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A Classics Class Act
Roger Hammond recently retired from professional racing but that hasn't kept the Englishman with Belgian blood from putting his wheels to the road around the world. Hammond, the seven-times British national cyclocross champion and two-time British road race champion, now devotes his time to race commentary and acting as a cycling tour guide. He's also recently become a new father but he found time in his busy schedule to join Rapha for a ride and event in NYC.
This Wednesday night Rapha hosted an evening to celebrate the Classics at The Cannibal, a beer and butcher shop cafe owned by Christian Pappanicholas, an ardent fan of all things Belgian. The addition of Roger Hammond, who made his home in Belgium for 14 years as a professional cyclist, gave the night's conversation of cobbles and the hardmen who hammer them all that much more detail. A 60-mile morning ride to Nyack on Wednesday and a crack-of-dawn Thursday morning group ride around Central Park sandwiched the Wednesday evening gathering. Somehow CD found a few moments in Roger's whirlwind tour to get his thoughts on Rapha, racing, and his predictions for Sunday's Paris-Roubaix.
CD: Thank you for joining us, Roger. This trip required a great deal of travel for just a short stay with us. What made it worth it for you?
RH: Perhaps I'm not allowed to say it but Simon had provided me with some baselayers for racing. As racers, we spend so many hours a day in team race clothing and I strive to be comfortable as I can in every area. I was so pleased with how they work that when I was no longer obliged to wear team clothing I was excited to wear the rest of what Rapha had to offer. I was impressed with the quality of the materials and the attention to details.
When Simon asked if Rapha could use my Roubaix story from last year I was excited to be able to give something back to him and to be more closely associated with Rapha. It's been a very interesting discovery for me and I like working with the the brand in its entirety. One of the things I loved doing as a professional rider was getting out there and being in touch with the people that create the products for cycling.
So… New York City! It's been quite some time since your last visit, correct?
Yes, 22 years.
And you say your last visit was even shorter than this one?
Yes, only half a day! I came over as a Junior and rode the track at Trexlertown, Pennsylvania for a week. I flew in and out through New York. The family that looked after me showed me around the city very briefly.
Short stay but we've done a lot, haven't we?
Yeah, it's been great. We had two unbelievable rides, the first being an eye-opening jaw drop for me because we set off in downtown New York City and ended up not a great deal of time later in this fantastic, peaceful, tranquil riverside road. It was really good. I've ridden my bike all over the world and not many rides stay memorable and I can say that both of these rides will be in my memory for quite a long time. The second of the two, of course, being this morning's ride around Central Park. It was impressive and maybe just a bit dangerous because I was too busy looking around at the city during the ride.
What made the Central Park ride so impressive for you?
(A silly question, really, as I had the same impression and reaction as Roger.)
First is the New Yorkers; they are dedicated to the ride. Getting up that early in the morning every time they want to ride a bike says a lot about their passion for the sport. I've never been a morning person so for me that was a new experience. The bit that caught me was when the sun rose and I saw that red light off the buildings. There's just this massive contrast between being in a really beautiful park and at its edge are these high rise buildings. And to see so many people out there, the mind boggles…
Would you like to race Central Park?
Yeah, I reckon it would be a really nice racing circuit! I can imagine that being really, really good.
Does it suit you?
It would've suited me when I first came over 22 years ago. I loved criteriums then and cross racing but now I'm still warming up at 48-miles.
Last night's event celebrating the Classics was at a great new spot in the city, The Cannibal. How was it for you? Did you get a sense we had transported you to Belgium?
It was a very nice experience. Being a professional cyclist all those years, you get flown in, do the race and then you haven't gotten your regular clothes back on and you're on your way back to the airport . You tend to get totally separated from what cycling is all about. It's about the enjoyment of riding and the energy you get from the people you are riding alongside. It was nice to spend the evening with people who have so much passion for cycling.
And, of course, my heart has been in Belgium the last fifteen years. I lived in Belgium during my professional career so to walk into a bar in New York and get my favorite beer from Belgium served to me was incredible. La Chouffe is a very small production beer so while it was bizarre to come across it in New York; it did give the place an authentic Belgian feel. A very nice place and Christian, the owner, was a gracious host.
The guest list last night included Simon Mottram from Rapha, both you and Jeremy Powers from the world of professional racing, and the American television star Patrick Dempsey. Any interesting conversations?
Patrick is a really nice guy, I'd only just met him there and he made me feel like the biggest star among the crowd. He's an impressively nice person. My wife is very jealous now.
The Cannibal, La Chouffe, we are now in the spiritual space of the Classics. Let's talk racing.
Is Paris-Roubaix your most favorite race as a competitor?
Also as a fan?
Yes, everything I did in cycling from the age of six was somehow on my own plotted path to be a winner in Roubaix. It was something I dreamed about and there were times once I'd turned professional when I didn't put out 100% at Gent-Wevelgem because I was saving myself for Roubaix. And Gent-Wevelgem is an important race! So yes, I was obsessed with it. I loved everything about it; I knew all of the sectors of cobbles. I knew which side of the road to ride on, where you can save energy and where you can lose it. It was always one of those races where I said, 'Every year you ride, you learn'.
As a rider who has done well at Paris-Roubaix, (3rd in 2004 & 4th in 2010), is there an unspoken fraternity of riders who have earned a Roubaix "merit badge" from the peloton as a grade above for this race?
I can only think of it from my own perspective. When I ride with Boonen, Flecha, Hoste and all of the guys like this I just don't stress riding behind them. You know that on the cobbles, unless there is a disaster, that they are not going to make mistakes. That's the thing at Roubaix. It's more times you lose the race because of someone else's mistakes than your own.
Tom, for example, will always let me in the line. You don't have to fight as much with these guys. Thor Hushovd never panicked sitting on behind me in the Arenberg Forest. I would never ever sit in behind someone I don't know, though. That makes it hard for the new guys, yes. You get only one shot a year, though.
Rider ability is key, no doubt, but how much attention do you pay to the equipment of those around you? Do you notice things like that?
Yeah! I'm fanatical about equipment. It's one of the reasons I'm in New York with Rapha; I pay close attention to detail. My background other than racing is materials engineering so I enjoyed discovering how my bicycle and its components were made. I'm not very tolerant of gimmicky things, I like things to make sense and I like to understand why I'm using them.
I've tried some different things at Roubaix but I'm also not somebody that will say an unbending "No!" to a new idea. I stay open minded.
We rode some cobbles today after our Central Park circuits. Short sections, certainly nothing as long as what you've seen at Paris-Roubaix, and many different types of cobbles here in NYC. Did any seem similar to what you see on the race parcours?
If you ride the last sector of cobbles in Roubaix, the Espace Charles Crupelandt, they are nearly identical to one of the final streets we rode today in New York City. It was the short street with fairly smooth cobbles and it had a similar feel. But at the other end of the spectrum is Arenberg or Carrefour de l'Arbre where your bike is hammering so hard and you're just trying to guide your bike in the right direction. You're not really in total control. You're providing the forward momentum but the cobbles are steering where the bikes goes. It's hard to find those kinds of roads anywhere else in the world. Derrick did a really good job finding the ones he did today, I'm impressed.
Those sections really broke up our group.
Yeah. It was amazing, though, how much people started chatting after each section. Everyone was buzzing. Imagine being able to do it in a race, 200 guys going flat out. It's a buzz of a race. The first time I ever rode it I described it as a six-and-a-half-hour race that seems to take ten minutes.
Is there any socialization going on between you guys in the way that you saw our group today? Coming off a cobbled section are there guys who will look over and say, "Mamma mia, that was nuts".
There's not any laughing or joking as we all were today. Two years ago, just after Cancellara bolted, there was a little bit of chatting in our group of six trying to keep each other's morale up. Other than that, no, there's not a lot of conversation out there.
At the end of some of this morning's sections I couldn't see. My eyes were vibrating and, just as you've said, I was along for the ride that the cobbles had chosen for my bike. It's impressive to consider that riders from different teams can organize a race strategy through all that.
The thing is, for me, when I hit the cobbles that's when I'm recovering. That's my relaxation. It's the 3 or 4 kilometers before each sector that's like a bunch sprint to the entry. It's imperative to be in the first ten of that bunch and there are 27 sectors! If you get on the cobbles in that lead group you are with the guys that can really ride the cobbles so you can just relax and recover as you go across. It allows time for preparing for the next sprint to the next sector. The guys that don't make the lead group and who also don't ride the cobbles well never recover.
This Sunday, who will it be?
If you saw Flanders you saw some extremely good-looking, fit people. The guy that shocked me the most was Pozzato. He broke his collarbone earlier this season and I knew he'd come back in time for the Classics but I never, ever imagined he'd be as strong as he was in Flanders. Ballan is also very strong but he'll need to be on his own to win. I'd love to see Thor there, too.
Good weather is predicted for Sunday.
Good weather now? Oh, OK, that's changed. That just bolstered my position on Pozzato.
You'll be at the race this weekend. Where will see you alongside the course?
I'd like to be in Arenberg. I'll also be at the start.
Thanks, Roger. I can only imagine how much fun it would be to join you this weekend, share a few bottles of La Chouffe and cheer on the race. Any last thoughts on our time in New York?
Thanks to Rapha for having me. It's been an eye-opening trip and a lot of fun.
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