Interview: Rolf Aldag on Team Dimension Data, Mark Cavendish, cycling’s past… and the future

It’s not that I love to hang out with Cav, and that we’ll take a beach holiday together, but we know what we can expect from each other"

Rolf Aldag is busy when I call, but finds time to talk. He is a multi-tasker.

The other duty occupying his time as we speak? Directing Omar Fraile in the breakaway on the second stage of the Giro d’Italia.

Aldag, acting in the most visible aspect of his role as performance manager at Team Dimension Data, is piloting the car that follows Fraile, who would end the day on the podium in the blue King of the Mountains jersey, and his fellow escapees on a 190km route from Arnhem to Nijmegen. He breaks off occasionally to bellow instructions at the Spaniard, but resumes our conversation without missing a beat.

It’s a conversation that ranges from Cervélo to Cavendish, from drag calculations to Team Dimension Data, from EPO to Etixx-QuickStep (two manifestly separate topics).

“Cycling is not mathematics, where you can say one plus one equals two” Aldag says. “It’s more complicated than that.”

He is pragmatic, focused on detail, and a master of logistics, according to those who work alongside him (Bernhard Eisel among them), but Aldag clearly relishes cycling’s unpredictable nature, too.

Rolf Aldag (left) has been near ever-present through the career of Mark Cavendish, pictured here after winning the 2009 Milan-San Remo. Now Aldag is performance manager at Cavendish’s latest team, Dimension Data (Pic: Sirotti)

The past

A brief summary: Aldag competed as a rider at the highest level for a decade-and-a-half, concluding a 15-year career in 2005. In 2007, he confessed to using EPO from 1995 to 1999, but was retained in his managerial role at T-Mobile by general manager Bob Stapleton, who said the riders had insisted Aldag stay on.

“There have been big problems in the past, and if we try to play it like we haven’t seen it, either we’re completely stupid or not honest,” Aldag says, disarmingly. “We have been a big problem in damaging the sport in the past and all we can do it try to improve it.”

There have been big problems in the past, and if we try to play it like we haven’t seen it, either we’re completely stupid or not honest

Aldag is a key exhibit A in the defence of the argument for those who transgressed cycling’s laws as a rider to remain within the sport. But has cycling changed?

“I definitely believe so,” he says. “If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here any more. That’s a condition I set for myself and everyone I work with. Now, it’s a completely different mindset and culture. It takes time; it’s not done in a year. It is changing and will continue to change. The young riders today grew up in a different environment. It’s all about education.”

New dimension

Aldag’s career in management is impressive. He has worked with some of the biggest teams in the sport, and with its most successful riders, notably with Mark Cavendish, to whom we will return.

When T-Mobile was reborn as HTC-Highroad, Aldag played a significant dual role: offering experience and some level of continuity, while championing a clean future for his team and the sport.

Following the demise of HTC, he took a year-long hiatus from the sport, working for the World Triathlon Corporation, before returning to professional cycling and reuniting with Cavendish at Omega Pharma-QuickStep (now Etixx-QuickStep).

Aldag’s three-year stint with Patrick Lefevere’s team was a success and in 2015, his last year, EQS racked up 54 victories; more than any of their rivals. So why change a winning formula? In short, why move to Team Dimension Data?

Aldag rode for the T-Mobile team from 1993 to 2005. In 2007 the former German national champion confessed to using EPO between 1995 and 1999 (Pic: Sirotti)

“I liked the concept,” says Aldag. “I see that it’s very connected to the continent of Africa. I’m a resident too of South Africa, so I’ve known Douglas [Ryder, Dimension Data team principal] a long time. My daughter goes to school there for four months a year.”

Aldag the pragmatist surfaces. He believes in the concept and believes it can succeed. If he didn’t, he says, he wouldn’t have joined the team.

“And then of course you look at the situation and the structure. It’s logical that if you have a team that goes from Continental to Pro Continental to World Tour, that you can deliver good know-how,” he says. “They are really good people with some experience.

“It’s like starting from a blank page. It’s something really fresh, with some open-minded people. It has a little bit of the history of the Cervélo Test Team: don’t say no to anything you don’t know; give everything a fair chance, a fair try and see if you can do something better.”

Friends reunited

Aldag references Cervélo Test Team, but Dimension Data bears more than a passing resemblance to HTC-Highroad, where he directed Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Mark Renshaw, Matt Brammeier, Eisel and, of course, Cavendish – all now racing in the black and white of “Africa’s team”.

Eisel describes Aldag as a perfectionist and “a bit of a workaholic, too.” Having joined Dimension Data in the off season, Eisel was eager to be reunited with Aldag and once again have the German in the team car.

“He was one of the first guys that we said, if we get this together, we’ve got to get Rolf,” Eisel told RoadCyclingUK at the Tour de Yorkshire. “Without him, it doesn’t make sense.”

But it’s not only with riders that Aldag has clout, and Klaas Johnassen, Dimension Data’s chief mechanics, echoes Eisel’s sentiment as to the revere with which Aldag is held within the sport.

“He’s an icon in cycling,” says Johnassen. “There’s no supplier of materials who can tell him things; it would be the other way around. For us, that’s a huge, huge improvement for the team, in performance terms.”

Aldag brushes aside the compliments, implying that a team is greater than a collection of individuals, whatever their shared history.

“The whole world knows Bernard Eisel: who he is and what he does and what you can get out of him. That makes it easer, but we’re all supporting each other. Not to hang out and be buddies, but to support the whole concept of the team and together we can contribute.”

Cavendish has had Aldag in the team car at T-Mobile, HTC-Highroad, Etixx-QuickStep and now Dimension Data

Aldag and Eisel are among the most trusted confidants of another HTC old boy, former world champion Cavendish. Aldag has been a near ever-present influence through Cavendish’s career – only during the Briton’s time at Team Sky was he absent from the team car – but Aldag is similarly unsentimental about his relationship with Team Dimension Data’s leader.

“It’s not that I love to hang out with Cav, and that we’ll take a beach holiday together,” Aldag jokes. “I don’t see that happening. But we get on. We know what we can expect from each other.”

It’s not that I love to hang out with Cav, and that we’ll take a beach holiday together, but we know what we can expect from each other

Cavendish is the team’s known quantity in a sport riddled with unknowns. A 200-strong peloton, race distances of 200km and more, and changeable weather are just some of the variables Aldag must contend with, both in equipping the team and calling the shots from the team car. But if he can contrive that Cavendish is well-positioned in the closing kilometres, wins will surely follow.

“You know what you can expect,” Aldag says of Cavendish. “At least one guy can deliver results. You reduce the complete unknown. I don’t know the outcome, but I know the personality. “

The future

Aldag has been part of professional cycling’s regrettable past, but in his work with HTC and now Dimension Data, is at the heart of a brighter future.

Offering a path to the top tier of an international sport to athletes from an entire continent is admirable, as is placing 5,000 bicycles on its roads – the gold of the Qhubeka charity with which the team is aligned. By working with Qhubeka, Dimension Data has taken on a greater challenge than simply winning bike races.

Aldag’s latest managerial role has taken him to Africa’s first WorldTour team

“I’m aware of the problems of that continent,” Aldag says. “I’m not blind or isolated. I see it when I’m there, and I really wanted to help to develop that idea, to contribute wherever I can to make it a success.”

The line drops and our conversation concludes. Aldag has more important matters at hand, notably directing Fraile, who is among the last of the breakaway to be caught, having attacked from the flag and ridden ahead of the bunch for 170km. Aldag’s influence on Team Dimension Data is making itself felt, as it did at HTC and Etixx-Quickstep.


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