It will always have a special association with his career. During his era in the professional peloton, Petr Vakoč took a number of victories, but only once dominated a stage race. At only twenty-two, in the summer of 2015, he dominated what is today the Sazka Tour. "A great experience, during which I reached the very bottom," says the twenty-nine-year-old cyclist, who headed into the world of bikes before this season.
Petr, do you remember the moment seven years ago when you took victory in the then Czech Cycling Tour, now the Sazka Tour?
"Absolutely. I also remember the previous editions. I rode the race for the first time in 2012. And I have to admit I didn't do very well. But the very next year I won a stage, dominated the points competition and finished fourth overall."
That time at the finish at Svatý Kopeček near Olomouc you beat Alaphilippe, now a two-time world champion, and König, the current race director...
"I rode in the development team Etixx. It was a very important moment for my confidence. The course followed almost the same route as for the U23 European Championships, which took place a week later. The only difference was that the finish was on the flat rather than on a hill. Thus, my plan of attack for gold didn’t work and I had to settle for silver."
At the start in 2015 did you dream of victory? What were your ambitions then?
"I was then a member of the Quick Step team. Fernando Gaviria was designated the leader for sprints, with myself and Zdeněk Štybar designated for the overall rankings. In the most difficult stage, Zdeněk broke away with Honza Bárta, then riding for Bora. So my job was to guard things from the rear. We reckoned that Zdeněk would win. But we overtook him in the end, because he dropped out of the leading group. I was pushing myself to the limit. In Šternberk, I struggled with convulsions. And I had to hit rock bottom to keep the overall lead. I was totally exhausted."
Did the stage race triumph change your standing within the team?
"Every success brings self-confidence; it helps one’s team position. Winning a stage is the fastest possible way to move up the hierarchy. I have to admit that I took my eye off the ball a few times during my career at key moments. Here I took advantage of the opportunity that came my way. And it was a great experience. Then I got more opportunities. I had the chance to be in a leading position at some races. So many times I was in great shape, but had to pull for others."
Was the stage race victory significant for Quick Step? Or were the management indifferent given that it wasn't a World Tour event?
"It was a very important victory. Quick Step always rode for victory in every stage. Single-stage races and stage wins are the domain of the team. The overall ranking is exceptional. So if you manage to dominate a stage race somewhere, it's a great success."
Of the six riders, you were one of two Czechs to be on the roster at that time. What did racing over your home roads in front of home fans mean for you?
"I greatly enjoy racing at home. Or rather in an environment where I have great support and lots of fans by the roadside. Positive pressure suits me. And with the team boss, Zdeněk Bakala, also coming from the Czech Republic, it was extremely important."
The character of the race has changed over the past seven years. You are now a biker, but would the current Sazka Tour profile suit you?
"In terms of hills, it was a very demanding race. Of course, it can’t be compared with the alpine ones, but by our standards the climbs are very demanding. Paradoxically, these races, where there are fewer teams from the World Tour, tend to be very tough. They are usually a real show right from the first stage, because the youngsters want to show off. At that time, it was a race between the classic riders and hill climbers. I really liked the stage over Svatý kopeček and also in Dolany. There are currently even bigger hills on the itinerary."
Would the rides up Dlouhé stráně and Pustevny suit you?
"It’s hard to say. It is not my home region. I have never trained in this locality on a road bike. I have been there once on a bike. I knew the hills from the race and knew what to expect where. Overall, this is a great location for racing. It's a perfect cycling environment. I have noted the efforts of the organizers to move up a level in the hierarchy of stage races, which would attract more World Tour teams. When I left the junior categories, we didn't have a single UCI road race. I am very happy that the level of the domestic scene is rising and the cast is getting better and better."
Do the competitors look down on a stage race in the Czech Republic when they have experience with other races around the world at the same level?
"Not at all. You only have to look at the compositions of the teams that will compete. For all of them it is great preparation for the second half of the season. It doesn’t happen that the best come just to ride round. And you have to realize that you can't compare a race of this category in the Czech Republic or in Romania, with a race maybe somewhere in Asia, where top teams send lads more as a punishment. They go there for training, just ride around it."
Do you miss competing in road races? Or have you been fully absorbed into the world of bikes?
"Sometimes. For example, when I commented on the Strade Bianche for TV as it was a race I loved. But I've immersed myself in bikes so much that I don't have time for any nostalgia. When I see photos from the Dauphiné or from Switzerland, I say to myself that I wouldn’t mind doing a stage in the Alps. But these are only fleeting moments."
Road cycling is referred to as the queen of cycling disciplines. Do you notice any difference after switching to bikes? For example, in the comfort that World Tour teams have?
"It’s true that I prepare the food for the races myself, as well as the water bottles. But otherwise? The bike is taken care of. And when I rode in the European Championship marathon, I felt like I was on the Strada, because as it was dry, and terribly dusty. The backup for our Canyon team is highly professional. We definitely drive more, there are not so many flights. But the biggest difference is in the atmosphere. There were significantly more spectators on the roads. What one experienced at the Tour de France, in Colombia, at the classics or the World Championships, it sometimes gave me goosebumps. We won't experience anything like that on a bike. But I didn't ride the roads for applause..."
Are you still in touch with your former road cycling mates? Or did the transfer also result in a severing of contacts?
"I’m in contact with the Czech competitors, and above all with Honza Hirt. I am also in touch with former mates from Alpecin, the last team I rode for. And I communicate a lot with Julian Alaphilippe."
How did this friendship actually come about when it is said that French riders tend to stick together?
"We get on well as people. We understood each other from the beginning, when he joined the then development team. Moreover, I already spoke perfect French when he joined team Etixx. He didn't speak English, so we were in a room together and I helped him function in that environment. But even when he learned English, we still shared a room during competitions and training sessions. We spent hundreds of days together."
Do you stay in touch during the season? Or do you each just stick to your own programmes?
"We each have a different program, both racing and training. During the off season I was with him in France; in Andorra we were neighbours. We saw each other there all the time and trained together. But now in the season contact is limited to various communication platforms."