If you could take just a handful of the talented riders Heiko Salzwedel has worked with throughout the world and assemble them into a cycling team, you’d have one hell of an outfit. Between them they’ve had so much success you might also find a few egos. But that’s not something you would associate with the man himself, who always operates without fuss or fanfare, quietly going about his business in the background, often completely under the radar. It’s not by coincidence that when Sir Bradley Wiggins broke the Hour record in London earlier this year, the man stood in the middle with the stopwatch was this unassuming East German.
Heiko Salzwedel is a respected international cycling coach and team manager with an unrivalled list of coaching palmarès. Born in Schmalkalden (between Frankfurt and Leipzig) in the late 1950’s, he moved to Canberra, Australia in 1990. In Australia he set up the Australian Institute of Sport cycling programme, which would develop the talents of Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen, among many others. He was later responsible for creating the first Australian UCI-registered pro team in 1996, as the country readied itself for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney.
After eight years Down Under he returned to his native Germany as performance director of the National Federation before then moving to the British Federation as performance manager in 2001. In 2003 he began working as a consultant to the Danish Cycling Federation and the T-Mobile Team. And this is where I first encountered his work [more on that later]. In 2005 he was appointed as coach of the Danish National Track Team, and during his tenure the team pursuit squad developed from tenth in the world to a very close second. Perhaps the fact that the Danes were now threatening their world number one status played a part in British Cycling’s decision to bring him back into the fold in 2008 as performance manager.
After another successful period, and with the Danish threat seemingly subsiding, Heiko headed east in 2012 and founded RusVelo - a Russian team with a strong focus around track racing and competing in the Olympic Games. Maybe the success of the Russians under Heiko’s guidance set yet more alarm bells ringing in Manchester because by the end of 2014 he was back for a third spell with British Cycling, where he currently works on the men’s endurance programme.
There’s little argument, wherever Heiko has travelled, whichever federation or team he has worked with, they have benefited hugely from his methods and experienced significant success. My first encounter with Heiko came in 2004. I’d been working with T-Mobile UK (TMUK) for a while, on their football sponsorships. That year the Tour of Britain came back on the race calendar and Deutsche Telekom (The Mothership) encouraged us at TMUK to sponsor that race saying they would send a strong team to compete. I’d come to the Tour de France to see how T-Mobile International delivered cycling sponsorship. I wasn’t disappointed.
Heiko had collected us from the airport in Geneva and we were heading across the border in a fully-branded, bright magenta VW Transporter. The border guards, spotting the cycling team imagery on the van inevitably waved us down. Heiko knew exactly what was coming.
“Une casquette . . .?” enquired the guard.
We handed him half a dozen and were waved on our way without further fuss. I was already learning there are certain ways of dealing with French police during French cycle races. During the day I would benefit from a number of Heiko’s other talents, not least his expert driving skills as he hurled the VW Transporter down alpine passes on the route of the race. I was actually getting quite nauseous at one point, but he was absolutely in his element, not only negotiating the tricky route, but simultaneously analysing the race with his expert insight.
We had some fun at the Tour that year, but there was a genuine reason to engage his coveted talents. The challenge that we’d asked Heiko to take on can be summarised in one short sentence, which was repeated several times that year. At the time the T-Mobile Team had no UK riders in the squad. My mantra had become: “You
can’t expect Brits to support a bunch of Germans dressed in pink lycra.” It was during these early encounters that the concept of the Development Programme was first conceived. TMUK were not the only ones with such concerns. The issue was replicated in the rest of the countries where T-Mobile operated, especially the Netherlands, Austria and Czech Republic. If T-Mobile Team wanted international support, they needed international riders. We needed someone who had a proven record of identifying and developing riders from different parts of the world. Heiko fitted the job spec perfectly. Soon after he set to work identifying talented young riders from those countries who would ideally, over time, graduate into the full T-Mobile Team.
By the following January he’d already pulled together his shortlist and several of them gathered in Mallorca for the early season training camp. The names were then unknown in the public arena, just a bunch of promising kids. We had no idea back then what a pool of talent Heiko had amassed. From the UK the riders Heiko had highlighted included: Kristian House, Ed Clancy, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Mark Cavendish. From Austria was Stefan Deni and from the Czech Republic came Frantisek Rabon. You probably don’t need me to tell you where they all ended-up, but just for the hell of it...
Franti joined T-Mobile and stayed with them after they were taken on by Highroad Sports. He had three successful years with Highroad/Columbia/HTC then went on to Quickstep, where he stayed until last year when he switched to MTB. Stefan was picked-up by the Cervélo Test Team, and later rode for Leopard Trek and Vaconsoleil. He is currently with IAM. Ed and Kristian still ride for a top UK domestic team, with Ed continuing to deliver at the highest level on the track for Team GB at the Olympics and Kristian becoming UK Road Race Champion in 2009 and now a key senior member of what was the Rapha-JLT Condor team. Geraint Thomas, having proven himself as a world-class endurance track rider, is now reinventing himself as a Grand Tour specialist at Team Sky. Ian Stannard rode as stagiaire for T-Mobile where he was identified as a future classics man. He’s now delivering on his potential with Team Sky, winning some of the world’s biggest one-day races and becoming UK Road Race Champion in 2012. And Mark Cavendish - whatever happened to him?
I’ve witnessed, and benefited from, Heiko’s relaxed approach to coaching, and it’s easy to see why he’s popular with riders. One year, in those days of TMUK sponsoring the Tour of Britain, we also sponsored the official mass participation ride. As part of that we asked Heiko to develop a training programme for TMUK employees who wanted to ride in the event. He delivered it in person at our Hatfield HQ, with a talk on the basics of training and diet. His approach always seemed relaxed and flexible, tailored to individual needs but always with a holistic and realistic view. He tackled this mini-project with the professionalism that has become his trademark.
For now it seems Heiko has his work cut out preparing Team GB for the Rio Olympics in 2016. Surely if there is one man that could be termed a victim of his own success then it’s Heiko. The other nations that are closing the gap, and in some instances overtaking the British are of course, the Danes, Russians and Aussies. It’s a fascinating legacy that will no doubt see him pushing on to greater heights in an attempt to fend them off and once again raise the bar.
It had been a while, so I got in touch with Heiko earlier in the year and he kindly agreed to take part in our Conquista Q&A. Below is a transcript of the conversation:
CQ: What is the single most important change you would like to make in cycling? HS: There is only one thing, for sure right now it’s a very bad situation again following the third big doping scandal [Armstrong] and I hope the sport will clean up for now and forever.
CQ: Tell us about your best day on a bike?
HS: My own best day on the bike is a difficult one, but more as a coach I had some really exciting times with the Australian Institute of Sport and also with the Danes.
CQ: If you were in the movie The Matrix, would you take the red pill or the blue pill, and why? HS: Oh, I haven’t seen that movie, sorry!
CQ: Form or Function?
HS: It’s both actually. [correct]
CQ: Which - if any - of the pro riders would you be OK with your daughter marrying? HS: [Laughs]. I couldn’t answer this question!
CQ: Shut up Legs or Shut up Jens?
HS: [Laughs again] Shut up Legs!
CQ: You, a room with no windows, a gun, no witnesses. Who do you take in there and why? HS: [still laughing] This is another difficult question for me to answer - I cannot say who!
CQ: Tell us your favourite joke?
HS: I don’t have a favourite joke, sorry to confirm I have the German stereotype without a sense of humour. [he’s still laughing, so we know this is not true].
CQ: What is your biggest disappointment?
HS: This is a long time ago actually, it was 1986 when my East German team pursuit team was declared second with 0.001 of a second, losing the gold medal in the World Track Championships against the Czech Republic.
CQ: When was the last time you bought your own cycling kit and what was it? HS: It was only about four weeks ago however I’m not actually able to wear it at the moment because my bike has been stolen from my home in Germany!
CQ: Cav, Kittel, or Kittens
CQ: What is the best hangover cure?
HS: Riding your bike!
CQ: Who will be the big star of the 2015 season?
HS: I hope Cavendish is making a big comeback - a HUGE comeback - and it looks like he already had a good start. Having said this, his leadout man from the 2011 World Championships, Ian Stannard, looks exceptional this year.
CQ: Who would you like us to interview next?
HS [without hesitation] Ian Stannard!