Dan Fleeman started out his racing career on mountain bikes at an after-school club which introduced him to riding and racing at age 11. The foot & mouth outbreak in the early 2000's pushed him onto the road - a trip to Belgium to hammer around the Kermesses soon followed: Road Racing took over. A spell with an amateur team in France was curtailed by a collision with a car whilst out training, resulting in both kneecaps being broken - the left one so far beyond repair to the point of it now no longer existing. A year out of racing followed 3 months in hospital. The eventual return to racing delivered an U23 National Champs jersey and a ride at the Worlds, heralding a journey into the professional ranks, peaking, perhaps, at the star-studded and fabled Cervelo Test Team. On Sunday 23rd April 2017, Dan crossed the line first, punching the air in unbridled jubilation, at the much cherished and always fiercely-fought Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic for his current team, the small budget minnows Metaltek-Kuota, in the face of the biggest hitting teams in the land. Always Riding had sat down with Dan on the eve of the race in Oakham to talk through his entertaining career - we really, really should have gone and put that fiver on...


Always Riding:  So, let's jump in at your first pro contract. From what I can tell, DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed was the first time an almost constant presence in your life cropped up: Dan Lloyd.

Dan Fleeman: Haha! Yes! I knew of him but didn't know him - but we were thrown together on that team and just really hit it off. He's been a constant in my life since then - to the point of him honouring me with a really great speech at my wedding the other year, totally off the cuff and a very special moment! It was a really good team, we had a top-class race programme as Eric Vanderaerden was the DS. We did all the Classics: Gent-Wevelgem, E3, Het Volk etc, etc. Then a few races in France, Germany... and then Tour of Qinghai Lake, this was 2007. Dan Lloyd took second overall in the GC: He won a lot of money! We came home with, between us as a team, $52,000 - cash! Lloydy is, well, just a bit of a geek, really; he had his laptop and after every stage he'd pull up this spreadsheet and he'd input how much prize money we'd made and all sorts of stats. At the end of the race the team managers had to go to this room to get the prize money. Vanderaerden tells Lloydy, "You better come with me, you have it all on that laptop". So off they go to this room. And there are two guys standing guard on the door with machine guns. You then have to walk up to this table where a panel of the organisers are sat and you tell them what you believe you are owed. So, Dan tells them: Fifty two thousand and something or other dollars. The head guy just nods "OK!" and reaches into a bag and pulls out the cash and just hands it to him! I said you should have added on another couple of grand but he was under the impression if you lied they'd have shot you! So we cleared off to New York for a ten day break and just lived like kings. Unfortunately the team stopped at the end of the year - sponsors, funding etc, actually just fell through two days before we were due to start the Tour of the Med the next season.

AR: Two days before the season starts: I guess that's quite tricky as far as finding a new contract!?

DF: Very. Luckily Dan Lloyd was really great friends with David Harmon who was doing a lot of commentary with - of course - Sean Kelly. Sean was involved with the An-Post squad so Dan got in there pretty damn quickly. I spent a couple of weeks to-ing and fro-ing until I had a word with (ex-pro and Tour & Giro stage winner - Ed) Martin Earley, again, a guy who is big mates with Sean. Five minutes later I had a contract for the season. So, yeah, back with Lloydy - who introduced me to Stephen Gallagher who I'm now in business with with Dig Deep Coaching. But it was all so inter-connected; they had both been team-mates on a little Flemish squad named Flanders, a shop team from Oudenaarde, a Pro-Conti team with zero budget;

AR: You mean that shop over the funny elevator-bridge just off the main square?

DF: Yeh, that one just down the road there. The guy who ran the team was just very well connected - I guess he was in many ways a gangster; but a nice gangster - a 'straight' gangster! There were always deals going on, the riders would always have to go to races and sign on, even if they were at death's door from illness, just to get the start money in the pot. There was money here, money there, money, money... But, anyway, we were all team-mates on An-Post and it just worked really well, always there to help each other because we just got on so well and genuinely wanted each other to do well.

...there are two guys standing guard on the door with machine guns. You then have to walk up to this table where a panel of the organisers are sat and you tell them what you believe you are owed. So, Dan tells them: Fifty two thousand and something or other dollars. The head guy just nods "OK!" and reaches into a bag and pulls out the cash and just hands it to him!

On calculating your own winnings at the Tour of Qinghai Lake
The 2017 Rutland Melton International Cicle Classic

AR: How much input was there from Sean Kelly himself?

DF: Well... Not that much, day to day - but he did a lot behind the scenes; he'd be the one ringing up the race organisers and getting us in races. I remember the Tour of the Algarve, he asked if the team could come and race and they said "Yes - on one condition: You've got to turn up, go on the podium, shake a few hands". That's how it all works. So every now and again he'd turn up at a race just for one day and be off again. But we'd see him a fair bit - but he wasn't in the team car whipping us, if that's what you mean! A DS from another team once said to me "You're lucky - I can't even get in a race half the time; with Sean, he just has to ring up an organiser and say 'Hi - remember me? I won your race. Can my team come and race it?' If only 25% say 'yes' you'll have more races than you could ever do!"

AR: Let's talk about the 2008 Tour of Britain; a great ride from you got seventh in the GC.

DF: Yeh - I've done it five times I think, but that year I was really on it. At the end there were about eight of us all within about ten or fifteen seconds. I didn't lose any time in the actual racing - if you get what I mean, it was just in the time bonuses for the intermediate sprints and on the finish line - which meant I was done for 'cos I can't sprint! But that whole period - I won Tour of Pyrenees, was top ten I think in Ireland, Tour of Britain a week later, seventh - probably the best six weeks I ever had!

AR: A period which, no doubt, helped land the 'Big One' - a ride with the Cervelo Test Team for the 2009 season!

DF: Great times. That team came about because Carlos Sastre had won the Tour de France with CSC on Cervelo bikes - but the guys behind Cervelo were a little frustrated: They were just totally into design and testing and they weren't getting any feedback from the set-up as it was. They wanted to be in control and be able to get that input. They decided that the only way was to create a team that would really test the products and give feedback on how they could improve those products. I think it was always meant to be a smaller team but then they signed Sastre - and then all of a sudden you have Thor Hushovd, Lancaster, Hausler - who was phenomenal at that point, that classic Tour stage win with the tears - Hammond, the list goes on You have a Tour winner in Sastre and then Thor goes and wins the World Champs!

AR: I remember it being a pretty stellar squad...

DF: For Sure. But, strangely, looking back, riding with those guys just seemed normal in a way. Carlos Sastre - he is just the most laid back person ever! He can be leading the Tour de France and just never, ever get flustered. I remember doing races with him along with Dan Lloyd. Lloydy did the Giro D'Italia with Carlos. Now, Carlos likes to sit at the back and chill out whereas Dan likes to sit right up at the front: Dan used to get so stressed with Carlos! Dan's job was to look after Carlos to the foot of the big climb and then take him a few km's up it and then Carlos would do his thing. So, they'd get to three or four km from the decisive climb and Carlos is sat there at like 200th wheel. Dan is saying "Ermm… Carlos - shall we not start to move up?  You know, maybe?" And Carlos would be "Tranquillo, tranquillo..." That's all he used to say, all of the time! Tranquillo - be calm! The climb would start, there'd be people getting dropped left, right and centre, blown for the day, forming grupettos all over the place - and Carlos is still there, in the among the cars and the spat-out riders and Dan's thinking "This guy is on a million Euros a year to win this Giro and my job is to get him up to the head of the race and position him to do that and we're here getting F'in' dropped!" Dan was getting majorly stressed out - He wasn't, though, not Carlos! Then all of a sudden he'd just go skip-skip-skip up on the pedals and he'd be away off up the road to win the race! A key thing with that team: There was never any hierarchy and I think that's why the team did so well, just no egos.

AR: Are you still in touch with Sastre?

DF: I actually bumped into Carlos a couple of years ago. He's involved in a charity now, an etape type thing. Big companies enter a team of company directors etc, they have to pay a fair bit of money - this is how they raise the cash for the charity. So, I get invited to go along and be on the same team as Carlos, I hadn't seen him for about five years and he was just the same, just a nice bloke, really top guy.

AR: Your season was somewhat blighted by a crash, though, yes?

DF: Yes, at the back end of 2009 with Cervelo I had a crash at Bayern Rundfahrt. I went round a corner, chasing the breakaway, but, unbeknownst to us, there was a police marshaling moto parked around the bend trying to stop a car that had got onto the course and was heading straight for us - and I hit the moto as he was making sure he saved us. It didn't feel that bad at the time, I fell off and cut my hand open. I had X-rays and everything was declared OK. It ached but I just figured I'd fallen off, so it would do. I flew back to Birmingham and it just got worse, swelled up - then I get a call from the hospital in Germany: They said they'd re-checked the X-rays and I had actually broken a bone! I went to Burton hospital and they put a cast on it and said come back in three months. I ring up the team doctor and he's like "Nah! No way!" and sent me a ticket to fly to Switzerland the next day. I had been given a number to call that would take care of the private hospital bill via our team insurance. I get there and it was a bank holiday so the German insurance company was closed - no problem, we'll call tomorrow. They did the operation and I was put up in this plush, pretty much, hotel room in this private hospital; they kept bringing me coffee, fresh fruit - whatever I wanted. A couple days go by and the doctors say "We're still not able to get hold of this insurance company..." I didn't think too much of it until one day they come in and say "Can you sign this form, please?" So I sign it, and ask what it was - "Oh, that's the bill" - I turn it over and it's 45,000 Swiss Francs! £28,000! And I'd just signed for it 'cos they couldn't reach the insurance company! "So, now you can give us the money..." they say. I'm like "Umm… not sure I quite have that on me!" I'm there in this room and I'm looking down out of the window up on the fifth floor thinking 'It's quite a way down!' Anyway, another day goes by and they come back in and say "We've got hold of the insurance company now - you can go now, thanks". I hadn't realised I was being held hostage! Still, after I'd signed it and they still kept bringing the coffee and whatever I was turning it down - I didn't want the tab racking up any further!

After that it took me a long time to get going again. A lot of the riders had signed for two years but I'd only signed for one - probably a mistake on my part, really; the end of the year came and they were wanting to get rid of a couple of riders and I was one out of contract. There was a chance of signing with a couple of Italian teams but things, as they do, were dragging on and on. It got to December. I gave myself a deadline of December 1st to sign something - I'd spoken to An-Post about going back there, and I wish I had... basically Raleigh came along and offered me pretty decent money, I'll be honest, so I signed on with them for two years - and, well... I kind of regret it. Actually one of the Italian teams was Footon Servetto with Mauro Gianetti as the DS, but they dragged on and needed another sponsor or two - but it is what it is...

AR: You probably dodged a bullet there- remember their kit!? That awful beige coloured thing that made the riders look naked?

DF: Haha! Yeh! So, I rode for Raleigh for two years. In honesty, I never really planned for that to happen. I wouldn't say I was resentful but I wasn't in a place where I wanted to be. I kinda lost my head a little bit and I wasn't really enjoying racing... but by 2011 I started enjoying it again, I was getting a lot of podiums in the Premier Calendar races; I got a good result in the Tour of Beauce - really got my head back together. I was happy to just ride domestically and was busy with the plans for starting my own business. I was going to leave Raleigh as I kinda didn't see eye to eye with some of the management, but keep it domestic calendar. But then the Pro-Conti Champion System team got in touch and I went from thinking "I'm happy riding domestically" to thinking "No - that's where I actually really want to be" - the carrot had been dangled. Then that fell through! By then I'd kinda had enough. I concentrated on my business which started to snowball at that same time. About nine months on I fell back into racing mountain bikes again, Mountain Mayhem, etc, with a couple of friends, that sort of thing. The competitive edge kicked back in and I next thing I know I was back at National Series races getting podiums! I raced that for a couple of years then had a chance encounter with Andrew Swain (Owner of the Metaltek-Kuota team -Ed), who I'd always known. At this point I had no intention of ever racing on the road again - but, anyway, he speaks to me at a trade show about doing a couple of races for them. I forgot about it until a couple weeks later he rings up and asked "If I'd thought about it?" - "Thought about what?" -  "Racing for me!" And here we are.

So, they'd get to three or four km from the decisive climb and Carlos is sat there at like 200th wheel. Dan is saying "Ermm… Carlos - shall we not start to move up?  You know, maybe?" And Carlos would be "Tranquillo, tranquillo..." That's all he used to say, all of the time! Tranquillo - be calm!

On a rather laidback Carlos Sastre whilst riding for the Cervelo Test Team
A relaxed Dan Fleeman before his win in the 2017 Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic
Dan Fleeman after winning the Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic
On the podium

AR: You seem happy here at Metaltek-Kuota, a man at ease...

DF: I just really love this team - riding with no real pressure, enjoying my racing, not worrying about contracts and all that; I used to hate that side of things. I do a limited race programme which means I can take care of Dig Deep Coaching and, really importantly, get to spend the time with my family, my wife Sarah and my two sons, Freddie and Archie - that's really important to me. Plus it's nice to be able to share my experience with the younger guys on the squad. I always benefited from the older guys being around when I was a young racer so it's nice to bring that experience full-circle.

AR: What would Dan Fleeman's lesson No.1 be for the young guys?

DF: Just being calm. All those years we've just spoken about, 2007, 2008, 2009, it was all just a bit of a blur and I didn't really take anything in - I was manic. But someone like Roger Hammond- always laid back; never stressed. Carlos Sastre- never stressed - Ever. That's the way to be.

AR: Tell us a bit about your company, Dig Deep Coaching.

DF: It'll be six years this September since Stephen and me got it off the ground and it's just grown and grown! We do coaching for cycling and triathlon with one-to-one training plans. We have twenty two coaches based all over the world; Australia, Switzerland, Germany, England, Ireland, Belgium - all over, because we have clients all over, China, New Zealand, everywhere. I still do some coaching myself but find I'm more and more pulled into the day-to-day running of the business due to it's success, really. Management and admin - something I never really envisioned but that's what happens! We initially staffed the project through our immediate connections through our time riding. Now, as we've grown, we make sure we are hiring people with the right experience, knowledge and philosophy, something we're massively focused on keeping on top of. Steven has moved from Belfast to Perth in Australia to run that whole side of things. As for what's next - America! That's the next place to break into!

"So, now you can give us the money..." they say. I'm like "Umm… not sure I quite have that on me!" I'm there in this room and I'm looking down out of the window up on the fifth floor thinking 'It's quite a way down!'

On insurance woes and contemplating escape from a 5-star Swiss hotel....

 

AR: And as for racing goals and ambitions?

DF: I'm not interested in winning the same race over and over again. I won the National Hill Climb twice and that'll do me now, not interested in ever doing that again - I'm not one of these people who just want to win something over and over again. I need fresh goals, chapters.

AR: Possibly here at the Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic? Shall I nip out and put a fiver on you?

DF: Well... look - I've been three times in the top ten here at CiCLE Classic. It's a hard race and a hard race suits me. What makes this a hard race is the constant up and down. The places in a 'normal' race where you would recover just aren't there 'cos you'll be on a gravel sector having to really focus - and then you're up yet another hill. It just makes it very hard. Everybody is always surprised how hilly it is. You have maybe seventeen or eighteen hundred metres altitude gain, which - OK - compared to say, Lombardia or a Tour stage is not 'massive' but for a 'flat' race of 190km... I'm after more than just another top ten; last year, my 9th place - I regretted afterwards. I knew I should have made a move from that final small group... but I waited and it got away. This year, if I'm in that situation again, I'm gonna be a lot more aggressive. Maybe do what Conor Dunne did for the win in 2016 and just go. A podium would be nice... It's just a great race.


Interested in taking your riding up a notch? Head over to Dig Deep Coaching for more information.