Episode 4 – The Norwegian Froome who retired at the age of 20
The World Championships of 2012 in Valkenburg are not only remembered for the road World Titles of Philippe Gilbert, Alexey Lutsenko (U23) and Matej Mohorič (U19). Especially in Norway, they are remembered for the rise of a Scandinavian cycling talent: the Norwegian Oskar Svendsen (°1994) beat Mohorič and Schachmann to win the rainbow jersey in the Time Trial (U19). Two years later, it seemed unbelievable that the same Norwegian climber would retire from cycling. This is the story of the 24 year old youngster who followed his heart.
Young Oskar: from Alpine skier to mountain biker
Your story begins when you're fifteen: You started cycling quite late. Before that, you were an alpine skier?
“Yes, I stopped because I was very bad at it. I sucked really hard.” (laughs) “I guess my length has something to do with it: I’m tall and skinny. Skiers normally are pretty muscular. Some friends of mine enjoyed cycling, so I quit skiing.”
Did you know from the start that you had talent?
“Not really, but when I was thirteen – sixteen years old I went to a secondary school that cooperated with Norges Topidrettsgymnas, which was focused on sports. There I had normal classes with extra hours of sports. When I was still alpine skiing, we sometimes did mountain bike races as an alternative training in the summer. My results were good, so I knew I had some talent.”
What mountain bike race of that period do you remember?
“A famous race for cycling tourists that I did with my friends: Birkebeinerrittet. I finished in the top 15 of around 100, which was a real succes for me. I had never had a result like that in alpine skiing.”
As soon as you started cycling, you joined Lillehammer Cykleklubb. You stayed there until your second year as an U19 rider. How were those first years?
“I come from Lillehammer, so that was an easy decision. In my first years, I had joined my new school, Norges Topidrettsgymnas, where I had good trainers. I felt like they were the first in Norway that focused on good training methods. We did a lot of VO2max tests, so I stepped up my game as a junior. From the beginning I had good test results: I scored about 84 on my first test. [Lance Armstrong’s record was 85 – Ed.] Nevertheless, I didn’t have a lot of racing experience.”
With those results, what did you want to focus on: becoming a GC rider or a time triallist?
“I think both. When I was 16, I did some really fast climbs outside competition. The team went to Mallorca to do popular climbs where we could compare our climbing times with the professionals. I was light and climbed the fastest of the team: I did the Sa Calobra climb in 26 minutes.” [Rumour has it that in the winter before his Tour victory in 2014, Bradley Wiggins finished it in 22:30 and set the unofficial record on the 9.4km climb with an average gradient of 7.1% – CyclingWeekly]
Wearing the Rainbow Jersey in 2012
In your second junior year, you made a big step.
“I was motivated because the tests had proved I had talent. And I became better because I started doing lots of races with the national team.”
In the same year, 2012, you became World Champion TT U19 in Valkenburg. Was that a surprise for you?
“Absolutely. Over the rest of the season, I'd had some okay results in UCI Nation Cups [the world’s most important junior races], but nothing extraordinary. At the time, I did know I was in shape: I had won three golden medals at the Norwegian championships. And in late summer, I did the VO2max test of 97.5.”
That was a world record, one that still stands.
“I did that test three weeks before the World Championships. But I wasn’t looking for good test results, I focused on getting real results on the bike. In Valkenburg, I was hoping for a top ten result. For the whole year, I had been training a lot on the time trial bike.”
Can you describe the day of the World Championship?
“It was quite special, actually. Amund Grøndahl Jansen [who now rides for Jumbo – Visma] and I did the TT for Norway. He had the highest ambitions of the two. During the week I had had a tiny cold [often said to be a sign of good shape – Ed.] so I had the pressure off my shoulders. On the day itself, I felt really good. I used to be nervous for big races, but I was excited, not nervous.”
Did you know if you were on schedule to beat the top time?
“On the first split, I knew I had the second best time. But there were still about seventeen riders coming after me, so a lot could still change. It was good though, I was actually saving some energy at the start to do the climb all out.The course started off flat, but the Cauberg was waiting. I did a good race.”
The course suited you, with the climb at the end.
“Yes. I hadn’t won if it wouldn’t have been there.”
The guys who took the steps below you on the podium are now big names in the World Tour: Matej Mohorič and Maximilian Schachmann have both won a stage at the Giro and are really successful. Don’t you feel like you belong in the peloton with them?
“No. During the first years after that World title, I felt like that. But I didn’t have the chance to get good results as long as I didn’t enjoy cycling. It’s a pretty special and competitive environment. I enjoyed the competition and the sports, but not the lifestyle. Honestly, because of that, I don’t think I would ever have made it.”
Would you have done anything different if you could rewind the clock?
“I would have tried to enjoy it more. My training was based on numbers and physical tests, which made me progress incredibly quick. But it frightened me: I started when I was 15 and at 18 I had the highest VO2max and became World Champion. It’s a lot to handle in a span of three years, I should have taken things more slowly.”
Suffering from echelons and finding climber's legs as U23
The year after taking the World Title, you became an U23 rider for Team Joker. But at the beginning of the season, at Triptyque des Monts et Chateaux, you couldn’t keep up with the peloton. Your sports director at that time, Gino Van Oudenhove, told us that you focused too much on numbers.
“I was aware that my tests only counted for cycling races of one hour. I don’t know if Gino remembers, but I was really afraid I couldn’t take the distance. I told my teammates that everything was true about the world championship and my tests, but that I would still have a hard time in the peloton. And I did.”
Did you prepare well enough during the winter before?
“Yes, but I had had to make a choice with my training team. Would we prioritise on training capacity, focusing on maximum threshold power, or would we choose to train on distance? We didn’t focus on distance. So after 140kms? I was dead.” (laughs) “But at Tour de l’Avenir that same year I showed I wasn’t that bad.”
That year, I don’t think many would have expected you to finish top five at the Tour de l’Avenir. Your results up to then hadn’t been so good with a lot of DNF’s [Did Not Finish – Ed.]
“The race programme didn’t suit me at all. We did a lot of really windy races in France and the Netherlands. But Tour de l’Avenir was something else: it offered long climbs and short stages. The result came as a surprise, though. But I was supported well there by the whole Norwegian team: Sven Erik Bystrøm [now UAE – Emirates], Sondre Holst Enger [now Israel Academy], Kristoffer Skjerping, Fredrik Strand Galta and Bjørn Tore Hoem.”
The world knew you as a time triallist, not as a climber. But at the 5 kilometre prologue, you finished 77th, 25 seconds behind Alexis Gougeard [now AG2R - La Mondiale]
“Actually, I think I have always been better at climbing. And in my defence, I think it had started to rain when it was my turn.” (laughs)
Then in the mountains, you pulled impressive results, especially for an U23 rider in his first year: you were only 19 years old but finished fifth in the GC. You finished seventh in stage 4, which finished on the Col de la Madeleine.
“I felt really strong on that fourth stage. I went in the breakaway at the beginning of the hill. The Spanish guy [Ruben Fernandez, now Team Movistar – Ed.] caught me and I waited for the group with Adam Yates, Patrick Konrad and Davide Formolo.”
Making decisions as a second year U23 rider
Did you want to turn pro as fast as possible after that fifth place at the Tour de l’Avenir?
“I was going to do one more year in the U23 ranks before turning pro. But I was sick during the spring period, so I couldn't perform. Afterwards, we went to the Valle D’Aosta. [the second most valued stage race for U23 riders – Ed.] I was in a pretty good shape, but couldn’t take the heat. That was a bummer.”
At Valle D’Aosta, you did really good climbing TT’s where you finished second and fourth.
“The plan was not only to do good in those 5 kilometre TT’s, but also in the GC. That was a pity, because I had trained a lot for my two big goals that season: Valle D’Aosta and Tour de l’Avenir. Both were...”
What happened at the Tour de l’Avenir?
“Before Tour de l’Avenir, I set myself an ultimatum. I told myself: 'If I’m not top five in this race, I will quit.’ I had to do as good as the year before or I would stop cycling.”
So what happened?
“I felt really good and I still think I had the legs to pull it off. But I crashed. In the Queen stage.
And that was the last of your career.
“The big goals of my season had been taken down, so I needed a backdoor to get out of it. Maybe the crash came on the right moment, maybe it needed to take the decision for me. In this way, it was also a relief. Tour de l’Avenir 2014 was my last race to date.”
You didn’t go to the World Championships that year?
“No, that was a shame. It was in Ponferrada. Bystrøm won and three Norwegians finished in the top five. But World Championship races were generally not suited for climbers, so I can’t say it would have been my favorite course.”
Were the two years after that World Title in Valkenburg too much for you? Would you rather have become professional right away?
“It was too much to keep my mental focus. Me and my coaches didn’t really expect much the year after, but the outside world did. There is pressure from the team and sponsors. When journalists ask questions about why I'm not performing, it’s a lot to handle. Becoming World Champion was good, but I didn’t ask for the VO2max test or all the publicity around that.”
Would you rather not have done that world record VO2max test?
“Yes. Also, if I hadn’t won the World Championships, I might have had a better career in the end.”
After that Tour de l’Avenir, your focus went to your studies.
“I had already done some studies on the side, but the next autumn I started studying engineering.”
Everything has calmed down around you now. Do you still do sports?
“Yes, I train five-six times a week: I go to the gym, run, do some cycling,... But I don’t race anymore.”
You still go cycling with old friends from the peloton?
“Sometimes. I need some trips to get my legs going, but after that it gets better.”
When did you first think about quitting?
“After I became World Champion, I felt afraid. It was as if the decisions were taken for me, not by me. At that point, I wondered if I really wanted cycling to be my life or not.”
Were there less gifted colleagues who thought you were a fool to quit?
“Lots of them. But both of my trainers understood: Stig Kristiansen [the coach of Norway’s national team] and Lars Stensløkken, my main coach who now trains Petter Fagerhaug. [Corendon – Circus – Ed.] Lars made me World Champion, he's a very good trainer.”
A lot of talented Scandinavian riders have stopped cycling to focus on their studies. In Belgium, people would call you mad to stop with that much talent. Is it because cycling is more popular in Belgium? And because of Norway’s high living standard?
“Absolutely. That’s well summarised. If you’re Belgian and you’re on a World Tour team, you’re famous. In Norway, that only counts for Kristoff, Boasson Hagen and Hushovd. And yes, we’re a bit spoiled in Norway. A good anecdote about that is the following: ‘One time at the Nations Cup, we met some guys from Poland who came to the race on borrowed bikes. They were acting crazy in the descent, as if the race meant something bigger for them.’ For me, in the end it wasn’t about money. At a sudden moment I realised money or doing something I didn’t want to do wouldn’t make me happy. I realised I had to quit.”