Australian Star Stephen Hodge Gets PEZ’d!
Ex-Rider Interview: There have been many Australian riders who have come to Europe, but there is a brave band who made the big time. Stephen Hodge is one of them with a ten year career on the top rung of the pro ladder.
Steve Hodge in the pink
Stephen Hodge is a Bachelor of Science; but as his Kas team leader, the legend that is Sean Kelly rightly observed as Hodge battled his way up to the business end of the peloton with the Irishman in tow; ‘yer university degree’s no use to you now, Hodgey!’
But Hodge rode 10 seasons as a professional at the highest level in a career which saw him ride and finish 14 Grand Tours, 10 World Championships, the Commonwealth Games and Olympics. As well as ‘King Kelly,’ he was right hand man for another of the late 80’s and early 90’s legendary names, slim Basque climber, Marino Lejarreta, nicknamed, ‘The Reed of Bérriz’ (El Junco de Bérriz).
McEwen, O’Grady, Vogels and Hodge
PEZ: How did you get into the sport, Stephen?
Stephen Hodge: I was a cycle tourist when I was at university in Canberra, we’d go on runs, taking a tent with us. A friend rode a race and suggested that I try it, so I did, I was second in my first outing then won the second one; I was hooked.
PEZ: How did you end up racing in Switzerland as an amateur?
I used to race the track in the summer and then rode the 1983 Commonwealth Bank Classic where there were Swiss guys riding with the Mavic-Gitane team. I got on well with them and they said that if I could get myself over to Switzerland then they would fix me up with a club. I knew from speaking to Gary Sutton who’d raced over there that it was a good scene, well organised and with a high standard of races.
In Switzerland with Mavic-Gitane
PEZ: You had some nice results in Switzerland.
Yes, ’84 I was a bit fat but in ’85 I lost weight, took third in the GP Guillaume Tell, which was the amateur Tour of Switzerland, and won the overall season points classement for Swiss races; in ’86 I had a good year with results like a win in the Giro de Mendrisiotto and podiums in the GP Lugano and Tour de Lac Leman.
With KAS and Kelly
PEZ: But you signed a contract with a Spanish team, Kas?
Mavic was the connection there, I rode for the Mavic-Gitane team in Switzerland and Kas was sponsored by Mavic. I used to stay with the Swiss Mavic distributor in my time there so that was the link.
GP Impanis win
PEZ: A result that caught our eye was your win in the Belgian semi-classic the GP Impanis in 1989.
Yes, that was my second year, I had ridden it the year before, been in the break and observed where Etienne De Wilde made his winning move at just the right moment. I was in the break in ’89 with the likes of Alan Peiper and Johan Museeuw and there was a flurry of attacks, but as the lull came I attacked at exactly the same place as De Wilde did and solo-ed the last 10 or 12K to win on my own with Museeuw second.
Flèche Wallonne with ONCE
PEZ: ‘King Kelly’ as your team leader at Kas.
He was hilarious, I roomed with him many times, I had a science degree and he’d have all these old wife’s tales for me about always wearing a shirt to bed and keeping the windows in our room closed at all times. He’d say something to me in a race and I’d say; ‘huh?’ he’d repeat it but his accent was so thick I couldn’t understand and I’d say to him; ‘tell me in French !’ I’d love to meet him again, he was a great character.
PEZ: But Kas folded at the end of ’88.
The big boss at Kas, Agustín Mondragón was a cycling fanatic but he died and the rest of the board didn’t share his passion so the team folded. I went to Caja Rural, getting the ride through my connections with the Spanish guys on the Kas team. Caja Rural wasn’t without it’s problems but that’s where I made my connection with Marino Lejarreta.
A win in Spain for ONCE
PEZ: And you rode your first Tour de France with them.
Yes, I rode 14 Grand Tour in all and finished every one of them, that’s a record I’m proud of. The difference between the Tour and other races was having to concentrate hard for hour after hour, it was just so stressful. Marino punctured just before we came onto the Champs Elysees so we all dropped back for him and rode on to the finishing circuit as a team. I was so overcome with emotion when we rode on to the circuit in Paris I just start crying – it was just such a release. And the thing about you your first Tour is that you come out of it a different rider, it strips every bit of fat off you.
At the Tour with ONCE
PEZ: The legendary ONCE ‘Yellow Armada’ for 1989 with Marino Lejarreta.
The psychology on ONCE was different, it was a real team, you focussed on what you were doing for the team rather than your own pain and that enabled you to go deeper. Marino was renowned for sitting at the back of the peloton and only moving up when the climbing started; it was my job to take him up, focussing on doing my best for him rather than my own discomfort let you go further that you would if you were just riding your own race.
In the Amstel’91 break – Charly Mottet, Stephen Hodge, Frans Maassen and Raul Alcala
PEZ: And what of the Manolo Saiz, the ONCE boss, saint or sinner?
He was really good, albeit he went off the rails late. He got an enormous amount out of us, there was a great, familial ambiance on the squad. Us ‘Anglos’ aren’t used to ‘touchy, feely’ stuff but he’d put his arm round your shoulders as he talked to you. The other thing to remember is that we rode for a great cause, ONCE, Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles is the National Organization of Spanish blind people; it was founded in 1938, to raise funds to provide services for the blind and people with serious visual impairment. After the Vuelta we would visit schools for blind, deaf and dumb kids – we were heroes to them and sometimes when you were having a hard time in a race you would think about those kids and remind yourself you had little to complain about.
PEZ: And what about those fantastic-looking yellow ‘Bat Bikes’ from LOOK that you rode in time trials?
Yes, Manolo loved his time trials! Those frames were heavy, really badly built and a lot of them cracked or broke; it’s funny you should mention them because recently my frame builder and bike shop owner friend, Darren Baum told me he’d got hold of one of those frames and had sawn it in half. Inside they were stuffed with old bits of cardboard to pack them out to the mould.
But they were fast!
Tour de France 1992 time trial – Pre Look
PEZ: You were good against the watch.
I won the amateur GP des Nations twice, in 1985 and ’86 when it was ‘open’ – you rode the same parcours as the professionals, two laps of a tough 44.5 kilometre circuit at Cannes. I was sixth behind Charly Mottet in ’85 one place and 20 seconds in front of Sean Kelly. But the next year Sean won it by five seconds from Laurent Fignon with me in 16th place but best amateur again. In 1993 I was second in the professional edition behind the late Armand de la Cuevas; I was riding for my future in that one. Manolo was great if you were in favour but when he was finished with you then you were dumped and he’d binned me. I had no contract for the next season, my wife, who was seven months pregnant was in the car behind me was screaming her head off at me and I had to produce a result.
PEZ: Season ’91 was a good one for you with 4th on GC in the Etoile de Besseges, 3rd on GC in the Giro del Trentino and a stage win and 4th on GC in the Tour of Romandie.
Season ’90 was my highest world ranking, I was up to 40th spot but in ’91 was good, yes. I came to Europe late, when I was 22 years-old and didn’t turn pro until I was 25 years-old so you could say I was three years behind my peers in terms of learning my trade so it took me a few years to achieve my potential.
PEZ: After ONCE it was Lotus Festina.
I had a little bit of heart rate issue and was Manolo worried that I wouldn’t be able to continue, so he offered me half the salary that I had been on and left it until late in the season before he told me. I approached Bruno Roussel at Lotus Festina and signed for not much more than Manolo offered me but I didn’t appreciate how he’d dicked me around.
PEZ: Team mates with Richard Virenque.
He was a bit of a ‘lad’ and lucky to have hit on cycling as a vehicle to demonstrate his talents as a ‘show pony’ and whilst I was one of the older quieter dudes on the team we got along fine.
A Festina man in Flanders’96
PEZ: You rode the ’96 Olympics.
I never thought I would get the opportunity to ride the Olympics but in ’96 it was ‘open’ and whilst I thought I was too old I was top ranked in all the selection races. It’s a weird race because there are all these riders there from small countries who aren’t used to riding in a peloton of that size or at that level. I wasn’t in my best condition and on the day of the time trial I was off in one of the early ‘waves’ and the there was a big rain storm with parts of the course flooded and like lakes, I found it pretty scary.
With the Band-Aid team
PEZ: Despite long hard Euro seasons you’d come back to Australia in the autumn and rode well in races like the Herald Sun Tour and Tour of Tasmania.
We used to joke about those Italians and Spaniards about being ‘mamma’s boys’ being tired and wanting home at the end of the season. The Aussie races were good to ride if you weren’t injured and/or wasted, you carried good form out of the Euro season. I also rode them out of a sense of duty, to support the sport at home; but the problem was that every single one of the Aussie home riders had but one goal – which was to kick your Euro butt! And of course you were isolated because you had no team support, so they could be stressful races.
PEZ: When you look back on your career, what were the hi-lites for you?
The team prize was always important to Manolo and in the 1990 Giro it was between us and Carrera. My job was to cover any breaks with Carreras in it, a break went and we had three ONCE’s there and two Carreras but my two team mates cracked and I had to ride out of my skin to track the Carreras but I saved the team prize for us that day. It was a huge day to win the team in Milano. And I used to love those days on the Spanish plains in the Vuelta when there were cross winds, everyone knew what was coming but it still caused havoc when ONCE formed the echelon and put the hammer down – great fun. Then that ride to second place in the Nations was memorable, it got me noticed even though I went so deep I could hardly walk for two days after it. And when Marino came back after his horror crash where he broke his back it was an honour to be by his side. I had 10 seasons in Europe and was able to buy my house outright with no mortgage as a result of my career. I have no complaints.
Wine company Paternina took over sponsorship of the Caja Rural team
# One of the good things about lock down is that it has given me the time to speak to some great riders, not to mention that they’re also nice guys, Stephen Hodge adds to the list. #
Thanks to all the photographers known and unknown.