The Slovenia Times

His Time Has Come




"This is the year when I will have to show my potential," said cyclist Jani Brajkovič in an interview for The Slovenia Times prior to this season. He has been true to his word. He went on to make the top 10 in all the races he took part in, except Paris-Nice... where he was 11th. The icing on the cake was winning the Critérium du Dauphiné, regarded as the fourth biggest race in the world after the tours of France, Italy and Spain. Particularly sweet was beating Alberto Contador, last year's Tour de France winner and widely regarded as the best cyclist in the world. Brajkovič beat him in the time trial and followed him closely in the most gruelling mountain stages.

Despite the biggest success of his career, Brajkovič had to wait until the last moment to discover whether he would join forces with Lance Armstrong for this year's Tour de France, starting on 3 July in Rotterdam. "The Americans are probably afraid that Jani would leave Lance behind instead of helping him," joked Milan Eržen, the young Slovenian's manager. But when the news eventually came it was good: Brajkovič will be part of the star RadioShack team that will try to help Lance Armstrong to his eighth Tour de France win, along with stars such as Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Chris Horner.

Good as Gold

The race will be Brajkovič's first Tour de France but he has been in the cycling spotlight for some time. Now 26, he first made headlines when he became the junior world time trial champion in 2004. After that, the only way was up, but not without a few stumbles.

As world champion, Brajkovič was quickly spotted by Belgian sports director Johan Bruyneel, a former cyclist who has coached Lance Armstrong to all of his seven Tour de France victories. Such was the Belgian's desire to lure Brajkovič to the then Discovery Channel team that the young native of Novo Mesto joined the US squad at the beginning of 2005 - while still a member of Krka Adria Mobil.

Bruyneel's confidence in the youngster was quickly rewarded with a string of impressive results in the following year, including fifth place overall in the Tour de Suisse. Later in 2006, he wore the leader's jersey for two stages during the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain). By April 2007 he had won his first professional stage race in the form of the Tour of Georgia - the first non-American to be crowned its champion.

Just when it seemed as though things couldn't go any better, storm clouds started to gather. Discovery Channel announced that it was pulling the plug on its cycling programme and the team was dissolved.

Brajkovič remained loyal to the squad even in turbulent times. "In August 2007 we were told that no replacement sponsor had been found and that we were free to go. A few days later, Bruyneel called me and asked me to wait, saying that he was considering an offer from some investors [which later turned out to be the Astana team]. If this failed, he promised to find another team for me," Brajkovič recalls.

He ultimately spent two years with Bruyneel at Astana. But it was not a completely happy period. In 2008, the team was barred from competing in the Tour de France due to previous problems with doping. The following year Brajkovič was ready to take part but was left out in the cold due to political and sponsorship issues. "I was in top form but I could only go on holiday with it. This has been one of the biggest disappointments of my career so far," he commented. At the start of the year he joined the new RadioShack team, formed around Lance Armstrong and containing mostly former Discovery Channel and Astana personnel - including Bruyneel.

Addicted to Cycling

Brajkovič began his career relatively late, when a high school classmate invited him to a ride. Since then, he has been addicted to cycling: "After one day without a bike, I already feel nervous and I become very difficult to get along with", concedes Brajkovič. "Cycling is on my mind for most of the time." So too, though, are his wife and baby: "You can do your best as an athlete only when your personal life is in order and you can concentrate solely on training."

He says that although cycling has become a very precise, very technical sport, his legs are still the best judge of his form: "The amount of training [professional cyclists take part in] is pretty much the same but its quality and approach can vary greatly. There are many analyses and tests involved but in the end, it is still your feeling that tells you what is good and what is not, " he argues. I achieved my best results when I was listening to my body, when I worked individually with my coach, without regard to what others were doing. My body has never misled me. If you want to make a good overall result, your team has to appoint you as team leader first. The rest is down to your fitness and mental preparation."

Brajkovič is of course aware that for as long as Armstrong is around as a cyclist, he will be limited to a supporting role. But his respect for Armstrong is such that he doesn't seem to mind too much. He still remembers his first encounters with his current team and with the American cycling legend: "I was invited to join the Discovery Channel team in California. Before that I had travelled by plane only once. Everything was new to me and the team was much bigger than anything I had been used to. Regarding Armstrong, he is a very down to earth guy. Once you speak to him you realise why he has achieved all those results; he would rather die than fail to do what he has decided to do. And you can never forget the look in his eyes. He could kill with it."

Brajkovič doesn't say it openly but, in spite of his respect for Armstrong, he must be looking forward to the time when the American goes back into retirement. Bruyneel's philosophy in terms of nationality also plays into Brajkovič's hands. "One thing I like about him is that he makes no differences among cyclists based on their nationalities."

Brajkovič in numbers

2004: Junior world champion, time trial

2006: 5th overall in the Tour de Suisse

2007: Winner of the Tour of Georgia

2008: 3rd overall in the Deutschland Tour

2009: 18th overall in the Giro d'Italia

2009: 6th in the world championship, time trial

2010: Winner of the Critérium du Dauphiné

Nibali Takes the Tour of Slovenia

Vincenzo Nibali of Italy's Liquigas team won the Tour of Slovenia bicycle race, having secured the crucial lead during the climb to Krvavec. Nibali, who placed third in this year's Giro d'Italia, finished 47 seconds ahead of compatriot Giovanni Visconti and 51 seconds ahead of Chris Anker Soerensen of Denmark. The best Slovenian in the overall standings was Gašper Švab in 8th place (+1:58), which makes it the poorest ever showing for domestic cyclists in the race.

This is the second victory in a row for a foreign cyclist in the Tour of Slovenia and the second for Italy following the 1996 win of Lorenzo Di Silvestro. Russians have also won Slovenia's biggest cycling race twice, while cyclists from Germany, Zimbabwe, Poland, and Denmark have won one race each. Slovenians have taken nine of the 17 races so far.

Young Guns 

It seems that two other Slovenian cyclists are set to join Brajkovič in the international cycling elite. Grega Bole of the Lampre team won the first stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné. And earlier this year, Simon Špilak finished the Tour de Romandie in second place. He was later awarded victory when first place finisher Alejandro Valverde was suspended amidst allegations of drug use.


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