The tough world of professional cycling has the capacity to reward and disappoint in equal measure.
Steve Cummings, the resilient and determined BMC strongman from the Wirral, will attest to that. Back in 2011, while riding with Sky, the former GB track world champion and Olympic medallist pulled off an impressive victory in the Volta ao Algarve only to contract bronchial pneumonia later in the season.
In 2012, after making the switch to BMC and starting the season in top form, he faced injury after injury. Even so, he managed to end the year with stage wins in the Vuelta a España and in the Tour of Beijing.
His 2013 season — although injury free — was blighted by a bronchial infection picked up in the epically awful weather of that season’s Giro d’Italia.
Thus far in 2014, Cummings’s season could not have got off to a better start. He took second place in the Tour of Dubai, finishing 15 seconds behind his younger team-mate Taylor Phinney, to whom he had played a supporting role throughout the race. He reached the top step on the podium in the four-day Tour of the Mediterranean — his first stage-race victory in his 10-year professional career — having won the third-stage time trial and then defended his lead with a powerful ascent of Mont Faron.
We caught up with the steely Merseysider at his home in Quarrata, Tuscany — second home to many elite British riders — to talk about training in Italy, life’s challenges, and the taste of success in 2014.
Your potential to win stage races has always been there throughout your professional career. This year, it is being fulfilled. What do you think has helped to bring about this latest breakthrough?
SC: Planning, hard work and having a good team of people to call on and work with. I haven’t done anything differently from the last four years, but I do have a better programme and I’ve had a prolonged period without injury or sickness.
You talk about hard work. What does your usual training routine look like during the build-up to a new season?
SC: My usual training amounts to 20-22 hours each week. I have two training phases of three/four weeks; phase one is basic work, phase two is interval work. I have two rest days and go to the gym twice a week. I train for strength, dynamic strength, rhythm, endurance and resistance. Once a week, I do a session on the time trial bike.
Most British riders have been struggling with a very wet and windy winter. How has it been in Tuscany for training?
SC: I’ve got wet maybe three times all winter. It’s been generally mild. We’ve had some rain but I’ve managed to avoid it. I haven’t missed a day’s training because of bad weather yet.
You have already raced in the sunshine of Dubai, but now you’re back in Europe in what is technically still winter. How do you find racing in such variable weather conditions?
SC: I just dress well for the conditions and try and get on with it as best as I can.
It looks like there is a good camaraderie in Team BMC. What do you think has helped to bring this about?
SC: The management likes us to work hard but also encourages us to have fun; I think that helps brings the group together.
One reason BMC recruited you was your solid race experience. Do you get a chance to pass this on to younger riders in the BMC set-up?
SC: I think we can all learn from each other. I can learn stuff from the new guys and hopefully I can help and pass things on to them.
In the past few seasons, you’ve overcome bad experiences with injuries and illness. How have you maintained your motivation?
SC: By resetting my goals, and having the will to deliver.
You’ve shown a lot of determination to come back from these setbacks. What is it that drives you?
SC: When I was younger, I had a fear of failure. So I didn’t always try my best in case my best wasn’t good enough. Then I understood that if I didn’t try my best, I had already failed.
Now, if I have a goal, every time my leg goes over my bike, I want to give a 100 per cent of what is required on that day.
When I stop racing, I want to be able to say “I always gave my best”. I can’t do it alone; I need a team of people who can help me. I need to plan, to believe in the work I do, to believe the work will best prepare me for my goal, and have a goal that excites and challenges me.
You are known as a man with a big engine, but what other special strengths did you need to win in the Tour of the Mediterranean?
SC: A super team — firstly, the riders. Everyone gave their best for me, which was a great feeling, and secondly the directeur sportifs; they organised us well to execute the best strategy.
Have your results provoked much reaction back in your Italian hometown of Quarrata?
SC: Everybody’s very happy. They’ve seen me on my bike almost every day for the past four or five years. They see me sweating, going up and down climbs, and they appreciate and understand the life of a bike rider, so they are very happy to see me do well.
Now with both a Grand Tour stage win and a stage-race victory under your belt, are any new ambitions opening up for you?
SC: Just to carry on in this way. I’ll continue to work hard for the team and make the most of any opportunities that come my way. A stage in Paris-Nice would be nice, though!