Cycling: Battered Dean set to pass on baton, but he's had a blast

By Dylan Cleaver

The 38-year-old is calling it quits after 17 years making a living on two wheels, the last 14 as a Pro Tour cyclist on some of the sport's biggest teams. Photo / Christine Cornege
The 38-year-old is calling it quits after 17 years making a living on two wheels, the last 14 as a Pro Tour cyclist on some of the sport's biggest teams. Photo / Christine Cornege

He has been shot at, headbutted at high speed and his injuryography would read like a double-album of smash hits - but that hasn't stopped Julian Dean from having a blast these past 17 years.

When he unclips his shoes from his pedals and dismounts his penny farthing after the national road champs at Christchurch next month, it will be the last time Dean does so as a professional cyclist, ending the career of one of New Zealand's unsung sporting heroes.

The 38-year-old is calling it quits after 17 years making a living on two wheels, the last 14 as a Pro Tour cyclist on some of the sport's biggest teams.

The body, battered and at times broken, has told him it is time, and the opportunity to cut his race-directing teeth with Orica-GreenEdge means his connection to the sport, and to its playground in Europe, will remain.

"There's not one element that made the decision; it was a combination of things," Dean told the Herald.

"I was planning at the beginning of the year to retire, but that was meant to happen after one more Tour de France and one more Olympics, but that obviously didn't happen because of injury.

"At the end of the season I still came back to a good level, but this opportunity with Orica-GreenEdge came up and everything seems to be adding up to it being the right time."

Dean will leave New Zealand two days after the January 13 nationals and take up his new role at once. His initial role will be to develop younger riders and he will also take the responsibility as a race director at times.

The Waihi native is perfectly positioned to mentor cycling up-and-comers, having straddled the sport's transformation from a European sport to a global one.

"When I first turned professional, in terms of Australasian riders at the pro level in Europe, there were only six or seven riders. You look now, we've got seven riders racing for World Tour teams from New Zealand alone," he said.

"We've been able to forge a pathway for people from our part of the world and have been able to show we're decent riders and are just as capable as the European riders."

The exposure has grown ten-fold. When Dean was starting out, Tour de France coverage was restricted to a highlights package that would be screened sometime after the finish, now every stage is screened live. With greater understanding and exposure of the sport, comes greater expectation that the pathways will be available to riders from this part of the world to compete. It wasn't always so.

"There's a lot of critical differences. When I started it felt like you were privileged to get any sort of ride in Europe as non-Europeans," Dean said. "We didn't care how much we were getting paid; it was an adventure and an opportunity to race that we were looking for.

"Our mentality was really quite different to what guys have got now coming into the sport - it's a lot easier now. We were part of something quite unique, in that we were getting to the inside of a sport that people from this part of the world knew very little about at the time."

It is a world, let's be honest, that endured a lot of mud, much of which has stuck. In some ways it is good that Dean extended his career into 2013, because there's only one thing cycling will be remembered for in 2012.

The unveiling of Lance Armstrong as a fraud was a painful reminder that the sophisticated world of cheating exposed by the 1998 Tour's Festina scandal will take a long time to go.

As the shockwaves from the Armstrong affair echoed around Australia, Orica-GreenEdge, founded Downunder this year, have become the subject of an independent review.

In Dean, they will find one of the sport's most passionate spokesmen.

"If I was feeling bad about the sport, I'd be stopping and walking away," Dean said, "but ... I'm proud of my sport. I'm proud of the anti-doping programme it has in place.

"One of the reasons I want to stay in the sport is because I think it has a very good future," said Dean.

"From New Zealand's perspective, we've got seven guys riding in World Tour teams and they have very bright futures and if I can be there to help any of these young guys, through Orica-GreenEdge or anything, I'd be proud to do so."

Dean said he'd have no qualms if his sons, Tanner and Val, decided to follow in his tyre tracks.

The laidback Dean has found himself in some colourful scrapes in his seven Tours, where he established a reputation as one of the sport's great lead-out riders (charged with getting the team's sprinter into the ultimate position to win the stage, usually in high-speed, bunched finishes). Big Norwegian Thor Hushovd would call him the best in the business when they rode together at Credit Agricole.

In 2009, while at Garmin, he was shot in the hand as a maniac started firing a pellet gun into the peloton.

The next year Australian Mark Renshaw, lead-out for sprint ace Mark Cavendish, was kicked off the Tour when he headbutted Dean as they fought for position in stage 11.

In 2011, it all became worthwhile. "Standing on the podium after winning (with Garmin) was right up there," said Dean.

"I've always valued myself on having a very strong work ethic and for a lot of years we worked with Tyler Farrar, worked and worked, to get him a stage win on the Tour."

If there's a gap on Dean's CV, it is that he never won a big one, an individual stage on the Tour or a world cup event.

"A lot of people thought I was capable of something like that," he said.

Instead he will get solace from races like 2005 world champs in Madrid where, with less than 1km to go, only Paolo Bettini and Alexandre Vinoukourov were ahead of him.

"I just got caught by (winner, Tom) Boonen's group coming from behind with four Belgian riders, but my performance was outstanding and that's probably my career highlight in terms of individual performances."

Generally, though, his career will be remembered for putting the good of others before himself, and for his ability to get back on the bike after some horrific luck.

"The two crashes that required major surgery were when I broke my elbow in the Giro d'Italia in 2005 and the injury I had this year in Catyluna when I broke my leg. They were the two majors.

"When the orthopaedic surgeon comes to you before you go in and says, 'We'll do our best but we can't make any guarantees,' you know that your career hangs in the balance. I've made an okay recovery from breaking my leg, but I was still missing a bit when I came back at the Vuelta a Espana. I was at a reasonable level, but I wasn't at my best."

That fact convinced him it was time to say goodbye, and what better place than at his national championships, which he has won twice.

"To have my last ... race in New Zealand is something special, to be able to say thank you to people. Of course I want to give a good performance and that's what I've been aiming for ... but it's a national championships and, like a lot of one-day races, they can be a bit unpredictable."

He'll have competition, too. Dean is ready to hand over the baton.

"We've got a wealth of young talent, but the standout at the moment is Jesse Sergent. He's shown already in Europe on second-tier races that he is certainly capable ... he's going to have a very bright future.

"The important thing all these guys have to realise is that it's doable. They don't have fight.

"In a few years, we'll start to see three or four New Zealanders lining up in the Tour de France."

Thanks to guys like Dean.


Roll of honours

Tours de France (7) - 2011 (1st Stage 2 Team TT, 7th stage 3); 2010 (2nd Stages 4 & 18; 3rd Stage 20); 2009; 2008 (4th stage 14, 6th stage 21); 2007; 2006; 2004.

Giro d'Italia (6) - 2010 (2nd Stg 18, 3rd Stg 10, 9th Stg 2); 2009 (2nd Stg 1 TTT); 2008 (1st Stg 1 TTT); 2007; 2006; 2005.

Vuelta a Espana (7) - 2012; 2010; 2009; 2005; 2003 (3rd Stg 5, 4th Stg 3, 9th Stg 4); 2001; 1999.

Olympics - Atlanta 1996 (4th Team Pursuit); Sydney 2000 (road race); Athens 2004 (15th road race); Beijing 2008.

Commonwealth Games - Victoria 1994 (bronze team pursuit).

World Championships - Madrid 2005 (9th in same time as winner Tom Boonen); Belgium 2002 (10th in same time as winner Mario Cipollini).

Wins - Tour de Wallone 2003 (overall winner, 1st Stg 4 & 5); Wachovia Classic 2003; Tour Down Under 2003 (1st Stg 1).

NZ Road Championships - 1st 2007 Upper Hutt, 1st 2008 Hawkes Bay.

- NZ Herald

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