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Bernhard Eisel

Mario Stehl

The Good Sir Knight Of Cycling

Having undergone brain surgery, Austrian cyclist Bernhard Eisel is sitting out the Tour de France – but he gives us a guide to life in the peloton.

By Chris Cummins

In the early summer, as the stressful cycling calendar reaches its most frenetic period, you’ll usually find Austria’s Tour de France stalwart Bernhard Eisel sweating his way to peak fitness for another outing at the world’s most prestigious bike race.

He’s ridden the race 13 times and has become an instantly recognizable face with his chiselled jaw set to the wind at the front of the race, driving on the peloton for a team-mate.

However, when I caught up with the legendary “domestique” towards the end of June, Eisel was relaxing at a Carinthian lake, with relaxed sounds of inflatable dinghies being pumped up and children screeching and splashing in the background.

“I would have loved to race the Tour,” he told me, “but with the circumstances and the operation I had, I just can’t. “

In March, Eisel suffered a horrific crash after colliding with a team car during the early season Tirreno-Adriatico race.

Bernhard Eisel

Mario Stehl

The pictures of his smashed up face would have impressed a horror film make-up artist but cyclists are made of stern stuff. Soon after the crash the 37-year old was back on his bike, plotting his route to the Tour. Yet after complaining of severe migraines he consulted a doctor who diagnosed a dangerous build-up of pressure on his brain.

In April the Team Dimension-Data rider was forced to undergo surgery which involved surgeons drilling into his skull.

„I got away pretty luckily“

The veteran cyclist is now back training, but the doctors have ruled out a return to racing before the end of July, putting pay to his hopes of riding the Tour de France. Despite this, the Styrian-born rider was in a sunny mood when I spoke to him.

“If you are left home because you are not selected for the Tour it is always a tough month because you are basically miserable,” he told me. “But if you have an injury or something then it is much easier for a sportsman to enjoy the time off. I’m looking forward to coming to the lake a few times.”

Indeed, Eisel, clearly a cup half-full kind of guy, was in no mood for self-pity.

“It’s a risky sport, and we know that, but, at the same time, until know I didn’t have any major accidents in my career. I’ve been a pro for 18 years and been riding my bike for 30, so I got away pretty luckily with all those years.”

Bernhard Eisel

Mario Stehl

Heroic Self-Sacrifice

I’ve always been drawn to the role of the Grand Tour domestique; there seems to be an almost medieval chivalry to their racing, like knights protecting a king. Countless times we’ve seen Eisel burying himself to protect his teammates, often dragging along the peloton to shut down a breakaway to give his team’s sprinters a chance (Eisel has had a long relationship with record-breaking British sprinter Mark Cavendish) or shepherding a general classification rider, keeping them out of the wind and out of trouble.

These are the minor acts of heroism you see if you tune in the full live coverage of a race. The highlights show rarely features the endeavours of the domestique. When Cavendish raises his arms aloft at the finishing line, the riders like Eisel who have bust a gut to put him into that position somewhere in the shadows, far from the camera lenses. I find such self-sacrifice deeply noble.

„I’m best if I work for someone else“

Eisel shrugs off my romanticism of his job: “You definitely have to be a strong boy to do it,” he said, “but for some riders it is a good excuse to get away from the pressure of being a leader.”

He was, for a period, a lead sprinter and says it was terribly frustrating not being able to finish the job off for his team.

“I had my lead-out team in front of me, and I just didn’t deliver. What I realized over the years is that I just get more out of myself if I work for someone else.”

Disbelief

Professional road cycling continues to draw the crowds but also to draw mistrust. When footballer Gareth Bale scored an overhead kick to secure Real Madrid another Champion’s League title, fans exclaimed “I can’t believe it!” as a figure of speech. When Chris Froome secured this year’s Giro d’Italia with an 80km solo break across the mountains, many fans really couldn’t believe it. There’s a trust issue with cycling nowadays.

Bernhard Eisel has faith in his former teammate Froome; saying that as an insider you could see how Froome has being picking up form over the three weeks and peaked when his rivals were “pretty much on their hands and knees”. So, according to Eisel, the feat was both extraordinary and “normal”; a proven winner, taking time on the descents and showing proven power on the climbs.

Since I spoke with Eisel, Froome was cleared of wrongdoing over an adverse analytical finding which revealed an excess level of the anti-asthma medication salbutamol during last year’s Vuelta a España. This must be a huge relief to Froome personally after months of defending himself against allegations of cheating.

In the meantime Team Sky have given the BBC an unprecedented peak into their data, involving complicated dietary and logistical feeding plans, which helps explain the phenomenol performance.

Life At Sky

The UCI decision give some breathing space for Team Sky, a team which announced itself to the world as the new home of clean cycling after the dark years of the Lance Armstrong-era, but which itself has been besmirched by worryingly opaque stories including the express delivery of a mysterious jiffy-bag to former Tour champion Bradley Wiggins.

Sky is a team that attracts as much suspicion as admiration. Bernhard Eisel rode with Team Sky for four years and he says he would happily go back there; and compares them to Bayern Munich football club, suggesting that their very success and financial clout has made them popular. They have a little bit more money than the other teams but at the same when you race there and work with the guys, everybody gives everything and just goes that extra mile every single day.”

Bernhard Eisel

Mario Stehl

Rebuilding Trust

That said, after the doping scandals of the past two decades, Eisel is used to the scepticism that surrounds his sport and says he welcomes well-researched and well-informed comments. But he says he has grown tired of the scandalous headlines built on half-truths.

“If people want to talk about (doping) then I am always very willing but then journalists are just using your name in an article and haven’t even spoken to you I get pretty angry.”

Life After Racing

The head injury, coming in Eisel’s late 30s, has made him think “very quickly” about his options for a life after professional cycle racing. He told me he wants to make once last come-back and try and compete to his best level through the 2019 system and then ride off into the sunset, thinking, as he pedals, in a relaxed way about his future: “but it will be in cycling that’s for sure.”

In the meantime, you can hear his voice during the Tour on British Eurosport where he is working as a pundit, bringing some of that sun-kissed lake-bathed spirit to three weeks of fierce racing.

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