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German cyclist Marcus Burghardt has won pretigious classics like Ghent–Wevelgem. He has won a stage in the Tour de France and he is the current German national road champion. But in his day job, Burghardt has been road captain to some of the biggest names in the sport. Working for Greg Van Avermaet last year and Peter Sagan this year, Burghardt has unique insight into two of the sport’s biggest stars—and two of the top favorites for this Sunday’s world championship road race. Peloton caught up with Burghardt over a beer (that’s right, just one) at the Montréal Grand Prix earlier this month. We looked back over his own career and looked toward Sunday.
Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton
Peloton Magazine: Marcus, you’ve been a pro since 2005 and have had some great wins like Ghent–Wevelgem or the German national championship this year. But in recent years, you have focused on being a sort of “super domestique” or team captain. It seems to be a role that you really enjoy….
Marcus Burghardt: Yes, for sure. I think the main reason why I’ve settled into such a role is that I was able to read races really well and understand what was going to happen in a race. Also, there just came a point where I realized that I, myself, was not going to be able to go for the big wins. I figured that out pretty early. Sure, I won Ghent–Wevelgem when I was younger and a lot of people thought maybe I could win the Tour of Flanders…. But the closest I ever got was seventh. And so after a couple of years I realized that I was just missing that little extra bit of talent that some other guys have, the ability to get the extra 50 kilometers that a monument requires, or something. But I also understood that I could really help another rider get the big win, guys like Greg [Van Avermaet] or Peter [Sagan] now. They have that little extra thing that I was missing. But like I said, I read races well and I am good at things like positioning, so I can really make their lives a little easier.
Peloton: It’s called the science of racing. And not everybody possesses that!
Burghardt: No, and I am really happy to be able to contribute. I feel very lucky to be a professional cyclist. Not everybody can do that.
Peloton: This year you came from BMC, where you worked a lot with guys like Greg or Philippe Gilbert, and you came to Bora-Hansgrohe to be road captain for Peter. I’ve seen you working with Peter in training and in races and it seems as though you are the one that really keeps him focused.
Burghardt: Yes, I think it is important. I am like the arm of the sports director. Even with race radios, a DS can’t see the race like I see it. Or when they do, it is too late. It’s important to have a guy in the race that can make a quick decision. That is why I am here. But also they hired me here at Bora to help out the young guys, to teach them. Understanding pro racing and how it works takes time and I probably lost some time learning pro racing early in my career, so if I can help some of the young guys learn the ropes a bit faster that’s really satisfying, especially in races like Flanders and Roubaix.
Peloton: Yes, they both can be very tricky to read. That said, Flanders and Roubaix are also very different….
Burghardt: Yes, at one point in Roubaix it’s not about positioning any more. After the Arenberg Forest it quickly just comes down to the legs.
Peloton: Which one is harder?
Burghardt: Oh, they are both hard. But one thing is for sure, Roubaix fucks your body more! That said, I really love the ambiance of Flanders with the crowds and all. Roubaix just is so fast that you don’t really feel the crowds. You are either on the right or left side of the cobbles watching out for the nearest spectator. You don’t see how deep the crowds are. But in Flanders you can take it all in.
Peloton: What’s it like riding with Peter? He seems very funny and spontaneous….
Burghardt: Well, I think it takes a lot of stress off the team because he rides with such confidence. He just never stresses. I’ll never forget the night before Milan–San Remo, a race in which he is a huge favorite. I went to get him before dinner and he was just sitting in his room with PlayStation, totally relaxed. That’s not nomal for a guy with so much pressure! But he is just so relaxed. Cycling just seems to come so easily for him. I mean, I’ve ridden with a lot of big stars in my career, but I’ve never seen anyone with so much pure talent.
But that is Peter. He just never ceases to surprise me, both on and off the bike. He is just so easygoing. There are times in a big race where he is just hanging out chatting with someone in the peloton for maybe 10 minutes. I’m thinking, “Man, if I was leading the team I’d be sitting in trying to save energy!” But he just takes things so easily. He is just different.
Peloton: Well, as you mentioned, another one of those big guys you’ve ridden with was Greg Van Avermaet. In many ways Greg and Peter seem very different. Are they in fact? Or are there similarities we might not see?
Burghardt: Well, in the race, Greg is more focused. Peter can still be joking around, but Greg is just really focused once the race begins. And, in his own way, Greg takes pressure off the team because he too rides with confidence. Greg is just so normal, so down to earth.
Peloton : Yeah, Greg just seems really grounded. And it took him a lot longer to get to where he is in cycling, to become one of the world’s best one-day riders. Peter in comparison was virtually born great.
Burghardt: Yeah, for sure. Greg has had to work a lot harder than Peter to get to this point. But we had a great time working together at BMC. The classics guys—you know, Greg, Philippe Gilbert and all—we were just like a family.
Peloton: Sunday is the world championship road race and both Peter and GVA are considered big favorites. Knowing them both so well, do you think either holds the upper hand? Sagan is obviously the two-time defending champion, but these guys have had so many battles and Greg is one of the only guys that has consistently managed to beat Peter on occasion.
Burghardt: Well, for the road race I think there will be five or six guys on the same level. There will be Greg, Peter, Alexander Kristoff, Edvald Boasson-Hagen and Michael Matthews. Peter has one big problem and that is his [Slovak national] team just is not strong. But if these guys come to the line together in a small group then I think Peter will take it. If the other guys start playing games with Peter, however, that could be a problem. Where Greg can get the upper hand is if it has been a really hard race. The hard races suit Greg a lot, and although he is not as fast he can do a really long sprint. Peter is more explosive, but in a long, hard race, the final sprint is not about explosiveness. It’s about power and freshness.
Peloton: Marcus, you will be in the race but riding for Germany. Will it be strange not riding for Peter or Greg on Sunday?
Burghardt: For sure. It is really weird riding against guys that are normally my teammates. But we are professionals.
Peloton: This year you have been riding in a special jersey, that of the German national champion. That must be a very special experience at this point in your career.
Burghardt: Oh yeah! And it was really special for me because I hadn’t won a race in seven years as a result of my job as a road captain. But it was always a race that I dreamed of winning. I always wanted to wear this jersey for a season. I’ve finished top 10, top five or top three so many times without winning. It was always a big goal to win this race and this year was really special since the race was in Chemnitz, the town where I started cycling. So it was just amazing.
In addition, wearing the national champion’s jersey really brings you a lot of attention. The team managers all see it and it is one of the reasons why Bora-Hansgrohe offered me a three-year contract. A jersey like this brings a lot of trust. It’s not every 34-year-old pro that gets a three-year contract.
Peloton: What has been the most satisfying thing about your career?
Burghardt: Well, my family for sure! That is my greatest satisfaction. In terms of cycling, well, a couple of years ago I would have said winning a Tour de France stage or something [Burghardt won a Tour stage in 2008], but now I would say simply being able to ride a bike in some of the most beautiful areas of the world and getting paid for it.
Peloton: Marcus, as an experienced rider, you are essentially paid to teach others. But have guys like Greg or Peter taught you anything?
Burghardt: Haha…not so much! I’ve been around for so long there isn’t much I still need to learn.