by Steve Jones
After a winter of securing riders, the new RadioShack team is ready to hit the road and begin their 2010 season. The American squad has a roster packed with both experience and talent. Among their ranks is José Luis Rubiera, known to most in the professional cycling world simply by his nickname, 'Chechu'. The man from northern Spain has worked hard during his 15-year cycling career, earning a reputation in the peloton as a dedicated teammate and a gentleman. His popularity as a rider saw him elected by his peers to represent them to the ProTour Council in 2005. In an interview with VeloNation, Rubiera candidly discusses his goals for next season, which he feels may be his last, along with what it was like to be a part of one cycling's greatest achievements: Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France victories.
Rubiera began his career in 1995 with the Artiach squad, which the following year merged with Kelme to become Kelme-Artiach. He stayed with the Spanish team until 2000, where he rode strongly in the Giro d'Italia winning two stages and finishing top ten overall in 1997 and 2000. He also had some impressive results in his home Tour, the Vuelta a España, securing top ten overall finishes in 1999 and 2000. His performances with Kelme caught the eye of then US Postal Service team director Johan Bruyneel, and earned him a place on the squad in 2001. When he came to the American team Armstrong had just won his first two Tours de France, and was preparing to equal the accomplishment of three wins by fellow Tour Champion and compatriot Greg Lemond.
For the next five years Chechu would serve as a faithful lieutenant to Armstrong and, as Rubiera proudly admits, build a special friendship with the Texan along the way. In his wake, the roads of the Tour de France saw the climber from Gijón wear down Armstrong's rivals in the mountains, as he tirelessly tapped out the kilometers on the front of the peloton.
VeloNation: How was your break in the off-season and how is your training going so far?
Chechu Rubiera: The weather here in Spain in the north where I live is pretty bad, but except for that the training has been going really well because I'm not starting my season too early like I did in other years with the Tour Down Under and some of the other races in the early season. I wasn't in too big of a hurry to go crazy in the winter time on the bike, but it's been going pretty well.
VN: What are your main goals for the 2010 season?
CR: My main goal is going to be the Vuelta a Espana. The Daphine Liberie, Tour of Romandie and the Tour of California are the races that are important for me in the first part of the season, and for the second part, the Tour of Spain. That is what I have in my mind, but let’s see how the condition is and see if I can do well in the first races of the year. I won't waste my time. If in the Tour of Murcia, which will be my first race, I feel well, then I will try to be in a good position.
VN: You weren't on the Astana Tour de France team this past year. Do you have any ambitions of riding the Tour de France with RadioShack this year?
CR: It's really difficult. The team we have is a super-strong team. Many of the teammates that I have could be leaders in other teams, like Levi Leipheimer or Andreas Kloden or even Popoyvich. I know that a few guys are almost sure of the Tour, just if they are lucky and healthy they will be there. For some others I think it will also be an important part of the team because they are really strong guys for the flat stages in the Tour. They are not strong in the mountains, but they really need them for the flat sections of the race. I am a climber so it's not easy for me to be in the team when I have to compete for that position with guys like Levi and Andreas. But for me it is not a big disappointment. I am really thinking about the Vuelta a Espana, maybe it will be my last Vuelta a Espana. There are a few stages around the area in Asturias, so it will also be very nice for me to do the Vuelta, and maybe both races are too much.
VN: Last year it was announced that stage 16 of the 2010 Vuelta would host its finish on a climb that now bears your name. What are your thoughts about receiving that honor?
CR: Yes, not far from my area here in Asturia there is a nice climb, and I know many, many guys from the area, a lot of cycle tourist guys. People who ride the bike almost every weekend, and they know me and I have a good relationship with some of them. They proposed to the local government of the area to name the climb Chechu Rubiera and I am really proud of that. For sure I would love to be there on that stage and try to do my best. I know it is going to be pretty difficult to win up there, but at the same time, the stage starts in Gijón, that is the city where I was born, so it is going to be for me an emotional stage starting at my home and finishing on the climb Chechu Rubiera.
I don't think too much about that right now. I want to do well, I want to be in good shape and try to be in a good position up there, but I know it is pretty difficult in the Vuelta so, I will just try to do my best and ride honorably (present a good image) that day to thank all of the people who remembered me and supported me for all these years and have given my name to this climb.
Rubiera is now one of the elder statesmen of the peloton, in fact, he himself is surprised that he is still able to ride professionally. Now, just months away from becoming a father, we asked him about his future in the sport and why he thinks riders are now able to extend their careers into their mid-thirties.
VN: You're going to be 37-years-old later this month. Two years ago you won a stage in Murcia, and last year your teammate Lance Armstrong finished in third place at the Tour de France, he'll be 38 this July. A decade ago riders would typically be retired by that age, let alone notching up results. What has changed in the peloton over the last decade that's seeing more riders race into their late 30s?
CR: Yes, you see now what is happening on our team, we have a few riders that are older than 30 and many of them are almost a shoe-in at the Tour de France, the same with Lance. I think in the last 15 years things have changed a lot because not too long ago we used to do more than 100 races per year. When I was in Kelme in 1999, 1998 and 1997 I used to do more than 110 races a year, but not any more. I think that helps to give you a longer career. At the same time all of the programs that have come to cycling with all of the sport doctors, the food, the recovery drinks, the protein and the amino acids. All of those things help to give you a longer career, a lot of that didn't exist maybe 10 or 15 years ago. In my opinion, that's one of the reasons why we are having older cyclists in the peloton.
Also 15 years ago normally all of the stages were longer than 200 kilometers in the Tour and the Vuelta and the Giro, and we didn't have recovery days, you know, rest days like they have now for all of the long tours. The Giro, Tour and Vuelta have two rest days, and when I started on cycling I remember doing some of the big tours like the Giro with no rest days and also having the stages much, much longer than now. So I think all of these things have allowed riders to have a longer career and to be healthy into their late thirties like you have now. Maybe 15 years ago at 30 people were completely done because there was such a big effort that they would have to do every year after year. That's a good sign for cycling too.
VN: In the year Lance was preparing to win his sixth Tour de France, you were training for the Tour, but were also busy finishing your degree in engineering. With an alternate career path in place, does that mean you intend to leave the sport when you retire as a professional cyclist?
CR: I would like to try that work and see what it is like to work for a company in that industry. What I studied was to be an electronic technical engineer, I think that is how it translates from Spanish. I would really like to know what it is like since I think it will be so different from my work as a cyclist, but at the same time I don't know exactly what to do, because if I have a chance to stay in cycling with an interesting offer, maybe I would take the chance.
Last year everybody was talking about the possibility of creating a new team with Fernando Alonso the Formula One driver, and he was trying to do something with a big Spanish team and it looks like he wants me to help him. So, if I have a chance like that, to stay in cycling with a big motivation, maybe then I will forget about engineering. I don't know yet. I have one year in front of me, so I just want to focus on riding my bike and trying to do it well, and in the future I will see what the opportunities I have are, and then I will decide.
VN: With the potential for you to become involved in team management, what do you think about the controversy surrounding race radios being banned in the sport?
CR: For me the most important thing is the safety of the riders. I'm 36-years-old and I want to avoid the risks and I want to avoid crashes, and I know the information that comes over the radio when we are in the peloton when Johan says something like 'Guys in the next 2k you will have oil on the road' and things like that. That's really, really, important and the UCI should give the safety of the riders a big priority.
At the same time I know that this is a show, a business, and everybody wants to see attacks, and everyone wants to see pure cycling you know, with people doing whatever they want to do and maybe not respecting the decisions from the director that many times are really conservative. The radios are not as bad as some people think. I'm pretty sure that even without the radios the supporters and the spectators, they want to see attacks on the climbs, and it might not look like we're going so fast, but sometimes you see a group of fifteen guys on the front and you think that someone should attack to give some excitement. But sometimes it's so difficult because the rhythm on the front is so strong that it doesn't matter if you have a radio or not. It's a matter of team tactics, or the power [to attack] is sometimes missing.
A few people we used to see many years ago make a big spectacle like Eddy Merckx and some of those guys that were attacking and giving a big show. I think right now the cycling is really tough, the teams are really strong, and the tactics are not giving many chances for people to show the kind of attacking style that we had many years ago from far away. The radios are not the problem. There are many teams that have a big budget and it has made the competition today really close to the same level so that is difficult.
VN: You mentioned before that you believe having race radios in the peloton also tends to keep riders in line with respect to the team tactics and the director’s wishes. What is Johan Bruyneel like as a director and why do you think he is so successful?
CR: Oh, he's really good, man. Johan is a director that really can really keep you calm in the races, because many times if you get nervous during a race and you see that a group with important guys are up the road or something, some people can really lose control and they say, 'Hey guys come on, you have to pull now'. Then you spend all of your energy, and Johan always says, 'Calm down guys, relax. Try to get organized. Don't worry, the stage is long enough. We have to take that breakaway back, but we have 150k's to go so don't worry.' Things like that really help to keep the team calm and to take the right decisions.
If you have a director that's on the radio that's giving you too much emotion, too much stress, then you can just explode yourself. You can go full gas for a while, but then the team is f*cked completely and all of the riders are gone. Johan always tells me to be calm, and he always thinks twice before deciding what to do and that helps you a lot. On the bike sometimes you don't have a brain, you just have legs and power, and if the power is gone in a few k's, the rest of the stage can be a nightmare.
Nobody can argue that the race radios make communication more convenient and safer between the sports directors and their riders. On many occasions they have prevented a mechanical problem from skewing results and keeping a worthy victor off the podium – they have also been the bane of many-a-breakaway, and the lesser evil of the two will be an argument that continues until the next technological advancement is developed. But the fact of the matter is that, having a director in the car is really only part of the equation.
VN: In the 2003 Tour de France on the finishing climb of stage 15 up to the ski resort of Luz Ardiden, Lance Armstrong got tangled with a souvenir musette bag a young fan was holding and crashed. You were there for Armstrong – arguably the biggest scare in his reign of France – you had the presence of mind to keep calm as you helped him get back into the leading group. What sticks out in your mind about the incident, and is there any advice you can give amateur riders that may help when they find themselves in stressful race situations?
CR: At the time I was having good feelings and I knew that the group in front with [Jan] Ullrich were all really strong guys, but we were almost at the bottom of the climb, so we had plenty of time to catch them back if the legs were good, and Lance had good legs. [Armstrong won the stage convincingly] It's like what I was talking about before. If you get nervous, if you try to go full gas for a while, if you stress yourself thinking that maybe that all hope is gone and you're going to lose, then it is going to be terrible, that itself could make it the end of your race.
Sometimes what you need is to communicate to your teammates the situation, that there is plenty of time to catch the group back so you make the right decision. You just need to stay calm and to keep rolling without big accelerations; you can ride like you're doing a team time trial. Maybe you have a strong team, but if someone goes too hard and the rhythm changes a lot then your muscles will react badly and shut down.
It's better to keep a constant speed that’s a little bit slower than go full gas for a while and then slow down and then full gas again - that's really the worst thing for the muscles and for the legs. So you just need to stay calm and work together to keep the same speed and try to come back if you are dropped or just trying to catch the breakaway back. Always calm and smooth. That's always very important. Like I said before with the director on the radio - if you have a crazy director who gets nervous then it is the end of the team.
VN: In the 2001 Tour de France stage 15 is famous for “The Look” that Lance was perceived to have given Jan Ullrich as he rode away on L’Alpe d’Huez. Lance has since said there was nothing to “The Look”, but you had a large part in setting up his win that day with your acceleration at the base of the climb. Before the race got arrived at the final climb Lance had been doing his now famous “Bluff” to set up the finish. Who came up with that plan, and what was going on behind the scenes on the team?
CR: It was a super nice idea of tactics from Lance. He came up with it because we didn´t have a good team that day. Some of the guys like Victor Hugo [Peña], Eki [Viatcheslav Ekimov] and some others were having a bad day, and everybody expected us to take the responsibility of the race.
Lance himself decided to act like he was bad, going in the back of the group all day long and even on the climbs in the switchbacks. He changed his face like he was suffering when the guys from T-Mobile looked at back - we were having fun seeing them talking to each other and on the radio with the director, and some of them excited because they thought that it was for real! [laughs]
And on TV and in the radio we knew that commentators were believing it too because some supporters and fans on the side of the road were saying to Lance that his time was over. He had won 2 tours already and some people thought that his time was finished, but they could not imagine that day watching Lance's face and hearing TVs and radios that five more Tours - and now maybe six - were coming! [laughs]
VN: Recently French prosecutors announced an investigation into medical products seized during last year’s Tour de France. They claim there are concerns that the Astana team, which included race winner Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, may have broken French laws and WADA rules during the race. You weren’t a part of the Astana Tour team in 2009, but what do you think about the French investigation that is currently in process?
CR: I cannot understand why they are investigating some stuff that is normal garbage that the doctors put in a yellow box after the recovery. Sometimes if the cyclist comes back to the hotel completely fatigued and the doctors have to use vitamins or iron or whatever is necessary, and sometimes they have to provide it in the vein because it's the fastest way to recover, like glucose or whatever it may be...the medical waste always goes into a box, and there is a company that takes that box because it cannot go into the regular garbage. It's like in a hospital where they dispose of medical waste differently.
I cannot understand why anyone would do some forbidden things like doping or blood transfusions and give it to someone who is going to take that box away and you don't know them. It makes no sense. If someone is going to break the rules and dope he's not going to give whatever he used to do it to somebody he doesn't know....you would have to be a complete idiot! It makes no sense.
For sure they have trash from medical treatments that were done within the rules. It's hard for people to understand, but sometimes cyclists at the end of a very difficult stage, of they are sick and need some help from the doctors to recover properly. Some people think that we ride the Tour de France with just bread and spaghetti! The doctors are doing a really important job, as I told you before with the amino acids, protein, with many, many things, but they are all allowed and within in the rules.
What I really think about the French investigations is that they are always putting pressure on Astana - especially on Lance Armstrong. It seems like anything they can do to damage his image they will do it. I think they are again just talking sh*t about Lance just to try to damage his image, and there is nothing to this investigation. It's impossible because first, you have to be an idiot now to take any risks, and second, if you were to do something and then hand it over to someone you don't know - it makes no sense. For many years they have been throwing sh*t at Lance Armstrong - for seven years in a row he won the Tour de France and the only thing they have found to do with him and doping are their own words.
It was clear from talking to Rubiera that the subject of doping when it comes to Lance Armstrong is something he takes personally. For him the question naturally led Rubiera to explain, from his own experiences, why the cancer survivor has accomplished what at one time seemed impossible.
CR: You have to be someone special to win seven Tours in a row. You don't win that race year after year doing crazy things [doping] when people are looking at you so closely wanting to find something - they would catch you.
Lance won the race [Tour] more than anybody else, and after leaving cycling for three years he came back and finished on the podium again at 37-years-old! That is a person who was born to do great things on the bike. Doping cannot turn an old man into a Champion. That is something only that is done with hard work by a unique person - a one time in a million cyclists. After last year's Tour de France people should not be so surprised that he won the race seven times when he was younger.
He is something special. It seems like some people in France don't appreciate what he has done coming out of retirement. Here in Spain I could see in the media that they would say, 'Ah, he's not so good, he didn't win'. Come on man! He took three years off and he's 37-years-old! They still think that doping has something to do with all off this, some people see it [that Lance has a unique gift] and some people don't and will hate him his whole life.
If you train with him at the beginning of the season when everybody is fat and not in good shape, he has something special, he's just getting on his bike and immediately he is able to drop most of the people who have been training for one month. I think some people see it, but they just don't want to see it. There would have to be millions of people on the bike to have just one like Lance Armstrong. We will maybe not have one like him for many years, and maybe never!
VN: Several sponsors have left the sport of cycling over the past couple of years due to doping scandals. Gerolsteiner, Saunier Duval and T-Mobile to name a few - the repercussions are felt throughout the peloton with jobs being lost as cheaters selfishly drag the sport through the mud. Now there is apprehension from potential sponsors due to the cycling’s recent history. Do you think the combined efforts by the International Cycling Union and the anti-doping agencies have made cycling a cleaner sport over the last few years?
CR: Yes, yes. Much cleaner over the last couple of years. Now, for example, we have to give our address for every day so they can come to your place or wherever you are training or having vacation, they come, they test you and we all agree with that. I think cycling is the cleanest sport right now. Nobody thinks about the other sports and their limited controls, nobody has the amount of doping controls that cycling has, but at the same time it's impossible to control I don't know how many hundreds of riders we are in the world that are professional cyclists. For sure you can find one or two or three that are crazy and they keep doing the wrong things. The problem we have in cycling now is because of those three or four guys - all of us pay [for their mistakes]. The sponsors care about cycling the people get excited about cycling, but the bad thing about all of this is that maybe cycling is the cleanest sport in the world if we compare how many controls with, I don't know, the NBA for example or other sports, and nobody thinks about that. It's a shame.
Maybe 20 or 15 years ago many substances were not found, so it was a hard moment when so many things were not controlled because they had no systems to test [for doping], but right now the resources they have to use are much, much better now so they can find everything. It's good for us because in the end it's our health that is much better now. Maybe that's another reason that we are still riding our bikes at 37 or 38-years-old, when maybe 20 years ago they had to stop at 30 years. It's much cleaner now than ever before.
VN: Recently Team RadioShack held its first training camp in Tucson, Arizona. Have you noticed any improvement with Armstrong since this time last year?
CR: It was a fun training camp, we didn't go too deep. We had fun on the mountain bikes and on the road bikes we were going pretty easy, but one year after riding the bike I could still see that he looks better. The one year of racing and one year of training helps him to be better than when he started the season last year.
As I told you before, he has something special, so it doesn't surprise me at all. Every time I was with him I saw him in good condition, or even if he was not in good condition in a few days he was able to take the level of some others who were training for a much, much longer time. For me this one can be a better year for him because he has done a good job last year after taking so much time off while having a normal life - nothing compared to a professional bicycle rider’s life.
It is going to be a nice season for everyone who likes cycling to see if Lance is able to be again in the best positions. At the same time, Contador I think is his biggest rival. He's young, and he also can improve from other years because he is now in the best age for cycling from now on 28 to 27-years-old I think is the best normally, so it's going to be difficult for him [Lance] to win the Tour, but I think everyone expects him to be in the top.
VN: This year Lance will try again to win his eighth Tour de France. Do you think he can do it, and if you were a betting man would you put your money on Armstrong?
CR: For sure I would [bet on Lance winning]. He's my friend and I have a really good relationship with him and I believe he can do it, but it will be really difficult to beat Alberto Contador right now.
VN: Allergies are a problem for you when it comes to racing your bike. Can you offer any advice for amateur cyclists that are dealing with allergies, and have you found anything in particular that helps you deal with them?
CR: No, it's really tough when you have to pass the races with allergies on the bike, it's not easy. But at the same time, maybe your level will decrease a little bit, but it shouldn't be so bad to stop your career or your ambitions. Maybe you lose 10 or 15 percent of your capacity, but if you are good and you like cycling you can endure being in the races and suffering a little bit more. Just try to do your best anyway. It's a temporary thing so after a few weeks or a few months it's gone.
One important thing it to make sure you try to do your best at the moment when you know you are not going to be suffering from allergies. Like days when it's raining or at the beginning of the season in the winter time when normally it is much cleaner in the air. Sometimes you have to program your goals for that period of the season if you are really going bad with the allergies.
VN: Congratulations on you and your wife expecting your first child! Has Lance been kind enough to help you prepare for fatherhood - perhaps giving you some diaper changing lessons?
CR: Just a few days ago he sent me a card with all of his family, and man I have to tell you he has to have a lot of experience [changing diapers] with all of those kids, you know...with Luke and the twins. [laughs] You know maybe I have to ask him many questions about how to do things with the kids and how to also work at the same time with them and ride the bike.
I can imagine that maybe sometimes it's not easy during the night to sleep and to do well for the next day in training when you have babies around crying all night long.
VN: You will be turning 37-years-old later this month - how much longer do you think you will remain a professional cyclist?
CR: Normally I would have been out of the business two years ago, but because Lance was coming back I am still racing and riding my bike. I read that he will race maybe one more year depending on how he feels, but I think for me this one is going to be the last one. But I said the same thing a few times in the last two years, so I won't say anything else. [laughs]
Chechu Rubiera’s 2010 racing program:
3 to 7 March Vuelta a Murcia
6 to 9 April Circuit de la Sarthe
14 to 18 April Vuelta Ciclista a Castilla y León
27 April to 2 May Tour de Romandie
16 to 23 May Tour of California
6 to 13 June Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré
28 August to 19 September Vuelta a España