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Uber-Coach Heiko Salzwedel Gets PEZ’d!
“Probably the best cycling coach in the world.” His name isn’t “Carlsberg” though, it’s Heiko Salzwedel and he’s German – but it was the Danish team pursuit squad he took to Olympic silver in Beijing. The 51 year-old has now moved on to the nation that denied Denmark the shiniest medals, Great Britain. We talked with the man who many reckon is, “The Man,” when it comes to coaching.

PEZ: Why does a man want to be a coach, Heiko?
Heiko: I suppose it’s for the adrenalin rush when your athletes achieve success. And there’s the satisfaction of helping unknown kids become world class athletes.

PEZ: Why cycling?
Heiko: In my eyes it’s one of the most beautiful sports. There’s the physical aspect plus the need for split second decision making and great team spirit. On the road you have the natural beauty of the countryside you race through. Also the high number of competition days – 100 per year – makes it a unique sport; it’s a lifestyle, you travel the world, racing and training, it’s like being part of a family.

PEZ: You started as the East German team pursuit coach?
Heiko: Yes, I was just a young coach back in 1985 when we won the world junior title. The Federation were so pleased that they allowed us to keep the group together. We progressed to the world title in 1989 after Worlds silvers in ’86 and ’87 then Olympic silver in ’88.

PEZ: Australia was next for you, in 1990.
Heiko: I’d always had a good relationship with the Australian coaches and riders. Australia was a dream for me, after East Germany and the Berlin Wall coming down, I moved there with my family, and still look on that time as one of the best of my life.

At that time, there had been a few Aussie road stars – guys like Peiper and Anderson; but there was no system to bring riders through. We introduced the structure that resulted in the steady stream of good Australian pros that you see now. Robbie McEwen, Nick Gates, Matt White and Henk Vogels were all products of that time.

We were also one of the first countries to take mountain biking seriously and introduce a programme – Cadel Evans came out of that.

PEZ: You left Aus to go to GB in ’98?
Heiko: I was with the German Federation for one year before I came to Britain.

I worked with UK Sport, setting up the World Class Performance Plan – cycling was one of the first sports I worked with.

I was there as Performance Director until 2002.

PEZ: There are stories that you had to leave due to friction with some riders?
Heiko: That’s not the case, there were private circumstances in play at that time which meant that I couldn’t work to my full potential.

I have to give a job everything and at that time, 2002 – I couldn’t. I had to make some hard decisions during my time in the job, but I left on pretty good terms with the riders and coaches.

PEZ: T-Mobile next?
Heiko: I ran the development team, I was a talent scout for young riders, preparing them for a pro career – not necessarily with T-Mobile. Mark Cavendish was one of my riders.

PEZ: And then Denmark?
Heiko: I did consultancy work with them, before I went full time in 2005. Initially I wasn’t that keen because I knew the pressure it would put on me and my family because I was commuting from Germany. But they were a good group of riders and I didn’t want to let them down.

In the Worlds at Copenhagen in 2002 they did 4-23; at Beijing we did 3-56.

PEZ: Some say GB recruited you because Denmark were getting too close.
Heiko: You’d have to ask David Brailsford (GB head honcho) about that one!

PEZ: Is there a ‘shelf life’ for a coach, with one nation?
Heiko: I know coaches who have been with one country for many, many years. But it depends on the coach – you must be flexible, innovative, introduce new elements and keep moving on. But not necessarily to a new job.

PEZ: It must be a big emotional wrench to leave a team like Denmark?
Heiko: Of course, you build close relationships; you become friend, mentor and even father figure to your riders. You help with their personal problems, and if you have a training camp in the middle of nowhere in China or South Africa then close bonds form.

PEZ: The GB role, management or ‘hands on?’
Heiko: It’s a management role; I always maintained contact with the riders – Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Geraint Thomas.

And David Brailsford and Shane Sutton (head coach with GB) used to say to me; “you should come back, we have unfinished business together!”

I won’t just drop the Danes though, I’ll stay in touch – unless they beat us, that is!

It’s a long time since Robbie McEwen left my programme in 1994, but we still keep in touch. I was able to pass a lot of what I’d learned about sprinting, with Robbie on to Mark Cavendish.

One of the reasons I came to GB was that they could give me a long term commitment – that was something that the Danes couldn’t do.

PEZ: The ideal team pursuit rider?
Heiko: There’s no such thing; you need different types of riders for different roles within the team. You need the ideal starter, who can get the team out of the blocks and up to speed quickly, and above all, efficiently. Then you need a stabiliser, who can do one-and-a-half laps, when neccessary, to give the others additional recovery. Then you need a motivator, who can lift the speed, if you need to.

Generally, you need big, strong riders with excellent V02, higher than normal, in fact higher than any other discipline in the sport.

Above all, you need riders who think for four, not one.

One of the biggest tasks I had with the Danish squad was for them to loose the “safety” mentality – they all wanted to finish. I had to explain that it doesn’t matter if you finish, as long as you get us out of the blocks fast, then forget the last K!

Michael Morkov and Alex Rasmussen are two top pursuiters getting ready to make a go of it on the road…

PEZ: Is a top road career feasible for a team pursuiter, given the level of specialisation?
Heiko: You have to try for balance; my aim with Denmark was to produce top cyclists, not just team pursuit riders.

Road racing is attractive and I always incorporated a lot of road ‘blocks’ into my programmes.

I’m also a firm believer in the benefits of altitude training; and in the Grand Tours, that’s the environment where many of the major decisions are made.

PEZ: Is the obsession with hi-tech, aero equipment justified?
Heiko: In no other discipline is equipment more important. Teams are riding at up to 65 kph, the smallest advantages in air resistance are very important. The right equipment, along with your riders having the power to push big gears are two of the most important factors in team pursuiting.

PEZ: When will 3:49 come?
Heiko: Times were stagnant for some years, but I believe that GB must think on terms of sub-3:50 (current record is 3:53; GB in Beijing) in order to win in London. Other countries are wakening up and ‘doing a Denmark’ – not trying to beat GB across the board, but specialising in one event and doing it really well.

I’ve heard that Russia have very big ambitions for the team pursuit in London and have been allocated a staggering budget to beat “the West” on their home track.

PEZ: Regrets?
Heiko: I’m human, so I’ve made mistakes, but no real regrets.

PEZ: And if you could do just one more thing in coaching?
Heiko: In London 2012, I want GB to win the team pursuit and madison with Mark Cavendish to win the road race!

That’s three things, Heiko !

With thanks to Heiko for his time and patience.


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