The Sazka Tour is basically his home race. This August he will compete here for the ninth time. He is one of the main stars for the local fans. In May, Jan Hirt, of World Tour team Intermaché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux, tasted victory on a mountain stage of the Giro d'Italia, and finished sixth in the overall standings. He sees the four upcoming stages as a great preparation for La Vuelta, which he is travelling to with the highest ambitions.
Honza, what does competing in the most prestigious Czech cycling race, the Sazka Tour, mean for you?
"It is very pleasant to add a bit of variety to the season, which is traditionally very long with a packed calendar. I was always happy to perform in front of the home fans. I'm going for the ninth time, which says it all. The team usually tries to send local cyclists to the races. Thus, if the Sazka Tour was on the program of the team that I happened to ride for, I was usually among those nominated."
Does racing at home bring more pressure due to the expectations and great attention of the fans?
"No, I don’t feel it that way. If you have already managed to get a result in the given season, you can ride at home without any pressure. I’m always ready to enjoy the participation as much as possible. This is exactly how I perceive this year's race. After a very successful Giro d'Italia, I will be stress-free at the Sazka Tour. I'm looking forward. I have never taken it for granted that I will have acquaintances and friends all along the route. It's not a factor that would distract me. Racing at home is really cool."
In 2014 you won the toughest stage of the race, Zábřeh-Šternberk. Do you recall your triumph of eight years ago?
"Back then, this stage used to be the longest on the Sazka Tour. If I remember correctly, Praděd and Dlouhé stráně were not part of the race then. We completed the Ecce Homo climb twice. The circuits ended in Šternberk and I rode the final two in the breakaway. It was just a short ride to the city. They are beautiful memories."
Was it a big career moment?
"It definitely was. It was a victory I greatly appreciated. I didn't have so many victories back then. A year earlier, I had celebrated triumph in a stage of the Tour of Azerbaijan. But winning at home, and such a difficult stage, that's what counts."
What are your ambitions for this year’s Sazka Tour?
"Most often, the Sazka Tour appears in my racing calendar at the beginning of the second part of the season, when I have just a training block after the long racing break. Form is therefore not ideal, which makes me sad. Anyway, I want to try to achieve the best possible result in the overall ranking. And the third stage up Dlouhé Stráne is very attractive – I want to try it."
Dlouhé straně is climbed twice in the final thirty kilometres of the third day. What do you think of the 14.2-kilometre climb with an elevation gain of 900 meters?
"By our standards it’s a nice hill. One of the best and longest in the country. And I consider the fact that the climb is raced twice to be a definite advantage, as it will at least spread out the field more."
Does one of the best climbers on the planet have a guaranteed recipe for conquering the Dlouhé straně with relative ease?
"I don't claim to be an expert on this hill. I've ridden it a few times in my life, it's not exactly my training area. But the recipe is simple: either you have what it takes or you suffer. In a race, it always depends on the starting field, how fast it goes, and therefore what kind of race it dictates. Even a level stage can be hellishly difficult if they ride like crazy. Conversely, you can experience an easy day in the mountains if the racers don't want to push."
The race management does not hide its ambition to move the race to a higher level. From the point of view of a competitor who has been in the peloton for over ten years, is this is a realistic plan?
"I think it’s totally realistic. The profile of the stages is very nice. It is certainly one of the toughest races in the calendar among the given events. And when you add to this that fact that the accommodation and backup and organisation for the Sazka Tour are fine, then the race can certainly move up."
How do you prepare for the four stages of the Sazka Tour?
"After the national championship, which was the last weekend in June, I didn't ride my bike at all for a week. Then I started riding lightly. And then I completed a high-altitude training camp in Andorra. However, I haven’t actually competed for a month and a half. I came straight here from the training camp for the Sazka Tour."
Is it too much of a shock for the body to jump straight into the racing rhythm after such a long break? Especially when you plan to go for the overall ranking?
"It is different every time. This year, after the winter break, I went straight into racing in a great way when I won a stage in Oman. I was in the same position last season before the Sazka Tour. Then too I came after a long break and my form was not great then."
And do you have an explanation as to why sometimes it goes great and other times you find yourself in trouble after returning to competitive riding?
"At the beginning of this year, I trained a lot. I was watching my weight; my legs were in good shape after high-altitude training. I tried to make everything as fine-tuned as possible. In general, the second half of the season doesn’t work out so well for me."
In addition, this year the racing break started after your great performance at the Giro d'Italia, where you finished sixth overall and won a stage. Do you look back a lot?
"The first days after the Giro were full of emotions. But during June I was already looking only ahead. I received a huge number of congratulations for my performance in Italy. I didn't even have time to read all of them by the beginning of the holidays, because the messages were sent to my phone, through Facebook, Instagram, messenger, WhatsApp. There was no chance to respond to everyone who congratulated me."
Did you feel great satisfaction?
"During the previous year, it looked like I was slowly approaching the end of my career. But now everything has been turned upside down. Few expected that I could rouse my performance in such a way. Myself Included. I am extremely happy for this year's Giro. It is a great reward for me and those around me."
Did you doubt yourself and your ability to climb to the top again?
"If I take the 2021 season then... I have to say that I surprised myself."
Did the pandemic, when races were suddenly cancelled, moved and the timing of form was difficult, have an effect on your struggle?
"I struggled with myself. I heard from those around me that things were not right, and I was often asked why I wasn’t performing as well as I used to. And I myself understandably perceived that I was not in a good situation. I felt something was wrong. But the head played the biggest role. I didn't believe in myself."
What helped you most in this situation?
"I worked a little with a psychologist, Mr Šafář from Olomouc. But in the end, you have to figure out what you want. And I told myself that if I'm not going to give cycling one hundred per cent, then it's better to get out of it."
Doesn't such a situation create even more pressure?
"I still had a contract for this year. So I thought I would just take one race at a time and try to enjoy the cycling as much as possible. And if it didn’t work, I would just go and do something else. I was relaxed. I didn't want my possible final year in the saddle to be associated with any suffering. So I actually set myself the task of having fun with cycling and not worrying about whether I would get a contract for the next period. And if things went well, I planned to continue enjoying cycling."
The strategy seems to have worked perfectly.
"Everything really worked out for me. Sometimes I went through an illness that kicked me down a bit. But everything went according to plan. I'm really happy."
Jan Hirt on the Sazka Tour/Czech Tour
2010 – failed to complete
2012 – 9th overall
2013 – 24th overall
2014 – 8th overall / stage win Zábřeh-Šternberk
2015 – 15th overall
2016. – 47th overall
2017 – 5th overall
2021 – 7th overall
Born: 21st January in Třebíč
Race teams: Leopard Trek Continental, Etixx Continental, CCC Sprandi Polkowice, Astana Pro, CCC Team, Intermaché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux
Grand Tours ridden: 9 - Tour de France (1x), Giro di Italia (5x), Vuelta (3x)
Greatest successes: stage win on the Giro di Italia (2022), stage win on the Tour of Oman (2022), stage win on the Tour of Austria (2016), overall winner Tour of Oman (2022), 6th overall on the Giro di Italia (2022), overall winner Tour of Austria (2016).