resources to do the double programme. And I think one of the things that a lot of the teams around the world, and certainly in the UK, don’t really take into consideration is that that step up is huge.

Brian Holm. Photo: Jens Dresling

So you really do have to make sure that you’ve got the finances and logistics because otherwise, exactly as you say, you just spread things too thinly and then you don’t do anything properly. And then that’s sort of harking back to the days of me racing where you just did 116 days of racing and 114 of those you’re racing at 80% because you’re fatigued or not ready. My theory is that we’ve got to do this from an athlete’s perspective because that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to provide the right environment for the athlete. That’s all. So if we have 18 riders and we don’t have a double programme for the entire year, what do you say to those 10 riders who aren’t racing each week? You can’t just say, well actually, not only can we not provide you with a race, but you’re also not permitted to ride the national series road races because you’re not allowed to ride them as an individual because the team has entered.

So it’s not really doing anybody a favour. I read an interview John [Herety] did for Pro Cycling magazine about the UK scene and he was questioning if we have enough riders in the UK to support 8 continental level teams with 15 riders in each and I have to agree with him. I don’t think we have that many riders in the UK to do that.

So my approach, and Madison’s philosophy as well, is to have a team that we try to support the 12 riders that we have as best as we can. I think it’s been quite a good number for a single programme with the occasional double programme. But just an occasional double programme, not consistently throughout the year.

One thing I hate doing is disappointing bike riders

Whilst you obviously have a clear view about squad size, it’s a very difficult contract year for many riders with teams folding, lots of very good British riders looking for contracts. Have you been tempted to take on one or two more? Is it hard to kind of keep that discipline of sticking to a squad of 12 or 13?

Of course, it’s always hard because It feels like you’re going against the principle of providing a platform for these guys to perform. Is it tempting? Of course it is really tempting, but the short-term gain is a long-term loss because one thing I hate doing is disappointing bike riders. I don’t’ want to just give riders a jersey and a bike to ride and then not provide them with a race programme to ride: that’s the core thing. The money and the bike … that’s the simple bit actually.

What are your goals this season? You said the big races are the Tour de Yorkshire and the Tour of Britain, as ever. If I spoke to you again at the end of the year, what would you be able to hope to say to me in terms of what you’ve achieved over the year?

Realistically for me it’s not a results-based thing. It’s really hard to explain because we have to have results because at the end of the day we’re racing. But results are really hard to kind of quantify in a certain way. The Tour Series is extremely important to the team as a way to showcase the team on a televised platform. So we want to be competitive there. We’re not going to shy away from the fact we’d like to try and win the Tour Series.

But for me, it’s all about that rider that steps up and is the discovery of the year travelling. It would be lovely if that rider was somebody from our team: the Connor Swift ride of last year. People are going to talk about that for years and years and years. Madison gave him that platform to ride. They supported him and enabled him to achieve the revelation ride of the year. I think that’s what we all dream about really because that’s confirmation that the project’s working properly.

Joey Walker wins the Sheffield Grand Prix, 2018. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

So Joey Walker winning the final stage of the Tour de Yorkshire for example?

Exactly, that’s the dream scenario. That’s why we do it, it’s to help that rider just to discover himself and how grit and determination … just the grit and determination that Connor showed in that nationals race is about never giving up. Just keeping on, believing, self-belief and just proving that actually if you keep at it, and keep working hard, the big things do come.

Read Part 1 of this interview here.

Read our preview on Madison Genesis here.

Feature photo: Roger Hammond