crankpunk had the pleasure of catching up with fellow racer and former 7-11 and Motorola rider Nathan Dahlberg of New Zealand. Nathan’s extraordinary career as a pro began in 1988, which saw him ride the Tour de France, not to mention participating in classics such as the Tour of Flanders. currently Directeur Sportif with the Plan B Continental racing team, Nathan, now 47, continues to race and to love riding. i wanted to ask him about his career and about how he managed to survive the Euro peloton.
crankpunk: how did you end up in Europe in the first place?
Nathan Dahlberg: i was looking to go as a junior in 1983, and i’d ridden the Junior World’s in New Zealhand and i met the French federation president on the plane back to Auckland. i got an address from him and got an address from a club in France and they asked me to go race and that was that, i went and started racing. i was 19 then, 1984.
cp: the sport is much more global now than then, but do you think the best way for young foreign riders is still to head to Europe and try to make it ther as an amateur?
nd: i think it depends. Jack Bauer went and did his own thing, George Bennett was the same and they both made it, and the other New Zealanders that are doing well now in Europe came through the national track system. I think it depends on the individual a lot – some can fit into the system and others are far more individualistic. having physical talent is one thing but you have to have the mental strength also.
cp: you turned pro in ’88.
nd: yeah i was a stagiaire basically. i was on the 7-11 team. at the time there were a lot of american guys who didn’t want to race in Europe, they said it was too hard and the living as a pro in the US was pretty good, good weather, criterium racing, then they come to Europe and it’s cold and you’re doing 200km races over mountain passes.
cp: any aspects of the Euro lifestyle that you fell in love with?
nd: after France i was in Belgium, and yeah after a while i just fell in love with the culture in Europe. i slowly became a convert to the European way of thinking. also, as a cyclist it was great – cycling was a part of life back then in France, and in Belgium still, it’s a part of the society. you have a place there. whereas in anglo-saxon countries you feel more like you’re in the way.
cp: yeah i can remember having the odd half-empty beer can thrown at me when i rode in the UK.
nd: yeah it’s quite a different attitude in Europe, people on the street know you or what you do, and they say hello and that’s it, they leave you to it. it’s changed though now, i think in English-speaking countries it’s more acceptable [to be a cyclist].
cp: about your early pro years, i was reading that you got a phone call from 7-11 manager Mike Neel before the 1988 Tour de France.
nd: [laughter] yeah i’d had a busy start to the season, i did the Tour of Flanders then the Tour of the Basque Country, then it was Paris-Roubaix after that, then i had the ‘neo-pro fever’ for a few weeks, just tired and run down. then i did a few more races, though i didn’t ride the Giro – Andy Hampsten won that – and i wasn’t sure if there would be a place for me on the team. i did a few kermesse in Belgium here and there….
cp: can i interrupt you there? you were obviously aware of the culture and history of cycling – how did it feel to be standing there on the startline of the Tour of Flanders?
nd: you know, it’s funny. when you look back, it just happens so quickly, it’s like a whirlwind. there’s no time to think. you’re in a storm and you’re thrown into the ocean [more laughter]. you might look in the distance and see the waves and how magnificent they are but when you’re in there it’s a different story. you’re just racing full tilt, hanging onto wheels. actually i have more memories of my time as an amateur than i do as a pro!
it just all happens so fast.
cp: i’ve done a few kermesse in Belgium, they’re killers, into the corner at 20km’hr and out off them at 55. ten corners per lap and 80-odd laps…
nd: your legs just explode in those races, it’s very much a specialist form. they deliberately slow down then jump, to break you.
cp: so you got this phone call…
nd: i’d done a kermesse that day and was in my flat then someone came round and said that someone from 7-11 had called and that i had to start the Tour de France the next morning! i didn’s ask any questions – the story was so preposterous that it had to be true! you couldn’t make it up. so the next day i started the Tour de France.
nd: yeah i’d done 190km in the kermesse the day before then had an all night drive to the start.
cp: yet you got 16th on stage 3…
nd: i was going pretty well and trying to help Davis Phinney in the sprint, and i just kept a good position. i thought Davis was on my wheel but he wasn’t and just held my place.
cp: and you finished the Tour…
nd: it was pretty tough, i had one bad day and was almost eliminated, but i did everything to survive.
cp: something you just said was very interesting, that as a new professional you didn’t have time to think. in regards to doping and the pressures faced by young pros, do you think that this sense lf everything being so fast, such a whirlwind, as you called it, led these guys into making bad decisions?
nd: it’s hard to go back in time and to think about how it was when you’re 19, 20, 21, which are the developing years for a cyclist, but yeah it is hard to know what’s going on at that age. the people around you are the ones you respect, the older pros, the managers – they’re the guys you’ve read about in books and seen on TV, they’re legends. when they say something you gobble it up, it can be hard to say ‘hang on, this isn’t making sense, this isn’t right.’
cp: the burden there is on the young rider and that’s not fair. you have to be exceptionally strong mentally to resist if these guys are advising you to dope.
nd: yeah, and it’s hard to villainise these guys who make bad decisions. i mean, it’s something that 90% of the general population would do in the same circumstances. these young guys have given say the past five to ten years of their lives to bike racing and there they are in a hard stage race – you wake up in the morning and it’s snowing and you have 200km in the mountains ahead of you, and you’re dead, trashed from the race before – and you’re at a breaking point…
cp: and of course so many of those guys – it might be a little different now but not radically – had no real education beyond say 16.
nd: and you’re contract might be on the line, the manager walks into the room and says ‘look you haven’t done anything this year.’ and these guys don’t have anything, it’s this or back to the factory.
cp: so where does the main responsibility lie for the doping culture that so ravaged the sport?
nd: it starts at the top, with the head of the UCI down. if you have corruption at the top it works its way down. eventually everyone will be doing it because they have to, and to stamp it out it has to also come from the top. it should be that, for that guy who’s exhausted and facing those 200km in the snow, the doctor tells the manager and the manager pulls the guy out, not forces him to continue.
turning a blind eye and getting on with the job so everyone can make money, that [attitude has] worked its way down through the system. then the only thing you have left is a system with a bunch of guys willing to do it, and all the guys who aren’t have left.
when i first went to Europe I doubt the guys like Hinault and Moser made more than $200,000 a year, but as a good pro and even amateur you could make $20,000 a year, so that’s only ten times the difference. but look at it now and you have the top guys on millions. yet now in Belgium and France, the prize koney for amateur races is the same more or less as it was in 1984, so there’s no way an amateur can survive now.
you look at the UCI, they’re not interested in promoting 2.2 races for Chinese riders, they want 2.1, HC or ProTour races where – I’ll put this bluntly – they can pout money in their own pockets.
cp: it’s not exactly grassroots it it? they bring in the shiny stars and then their off, and most of the top teams don’t want to be there.
nd: exactly, and what good is that doing for the sport in China? nothing. look at McQuaid – he’s actually done some good i think, but the way he’s gone about it all has largely been wrong. it’s all about shiny events, big stars and it’s doing nothing for cycling. it’s all about them making money. and then look at Paul Kimmage, i don’t really like him or that book he wrote [Rough Ride] but the other day i went and out money in his defense fund! [laughter]
i want McQuaid out. the UCI is just not doing things right and that is why cycling has gone so far off track.
started with Heinz Verbruggen, making cycling a business, but cycling is about us all, about the top guys but also about guys like you and me and the club riders too, but they don’t even know we exist. Verbruggen wanted to make it a business and he came at a time when stars could be made from nothing [with the advent of EPO], and he needed these guys to create this system. it all aligned for him. and now the whole structure of the UCI has to be reformed so that riders like you and i can have a say in it and that it doesn’t remain this system whereby whoever is in power can just do what they want with it. corruption has taken over and it’s out of control.
cp: were you always against doping or was there a point at which you made a decision against it?
nd:i never even considered doping before i went to Europe and then your eyes get opened to what’s going on. until i turned pro i must admit i never had a 100% view on it, i heard a lot of amateurs saying that once you turned pro you had to take stuff as there was no way you could survive otherwise. so i was pretty apprehensive about the whole thing when i turned pro.
it was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now and there was no internet so you couldn’t just go and check out drugs on the web. it was all hearsay, we were like babes in the wood. but on my team the great thing was that there were not even any vitamins, it was really a pleasant shock. the guys i respected were very anti-doping and that really informed my attitude, as i was about 23 at the time. you know, it was an attitude of ‘this is a very bad thing’, and not just from an ethical standpoint but from a health one too. that stuff is very dangerous.
it was the era i was in, we were after the amphetamine era – i mean some guys still did them – but before the EPO era. there were steroids being used, cortisone too, but they weren’t game changers like EPO or HGH. it was possible still to race at a high level still, and i mean, we hardly ever even thought about drugs.
cp: you are now in a position working with Plan B with young riders. do you instill in them these attitudes or is it better to actually look for riders who already have a strong stance against doping?
nd: for us doping isn’t even part of the game, it’s just not done. we concentrate on the good things, the attractive things of the sport, the riding in the mountains and not the srynges! if people ask me i give my opinion, which is that you don’t even need vitamins. to race you need good legs, unless you have a medically proven deficiency. it’s my opinion and i just feel that if something really ‘works’, it’s probably gonna be banned!
cp: you’re 47 now and still racing – what keeps you going out there?
nd: i just love riding my bike. that is the true addiction. i love the adventure and the excitement, love racing. i do though like racing at a high level so it’s harder to find races these days but, yeah just love it. probably the same reason you ride a bike.
cp: exactly. love being on that start line. thanks, have a good ride and thanks for a great chat.
nd: thanks crankpunk.
the stats of Nathan’s career can be seen here.