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The House That James Built

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When it comes to the world of under-23 racing, Australian James Victor is one its most respected voices. A coach in the sport with the Australian Institute for Sport for decades, Victor has worked with juniors and women and, for the past eight years, as national coach for Cycling Australia’s under-23 program. Although Victor could likely move into the pro ranks, he very much cherishes the role he can play with younger riders. Peloton magazine caught up with Victor last week at the Tour de l’Avenir, where once again his riders won the team classification.

Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton

Peloton Magazine: James, how did you get into coaching?

James Victor: Well, I raced domestically in Australia and represented Australia once as a junior in the Oceania Games. I started racing when I was 12 years old, but I was always interested in coaching and teaching. I was the women’s national coach for seven years until the Athens Olympics. After that, I went back to Australia for a few years and then Shayne Bannan asked me to take over the under-23 program. I started in 2010 when Michael Matthews won the world championships. That was a pretty good start!

Peloton: You are obviously really committed to working with the under-23s. What is it that draws you to this aspect of cycling?

Victor: Well, like with the women’s program, you have this group of athletes that are willing to pack up and leave their family and friends with just a suitcase for eight months out of the year. To do that you have to have a real passion for the sport. I also have a real passion, and it is exciting to be able to help them along, to open doors and help them be successful. When I was just starting out as a professional coach I worked with the juniors back in Australia. And the first two years I was there I had Michael Rogers as a 17-year-old and Mathew Hayman as an 18-year-old. Already I could see the professionalism of those two boys at that age and you just knew that they were going to be pro bike riders. They have been my benchmarks ever since.

I like to think that, within a month of seeing someone in Europe, seeing their upbringing, their manners, their drive and desire at whatever they take on, I can figure out where they are headed. To make it over here, you need not only the talent but the drive and desire to basically become a European. If you can make that step out of Australia, then maybe you can make the next step to the professionals. That said, the step to the pros is a very, very big step.

Peloton: James, I see you every year here at the Tour de l’Avenir. And every year you guys are real players, always trying to make something happen, always pushing it at the front. You haven’t actually won the individual GC here, but you are always right their, and this year again, Australia won the team competition.

Victor: Yeah, once you understand this race it really helps. But the thing is that I only have one or two years with the boys. And that is a big difference from a professional preparing the Tour de France. A Tour de France rider has four or five years to develop at the Tour before they are at their peak and riding for victory. But I only have one or two years maximum with these boys. That said, I don’t come to a race like the Tour de l’Avenir to make up numbers. I come here to get results, so I try to bring the best bunch of boys as I can, and obviously in a race like the Tour de l’Avenir you need good climbers. We came here hoping to get one guy on the podium—and we’ve got three riders in the top 10; and they will all move on to the pro ranks next year. That said, the Tour de l’Avenir is an important race, but it is all part of the process.

As is often the case at the Tour de l’Avenir, the world’s premier under-23 stage race, the Australian squad dominated the team competition.

Peloton: Your service course and European base is in Italy, correct?

Victor: Yes, it’s in Gavirate, near Varese in the north. Cadel Evans actually helped us get started there since he was living in the area and it is the base for the Australian Institute of Sport. It’s become a important training center for us.

Peloton: How many kids come through each year?

Victor: Oh, well, only about six, just enough to race a full program. Sometimes we try to get it up to seven or eight, but you really need the racing program to support that. Teams like BMC or Lotto-Soudal will have twice the number of riders, but they also have twice the number of races.

Peloton: You’ve had a lot of good riders come through your program. Does any one stand out?

Victor: Oh, well, I would say that Lucas Hamilton [who finished fourth at this year’s Tour de l’Avenir], who I have had the pleasure to work with over the past two years. He is on his way! The transition into the WorldTour is a big step, but from what I’ve seen, Lucas has what it takes to make that step successfully. It’s not just his cycling ability but his attitude and his professionalism. And his leadership skills have gone to a new level this year. When I look back at guys like Romain Bardet, Warren Barguil, John Degenkob or Michael Matthews, well, I think he is in that category. He is just so resilient.

Michael Matthews, winner of the green jersey in this year’s Tour de France, is just one of many great riders to benefit from Victor’s tutelage.

Peloton: What is the most satisfying part of your job?

Victor: Well, I hate to lose, and when you get to work with a group of athletes that really wants to win, well, that’s pretty great. But also just seeing the boys grow. They all come out of families in Australia and have to make a lot of adjustments. It’s exciting to see them grow as athletes, but it is also exciting to see them grow as a person, to make that transition from boys to young men. And it is exciting to help some of them realize their dream.