Friday, December 1, 2023

Justin Grace – the Kiwi who is France’s Track Coach


HomeInterviewsJustin Grace - the Kiwi who is France's Track Coach
Justin Grace
Justin Grace.

In the ‘old days’ it used to be that the ‘smaller’ and emerging cycling nations would rely on expertise from the ‘Old World’ – European coaches could be found all over the world.

But these days it’s all different; and perhaps the biggest surprise in the past year has been first division track nation, France taking on a New Zealander as their coach.

Justin Grace is the man, here’s his tale:

You were born in Calgary, Justin and were on the podium in the Canadian sprint champs – so how come you’re a Kiwi?

“My parents were Kiwi immigrants in Canada, so I lived there when I was only a baby (the first time round), and came to NZ as a Canadian citizen.

“I returned in my early 20’s for several years and competed at my first World Championships for Canada in 1995 (ironically, that was also in Colombia, where I will coach for my first time, the French Team at a world champs.”

You’ve won 13 NZ national titles, is that correct – in sprint, team sprint, keirin and kilometre?

“And the tandem – with Paul Medhurst actually.

“I think it is 14 now, but it includes a masters one, which shouldn’t really count…”

And you were World Masters Sprint Champion?

“Yes I was M2 World Kilo Champion in 2009, inspired by the success of my New Zealand juniors in the Worlds team sprint, I decided that each year I coach a world champion I will race masters and try my luck.

“(Maybe I better dust off my bike soon!)

“I haven’t ridden a bike more than 10 times since the worlds in 2009.”

Justin Grace
Justin in 2006 representing NZ. Photo©GettyImages

What was your proudest moment as a rider?

“Handing my dad my masters rainbow jersey and medal, in a giant wooden frame and saying thanks for being my biggest fan, supporter and mentor (I only wish I could have given him a white one, not a blue one).”

How did you get the NZ coaching job?

“After a very successful two years privately coaching juniors, and travelling as the junior sprint coach for NZ, I was offered a coaching scholarship from High Performance Sport NZ.

“Part of the conditions of that was that I had to work for the federation, so a new position was created for me.

“The first full time sprint coach in NZ.”

What was your proudest moment as NZ coach?

“I am often asked this and it is a very difficult question to answer, as I was, and still am proud of everything we achieved together.

“However, I have two very defining moments: seeing the junior team sprinters receive their rainbow jerseys in 2009 is still an emotional feeling, and standing back, observing the NZ team celebrate the first Olympic sprint medal in London 2012.

“To step back and watch their reactions was a moment to remember.”

Justin Grace
Justin shares the Olympic Keirin Bronze Medal winning moment with 23 year old Simon van Velthooven.

What’s your mantra as a coach?

“Rest as hard as you train, love what you do and remember, if it was easy, everyone would do it.”

Why quit the NZ coaching job?

“Ultimately it came down to a clash of ideals and personalities.

“Since 2010 I pushed hard for increased involvement from sports science, technology and physiology, to help me in my job, and was given all I asked for.

“But after the Olympics, the strategy was changed by the federation, to give almost total control of training to the scientists, and despite my efforts to negotiate, the federation told me if I didn’t like it, I could always leave.

“Effectively I became a manager and lost my ability to use a combination of science and the art of coaching which is one of my strengths.”

That must have been difficult quitting given the bonds you build with the riders?

“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life.

“It was easy to walk away from the political areas, but it made me feel bad and still does, because I still feel attached to the five guys on my team even though communication is strained or nonexistent for some of them.

“I hope time will heal that. They are still young and hopefully will one day understand from my perspective why I had to do it.

“At that stage, I wasn’t leaving for another job, I was I fact thinking about joining the Police!”

How did the French job come about?

“Florian Rousseau and I had a good relationship going back years, when we raced.

“Benoit Vetu quit and went to Russia, I asked Florian who their replacement was, because we had only really seen those two guys, and Franck Durivaux work as coaches, and I know Franck was from Paris.

“It was purely curiosity as to who we would see from Hyeres (French warm weather coaching centre in the south, ed.).

“A long time after that, Florian asked me if I would ever be interested in working in France and I basically said; “who wouldn’t want to work in the south of France near the beach!” But it was a throw away comment, at the time.

“After I resigned in NZ, Florian called me, we talked at length and I made a decision very quickly to go to France.”

Justin Grace
Florian Rousseau has been a regular sight at the track races for a long time, as a rider and a coach.

Why did Florian quit?

“It’s really a question for him, but I know he too had a lot of frustrations with what he wanted to do.”

You live in Paris now – isn’t that an assault on the senses?

“I grew up in a rural town on the typical 1/4 acre section, backyard cricket etc, so Paris is a big change.

“I like to have a workshop for my tools, a backyard, a giant BBQ and a place for the kids to run around. So living in an apartment that’s fractionally bigger than my workshop in our old house in NZ is different.

“But my family and I drive, walk, shop, eat and push in the metro like any other Parisian now.

“I ride my motorbike past the Eiffel Tower and Arc d’Triomphe every day on the way to work and think ‘wow, do we really live in Paris?’

“It really quite awesome and the best bit is my family really love it here. We plan for it to be our home until I retire and the girls leave home!”

How’s the lingo going?

“Petit á petit.I had some lessons

“In 1984 – but after the world champs I will be in school three days each week to better myself.

“I have tried to learn what I need to say in a race, and at training, before anything else. The numbers were critical – gears, distance time, dates all need to be very quick off the tongue.

“But I can go to buy something, fill out forms etc. I’m not yet ready for my first French press conference yet.

“The upside for the riders and staff is their English is now really great!”

I read that the FFC wants two gold medals from the next three Worlds and two Olympic gold medals?

“Ah yes, the old expectations question…yes, it is a target for France to win a minimum of two World champs by Rio and two Gold medals from the track in Rio.”

Monsieur Pervis must give you confidence on that front?

“Of course, François is in the best condition of his life right now, so no one will deny he is a contender, especially as current world champion and world record holder.

“France has good depth beyond François also and we are a managing the progress of those riders to meet the targets set to us.”

Justin Grace
Francois Pervis is one of France’s main hopes for the next few years. Photo©Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

France has a great team sprint tradition – but the Germans have really raised the bar.

“For sure.

“Germany is such a strong sprint nation right now, fast and with depth. They’re very impressive.

“But for the Olympics, our priority event, we must do everything perfectly for the next 30 months.

“Sometimes it might mean being a bit behind our western and northern neighbours but like you said, France has a great sprint tradition.

“We have the talent, the depth, the facilities and will work on the gaps between now and then.”

Can we expect to see a French team pursuit squad reliving the Ermenault days?

“It is a big topic for us right now and I will say yes, the future will be good for France in team pursuit.

“It is a work in progress for us right now, with a lot to do behind the scenes. I am excited to begin this project and have even spoken with M. Ermenault recently and also spent some time with his son.

“Some were worried that as Directeur de la Piste, with my passion for sprinting, I would overlook the endurance events, but it is the opposite.

“It is exciting to work with the riders, set the targets and see them rise to the challenge under our great endurance coaches.”

Isn’t a France v. New Zealand ride going to be tough for you?

“Very – it will happen soon I’m sure.

“When it does, both teams will be lining up with an extra surge of adrenaline and motivation.

“But I am a professional coach and my team is France and I want my team to win, of course.”