The Classics season has started and if you are a fan of those cobbles it won’t be long before you see the name: Borut Božič in the results. The Slovenian is Astana’s man for those early hard man’s races in Belgium and Northern France and we were lucky enough to have a chat about his big love; those Northern roads of Hell!
Borut Božič turned pro late in life, but he has not hung about since then, from the small Perutnina Ptuj team he moved to the Italian LPR team for a year before the call of the North took him first to Collstrop and then Vacansoleil. With top results in Paris-Tours, the Etoile de Bessèges, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Tour of Belgium, Tour de Suisse and the Vuelta a España he moved up to the WorldTour with Astana. The early season Classics might not be the highest on the Kazakh team to do list, but Borut is their leader on the cobbles. In a long chat (over an hour) we heard his thoughts on those much beloved cobbled Classics.
PEZ: So, you are the Classics man in the Astana team?
Borut Božič: Yeah. For the first part of the Classics we don’t have so many riders, maybe six who really know how to do it and I am one of them.
PEZ: Tell us about Roubaix.
Borut: Last year was my fourth time at Roubaix and the first two times I didn’t finish, it was tough because I didn’t have the feelings to ride the cobbles, but in the last two years I found that feeling. Actually from the second year I liked Roubaix more and more. From the beginning it was a bit difficult for me because the race didn’t suit me so much, but for me the best one day race is Flanders and then Roubaix.
PEZ: How does a Slovenian take to Belgium?
Borut: Ah, it’s just that I’m that I am the type of rider who can race very well in all the races in Belgium. I have won two or three stages in the Tour of Belgium and I did well in the Eneco Tour also. I like to race in all the races in the north, they suit me.
PEZ: Not all riders like to ride on the cobbles.
Borut: I don’t have a problem with them now, but it’s really difficult, you have to find the feeling for them, it’s not so easy.
PEZ: Has the progression though your career been towards this?
Borut: Well actually I became a professional quite late; I was 27 when I started to race good races in Belgium. I started to race, more or less in 2008, a lot of races there, from Het Volk and Kuurne, all the first part of the season without experience, that’s quite hard, but in the first year, when I was with Perutnina Ptuj, I realised I was suited to these races and year by year I raced better.
PEZ: What about the racing in Slovenia?
Borut: In Slovenia it so small, at the moment we only have one Continental team, when I was an amateur I Slovenia there were three or four good teams, but now there is only one and if riders don’t leave after they are in the Under 23’s, then they will never get out. First I went to Italy for a year and then I went to Belgium and I rode for Cycle Collstrop, Vacansoleil and now Astana, it’s perfect here, it’s one of the top teams in the World with the best material, actually everything is perfect.
PEZ: You have also done well in Paris-Tours?
Borut: Yes but Paris-Tours is more like a race from the first part of the Classics than the second. It’s a good race for me, when I’m in good shape I can climb quite well and do a good sprint; I also won a stage in the 2009 Vuelta (Stage 6).
PEZ: How did you learn to ride the Cobbled Classics, did someone teach you?
Borut: No, I learnt everything for myself. OK I was lucky that I rode for Vacansoleil and could learn from the older riders like Bjorn Leukemans. (Juan Antonio) Flecha had joined the team the year after I left, but he is a rider from who you could learn a lot.
PEZ: Flecha once said Flanders is very difficult because you never know where you are.
Borut: Yeah, even when you know the road it’s so difficult and the wind changes in the Tour of Flanders and you never know what to expect. Also for this reason it’s a very good race. In the morning you know where the wind is coming from, but when you go left, right, left, right and the group is changing and you are on the front and then you might be in twentieth place, but twentieth is not so good and if you are in fiftieth position, then it’s already done. Actually you must concentrate throughout the entire race.
PEZ: Do you know your schedule building up to the Classics?
Borut: I have a perfect programme for the first part of the Classics because last year I rode well to Roubaix and the team was happy with me and gave me support, so they have given me the same programme, like I had last year. I start with Qatar and Oman and then I go to Paris-Nice and then all the Classics. If all goes well I’ll start (my Classics) with Milan-Sanremo and then Harelbeke, Waregem, Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders and Roubaix.
PEZ: What about Sanremo?
Borut: The team have put me in the race because you just never know, there are times in Milan-Sanremo when 30 riders have come together at the end and also riders finish on their own or a bunch sprint. Its good training for me and also its good preparation for the Classics. The distance can also make a selection. Things could change as there are a lot of good riders in this team.
PEZ: What do you think about the fashion for race organisers having so many summit finishes, particularly the Giro and Vuelta?
Borut: Over the last few years the Vuelta has been all about three riders and I think this is not good for nobody, but I think the organisation have gone that way. But all the Vuelta was about three riders.
PEZ: Where do you think your career will go?
Borut: I’m not young anymore (33), I’m still motivated to come up with some good results and until that changes I’m OK. I guess after seeing the Vuelta last year I am even more motivated (Chris Horner at 43). We will see, year by year I have more experience; this was the first year that I rode all the Classics really well, so maybe I’ve grown up. All these races maybe look easy on TV, but there has already been 80 or 100 kilometres ridden and there are the tactics and crashes, plus it is very nervous and all the groups are forming and this is before the first cobbles, it is already full gas and all day something can happen. I have ridden Liege and Amstel and for me this is the big difference between the first part (the cobbled Classics) of the Classics and the (the Ardennes Classics) second part; in the second part of the Classics, if a team doesn’t make a surprise you already know the break has gone and you know how the race is going go, but in the first Classics this would never happen.
PEZ: Can you give an example of that in a race?
Borut: In Paris-Roubaix; Fabian Cancellara won and he was the only one that came from the back group and he caught the riders from the beak away, these things happen in Flanders this way also. Roelandts he made his move 40K’s from the finish in Flanders and got 3rd. Vansummeren won Roubaix from a break of 100 kilometres. In Amstel and Liege that’s not possible.
PEZ: How are your legs in Amstel and Liege after you have ridden Flanders and Roubaix?
Borut: Oooph! Sore, but all Classics are hard, if you are not 100% then you suffer, it’s difficult to finish a Classic not just race in them. Then also with a lot of things, if you don’t have the experience you don’t know when to be at the front at the right times.
PEZ: Is that transition from the Cobbled Classics to the Amstel/Liege Classics impossible?
Borut: They are totally different, you can see that the riders in the first Classics don’t ride the second Classics, some maybe Amstel. At the moment there is only Peter Sagan who can do well in the first Classics and also do well in Amstel, There are not many who can do that, maybe they will do a ride in Flanders and hope to finish in the top five in Amstel. It’s a different way of racing and the preparation is different.
PEZ: Are you not riding the Three Days of De Panne?
Borut: I like to race in Belgium, but I don’t like to be in Belgium. Because in Slovenia we have different weather, in March and you can train well and train deep. I grew up in Slovenia and I’m used to it for training and I can be at home. Otherwise I am three weeks in Belgium, I tried that 2 years ago and always when I came to the end of it I would say ‘this is too many days here’, I was more destroyed in the head than in the legs. And then last year I said to the team that the only thing that I want is that after Gent-Wevelgem I go home and I don’t do De Panne and then I start in Flanders and it actually came out very well. This year I will do the same. I think you cannot do a good Waregem, Harelbeke and Gent-Wvelgem and then De Panne and Flanders, even Cancellara doesn’t do that. Maybe some riders, I remember Stijn Devolder, he did it three or four years ago, but maybe that was because he was a little behind and needed to get in good shape for Flanders. I don’t think it’s a good thing, you can race, but it depends how, you can say I will go and race, but…
PEZ: What do you think of the new route for Flanders?
Borut: I think it is more like the old Flanders as we don’t make the laps as before. But Flanders is always hard; you cannot say that the Flanders from last year is harder than another.
PEZ: How did you find the two laps of last year?
Borut: For me it was a little bit easier because in the last lap you know what to expect, where you need to be in the group. But this year we will go to see the par course a bit more to get it in our heads and then it’s much, much easier. It’s already much more easy because I have raced these races for six years now and actually I know all the climbs and all the roads which is a big advantage. But for Flanders we need to see the par course, the last 130K is good to see.
PEZ: Do you think the race misses the Muur van Geraardsbergen?
Borut: No, because there’s a lot of other pave there, it’s not just the Geraardsbergen, it’s OK if it’s in, but OK without. Flanders is all around Koppenberg, Kemmelberg, Kwaremont, normally all the things happen in the Kwaremont, Pattersberg and Koppenberg, by the Muur it was always finished, maybe just the fight between Boonen and Cancellara. Everything was already done. The last two years it was on the Kwaremont when things have happened. Boonen always attacks on the Taaienberg, he must have good feelings there. I can’t remember which cobbles come before, but it’s already full gas before that as Quick-Step have so many good riders they make the selection on the cobbled section before Taaienberg and they can do what they want to. They are a Belgian team so they have to be 100% for there, they have a lot of riders and for this reason they are also the strongest.
PEZ: Who will be supporting you in the Classics?
Borut: This is my third year in the Classics for Astana, in the last years we rode all the Classics: Me, Guarnieri, Muravyev and then I don’t know the riders who will do this year, but from last year there would also be Tleubayev, Kamyshev, Gruzdevand and Valentin Iglinsky, but I heard that Max (Iglinsky) will not do the first part of the Classics. We are around six, but there will be some changes, we don’t have as strong a team as others, but we can still make some surprises like we did last year.
PEZ: Did you have a hero when you were young?
Borut: I started riding the bike because one of the first Slovenian professional cyclist lived in my city; Valter Bonca, I don’t know if you remember him. He was a good professional but in those times he was the only Slovenian, that was in the 90’s, he won the Tour of Austria (twice 1989 & 92). When I rode a bit more I always looked at certain names, but I don’t think I had a hero because the generations change. When I was racing I looked more at the sprinters like Petacchi because I can also sprint quite well. Actually I have a lot of respect for Petacchi as I have raced with him; I also raced with Cipollini in 2004 or 2005. Its many years now that I’ve raced with Petacchi, he is not the same Petacchi that he was 10 years ago. Now it’s Cavendish and before it was Petacchi, but then I was younger. When you watched him win on TV or in the news he was like a lion, in his time he was for sure the best sprinter.
PEZ: Petacchi was always nervous and his team would have to encourage him a lot.
Borut: Yeah I heard this, we sprinters are like that, sometimes I also won a race I didn’t think I’d win it. When I was starting in my first team we rode in France and Belgium a lot in 2.2 races. One time I was at the back of the group and the team came back for me to bring me to the front and I won the race and I didn’t believe that I could do it. Afterwards the sports director said to me that, more or less, all sprinters are like that.
PEZ: Just before you get to the cobble sections in Roubaix and Flanders there is a fight to get to the front. Do you always need someone in front of you to help at that point?
Borut: No it’s not a fight, it’s a war! Yes you need someone, with help it’s always better, but sometimes you need to be alone in a good position. In the Classics your team can only do so much. There is Quick-Step, BMC and Trek and all the rest we help each other but it’s not in the same way, it’s difficult because we all know what we need to do and we all have the same motivation and really there are a lot of crashes. The first Classics are much more dangerous than the second Classics, much, much more. But these are Classics, so for these reasons they are good to see on television. A lot of times the race is changing and groups are going, it’s all good. It’s not like in the Tours where you have eight guys all pulling and they stay there all day, it’s not like that in the Classics. You have to take a chance in the Classics, you have to take a risk and maybe you get nothing. When it’s like that its roulette, in Gent-Wevelgem I could see these nine guys get away and normally I should wait for the sprint, but I was the last to get on that group and I was second to Peter Sagan.
Borut takes 2nd place behind Peter Sagan in Gent-Wevelgem
PEZ: I love the Classics, so it’s great to listen to a Classics rider.
Borut: I always think, I don’t want to say, because I like to race the cobbled Classics, that they are much, much more interesting to watch them, if somebody asks me. Why not Liege, why not Fleche? I don’t know, it’s just…OK Fleche I have never done it, but I don’t know. You do Flanders for the first time and you see all those Flemish people and the flags and screaming and also Paris-Roubaix, then you cannot compare those Classics with the others. It’s funny how important and how famous cycling is in Belgium, maybe also for this reason I love to race there.
That’s the inside line from a man who knows how to perform in the Northern cobbled Classics, he might not be Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara, but if he is in the front group at the end of a race, that sprint of his will bag him a big reward.