A Tour de France debut was a long time coming for Jeremy Hunt. Here, the veteran British rider looks back at a turbulent career and talks about life after Cervélo
Words by Lionel Birnie
Photography by Simon Keitch and Graham Watson
“I saw a picture of myself the other day. It was a bunch sprint and no one was wearing a helmet. These days I think twice before going for an hour’s recovery ride. Sometimes I wear one, sometimes I don’t but it always crosses my mind. I must be getting old.”
Jeremy Hunt laughs a little machine gun rat-a-tat of a laugh and takes another swig of coffee. It’s the third large cafetière we’ve shared during a conversation that has meandered through a 15-year career that had reached a worrying punctuation mark, a semi-colon. Hunt’s not ready to put a full stop yet but as we talked it was clear his fate lay in other hands.
This has been remarkable season for him. Just when he thought the Tour de France had passed him by, he got his chance. At the age of 36 he made his debut in the biggest race in the world and after years of convincing himself it would be no big deal if he were never to ride it, he realised what it meant. He might have spent the rest of his life regretting the decision to turn down the chance to ride it when he was still a young man riding for the Spanish Banesto team.
“They asked me to ride and I said no, I’ll wait for next year,” he says. “That was in 1997. I was flying at the time but I’d just signed a new contract so I didn’t think I needed to do the Tour that year. I thought I’d do it the next year, I didn’t realise the chance wouldn’t come along again for another 13 years. If I’d known that I’d probably have said yes. Put it this way, I’d say that if anyone offers you the chance to start the Tour de France, take it.”
Just as he began to feel settled at Cervélo Test Team, the rug has been whipped from under his feet, not for the first time. It has been a nomadic career, mirroring a lifestyle characterised by a sort of wanderlust. Born in Canada, brought up in Bury near Manchester and later Devon, Hunt’s career that has taken him from northern France to Biarrtiz, Belgium to Monaco and now Girona. He also spends each winter in Melbourne, which is beginning to feel more and more like home.
But as he says: “If you’re a pro for 15 years, you’re going to have a lot of teams.” In a sport that can chew up talented people with the ruthless efficiency of a woodchipper, staying employed for 15 years is an achievement in itself.
The Cervélo team’s demise came as a surprise. He remarks, slightly ruefully, that it was the four-year project that turned into an 18-month project but he is careful not to be too critical or bitter. Stuff happens. Life goes on. Hunt is keen to stress that although he was disappointed, he doesn’t want to be too harsh on Cervélo. “What would be the point? I had a contract for 2011 and now I don’t have a contract. It keeps you on your toes and makes sure you keep questioning whether you want to be doing this,” he says. “It’s not like normal life, there’s very little security. Luckily, I’ve had a good season. If I hadn’t, this is the sort of thing that could crush you and make you want to give up.
“I’ve had two good years, or a good year-and-a-half anyway. But you have to ask why Cervélo wanted a pro team? To sell more bikes? But how many more bikes do you have to sell to make it worthwhile?”
Shortly after the interview, Hunt signed for Team Sky. A month later, at Sky’s headquarters in west London, we meet again. “Sorry I couldn’t say anything,” he says. “I hadn’t signed the contract. I’d spoken to them but I hadn’t signed. You learn in cycling not to say anything until it’s signed. I wanted to say something but once you tell someone it’s out.”
A lot of things have changed in cycling since Hunt turned professional but one thing remains the same, the riders move on and you have to look out for number one. He remarks on the transient nature of friendship in a sport that is always on the move. One year’s friendship is the next year’s rivalry and vice versa and although you make plenty of acquaintances, genuine bonds are difficult to form.
But Hunt has always stood out as a slight loner, quite content in his own world. When I first met him at the Tour of Murica in 1999 he was sitting around a table outside a café near the start of one of the stages. Hunt and a few of the Aussies had met up for a coffee in the warm late morning sun. He had a pair of sunglasses on and he seemed impassive as the conversation swirled around him until it stopped with him, like a spoken game of pass the parcel.
“…isn’t that right, Jez?”
Someone leant forward and lifted the sunglasses up. His eyes were closed and whether he was asleep or not is up for debate but he was certainly off in another world, perfectly content.
Elation and frustration
Hunt began his career at Banesto in 1996 – Miguel Indurain’s last season – and spent his time learning the ropes and fetching and carrying bottles and clothes to and from the team car.
Back in those days, it looked like Hunt was going to develop into a bunch sprinter. The team certainly pushed him that way because in those Spanish races he gave them the best chance of victory and, with Indurain retiring, they needed to keep the win-count ticking over. But even then, Colin Lewis, the former Tour de France rider and team-mate of Tom Simpson, and the man who nurtured Hunt as a teenager in Devon, knew he was made of grittier stuff, that he would be more at home in the muck and grime of Belgium than amid Spain’s mañana ethos.
Hunt had turned up at Lewis’s cycling club wanting to race, like his father, who had been a decent amateur. From there, Hunt went to northern France to race before a talent-spotter called Francis Lafarge tipped off Banesto, who were looking for a sprinter who was young and cheap.
Things were good for a while at Banesto, particularly in 1997, when he won eight races, but he was slipping into a rut. A strong early season was typically followed by a steady decline and he’d reach the end of each year on his knees. “It’s a different sport now,” he says. It’s a comment loaded with meaning but he doesn’t want to go into it. “Now is a much better time to be young and talented in cycling. I wish I was a new professional now.”
Sensing that his talents lay in the tough Belgian Classics and realising that Banesto entered only the ones they were obliged by the rules to take part in, Hunt moved to the Big Mat team in 2000. “I wouldn’t rush to ride for a team like that again,” he says. He says he was lined up to ride the Tour for them but they “picked all French guys and one Russian”. Then he spent a couple of years treading water before he won the Grand Prix Plouay in 2002. “The biggest win of my career led to the worst contract of my career.” There was plenty of interest in him but nothing came together and in the end he had to sign for the Oktos-Saint Quentin team which was, he said, an amateur squad masquerading as the pros. “That almost made me want to give up cycling. There were a bunch of dickheads in the team, all trying to prove how good they were but none of us were, we were all shit, that’s why we were in that team.
“If I’d know then what I know now…” he laughs again. The reputation that precedes him is that he’s laid-back, fond of a night out and slightly scatterbrained and lacking focus. The doesn’t come across. “I didn’t know how to go about things then,” he says. “You were made an offer and you either took it or you didn’t. I didn’t have a manager then. Sometimes you need a bit of help and if they can get you a job then they’re worth their ten per cent. But once I negotiated a deal myself and the manager still wanted his ten per cent. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.”
From the unmitigated disaster of Oktos came a period of stability at Mrbookmaker.com, which gave him the chance to have a crack at the cobbles. Even that turned sour. The parent company Unibet took over the sponsorship and the laws restricting the advertising of betting companies in France were used as a stick to beat the team with in the tug-of-war battle between ASO and the UCI. The UCI wanted ASO to admit all the ProTour teams to the Tour de France, ASO wanted to retain control over which squads it invited. For a while the team raced in France with a giant question mark on the front of their jerseys which, Hunt says, pretty much summed up the whole situation.
Even when he signed for one of the most established teams around, Crédit Agricole, it crumbled around him. “Crédit Agricole was good. It should have been secure but they decided to stop. I nearly got to ride the Tour with them but I got left out at the last minute. I wasn’t going brilliantly but I was going well enough to start and ride myself in.”
It was at that point that Hunt began to accept that the Tour was going to pass him by. “I didn’t think it was a problem until I finally got to start it. It’s just another bike race and yet it’s nothing like any other bike race,” he says. “The first few days were incredible, so intense it felt like my head was going to explode. In Holland the noise was unbelievable, just a wall of sound down both sides of the road. I thought, if this goes on like this for much longer I’m going to go nuts. You couldn’t hear anything, that’s why there were so many crashes. Normally you can hear the crash happening and you can avoid it, or you can hear the warning shouts, but you couldn’t hear anything. A dog ran into the bunch and people shouted but not enough people could hear. I’ve hit a dog before and it’s not nice. If you can jump your front wheel over it, you’re okay but if you hit it, you’re going down. I saw it dart in front of me and just got round it but I knew it was going to be carnage. You don’t look back, just don’t look back.”
The Tour at last
Finishing the Tour will give Hunt something to reflect on in retirement, not that he’s ready for that. “To do the Tour is one thing, to be good in it is another. To ride up and down the Champs-Elysees afterwards, yeah, it was nice. I trained hard to get there and I rode well. To do what we did on the last day was really enjoyable. Okay, so Thor [Hushovd] pull off the win but Brett [Lancaster] and I did well. Anyway, Cav [Mark Cavendish]… what can you do about that?”
Hunt admires Cavendish but he is not intimidated, far from it. The pair had words at the Tour of Switzerland after Cervélo rounded on Cavendish accusing him of causing the crash that ruled Heinrich Haussler out of the Tour de France. There were allegations that Cavendish had spat and that it had gone on Haussler as he sat on the tarmac still dazed.
“How much of what went on do you know?” Hunt asks, reluctant to drag it up again. “We chatted,” he says of his conversation with Cavendish the following day. “I’ve known him since he was young and I’ve been in the peloton a long time. I just told him the truth and about how I felt. I didn’t beat around the bush. I think you should be honest about things, just get it out. I respect Cav, he’s going to be the best sprinter of all-time isn’t he, if he’s not already. I don’t get in the way of their train or cause trouble but when you make a mistake you have to put your hands up.
“At the Tour, after Brussels [when Cavendish misjudged a right-hand bend near the finish and went straight on, leading to both Hunt and Cavendish] falling off, he came up to me to ask what I’d been saying about him in the papers. I said he’d caused the crash and he said it wasn’t him. I said ‘It was. You were first man down.’ And he said: ‘Oh, alright, fair enough.’ What’s the point of saying otherwise? It’s bike racing, crashes happen. No one does it on purpose but sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes it’s someone else’s fault.
“I remember when I first saw Cav, at the Nationals. It must’ve been his first year on the [British Cycling] academy. I remember thinking: ‘Who is this kid?’ We were lined out and he was in the 11 or 12 [tooth-sprocket], just turning it. I thought, well, he’s got some power, who is this fat – well, not fat, but he was chunky compared to the skinny guys – little kid because he’s got some power. At first I thought he must be one of the track sprinters but when I saw the way he was going on the hills I thought he was a natural. He had power, he was smooth, not all over his bike, and he was smart about riding in the wheels. It’s easy to say you’ve spotted a talent but I did think he looked good. When he turned pro people said it was too soon or he wasn’t good enough and yeah, when you looked at him, he didn’t look like he had the physique but I just said to him to keep his head down, get on with it and prove people wrong. He loves proving people wrong.”
Talent-spotting is one area that interests Hunt. With his career hanging in the air and the years ticking by, he has begun to think about what he’d like to do next. Osteopathy is one possibility. “I’ve had enough sports massages over the years, I reckon I’d like to do something like that. I’d like to get on with it now but there’s nothing I can do because it’s a full-time course, you can’t do it part-time or as a correspondence course.”
In the meantime, he’s trying to pass on the benefit of his experience to his younger brother, 19-year-old Joshua Hunt, who has spent his first year racing for UVCA Troyes in north-eastern France. “He got his first win the other day,” says his older brother, with more than a little pride in his voice. “I try to look after him, explain how the race works. When I was young, I would just smash myself and recover but you do learn how to train more efficiently. I don’t really need a trainer but I have one because you need someone to bounce ideas off and to give you confidence that what you’re doing is right. I’m trying to do that for my brother. He’s got the talent to win bike races, a great power-to-weight ratio and a good sprint. He hasn’t got the engine for the track so British Cycling have overlooked him.”
Joshua is Jeremy’s half-brother (they have the same father) and he didn’t start riding a bike until he was 16. “Jeremy got me my first bike and taught me how to train,” he says, with the same laid-back voice that sounds like Jeremy’s but with a Mancunian accent. “First six months I was just doing it myself and wasn’t really getting anywhere, then he taught me how to train. He gives advice rather than direction, he doesn’t go on about what he used to do or anything. He will tell me where I went wrong though and he gives me a call after every big race to find out what went on.” Tales of the day his older brother beat Mario Cipollini, as he did in the Tour of the Mediterranean in 2000, don’t register though. “I was only nine, I wasn’t into cycling then.”
“He could make it,” says Hunt of his younger brother. “He’s got a good sprint on him and he can get over decent hills. If I can do anything, hopefully it’s to point out the pitfalls to avoid.”
One thing Hunt could never see himself doing is running a team from behind the wheel of a car. “I can’t think of much worse,” he says. Hunt sees himself as a country boy rather than a city dweller. He likes the sunshine and the beach and a slower pace of life. Part of the appeal of cycling was that he could get out into the lanes and go for hours barely encountering a car. After the surfer’s paradise of Biarritz, Hunt lived for a while in Monaco but found it claustrophobic. It wasn’t until he moved to Girona that he realised just how inhibiting that mini metropolis hemmed in by the hill and the sea could be.
But team management is not for him. “I find it nerve-wracking watching races too,” he says. “I don’t have a telly at home – well, I do, but it’s not hooked up to anything so we just watch DVDs on it. So I don’t see too many races but when I do, I always find myself feeling anxious, sitting on the edge of the seat, with my heart rate going up – especially for the sprints. To think, we used to do those sprints without helmets…”
This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of Cycle Sport.
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