*No guarantee of accuracy, fact-checking or reliability of sources should be assumed.
It’s the evening after the 3rd stage of this year's Tour Down Under and I’m sitting down with Neil van der Ploeg (figuratively speaking, of course – over the telephone, I suspect he was actually standing). As we begin, one thing becomes immediately apparent – Neil has more hair than most other professional road cyclists.
Whether or not this is a good thing is a contentious issue, but according to Neil, it was the one big advantage he had over companion Will Clarke during their ambitious 2-man breakaway right from the beginning of Stage 1.
“With only myself and Will in the break, I was inevitably setting myself up for a one on one comparison. From a cycling stand point, this was bad, but in other departments I think I had him fully covered! Although he may have curl potential, I saw none flowing from his helmet.”
Neil van der Ploeg (top left) is following a different, and hairier, path to becoming a pro cyclist.
“I’ve copped a lot of crap about my hair this week. A lot of pressure to cut it. I’ve been told today…nobody could possibly take me seriously with this hair – that was a serious conversation.”Not only does Neil have more hair than most of the competition at this year’s Tour Down Under, he also plays a lot more Backgammon. Pre and post-race Backgammon became commonplace at Neil’s previous NRS team, Search2Retain.
“I’d sort of got to the point where almost all of the players – oh, sorry, team mates – were Backgammon players. So, you know, if you wanted a game of Backgammon, people were lining up. It got to the point where the mechanic owned a board, I owned a board, other people owned a board, there were boards everywhere. It was a very special thing.”
Apparently all these people love playing Backgammon.
"If the UniSA team is any sort of guidance, I’d say novice. And the WorldTour guys, certainly novice…Which is good and bad. The games aren’t quite as intense, however I am winning more coffee."
"At dinner one night, [2013 Road & Time Trial National Champion Luke] Durbridge looked over and gave it a bit of a nod and said he was a bit of player."
"I’ve been meaning to put a sign up on the buffet table to sort of plug it a little bit – Are your legs tired of riding all day? Come to the UniSA table and play some Backgammon!"At 26 years of age, Neil is a rare breed in pro-cycling, having completed a Physiotherapy bachelor’s degree at Charles Sturt University in Albury in addition to some part time lecturing and demonstrating over the last few years. In fact, despite the UniSA team being sponsored by the University of South Australia, Neil notes that “UniSA, I think they’re kind of assuming that the riders who are in the team, are not really uni inclined. Perhaps, I’m maybe slipping under the radar there.”
And despite his Charles Sturt University pedigree, Neil says that there hasn’t been any conflict of interest since joining the UniSA team.
"No-one here has sort of said anything. No-one at Charles Sturt’s said anything. So, it’s kind of like, just a bit of an awkward silence at this point."Team UniSA-Australia is a composite team that competes in the Tour Down Under as a tool for developing young riders. It gives those who are not already on a UCI Pro or Pro Continental team the opportunity to ride at the highest level of international cycling. Neil is joined by some talented young riders on the team this year:
"So [Jack Haig,] he’s definitely the closest to getting some sort of jersey. [Young Rider Jersey]…Caleb [Ewan], he did well in that People’s Choice Classic…He’s actually had a crash since then and banged himself up a bit."Neil is philosophical and pragmatic about the team’s chances at the Tour Down Under - "I don’t think we’ve got any real hopes for GC or anything."
And this is completely understandable, given that the team is sponsored by a university. It must be quite daunting for UniSA competing against teams like BMC, Giant-Shimano, Trek and Cannondale who all make bikes as well as teams like Omega Pharma Quickstep who make pharmaceuticals (and flooring).
After a good deal of 2013 was plagued by injury, Neil spent some time sleeping in an altitude tent prior to the National Road Champs, but is realistic about the impact that it may have had.
"I’d say I’m probably going about the same as I was last year with no altitude. So, whether I would have been going slower without the altitude this year, I don’t know. But it certainly hasn’t brought me to some outrageous level of fitness. Not a game changer, I wouldn’t say."And what about the impact it had on his love life?
"Yeah, Maddie actually really liked the tent – she thought it was a bit like a cubby house. She was begging me to get inside the tent. I’ve got a bit of a suspicion that Maddie’s a bit of an oxygen hog. You’d look at the oxygen reader, the oxymeter, and all of a sudden, with Maddie, my sats just dropped. So, it was tricky to balance. And in the end she often just got kicked out, really. So, I’d say the love life suffered."
The altitude tent (or other budget performance enhancing techniques) might give you the edge on the bike but could cause problems in your love life.
So, what has the experience been like, riding for Team UniSA in the WorldTour peloton?
"I’d say the mood is probably different depending on who you are. For us, I’d say people are very wary of us. Being the newcomers…And because of the nature of road racing, if someone’s doing something a bit reckless, they can cause other people to crash."
"We’re sort of like under the magnifying glass. People are just looking for a chance to yell at us."
"People are approaching us with a lot of caution, and generally a lot of profanities."
"It’s kind of funny. It’s a good experience, but at the same time, it’s not exactly particularly positive a lot of the time that you’re on the bike. A lot of negativity. You’re sort of made to feel like you really shouldn’t be there. That’s the general vibe you get. It’s not all like Good to have you here! Welcome. Quite the opposite."Apart from being on the receiving end of profanities, have you talked to any of your cycling heroes in the peloton?
"Apart from profanities, not much, no. Not really. We like to, you know, keep it to business. But I don’t really talk to that many people really. I’m not a very social road racer. I chat a little bit here and there but I try and stick to the task."How have you found the transition from domestic NRS racing to the WorldTour level? Is there much difference?
"Someone put it fairly well today. It’s a lot like when you’re in Grade 6 in Primary School and you’re running round and everything’s good. You’re just whooping people in chasey, and everything’s just cool, and everyone gets along really well. Then you go to year 7 and you’re in high school. That’s pretty much what it’s like, I’d say. That’s the closest thing."Despite this huge leap, Neil didn’t waste any time making his mark on the WorldTour, getting in to a 2-man breakaway right from the start of Stage 1.
"I was up there near the start of the race, I saw that no other UniSA rider was there. I was actually holding Will Clarke’s wheel and he just started sprinting, so I just followed, thinking it was the first move of the day, it probably wouldn’t stick. And then there was absolutely no other interest from the other guys. And I was like Come on, someone else! And they let us go and so that was it. The 2-man break with probably the strongest dude in the peloton."
The Stage 1 Breakaway.
"It was absolutely not the plan. If someone had said “Hey do you want to get in a 2-man break with Will?” I probably would have said “No, thank you! But I was kind of committed. I couldn’t just sit up. You know, it would have looked really bad, so it was a bit of a sticky situation. It was a very hard day. It pretty much buckled me for the next 2 days."Reflecting on the strategy and decision-making that went in to this early breakaway, Neil is quick to draw some parallels to the game of Backgammon.
"It was probably a risk I shouldn’t have taken. If that was a double that someone had offered me, I definitely accepted the double. But I perhaps shouldn’t have. It was like I accepted the double and then got backgammoned. I’ve been paying the price, the last few days, for sure."Traditionally, the National Road Championships (held at Mount Buninyong near Ballarat earlier in January) are used to finalise selection for Team UniSA at the Tour Down Under. Unbeknownst to Neil, on the morning of the road Nationals, Rabbi Dudu Lider in Balaclava was making a traditional Jewish blessing for Neil and his bid for the race. The Rabbi had been alerted to Neil by Rich, a mutual friend of Neil’s brother, Paul.
Rabbi Lider fitted traditional Tefillin to Rich and made a Jewish blessing for Neil during a short ceremony. It is not known whether Dudu (or any other Rabbis) offer blessings for cyclists on demand, but this is certainly not the first time cycling and the Jewish faith have come together.
Rabbi Dudu Lider (left) performed a blessing over Neil’s tilt at the National Road Championships earlier this year.
Neil had still not heard about the Rabbi’s blessing when I sat down with him (figuratively) at the TDU. But could this possibly have been a factor in him gaining selection for the UniSA team?
"I hadn’t heard that. I was a little surprised this year to get the call up…I thought about the ride and I thought it was pretty good still, maybe they’ll still rate it, but I think the Rabbi probably got me over the line there. Now that I’ve heard that, that’s the missing link."And will he start studying for his Bar Mitzvah when he gets back from Adelaide?
"Well I still actually don’t exactly know what a Bar Mitzvah is. I’m fairly ignorant to this sort of faith. So maybe I’ll have to get on the Internet and look in to it."Younger brother Paul has been a strong positive influence on Neil, and not just when he’s orchestrating strange religious rituals. Paul is also a talented cyclist and was recently crowned World Champion in the mountain bike discipline of Cross Country Eliminator, which, as Neil explains, is an incredibly explosive, technical and downright scary sport.
"It’s basically short, fast mountain bike races where you try and eliminate your opposition. Every round, you eliminate 2 to 3 of the competitors, so it’s brutal. You should be scared. If you’re scared, it’s for a valid reason.
There’s lots of things out there that can eliminate you. Often there’s rocks. There could be stairs, tight corners, guard rails, other guys trying to eliminate you as well. And you don’t know who you’re up against…the draw comes out only minutes beforehand. And then your bike can fail. So basically, it’s friggin scary shit."
Brothers: XCE World Champion Paul caught up with Backgammon Enthusiast Neil at the TDU.
"We get up in typical sort of university style, fairly late. As late as possible. Which is usually probably around 8 o’clock – I actually don’t have a working alarm at the moment. I just try and sort of watch the guy in my room, Anthony Giacoppo. When he leaves, I just sort of get up and go too."Hopefully you are watching him from a distance, Neil.
"Breakfast in the dining hall, the buffet. And then we just get our kit on, pretty standard stuff, pin the numbers, drive to the start, sign some autographs every now and then, sometimes there’s people who’ve got photos, stuff like that they want signed. I don’t know where they’ve got ‘em from. The Internet, I assume."That’s a fair assumption – isn’t that where everybody gets everything from these days?
"Often we sign on and sometimes you’re lucky enough or unfortunate enough to get a bit of an interview with the commentators there, which can be a bit hit and miss.
And then you race. After the race we just head back to the accommodation. Eat as much food as we can, have a massage and watch some tennis really.
There’s been a bit of Backgammon, mainly throughout the meals. Apart from that, people are sort of hiding in their rooms a little bit."Speaking to Neil after stage 3 of the TDU, he thought that either Cadel Evans or Simon Gerrans could win the race this year – with the time bonuses suiting Gerrans. It seems like the Aussies are fairing a bit better in the Adelaide heat than some of the Europeans.
"Today was the 1st really hot day. But after the stage, I’m not sure what was going on, but it looked like people had just gone a bit wacky. There were some Euros, some of the Italians wearing long sleeves, some of them popped on leg warmers, and then there were other one’s who were wearing these…singlet vests. It was wacky.
This is after today’s stage. After going up the Corkscrew. Pretty tough climb. Tough descent.
I actually said to the team, I said it looks like these guys are losing it in the head. It was almost like people were just going the lucky dip into their clothes bag…It was just a complete random mixed bag. And I was like, what the hell is going on?"But despite what might be happening at the top of the General Classification, or in the strange world of cycling post-race fashion, Neil’s chief interest is in building up the popularity of Backgammon.
"But I hope to get a bit more international with the backgammon in the next couple of days. I think that’d be a good go."The hope is to get some more interest once he puts up that sign in the dining hall.
"Well there’s definitely Russians, there’s Katusha. Is backgammon big in Russia at all? I’m not sure. But the thing is, they might not be able to read the sign, I’m not sure. Are Italians good at Backgammon? I mean, are all Europeans keen? I guess I’ll find out as well, if I put the sign up. They should reveal themselves."While I’m not sure that we want European cyclists “revealing themselves” (if you’ve ever been to the Crocodile Trophy you’ll vouch for that), let’s hope that Neil manages to build some more interest in Backgammon, continue his rise in the ranks of professional cycling and ignore the calls for a haircut.