Xavier Tondo interview: Passport to freedom

Movistar  rider Xavier Tondo is a new hero of the anti-doping movement following his role in the recent police raids in Girona. We interviewed the Spanish rider following his incredible Tour of Spain in 2010, for Cycle Sport November.

Words by Alasdair Fotheringham

Portraits by Simon Keitch.

Race pics by Graham Watson

“If the biological passport didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now,” Xavier Tondo tells Cycle Sport.

“It’s been the one way that could prove that I was racing clean and getting good results at the same time, even though I was riding for low-level teams. Since I’ve been registered on the passport, I’ve done as well or better than before. In my opinion it’s been the best thing that’s happened to cycling in the last decade.”

At 31, Tondo is a late bloomer. For years, since 2003 when the lanky Catalan first turned professional, he has clung to the very lowest rungs of the cycling ladder, in Spanish and Portuguese teams that barely registered with the UCI , let alone fans, before they disappeared.

It was a pretty miserable existence, grinding from one tiny stage race to another from February to October, even if Tondo was fortunate in that he was regularly paid, with one exception.

There was also the inglorious reputation of some of the smaller teams, particularly in Portugal. Tondo was competing against cyclists who were doped to the eyeballs. Nothing was ever proven, but the suspicion was impossible to shake off.

Tondo found himself in a vicious circle where if he got good results, like when he took the Tour of Portugal in 2007, it would be automatically inferred he’d used drugs to get them. And if he got poor results, then he didn’t register on the radar at all.

“Everybody tars you with the same brush,” is how Tondo succinctly puts it. “I was racing clean but I couldn’t prove it.”

It was only when the biological passport started in Professional Continental teams in 2009 that Tondo - then in his single season with Andalucia-CajaSur - was able to prove the doubters wrong for good. A year later he was in Cervélo.

Small wonder that last year’s first win - a superb stage victory in Paris-Nice, at the end of a long, lone attack in which he fended off the peloton by seconds -  felt like a breakthrough for Tondo. But it was also the closing of a very long chapter in his career.

“You know why I held my fingers wide apart as I crossed the line and made my victory salute at Paris-Nice?” he asks.

“It was to say: ‘look, I’ve got ten wins already. Ten wins - how many pros can say that? And people are saying ‘how come this guy’s just crawled out of the woodwork at 31?”

“But how can I do well in Paris-Nice, or Liège where I was 26th, or any of the big races, if I’ve never ridden any of them or done a 260-kilometre Classic before?”

After adding an eleventh win to his palmares in the hardest stage of the Tour of Catalonia, when he broke away with fellow Catalan Joaquim Rodriguez, then went on to take second overall, Tondo had a strong first fortnight in his first ever Giro.

He was still lying third overall before the crucial Zoncolan stage. But then the Cervélo rider fell ill, cracked badly, dropped to the mid-twenties and eventually abandoned, two days before the end.

Tondo was far from disappointed at his low key exit from the Giro. Given the glass ceiling that had prevented him from performing in high-level races has now disappeared, Tondo has a ravenous appetite to learn about events  that other top professionals of his age have been racing in for a decade or more.

“Almost everything was a first for me last year,” Tondo says. “My first Paris-Nice, first Ardennes Classics, first Tour of Italy...I asked Cervélo if I can continue riding right the way through the Tour of Lombardy, simply because I’m curious to get to know these races and see what I can do in them.”

“It’s weird, I’m 31 [Now 32 - Ed], I’ve been a professional since 2003, and I’ve still no idea what my limits as a bike racer really are. And I want to find out before it’s too late.”

“I can’t wait to see what I can do this winter on the track, too, I’ll be doing a lot of work on my time trial bike, working with [multiple world and Olympic track champion] Joan Llaneras and [former pro] Francisco Cabello to see if we can improve my performances.”

Tondo is also unusual for a Spanish rider in other ways. While most are not interested in their bikes, he is a bike geek, obsessed with testing the latest material. At Cervelo - built and marketed as a research squad - Tondo was, as he puts it, “in his element”.

“I love doing that sort of investigative stuff, trying out different positions, testing myself as best I can.”

As part of his meticulous nature, he researches races obsessively. Long before the 2009 Tour of Spain, his first ever three-week race, Tondo had driven half way round Spain so he could check out all of the race’s main climbs, only to have to abandon, injured from two crashes, mid-way through.

“This year I did the same,” Tondo says. “I drove all over Spain and rode up all the main climbs. If I’m not so experienced, I’ve got to learn in other ways.”

His hunger for advance knowledge of climbs has brought another benefit. Tondo was deep in Andalusia looking for one of the race’s most obscure climbs of the year, at Valdepeñas de Jaén, when he drove past Caisse d’Epargne’s director Eusebio Unzue.

“We stopped to say hello, and I congratulated him on getting the deal with Movistar, which had just come out in the press,” Tondo said.

“That was when we started to talk about me maybe signing with them for 2011.” Tondo subsequently signed a two-year contract with Movistar.

Tondo has just completed a Grand Tour for the first time. At the Vuelta, he held fourth place into the third week, only falling away in the final stages. He still finished sixth overall – a brilliant achievement.

“The first 10 days went brilliantly, it was the second part where I started to crack,” Tondo says.

“I know my body needs to race more in order for it to learn how to handle these kinds of events. I’ve already proved that I can do well in week-long stage races. In the future, hopefully I’ll go up another level.”

In 2010, Tondo has made a huge step forward, something he attributes to “finally being able to take part in big races, like the Giro and the Vuelta.”

“And I’m finally in a team like Cervélo, which goes to these races determined to try and win them outright.”

“Andalucia helped me a lot, but it’s small-scale, so logically its objectives in the Vuelta were very different. All they thought about was getting into breaks, getting a bit of television coverage, and that was it.”

This year, there should be more.

“I have to make the most of this chance,” Tondo says. “After such a long fight to break through, I don’t want to miss out on it now.”

“Better late than never,” Tondo concludes. At the same time, if Pat McQuaid ever needed to justify the existence of the biological passport, he need look no further than Tondo’s case - and dozens of other riders like him.

This is an adapted version of a feature that originally appeared in Cycle Sport November 2010.

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Edward Pickering is a writer and journalist, editor of Pro Cycling and previous deputy editor of Cycle Sport. As well as contributing to Cycling Weekly, he has also written for the likes of the New York Times. His book, The Race Against Time, saw him shortlisted for Best New Writer at the British Sports Book Awards. A self-confessed 'fair weather cyclist', Pickering also enjoys running.