Next up in the VH Q&A Series: 24-year-old Evan Huffman. After making a name for himself with several impressive performances (especially in time trials) in his native USA, he joined Astana last season. Since then, he has made starts in a variety of different races, not just in Europe, but also in Qatar, Oman, Turkey, and China. Now in his second year, he has learned a great deal about adjusting to the pace of WorldTour racing, speaking Italian, and plenty more.
VH: You’re in Girona now taking a bit of a break from racing, is that right?
VH: What’s the first thing you do when you get back to Girona after you’ve been racing?
EH: Buy food. And I unpack everything, and just get settled back into the apartment.
VH: What is your favorite thing to eat when you finally get back home after a hard race?
EH: I eat a pretty consistent diet all the time. I have cereal for breakfast, and usually just rice and/or chicken, salad, nothing special.
VH: So that’s pretty much true leading into a race as well?
EH: I keep it pretty easy: chicken or salmon, something with a lot of rice and then either steamed vegetables or salad.
VH: Who do you train with when you are home in Girona?
EH: I train mostly alone, to be honest, but with the handful of other American guys if they’re here: Andrew Talansky, Brent Bookwalter, Ted King, those are a few guys that I’ve ridden with.
VH: Do you have many Astana teammates in Girona?
EH: Just one, Tanel Kangert, and I’ve trained with him before. But we have very different programs so he’s often not here when I am, so it’s difficult to get together.
VH: Going back in time a bit: you gave up college to pursue cycling. Obviously it worked out for you but that must have been a tough call at the time. What motivated you to make that decision? Are you glad you made it?
EH: Yeah, I’m still looking back happy, I think I made the right decision. It had as much to do with me being unhappy going to school as me wanting to pursue cycling, so it was kind of working both ways. And even if it hadn’t gone so well, I probably still wouldn’t regret it.
VH: You were putting in some big results in North America, but then you signed with Astana and even in your first year you were pretty busy. You rode Paris-Roubaix, you even went to China for the Tour of Beijing. How do you handle the transition from mostly North American races to suddenly riding all over the world, on one of the biggest teams in the sport?
EH: It’s really hard. It’s definitely a bit of a shock at first. The amount of traveling is definitely much greater and that makes it difficult to work around with the training and stuff. You’re always losing a day before and after a race. When I was riding a lot of local stuff in California and the West Coast I was just driving, so it was simpler.
VH: What’s the biggest thing that you have learned your first season?
EH: If I had to pick one thing, I guess just being flexible and trying not to get frustrated with things that are out of your control . . . because there are a lot of things that are.
VH: Last year, you had a strong first season with a lot of racing. Early this year you had a big day at the Tour of Oman, getting into a small but strong breakaway on Stage 4. Ultimately the move was reeled in, but can you explain what it is like being off the front of the race, the atmosphere of riding in the break, and then the atmosphere when the gap starts to fall?
EH: It’s really hard to get into the break at first, sometimes more difficult than other times obviously, but it’s rarely easy. But then it’s not so bad for a while. Once you get out there and you have a couple minutes, the peloton kind of lets you go. It’s hard but you’re riding steady. You don’t have to do any real surges or fight for position. So for most of the day, it’s pretty relaxing in a lot of ways, but then once the gap starts to come down, and/or you get closer to the finish, or you start hitting some hills, then it gets much harder obviously. That’s one of the things that I’ve definitely learned more this year, just planning ahead. From the moment you get into the breakaway, thinking about how you’re going to win, not just thinking about trying to stay away as long as possible. It’s all about trying to conserve energy and going hard when you have to but not doing too much.
VH: Speaking of harder days, you raced Paris-Roubaix for the second time this year. Did it get any easier?
EH: Hm. A little bit. I think I was a little bit stronger but it’s such a hard race, very different from anything else. So much of it comes down to your experience and positioning more than just plain fitness. So I was a little bit stronger but I don’t know if I really did much better.
VH: How is your Italian? Astana is a pretty international squad: do you ever have trouble with communicating with other riders?
EH: All the time. I started to try to learn Italian pretty much immediately once I knew I was going to be on the team, with Rosetta Stone and TV shows and pretty much whatever I could pick up. I’ve learned a lot but I’m definitely not fluent. I kind of struggle to have real conversations with people, but I can understand enough that I can understand what I’m supposed to do during a race at the team meeting. I know all the cycling terminology good enough, but yeah it’s difficult. There’s at least one or two people at every race that can speak English that can translate for me if I need it but there’s still obviously a lot of people that don’t speak English so I just can’t really talk to them very easily, or vice versa, which is not ideal.
VH: Have there been any particular veteran riders on the team with whom you’ve formed a particular connection or from whom you’ve been able to learn some things?
EH: That’s one of the things that’s weird being on a team with so many riders, there are a lot of guys that you don’t see all year, except for training camp, because you just have different races, so the guys that I’ve ridden with a lot I’ve gotten in with closest . . . Jacopo Guarnieri, Dimitry Muravyev, Borut Božič, those guys, we did a lot of races in the spring and they speak good English. And they’re not afraid to tell me when I do something wrong, which is good for me.
VH: What area of your riding have you built on the most since joining Astana?
EH: I think I’ve gotten a little bit stronger overall. The biggest difference I think with racing at this level is the difference in intensity. Overall the races aren’t super fast sometimes, but when it is fast, it’s really, really fast. And so dealing with the change in pace when you’re already tired is what I’ve gotten better at, and still need to improve. Just that high intensity when you’re already fatigued later in the race.
VH: What’s next on your program for 2014?
EH: I have a bit of a break now. I think my next race will be some time in early August, either the Tour of Poland or the Eneco Tour. I’m not sure yet.
VH: What are your biggest goals for the rest of the year, either in a particular race or just generally?
EH: For the rest of the year I’m not really sure what my schedule will look like, so it’s hard to pick a race, but I want to really step up a level from where I’m at now and from where I was last year, just try to be even just a little bit better. It’s kind of hard to measure because it’s really subjective some times in races, but I kind of know what that is for me personally. So I just want to improve on where I was last year, keep getting better.
VH: Have you had a chance to ride or train much with Vincenzo Nibali to get a sense of his abilities and his form for the Tour?
EH: I’ve done a few races with him over the last couple of years. The last one was the Tour of Oman this year so that was obviously a while ago, so it doesn’t really give any insight into his form for the Tour other than what you’ve seen him do in more recent races like Romandie and the Dauphiné, but my overall impressions of him are that he’s a really nice guy and a good leader, and I think he’ll be ready for the Tour.
VH: Last question. Is there a race, maybe one you’ve ridden so far, maybe one you’ll be riding in the future, that you’d like to hone in on or hope to win?
EH: Hard to say. I’d really just want to do more races, to get experience and do everything. I want to do more long stage races, like Romandie or the Suisse, and then the next step would be a Grand Tour, and just see how it goes, and what my capability would be to focus on getting results down the road. I don’t know, I just kind of like to do everything. I’d really like to do a Grand Tour this year or next year if possible.
As the only American rider on Astana, a team based in Kazakhstan, and competing in events all over the world (not just in Europe and North America), Evan will continue to represent the USA on a very international stage. After a busy spring, Evan will likely return to racing in August.