Steve Cummings Says Goodbye to the Peloton
Rider Interview: It seems like Steve Cummings has been in the pro peloton for ever, but just a couple of weeks ago he announced he would be hanging up his race bike. A bad crash in the Tour of Britain brought a disappointing end to a successful career. Ed Hood caught up with Cummings while he is still recovering and looking forward to the future and back at the highs and lows of his years in the saddle.
Tour stage win – Not too shabby
It was 1999 when Steve Cummings first burst on to the British race scene with a win, whilst still a junior, in the prestigious and always hard fought Eddie Soens Memorial handicap race at Aintree, Liverpool. That same season he took the British Junior Road Race Championship.
By 2004 he had an Olympic team pursuit silver medal to his name and would go on to become a World champion at the discipline a year later in the colours of Landboukrediet and then, still with the Belgian squad, a Commonwealth team pursuit champion in 2006. He was a ‘Discovery man’ for 2007 with Alberto Contador telling my mechanic friend with the team; “I’d have that Cummings guy on my team any day!” For 2008 he was with South African outfit, Barloworld, winning a stage in Reggio Calabria and the prestigious late season Coppa Bernocchi.
Omloop Het Volk Gent-Lokeren back in 2006
Still with the forklift team for 2009 he won a stage in the Giro del Capo in South Africa but an ill-judged race programme thereafter meant that it was his only big result and he left to join Team Sky for two seasons; working hard for them in the Giro and Tour in 2010 and taking a stage in the Tour of the Algarve in 2011. He was with ‘super team’ BMC for three years from 2012 winning Vuelta and Tour of Beijing stages in 2012 and GC on the Tour of the Mediterranean in 2014. The 2015 season saw him with the team he would ride for until the end of his career – MTN Qhubeka/Dimension Data. This was the most fruitful phase of his career; taking the Trofeo Andraitx in Mallorca and a brilliant Tour de France stage in 2015.
With Discovery in 2007
Things only got better in 2016 with Tirreno, Basque Country, Dauphine and Tour de France stages all falling to him – not to mention the GC in the Tour of Britain. The 2017 season saw a brilliant National Championship double – time trial and road race as well as a stage in the Giro della Toscana. The last two seasons have been less benevolent and his bad crash in this year’s Tour of Britain has taken it’s toll, causing him to re-appraise his situation and call ‘time.’
We caught up with him a few days after he made the decision:
PEZ: Things won’t be the same without you, Steve; and judging by social media, a lot of folks share that view?
Steve Cummings: I’ve been absolutely touched, over whelmed by the reaction I’ve had to my making the announcement that I was finishing up. I was just going to, ‘slip away quietly’ I didn’t want a fuss; but then I thought that wouldn’t be fair and people should know what I was doing. I enquired around about a contract for 2020 but given that I’m 38 years-old, still injured with no guarantees about when I’ll be back in action, it’s difficult – if I was 28 years-old then maybe teams would take a chance on me?
PEZ: How’s recovery from the crash going?
It’s taking a little bit longer than I thought. I’m not in pain but I have a brace on from my chin to my pelvis – I sustained what are called ‘wedge fractures’ to my spine – I have to keep the weight off it and it’s pretty intrusive. It’s not ideal and it’s limiting but there’s no point in moaning about it. I could ride a home trainer but don’t have the motivation for that.
That Tour of Britain crash
PEZ: Are you a superstitious person, Steve? The crash happened one kilometre from your home; perhaps The Fates telling you it was time to stop?
I never used to be a superstitious person but as I’ve got older I’m more so than I was. There was a spell when it seemed that I couldn’t stay on my bike, I was always crashing. In Italy there’s a belief called ‘Mallochio’ – that translates as the ‘evil eye,’ and I wondered if someone had placed that hex upon me? (“il Malocchio is a condition of unluckiness that comes from someone or something else. Its origin usually lies in envy and according to elders the bad luck can be caused intentionally and unintentionally”, ed). So I went to a person who deals in those things to see if that was what was wrong and to lift it from me. Then there was my Vuelta Stage 13 win – the number 13 is lucky in Italian folk lore. And a few weeks after my crash my uncle died, he was the last of seven brothers – a lucky number in British culture – I missed all the other funerals because I was away at races but attended his; before he died he told me I should quit racing. If I hadn’t had the crash then I would never have had the chance to see him and have those memories of him. The hospital I was in, I could have walked home, it was less than a mile away.
PEZ: The hi-lites of your career?
It’s hard to pick one but the most satisfying season of my career was 2016, everything I strived to achieve that year, I achieved – albeit I fell off at the end of the year. I won in Tirreno, the Basque Country, the Dauphine, the Tour and took the GC in the Tour of Britain. From day one of the season that year, I was in shape to win, I had no illness problems – just a great season.
Steve Cummings highlights 2015-2016
PEZ: What about that first Tour stage where you fought back up to Bardet and Pinot to win at Mende in 2015?
Of course, yes, that was a defining moment in my career – when you’re a young rider you dream of winning a Tour stage. And it was nice that I had time to celebrate properly.
PEZ: That was terrific TV.
Yeah, the TV was concentrating on the GC battle while I just set my own tempo on the climb, behind – and all of a sudden, I appeared!
Tour’15 stage win
PEZ: And the lows?
I try to blank them out but that crash I had on the descent of the Porte de Bales when I was with BMC in 2012 was a bad one. I was in great shape at the start of that season then I crashed in the Tour of the Algarve and broke my pelvis, I came back and broke my wrist in the Tour of the Basque Country, then crashed again in the Tour of California and broke the same wrist, then I rode the Tour de Suisse and the Tour, where I had the crash. I was slowly improving after that crash but as soon as I felt better I had another crash and lost a lot of skin. After the Tour I was in bed for 10 days, I had to sleep downstairs, I couldn’t climb the stairs. Somehow or another I was elected for the Vuelta but was mentally very tired and couldn’t do 300 watts where normally I’d produce 600 watts. I thought I was going to have go home but our soigneur, Anthony Pauwels – Serge’s brother – worked away at me every day and after 10 days, it was like someone flicked a switch and I felt good. Philippe Gilbert won two stages in that Vuelta so the team morale was good, we were relaxed, having a laugh and an ice cream and a beer with dinner. It’s often underestimated the value of having fun and relaxing and I won Stage 13 of the race.
And I also won a stage in Beijing at the end of that year.
PEZ: You were on six different squads in a 15 year pro career, which did you feel most comfortable at?
Season 2015 with MTN-Qhubeka was where I felt most at ease, the environment was good and the team had a mission with good values, it was good to be part of that. We felt like we were punching above our weight – and a lot of that was down to the work our manager, Brian Smith did in bonding the team over the winter, he did a great job.
Steve Cummings and Brian Smith
PEZ: I’m guessing your time with Claudio Corti at Barloworld was your least favourite time?
When I look back I can see that it was just a clash of cultures with Claudio, we were both passionate about the sport, but wanted the same things. . .
PEZ: With hindsight?
Mistakes are all part of the process, you don’t set out to make them; you have to re-focus after you’ve made them – I think I’ve been good at regrouping after problems and getting on with things.
In the national champs jersey
PEZ: What would have liked to achieve but didn’t?
I’d like to have won a Classic and I’d like to have won a Giro stage. I guess everyone wants to win a Classic; and earlier in my career I always had allergy issues at the time of the Giro. I worked on those though and really wanted to ride the Giro in 2018 when I had the national champion’s jersey on my back but wasn’t selected. I’ve no regrets, I did all I could.
PEZ: You were a very successful team pursuiter with Olympic silver [2004 Athens] then Worlds  and Commonwealth  gold to your credit; you know what a 3:59 ride feels like – they’re going 10 seconds plus faster now. . .
It’s scary; but every Olympic cycle the team pursuit time improves by around four seconds – there’s more understanding of how the human body functions now and skinsuits and bikes just keep getting more aero.
Coppa Bernocchi 2008
PEZ: Advice to young professionals just starting out?
Your career passes all too quickly so dream big, set goals and work hard to achieve them. And keep a balance, there’s your own success but you have to keep your team happy too. It’s a unique sport, the individual wins but it’s a team sport.
PEZ: What now?
I’m studying with a view to doing corporate work I also would like to explore TV work; but really, I have no clear idea, I want to explore a few different avenues – and of course, I still love cycling.
2017 Giro della Toscana stage 1
PEZ: Will you continue to live in Italy?
I’m staying in Andorra at the moment; we’re going to keep our house in Tuscany but lease it out – we come back to the UK in April. It’ll be good to be back with family and friends.
PEZ: The important questions last – how’s the scooter?
I have two now, one in the UK – where I’ll need to sit my test – and one in Italy but it’s needing a new seat, it’s rotted away from exposure to the elements.
Tour of Britain 2019 stage 1
PEZ: And your beloved Liverpool Football Club – 37 points off 13 games at the time of this conversation; that’s pretty impressive.
They’re a pleasure to watch right now and I love Jurgen Klopp their manager, he’s a real character and there’s such a buzz around them just now. The standard of football they’re playing is at a very high level, this year. During my time in hospital I was able to take in a few games, I got weekend leave and took a taxi to Liverpool’s Anfield stadium, I saw them play Newcastle and was at their game against Chelsea. And whilst I’ve been in Andorra I’ve been to see Barcelona play; I’m going to see them play Dortmund tomorrow. I’d really love to see the Salzburg v. Liverpool game but there were only 1500 tickets allocated to us and they’ll be really hard to come by. . .
# We’re gonna miss the man for his breakaway skills – and of course, his passion for ‘The Reds’. . . #
Some more best moments
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,800 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.