Ex-Rider Interview: PEZ first spoke to Tony Cruz when he was still a rider, back in 2006, even one of his bikes has featured in Readers’ Rigs. So, it’s well past time Ed Hood caught up with the ex pro.
With DS Sean Yates at the Giro with Discovery Channel
‘I finished eleventh from 11 in the break, “what happened there?” I thought to myself – then, as I sat getting changed after the race, locals were throwing their torn betting slips at my feet. . .’
It’s different in the Flatlands, especially in Koolskamp, ground zero of kermis heartland. But things got better for Tony Cruz – he rode for some of the biggest teams of the day and was on the winning team in the Giro d’Italia. Here’s his tale.
PEZ: How did you get into bike racing, Tony?
Tony Cruz: Through my dad, he was a commuter cyclist but his brother raced.
PEZ: Your ‘breakthrough’ was your win in the US Criterium Championship in 1999?
I was riding for a small team out of California, L’Equipe Cheval which was set up by my friend William Ford, he put the team together and I gave myself a year to ‘make or break’. That was a prestigious win domestically and I won a few others that year.
PEZ: And that got you the ride with Saturn for season 2000?
I had some good results in stage races, I won a stage in Langkawi for example and my goal was to be a stage race rider but the crit scene was so big and important in the US at that time – you had to ride them.
Stage 3 start of De Panne
PEZ: The mighty Postal for 2001.
I approached them at the end of the 1999 season after I won the crit champs so I was on their radar, I planted the seed, marketed myself and they saw potential.
With US Postal in Flanders
TC: One of the first races I rode was at Koolskamp in Flanders, a kermis which I took to be like a crit just on a longer course so I thought I could handle that. I finished eleventh from 11 in the break, “what happened there?” I thought to myself – then, as I sat getting changed after the race, locals were throwing their torn betting slips at my feet. . . I was staying with my friend, Bruno Geuens who had been a pro with Rolland Skala, when we got in the car he said to me; ‘you don’t know anything about racing, do you? You have to talk to guys, this is their backyard and there are no presents!’ But rides like that got me attention and I got a stagiaire place with Postal at the end of 2000 after the Sydney Olympics. I rode the Tour of Poland with them, the weather was bad but I capitalized on the opportunity and Johan Bruyneel and Dirk Demol were happy with how I rode. Lance came to me and said that they’d like to sign me, I said; ‘put that contract in front of me!’
Hard riding in the Grote Scheldeprijs 2001
You either think he’s a nice friendly guy or the other thing. I knew him from the Olympic Training Centre from when I was a junior, he was always cool with me; I think he had a soft spot for the Southern California guys. When I met him five years later at the Olympics he said to me; ‘where have you been?’
Vuelta a España
PEZ: The Vuelta 2001?
I raced my ass off that year, I was so eager. They’d say; ‘do you want to ride so-and-so?’ And I’d just say; ‘yes!’ It was awesome to ride a Grand Tour, a major accomplishment for me and a great learning experience with the soigneurs, DS, mechanics and team mates all giving me great insights.
US Postal TT
PEZ: Tell us about your stage win the in the Tour de l’Ain.
When I turned pro I didn’t realize how much of a team sport professional bike racing really is, so as a domestique your opportunities to win are few and far between. During the stage my team mate, the Portuguese rider, Azevedo – or ‘Ace’ as we called him – said to me during the stage; ‘you can win this today, stay on my wheel.’ There was a sharp climb on the finish circuit and he was just so strong on it that I couldn’t hold him, so next time round I lead into it, he came round me at the top and I got on his wheel, it worked perfectly. The French guy Jerome Pineau had four of his Brioches La Boulangerie – Vendee guys to lead him out but I got on the wheel of his lead out guy and came round him to win. It was one of those few times in my career where the world slows down and all the trials and tribulations seem worthwhile. After the finish, Ace said to me; ‘I knew you could do it today!’ it was a good celebration that night.
With US Postal
PEZ: And you were in the winning Postal TTT at the Vuelta that year too, that must have hurt?
I was a much better team time trial rider than I was in individual time trials. It was my role to lead the team off the ramp and get them up to speed – I had good power. I loved riding them and still love to watch them.
Working at the Giro
PEZ: Backing Paolo Salvoldelli to his Giro win in 2005 must have been a great experience?
The last day was special, yes but the rest of that race was just so hard – the hills in the Giro are crazy. I wasn’t even supposed to ride but someone got injured, they said to me; ‘we have bad news and good news for you – the bad news is that you aren’t going back to the States for a break but the good news is that you’re riding the Giro!’ I was ‘swinging’ a lot during week one but rode myself in and thought I could get through it. The climbs were ridiculous but I did a lot of work on the flat and in the valleys. The Stelvio was terrible, we came over a saddle and I thought it was the top, then I saw the sign – ‘8K to the summit.’ I shed tears but knew I couldn’t give up, I was second to last that day. Paolo was spectacular in that race, I have huge admiration for him and the way he rode in that race.
The winning Giro team
PEZ: Back to the US and Toyota in 2006.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, my family was in Girona but my wife missed home so I was there in Catalonia on my own and missing my kids. Dirk Demol could sense that things weren’t right with me, he could read guys and knew I wasn’t my usual self. I told them that I’d had an offer from Toyota back in the States and I was going to take it, they said there was problem with me moving and they’d enjoyed having me on the team.
Toyota in 2006
PEZ: How was the US domestic scene after the ‘Euro experience?’
The level was nowhere near where I wanted to be, that said, there were a lot of fast finishing guys on the crit scene. I used to lead out our guy Ivan Dominguez, he was crazy fast.
With Discovery Channel
PEZ: Second to my old amigo, Brad Huff in the US Criterium Championships.
Yeah, Brad was a guy who would fight you tooth and nail to the line and he got the better of me that day.
PEZ: Back to Dirk and Johan at Discovery in 2008.
The US was fun and it was nice to be home but I’m a racer at heart, don’t send me to training camps, just let me race and I wasn’t getting the races I wanted. I spoke to my wife and kids and explained that as a pro rider you only have a small window of opportunity in your life. I called Johan; ‘Antonio! I didn’t think we’d hear back from you, let me speak to the team,’ he said. I was really fortunate, not many guys get a second chance.
In the Tour of Qatar
PEZ: Then BMC in 2008.
They were in the early stages of launching a big Euro campaign; every rider in the peloton wanted to ride for the late Andy Rihs, he had such passion for the sport, the bikes, the races so when they approached me I jumped at it.
PEZ: Just off the podium in the Scheldeprijs in 2009.
I loved that race, especially the last 20K, I was good at holding position, I was never a sprinter off a train, I liked to freelance and work off the weaknesses of others. I could see the dynamic developing and with 800 meters the bomb went off and there was a huge crash, the sprinters had all been at each other’s throats, a really aggressive final and I could just sense what was going to happen. Someone fell against my pedal and unclipped me and I had to get my foot back in; there’s no way I would have beaten Petacchi he was up that road like a missile to win but I had the legs for a podium had I not been impeded.
On the cobbles
PEZ: You were still competitive but 2009 with BMC was your last year?
I had at least one good season left in me, even though I was 38/39 years-old. But the team was changing direction, bringing in young Swiss guys, I had thought that because of the years I’d spent on teams with George Hincapie he could have worked some leverage for me. He said he couldn’t but I believe he could, so I was a little bitter about that at the time.
PEZ: Looking back?
I came up with dreams of being like Bernard Hinault, able to win anything. But then my dad took me to see the Olympic Road Race in Los Angeles in 1984; to see Alexi Grewal win that was an inspiration and I resolved I wanted to go to the Olympics. I achieved that in 2000 in Sydney so there’s nothing I’d change about my career.