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A little chat with Erik Zabel

From issue 88 • Interview by James Startt with images from Graham Watson

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For fans and cyclists of the Tour de France, the green jersey, awarded to the winner of the points classification, is a special prize. Sure, it stands in the shadows of the yellow jersey but the green jersey is generally won by the race’s most versatile sprinter, the one capable of winning field sprints as well as tough uphill finishes. And it has always revealed big champions, including André Darrigade, Rik Van Looy, Freddy Maertens and Sean Kelly. Two riders have managed to win the distinctive tunic an impressive six times. Germany’s Erik Zabel was the first (breaking Kelly’s record of four) and current points champ Peter Sagan. We caught up with Zabel to look back over his six years in green and find out what it takes to win this unique jersey year after year. In emphasizing its importance, the amiable German points out that “the green jersey is like winning the Tour de France on points, as they do in Formula One.”

Erik, you are one of the legends of the Tour de France, winning the green points jersey an impressive six times, breaking Sean Kelly’s record of four. Yes, but even when I broke Kelly’s record I never compared myself to him. I mean, Sean Kelly, Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, those were my heroes! Kelly won a grand tour. He won all those classics. And, that said, my record will probably get broken this year as Peter Sagan will likely get his seventh.

Maybe, but what does it take to be a points jersey contender? Why were you so good at it? Well, I won 12 stages, but I was in the top three like 55 times, which made me really good for the green jersey competition. It’s funny, I never thought about the green jersey in my first years at the Tour. In 1994, I dropped out—the challenge of the Tour was just too much. And then in 1995 I won two stages, but Laurent Jalabert was outstanding that year. He was just so much more consistent. In 1996, I finally got the green jersey on my shoulders in Gap on the first rest day. And once I got it, I wanted to keep it as long as possible. It got very addictive and I think in the end I was like 88 days in the green jersey. It became a real goal.

So it did become a goal in itself. A lot of riders it seems, just ride for stage wins and take the green jersey if it comes. Yeah, very much. It became a real focus. For me, once I won the green jersey once, I wanted to defend it. Actually, when you look back at some of my sprints, I did some stupid ones. Sometimes I would really jump too early because I wanted to make sure I was not blocked in. But at that point I was sprinting for the green jersey as much as the stage win.

So the green jersey really changed the way you sprinted? Yeah. Okay, winning the stage was still a goal, but once I was in the green jersey I was also sprinting to protect the jersey. And then later in my career when it became clear that there were guys that were faster than me, I started really working on my climbing so I could get over some of the climbs and get the intermediate sprint in the valley. I always had to find new ways to get points.

What did the green jersey mean for you? It’s not yellow, but it is one of the historic jerseys. Well, obviously everyone dreams of the yellow jersey when they are young. But when you turn professional you don’t necessarily know where you will go and you have to find out a bit by elimination. When you get dropped in the mountains, for example, you find out that maybe you are not the best climber. If you are not near the top at the end of a time trial you find out that you are not a specialist in that category either. But I was always there in the points classifications at a race. I think I won 41 points classifications at different races in my career, so that became my own kind of specialty.

You grew up in the old East German sports school where you were one of the last big riders before the Berlin Wall came down. Were you good at time trialing or climbing back then, or were you already coming into your own as a sprinter? Oh no, I wasn’t a great time trialist or anything, but I always did well in points races on the track. It was one of my favorite disciplines and it really taught me a lot. I learned early how to calculate and go for points during a race. I guess it was just in my genes.

Well, in the hierarchy of the Tours distinctive jerseys, the green jersey is second to the yellow jersey, but considered more prestigious than the polka-dot jersey—if a rider wins both jerseys on the same day, for example, he will actually wear the green jersey the next day and the second-place rider in the mountains competition will wear the polka-dot jersey. Yeah, well it always depends on who you ask, but I remember in Germany they used to say that the green jersey was like winning the Tour de France by points, like they do in Formula One. And that comparison really stood out and helped people in Germany understand what the green jersey meant.

One of your fiercest competitors for the green jersey was Australian Stuart O’Grady. Like you, he could get over the mountains. And at least one year, the green jersey was decided on the Champs-Élysées. Oh, for sure. Stuart was so strong. And even today I will say that no one pushed me like Stuart. I will never forget that 2001 Tour where he came onto the Champs-Élysées with the green jersey, and I only won it back at the finish line. I think that is still the closest green jersey competition [Zabel’s 252 to O’Grady’s 244]. And for Stuart and I it was a bit like the eight seconds between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon in 1989. I can tell you that Stuart definitely cost me a few years of my lifetime. It’s funny, because we were never close when we raced. We were never teammates and didn’t really talk much in the peloton. But when we see each other today we always give each other a big hug. There is just a lot of respect. I know that Stuart really pushed me to my limits!

When I look at Peter Sagan today, I sometimes think that he is a sort of Zabel-styled sprinter. What impresses you most about Sagan? Well, I remember a couple of years ago Peter won the queen stage in the Tour de Suisse and I think that says it all about him. He just takes it to another level.

How did it feel having him tie your record of six green jerseys? Well, when you have the record it is not nice to lose it. But then if you look at it from the other way around, records are made to be broken. And if someone is going to break my record then the best rider I can imagine would be Peter Sagan. He is just a legend.

You are still very active in cycling and you actually still ride a lot. Well, this year I have been working both with Canyon and Katusha so it has been a bit less, but I try to ride 2,000 kilometers a month. That is what I shoot for.

Wow, that’s still a lot! Well, I am lucky enough to spend my winters in Mallorca, and because I can work a lot from home I have fairly flexible hours. But when I go out, I really like to ride 100 kilometers, not less, not more. But that is three and a half hours for me and it is just perfect.

And what is your role with Canyon and Katusha exactly? I am the team liaison for Canyon with Katusha and the Canyon-SRAM women’s team, and then as a performance director with Katusha. Okay, we haven’t had the best results but we’ve been working hard to improve and we have some immense talent like Nils Politt. He just has a big, big engine.

How do your years as a professional help you in your role today? Well, obviously the experience helps but sometimes it is hard because the new generation is very different. Each generation is different, really.

What are the biggest differences? I would say that most of the superstars of my generation really lived to ride a bicycle as fast as possible. But with the new generation it seems that so many are riding the bike to have a nice life. Sometimes today riders talk about their work/life balance. But in my opinion, if you are a passionate cyclist, you never think about such things because work and riding your bike is your life.

From issue 88. Buy it here.