"To be an exceptional cyclist, you must be exceptionally traumatized during your formative years"
An interview with Tomaž Okorn for RTVSLO.SI
"To be an exceptional cyclist, you must be exceptionally traumatized during your formative years"
Interview with Jani Brajkovič
"The wrist injury was perhaps even a good thing for Pogačar in the long run, and he will be stronger than Vingegaard in latter stages of the race, thought Jani Brajkovič, just before the start of the Tour, who confided in us how he suffered on the bike and, as he says, abused his body.
June 30, 2023 at 7:44 a.m. Ljubljana - MMC RTV SLO
Jani Brajkovic. A man from Bela krajina, who was considered almost as much the hope of Slovenian cycling as Tadej Pogačar. He did not manage to celebrate a stage victory in the biggest three-week races, but he wore the leader's shirt at the Vuelta. Photo: www.alesfevzer.com
39-year-old Jani Brajkovič was once Slovenia's hope even to win one of the three biggest races, but too often he was stopped by numerous falls. Nevertheless, he achieved a lot in his career, he was the first Slovenian to wear the leader's jersey in one of the three biggest races, and in 2010 he won Criterium du Dauphine. When he retired two seasons ago, his records, in which he revealed how he struggled with bulimia, resonated. We also talked about all these problems that plagued him during his career, and the central thread was, of course, the upcoming Tour de France, where Tadej Pogačar will try to win the yellow jersey for the third time.
Although you yourself emphasize that you always preferred to race in the Tour of Spain, you can probably confirm that the Tour of France is by far the biggest race in the world. In your eyes, what makes it greater than others? Everything is more impressive than other races. The timing of the race - in July, during the summer holidays - attracts a huge number of fans, there’s more interest, more exposure. For cyclists, the Tour is the most important race of the season, even more important than the Olympic Games. The winner of the race is forever recorded in sports history, whoever wins a stage is guaranteed a good career, even if he was average in the rest of the races.
If a child is brought up in an environment where he receives information in a non-verbal way that we are unimportant, unsuccessful, unworthy, not respected, not understood, then the person's thoughts and beliefs also become such, albeit at an unconscious level. In the case of success, a person does not feel the pride and value of this success.
You were also (in 2012) among the top ten, which means a lot on the Tour, but your greatest career success is the victory at the Dauphine in 2010. How did you experience these achievements at the time? Looking at the condition I was racing in, I actually achieved a lot, but it didn't mean much to me at the time. Even winning the Dauphine meant nothing to me, and only now, from the distance of time, do I perceive it as a great success. If a child is brought up in an environment where he receives information in a non-verbal way that we are unimportant, unsuccessful, unworthy, then the person's thoughts and beliefs also become such, albeit at an unconscious level. In the case of success, a person does not feel the pride and value of this success. When I won the Dauphine, it was just a stepping stone to the Tour for me. Before the Dauphine, Radio Shack team director Johan Bruyneel did not give me much hope that I would be able to compete in the Tour de France. After I won, Lance Armstrong called me three days later and asked me if I wanted to compete in the Tour. Of course I said yes.
I crashed eight times (at the 2012 Tour), three times in one stage, even the day before the time trial, so I couldn't be in TT position because of the pain. I did everything to sabotage myself to not be good.
And then you competed in the Tour de France for the first time, making a total of five appearances (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2017). You were considered an extremely talented and hardworking cyclist. Do you think they could pull off more than ninth overall?
I was raised in an environment where we were not important, worthy, successful, we were never enough. The child transfers this to the subconscious. I am sure that in 2012 I was well prepared, and the year before I was ready for the stage victory in the Tour de France. I'm not exaggerating. The tests were excellent. In 17 minute effort, I did 410 watts at 57 kilograms. But I crashed on stage 5 in 2011. It was even worse in 2012, when it was revealed again what I have in my subconscious, that my opinions were different to my thoughts and beliefs. I must not succeed. I fell eight times, in one stage three times, even the day before the time trial, so I couldn't be in the right position because of the pain. Even if I had done that time trial the way I know how, I would have been sixth overall. I did everything to sabotage myself to not be good.
Last year, Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard fought exceptionally well in the Tour de France, but the Dane was more successful in the end. How will it be this time, after Pogačar broke his wrist in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege race two months ago? Photo: Reuters
Before this year's race, Jonas Vingegaard is considered the main favorite. He reliably won the Dauphine Race, the competition was at least a class worse. Do you think he is even better prepared for the race than last year, and how do you think the wrist injury affected Tadej Pogačar's preparations? It seems that Vingegaard is really well prepared, but I can only guess what the form of Pogačar is. Many will disagree, but I think this injury is actually a good thing for him in the long run. We know that last year before the Tour he won everything, but Vingegaard was better in the last week of the Tour. Now Pogačar had to stop, rest and rebuild his form. I think that will end up being a big plus for him. Vingegaard is in great form at the moment, but I don't know if he can add much or if he can be so superior in the third week of racing.
Now Pogačar had to stop, rest and rebuild his form. I think that will end up being a big plus for him. Vingegaard is in great form at the moment, but I don't know if he can add much and if he can be so superior in the third week of racing.
Besides, he will be under pressure... For sure. For the first time, he will be faced with the task of defending the victory, and it will not be easy. He occasionally has problems with pressure. All of Denmark now expects him to win again, but it won't be easy. But he really has the best team, which also makes mistakes on the other hand.
Last year, your statement during the Tour that Jumbo Visma races like a blind hen resonated. True. But if you're that strong, you can afford to make more mistakes than others, nevertheless you pay for it at some point. They raced well at the Giro this year, we'll see, maybe it will be the same at the Tour.
The key stages will of course be in the Alps, but still, the opening week of the Tour will be interesting, right? Of course, the first week the Basque Country is difficult. Many things can happen.
The profiles of the route themselves play a very small role, but in general, the one who is best prepared and most creative wins. You always have to be in good daily shape, read the race and react at the right time. You have to have high emotional maturity. (Emotional maturity defines at what intensity of emotions a person loses the ability for rational decision-making)
One fall and everything goes wrong... One must ask why falls occur. When a rider is under a lot of pressure (if pressure is higher than he can handle with his emotional and kinesthetic intelligence, ability to cope with the effort) he becomes tense and does not react to fast moving race properly. It's all connected. The pressure tightens the rider, as it tightens the muscles, he becomes stiff and is then much less efficient in controlling the bike, in the reaction time.
Does it matter what the route is? Could you say that this year's Tour de France suits Vingegaard better? The profiles of the route themselves play a very small role, (except in some occasions) but in general, the one who is best prepared and most creative wins. You always have to be in good daily shape, overall shape, read the race and react at the right time.
Who would you bet on: Tade or Jonas? I am biased and of course I am for Tadej. I know that he invested a lot in this race, compared to last year, he paid attention to all the smallest details.
And already in the spring he simply shone... Even last year he was two classes better than Vingegaard at Tirreno-Adriatica, but not at the Tour... What happens in the spring does not necessarily happen again in July. Especially young cyclists are not aware enough that you can't push your body to the end all season, because you pay a price for it and that usually happens when you least expect it, at the most important race of the season. That's why sometimes it's good to stop and rest.
In 2006, Jani Brajkovič rode for two days in the (then gold) leader's jersey at the Tour of Spain, making him the first Slovenian to lead in one of the three three-week races. He repeated this at the Vuelta in 2013. Photo: EPA
Last Thursday at the NC he improved the 2020 time by a minute and a half in the stopwatch, but commented that it was just a solid stopwatch. What does that tell you? Very much. Above all, that he is ready for the Tour.
What about you and the bike? Today we caught you just after training on the bike. Do you still ride a lot of miles after your career is over? Not much at all. And these are not training sessions, but bike rides. Now that the weather is warm, I try to find time to go for a ride with my colleagues, ride my bike for an hour or so. I do it because I wish to, not because I NEED to.
So you are not one of those cyclists who, even after the end of your career, would be on the bike for five hours every day, which is what even recreational cyclists who are as dedicated as some professionals prefer to do? One has to ask why. I was like that myself, I simply had to get on my bike. It was an addiction that ultimately leads to destruction. This is the case everywhere: with work, alcohol, drugs, sex and even cycling. What does a recreational cyclist achieve by being on the bike for five hours every day? I will say for myself: I was brought up in an environment where emotional maturity was low, so the child is forced to adapt, to suppress the emotions in himself and find some way out through sports. This releases tension in a person. And so for five or six hours a day I was releasing internal pressure through the pedals, but I was exhausting myself by doing so.
When I wasn't on my bike, I was a different person: angry, anxious, impossible to talk to. In my 17-year career, I've only taken a week off without a bike twice. And those were my worst weeks ever.
And if you didn't go on a bike, you didn't feel good? When you get home after 150 or 200 kilometers, you are exhausted, you are numb. You don't care about anything, you feel less bad. Well, you don't feel anything at all. And this cycle repeats itself: you wake up and feel pressure that you can't express with emotion because you had nowhere to learn it. That's why you ride a bike. When I wasn't on my bike, I was a different person: angry, anxious, impossible to talk to. In my 17 years of career, I have only taken a week off without a bike twice. And those were my worst weeks. Once you don't have what you live for, it's withdrawal syndrome.
It must have been quite painful to end your career then? I was horrified to think that I would have to end my career, also because the environment showed more and more that I was no longer wanted among professional cyclists. This is hard to accept. Three years ago, I went through a web of coincidences, well, there are actually no coincidences in life, I went to Brežice to see Aleš Ernst and got acquainted with the AEQ method. I trained well during the quarantine, I was looking forward to the first race - the national championship with mountain top finish, because I believed that I could finish together with Roglič and Pogačar. I was in top shape. But when race day came, I suddenly lost 40 watts of power. I was interested in why I am perfectly prepared in training, but in a race it is completely different. During the two hours of conversation with Aleš, a different perspective on life opened up for me, he clarified many things for me. I entered the AEQ-world and began to change myself and my view of the world, I began to understand who I am and why I am the way I am.
I trained well during the quarantine, I was looking forward to the first race - the national championship with the finish line at Ambrož, because I believed that I could reach the finish line together with Roglič and Pogačar. I was in top shape. But when race day came, I suddenly lost 40 watts of power.
And what is this world like? This method is easy to understand, but it is not easy to follow this method and change. I myself became a teacher of the AEQ method, I am a student of the third level. Once you begin to relax your body, everything that you previously kept suppressed with chronic stiffness begins coming up into consciousness. I was abusing the bike, and at the same time I had bulimia for 17 years. At some point I already lost hope, the next stage is destruction-death. I knew it would kill me over the years. When I first learned about the AEQ method, I no longer had bulimia after a two-hour conversation. Since then, I also have a different attitude towards eating.
There are more and more cyclists in Slovenia, and in your opinion, there are also more and more people who abuse bicycles? We Slovenians are excellent athletes. There are quite a few who go jogging or cycling at four in the morning and again in the afternoon. This is socially acceptable, the society approves it, although one should ask: why does a man (or a woman) who has a family and two children have to go to training before work, and again after work. But someone will say that he is tense when he comes home from work. Family, home, this should represent a low pressure area where one can relax. If there is no such thing and there is even more chaos at home than at work, it really seems best to go on a bike and get rid of that stress, internal pressure. And that's the problem. A family cannot function like this. After a few years, the husband can no longer see his wife. Children feel this and then mirror such patterns to their children. The cycle repeats. This is called tradition.
Jani Brajkovič was once Lance Armstrong's assistant. Photo: EPA
But many will say: anything is better than running into alcohol... But what is the end result? Excessive cycling is also an abuse of the body, but such a way is socially acceptable. It is necessary to ask whether we are using or abusing the bike. If we have to ride a bike just to lower internal pressure and not feel, be numb, this is abuse, but if we enjoy riding a bike and would like to do something for our health, and if we ride a bike in the company of colleagues and have a good time, then I come home in a good mood and I am still productive, have good relationship with family members, that’s “using the bike”. Because the person who abuses the bike will pedal for an hour or two until he is exhausted and will come home dead, he will not even look at his family. If we have a problem and with the bike we reduce the excess energy that we don't know how to control, and then we come home and go to solve the problem, then that is good. The problem is if we exhaust our body by cycling and thereby try to reduce the problem or make it easier to ignore it.
I know that I will be criticized for this statement, but I stand behind these words: a cyclist must be traumatized in the best possible way for top results... Only then does the alienation of consciousness from the body occur. And disconnect the pain.
You claim that success in professional cycling is mostly also the result of upbringing and an environment that (at least) did not give you enough self-confidence. What else is crucial for a cyclist to become a Pogačar or Roglič champion? I know that I will be criticized for this statement, but I stand behind these words: a cyclist must be traumatized in the best possible way for top results... Only then does the alienation of consciousness from the body occur. And disconnect the pain. If you have a body separate from consciousness, then you do not feel what the body is telling you. And that's great for a cyclist. You go into the red zone - repeatedly and chronically. Let me emphasize that trauma is not just beatings and behavior that we all condemn. A parent can also make a child helpless with too much love and suffocate him with it. It is also a trauma that also has negative consequences.
After the race he (San Millan) wondered how I could finish the Tour 2012 and that he had never seen a rider so destroyed. And this was chronic for me. I also had bulimia, which is another form of abuse and a way to rob yourself of vital energy.
Your statement that one must be traumatized to be successful in cycling is quite strong...
One must abuse the body for a top result. Not in all sports, but in cycling, as it is an endurance sport and the efforts are long-lasting. It is also possible to reduce the abuse of the body, so that it is only short-term, and you are still good. My whole career I was in that red zone, the zone of abuse. In training, races and in between. Before the Tour de France 2012, I was coached by Inigo San Millan, who is now also Pogačar's coach. He excelled in blood analysis. A week before the start of the Tour, I sent him the results of the blood tests. He said I shouldn't do any more training, that it was all too much. After the race, he wondered how I was able to finish the Tour and that he had never seen a rider so destroyed. And this was chronic for me. I also had bulimia, which is another form of abuse.
Did you watch the movie I, Tonya on TV Slovenija a few days ago about the notorious American figure skater, who also experienced many abuses? I haven't, but I will. A very good film is also the film about Sergei Polunin, in which the abuse of a child and then the consequences of this abuse are shown. Shine also shows very well how raising a child affects him, his achievements and the price he has to pay.