A Conversation About Life as a Euro Pro with Jeff Louder

Interview by Greg Overton

The last time I visited with Utah homeboy Jeff Louder for Cycling Utah was four seasons ago just before the Tour of Utah, when he, training partner and friend Burke Swindlehurst and I sat down for lunch and conversation about the two pros’ seasons and careers. A lot has happened since then – Swindlehurst has formed a one man team with a charitable mission, and Louder has become a European based professional on the BMC squad, and joined the peloton in his first Grand Tour this year, the Giro d’ Italia.

Here’s my recent conversation with Louder:

CU – It’s been a while since we’ve chatted with you. And today we tracked you down in Gerona, Spain, which is home for many professional cyclists. You have a home there now as well. What is it about Gerona that draws cyclists there to live?

JL – Girona for me was an easy choice simply because it wasn’t unchartered territory. European based American cyclists have been living here for years, and so there’s a bit of a set up already. I came over here with my family in February and it didn’t feel like we were heading to quite such a foreign place because we already had friends here and had been given lots of specific advice about the place. Also, having so many other cycling related families here it ‘s a lot easier on my family while I am away racing and training. My wife has found a good network of friends, with kids similar in age to my daughter. I think that makes a huge difference for them and for me, considering that I’m not around all the time. But aside from that, Girona is also easy to get to, it has great training and the climate is quite good by European standards. It’s a good place to be.

CU – You’re a Salt Lake City native. Is that still home for you and your family when you’re not in Europe?

JL – When I’m not on the road, yes, we live in Salt Lake. I’ve been married for almost 6 years and have a daughter who will be 3 in August. They split their time between Girona and Salt Lake City, based on what I’m doing and whether or not I’ll actually be in any one place for a period that make it reasonable for them to travel.

CU – When you’re in Utah, do you train with local riders, and are you able to keep an eye on the local racing when you’re there?

JL – I am somewhat aware of what’s going on with the Utah scene but less and less as the team’s focus has taken me away from domestic racing and now that I’m hardly ever in the US during the season. I haven’t ridden in a local race in a long time; maybe an RMR last spring was the last. I often still train with Burke Swindlehurst, and Chase Pinkham, Mike Sohm and Tyler Wren when I am around.

CU – What about the Tour of Utah? Is it on your schedule this year?
JL – I will be racing the Tour of Utah this year. It was a bit of a late addition to our program and I am very happy that it was added. It’s quite an honor to get to race such a high caliber competition in my home state and I’m looking forward to it!

CU – How is your health and your fitness near the mid-season point?

JL – I’m doing pretty well. I had a rough spring, nothing seemed to go right and it was capped off with a very late diagnosis of walking pneumonia that I probably had carried around for months. I seem to be past all of the health problems that were setting me back and I’m feeling good and looking forward to making up for the opportunities lost earlier in the year. There is still plenty of season left and quite a few races where I think I can excel.

CU – Let’s talk about your season. You’ve raced in Europe before, when your career was starting. But this year you had the opportunity to race in your first Grand Tour, the Giro d’ Italia. Talk about your impressions of that race in terms of the atmosphere, as well as the racing.

JL – The atmosphere! It was by far the biggest race I have ever been a part of. Just as an indication the race bible was a glossy paged book that was 360 pages long. I was impressed by the size of the organization and the level to which the race [organization] went to promote itself. It really felt like a traveling circus. Ironically, the most exuberant fans and support we received were in Holland [the Giro d’ Italia began with three stages near Amsterdam in 2010. ed]. Italy was a little more laid back and, although it was still a big deal wherever we went, you got the sense that the Italians were more accustomed to the spectacle of the Giro, as though it had been coming through each town every year.
The terrain and roads was a mixed bag. I was forced to abandon with illness on stage 11, so I didn’t get to see the high mountains but every stage I did take part in was difficult in its own right. Racing on the Strade Bianche [white marble gravel roads in the Siena region] was very unique and unlike any bike race I have ever been a part of. Honestly though, the terrain alone that I covered wasn’t as difficult, but the way it was raced made it extremely so. Every day was flat out and it was a fight to hold any position in the peloton. And the weather really didn’t cooperate, which made it even more difficult and nervous. There was a lot of rain and that always makes the bunch ride very nervously.

CU – You mentioned the elevated level of the racing itself.

JL – Yes. The race was hard fought. There’s a sort of escalation that happens in the pro peloton when there’s a lot on the line and everyone is nervous. It was every rider fighting all the time. Every day we would finish and I would think ‘that had to be the worst of it, it can’t keep up like this’, and then the next day it’s even crazier than the one before. It was physically taxing of course, but also mentally taxing because even if it was ”easy” we were fighting to keep Cadel [team leader Cadel Evans finished fifth overall] in good position.

CU – The Giro is the biggest race of your career. Do you have a particular moment that will stay with you longer than any other from the race?

JL – Probably riding into Montalcino in the gruppetto, covered in mud, soaking wet, exhausted from riding the Bianche Stradale and hearing that Cadel had won the stage. That was a good feeling because it had been a very hard day in the rain and mud and I had ridden my guts out to keep him safe and in the front for the finale. Cycling is a thankless job most of the time and that day had mostly been about suffering until I heard he had won. That made it worthwhile.

CU – What other European races have you ridden this year, and which will you ride in the remainder of the season?

JL – That list is long but the highlights include the major classics Milan-San Remo, Criterium International, Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The rest of the season isn’t completely planned but I’m looking forward to the Tour of Utah and the US Nationals as big personal goals. I also expect to do the two ProTour races in Canada (Quebec and Montreal) prior to US Nationals and I’m excited for those.

CU – What has been your toughest day in the saddle so far this year?

JL – All of them! This wasn’t my best spring and I suffered a lot. The worst was probably the day that I abandoned the Giro. I had struggled through the previous day and started the day hoping for the best but it wasn’t to be. I barely made it back to the group after being dropped on the first climb and then I couldn’t breathe and was coughing so hard that I was cramping in my legs. If it had been a normal stage I may have been able to struggle through, but it was 260km that included a lot of hard climbing and it was, of course, pouring rain. Getting off and climbing into the car was pretty hard to handle and I’m still upset about it. In hindsight, knowing I was suffering from pneumonia, it explains a lot but it doesn’t really change the fact that I was a DNF at the Giro.

CU – Did you know before the season that you would be on the BMC Giro and European roster, and what was your reaction to your selection?

JL – I was very excited to get the selection to start the Giro and am still honored that I was a part of the team. I do hope to get another crack at it….

CU – Talk about the team itself behind the scenes. Are there differences in the team dynamic when you’re riding in Europe compared to the American squad? I think we envision a European team as being tougher, harder, and maybe more cutthroat, at least that’s the way it’s been portrayed by the generation ahead of you who were new to the European peloton. Is it at all like that? Or perhaps it’s all gourmet foods and pedicures now?

JL – Ha! I’d say there is more pressure there [in Europe] because the stakes are greater. It’s not necessarily team driven though. BMC definitely wants results but the attitude isn’t ‘win or else’. I think a lot of the ‘cutthroat’ atmosphere comes simply from the fact that racing in Europe is serious business and you’re dealing day in and day out with the best in the sport, either as teammates or competitors. The best in the sport don’t necessarily get to where they are by being nice guys. The peloton is an assemblage of the most competitive and talented cyclists in the world and few are there to make friends and have a good time. But, that’s primarily on the bike and during the race. I like all of my teammates and I like the management in my team. Removed from the chaos of the peloton, it’s a fine work environment. The level of professionalism and care is much higher on BMC than I have experienced on any team in the US, but in fairness I think that goes with the territory; it’s a big budget professional cycling team and we are very well treated.

CU – Have you been accepted well by the other riders in the team, specifically the team leaders? Has it been a learning opportunity, or more of a head-down and grind it out work situation? Is language a problem, communication with the team?

JL – The language of the team is English and so for me there are very few problems regarding communication. I try to take every opportunity and chance to learn something from my teammates, and being amongst some of the best riders in the world like Evans or George Hincapie definitely is a great chance to learn a thing or two.

CU – What is the team preparation and routine, and yours, on the morning of, say, a Giro stage? Could you give us a behind the scenes glimpse of the things we don’t see in terms of direction etc? For instance, is the team leadership direct, ‘you stay with Evans, you attack here, you mark Basso, you do this and you do that.’? Or is it more general, ‘we have to mark Basso and protect Evans’? What can you let us in on that we wouldn’t see or know otherwise?

JL – We usually have a meeting on the team bus before the start and before we get ready for the race. It depends on the day – whether it is a complicated stage, like Montalcino or a Mountain stage, or whether it’s pretty straightforward; but typically we have jobs in groups and sometimes specific tasks. Riding in the peloton is chaotic most of the time so if three of us are assigned one task, like ‘stay with Cadel until the finale’, there are better odds that one of us will be doing it at any given time. On more complicated days where people have specific skill sets like climbing or positioning in an echelon there may be a guy or two that is singled out to do something particular. In a race like the Giro, where there was really only one goal – get Cadel to the line first – that leaves 8 of us to share the job of looking after him. So, we would usually trade off and some of us would get easier days, anticipating days ahead where we may be more useful. Once the race tactics have been sorted out, it’s pretty basic; we kit up, put on our race radios, collect our bag of food for the start and go sign in.

CU – How is your race schedule determined? Is it all decided by the team directors, or do you have input? Do they discuss it with you or simply tell you to be at the airport on time? Do you care?

JL – There is usually some discussion but mostly there isn’t much of that necessary. In my case it usually happens pretty early in advance like the fall before the next season. This is advantageous to me because it helps me to get an idea of what I need to work towards and when I need to plan on being in the best condition. Typically the director has a pretty good idea of what you will be doing based upon what you are good at and, unless there is some sort of misunderstanding regarding your ability, the program you are given is pretty specific to your traits. There is always a chance something will change and you sometimes end up in races you didn’t expect to be doing because of illness and injury. I don’t think I have ever done a season where I did fewer races than I expected. There are always a few surprises and you do need to be ready to race at any given moment, although getting called to the airport the next day is pretty rare.

CU – Is there a race that you would love to do but haven’t yet? Paris Roubaix? The Tour de France?

JL – I don’t think any pro cyclist starts his career without the dream of racing the Tour de France and I am no different. I was very close to getting to go this year but I wasn’t the best man for the job at the given time, based on my illness, and so I have to live with that. I haven’t counted out my chances of ever starting the Tour as it’s the pinnacle of the sport and I know I am capable, but it’s not an easy selection and that’s why it is as great as it is; no one is there who doesn’t deserve to be.

CU – In a similar vein, what is the race that you’ve enjoyed the most so far and why?

JL – As far as races I’ve done, I love the Tour of Utah simply because it’s in my hometown and reflects what to me is the romantic part of the sport – the high alpine passes. I know it’s not the Tour de France, but it is still amazing to get to race up passes like the Alpine Loop and Snowbird and to be competitive at it. I’ll never be in that upper echelon of Tour riders that get to ride the front of the climbs in France in July, but at least each August in Utah, I get a taste of what it’s like and I get to do it on my home roads no less!

CU – Let’s look forward. Do you have a multi year contract with BMC, and will you ride with the team long term, in the relative sense of cycling contracts?

JL – I have a contract through 2011 with BMC. I am very happy with the team and definitely hope to keep my spot for a long time.

CU – You’re a veteran of the sport at this point, and one of the more successful American racers of this generation. Would you prefer to continue and perhaps even finish your racing career in Europe, have you thought about how long you might continue racing as a professional?

JL – I’m 32 and have been a pro for 11 years, and I’ve been bike racing for 18 years total. I’d love to see cycling in America become as big as racing in Europe and be able to race from home in that caliber of racing, but that is a long time coming if ever. I love racing in America but the sport at its highest is in Europe, and I really enjoy competing at the highest level. It’s hard to predict what my future will be, but ideally I’d like to retire on my terms when the time comes and be satisfied with my career. If that means I do another 5 years in Europe that’s great but I’d be just as happy to race in the States and retire here if that was what worked best for my family and me. I think about it all the time but I don’t have an answer.

CU – Do you ever look past racing at this point? Any plans beyond this career? Bicycle racing related? Team director perhaps?

JL – I’ve dedicated so much of my life to this sport and focused on the basic pursuit of being fast on a bike that I really haven’t been able to think past my time as a pro. It’s a hard transition and one that I am not necessarily looking forward to. I currently don’t have any specific plans but hope to be involved in cycling in some way. It’s something I now know a lot about and feel I can help others with. I’ve thought of being a director but maybe I’ll just teach my daughter how to ride no hands, it’s all up in the air at this point. I feel I have quite a few more years of racing in me, though, and am confident that when the time comes I will be able to move forward and do what’s best to continue supporting my family.

CU – Now that you’ve recovered from the Giro and pneumonia, and you’ve just competed in the Tour of Austria, what are your thoughts on that race? What’s next?

JL – Austria was a nice race, good weather and pretty mellow compared to what I had been doing this spring. I really enjoyed getting to see the country since I had never been there before. And I really enjoyed doing a climbing race in summer conditions. The terrain was pretty amazing and some of the climbs we had to face were impressive, as long and steep as they were. One of the mountaintop finishes, the Kitzbuheler Horn, was an average gradient of 12 percent for 7 km with pitches up to 22 percent! It was a long slow climb. I wasn’t climbing with the best but used the race as an opportunity to work on my climbing legs and try to help my faster teammates in the sprint finishes.
Next up I do the Tour de Wallonie in Belgium July 24- July 28, and then I come back to Utah, to prepare for the Tour of Utah.

Louder finished the Tour of Austria in 38th place on General Classification, out of 126 finishers, showing good form in the climbs as the race progressed. He’s is well on his way in his preparation to compete for a second overall win in the Tour of Utah, following his victory in his favorite race in 2008.

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