Interview with a Champion

TEAM LEADER

Dariusz Batek — the most successful cyclist of the CST 7R MTB Team, a repeated champion of Poland, a true team leader. This is probably how you all know Darek, but he is not only just a great sportsman. Read this interview with our champion, where he honestly talks not only about sport.

Your cycling successes comprise a long list of victories in the most important national marathons, winning Polish Championships, representing our country in the World Championships, European Championships, or even the Tour de Pologne, countless medals, etc. If we were to name them all, we would be sitting here much, much longer. Tell me, how did you accomplish all that? How did it all start?

People ask me this question quite often. How did it start? It just happened, quite innocently, my brother rode a bike, competed. I watched him and wanted to imitate him. The rest is as it is. Looking at it now from a greater perspective, the stars aligned right in many situations, but also, I was prepared to make sacrifices, restrain myself, and work hard to make it. Parents’ help is also priceless, as cycling is a difficult and expensive sport, and especially at the beginning the burden of covering costs lies with the parents.

Considering all the circumstances that perhaps the public may not know about, what do you consider to be your greatest success and biggest failure in your entire cycling career?

And this what I call a well-scoped question. You ask about my “cycling career,” but people often ask me about my greatest success in life, expecting a sport-related answer, forgetting that besides being a cyclist, an athlete, I’m also a human being. Success in sport is not always the same as success in general. However, to get back to your question, the greatest success in my career is certainly the world championship medal, but I also value the fact I defended the national title many times. Winning the national championships again and taking the title back after a break gives me much joy. As they say, everyone can win a race, but the trick is to repeat the success. I managed to win the jersey with the Polish emblem over a dozen times and it’s a huge satisfaction. To remain at the highest level for so many years is something. The second part of the question is less pleasant, but much needed. Not only successes, but also failures make us draw conclusions and see the mistakes we’ve made. One of my biggest failures was the 2008 World Championships in the Italian Val di Sole. It was a sports nightmare that comes back and haunts me now and then. At the start of the race, I was as one of the favourites for the medal, as well as the fifth participant in previous World Championships. It was the last stage of our national qualifications for the Olympic Games in Beijing. In Italy, I fought for a single place with the legend of Polish MTB, Marek Galiński. The medal would have given me a ticket to Beijing. Unfortunately, during the race things unexpectedly took a turn for the worse. After a good start, as the race went on it got only more dramatic, and I could not cope with the crises that came one after the other. As a result, I withdrew from the competition and utterly distraught came back home.

You’re an extremely versatile cyclist who has competed for years in MTB championships, as well as road racing events. This versatility, paradoxically, did not allow you to focus on one discipline. Don’t you think you could have achieved more if you had previously decided only on MTB or only on road bicycle racing? Was there such an option at any time at all? And if yes, have you ever considered it seriously?

At a certain period in my career, there were some really cool offers to convert to road cycling. The best offer was to switch to the Italian group, where Maciek Bodnar was already racing at the time. If I had made up my mind then, maybe we’d have ridden together in Bora, but yeah, shoulda, woulda, coulda... The fact is that I felt as good on the road as in MTB, so I didn’t want to give up anything. An additional advantage on the road was the fact that I was able to totally sacrifice myself for the team, which was many times appreciated not only by other cyclists, but also by the directors of the sport groups in which I rode. There’s no use dwelling on the past, and I have to say I’m happy with my choices.

During your career you participated in some great races and were in several major teams. All these years must have resulted not only in wonderful memories, but many relationships as well. Are you particularly good friends with some stars from the cycling peloton?

I was lucky to be able to race with the greatest cyclists of the world peloton, like Lance Armstrong, Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Andre Greipel, Alberto Contador, or Alejandro Valverde. And these are just a couple of people from a long list of names.
One of my best friends is Jacek Morajko, who recently ended his cycling career, but we still keep in touch. In general, cycling is a very small world, so I know virtually all Polish competitors well. People like Michał Kwiatkowski, Michał Gołas, Maciek Bodnar, Marek Rutkiewicz, etc.

Many fans wonder what it’s like behind the scenes of a big race. Give us the details on whatgoes on during the stages, when each day after passing the finish line the teams go to hotels, just to appear at the start in the next city the next morning. It must be exhausting.

Major races, such as the Tour de Pologne, are also huge events. I competed in Tour twice and I was the Head of Polish team twice. One of the Tours was the best Polish team performance at our national race, we won the stage, we had the leader’s jerseys, and a single second place at the stage. Additionally, Tomek Marczyński had a high position in the general classification. The role of the team leader comes down to guiding the team during the race, but also outside it. You must be fully involved and ready to sacrifice in every situation. Sometimes, you lead your colleagues to the front line and do not waiver by an inch, and at other times, you manage energy saving it for a better opportunity. You “read the race” all the time and manage your colleagues, deciding what to do at a given moment, but if needs be, sometimes this means bringing them stuff to drink and eat from the car. Apart from that, throughout the event, you make sure there’s a good atmosphere in the team. The character of stage races makes them build fatigue in people up, sometimes even overnight. Every moment is used to rest, and hence comfortable coaches, masseurs, and the rest of the service. All this, so that the cyclists must do as little as possible outside the race itself.

In general, cycling is probably one of the most demanding and challenging sports. Many cannot withstand this regimen.

That’s right. Cycling is a beautiful sport, but also hard work and taxing lifestyle, and by this I do not mean only for cyclists, but also for their loved ones. A typical day for a professional cyclist starts with a breakfast, then comes a long training session, followed by lack of strength for anything, dinner, and that’s it. That’s your day, rinse and repeat. Furthermore, you’re away for a the most part of the year. This gives a mixture that is not to everyone’s taste, so not everybody’s able to stomach it. People often see only hands raised in victory over the finish lines, or media snapshots from the podium. They can’t see how much work was put into getting there. Moreover, there are really many hard-working cyclists and only one gets to win. Once, with the help of my team CCC, in which I then rode, I finished a road race in second place. I came to the our team coach happy with my position (it was a hard field sprint, and I lost only to the world champion on the track), and Piotrek Wadecki asked why I’m content when I just lost the race. This totally opposite point of view, given by another person, was a turning point that made me become an even better sportsman. “Wadek” was 100% right! As a cyclist, I must always aim for the highest goals, and remember that what can be treated as success for some, can be deemed failure for others.

For many years you were a in the Polish national team, both for mountain biking and road cycling. What does come to your mind when you look at these times? Most athletes treat it as a great distinction and the highest praise.

I have competed countless times for Poland, but I’ve always had and have one rule that many today’s cyclists lack — to wear the Polish jersey, you must represent it with dignity. There were situations when I refused to start in the national team because I knew that my form was far from optimal, and I preferred to give my place to another sportsman out of respect. Some cyclists want to be in the Poland’s national team at any cost, just to say they were, which I think is lame.

National team, many Polish Championship titles, World Championship medal. You got it all during your great career, but there were also some bad times. You’ve already talked about the 2008 World Cup loss, but I’m talking now about something completely different, i.e. last season, when you had serious health issues.

Last year was bizarre. It started like any other, maybe a little harder, but this wasn’t anything new for me. Unfortunately, a lot of things accumulated in June. The psychological burdens associated with a personal tragedy from 2018, physical fatigue, and an unhealed disease caused a situation in which a helicopter had to intervene, taking me from the Czech highway, where I fainted. The body just demanded rest, and I didn’t listen, fuelled by ambitions and a sense of duty towards sponsors, partners, and supporters. This resulted in a two-week stay in a hospital in Łódź and a long return to even average health. I had tears in my eyes, as I watched how the race for the Polish championship in Gdynia developed — unfortunately, all without participating in it. I really wanted to cycle in the white-and-red jersey for the third time in a row, but yeah, what can you do. Sadly, the outlook on the current season isn’t optimistic either. A trip to the training camp in Spain and withdrawal at the last moment was another stress and an incredible burden for me.

It’s good that it’s behind you and you can only focus on sport. What’s a bit worse is that for a long time it was impossible to start, and basically, we still don’t know how the season will go. It may happen that another year goes down the drain. What’s your stand on the current situation?

We have no influence on what is happening now, and if we can’t do anything about it, so there’s no point in complaining. I keep an eye on the situation and wait for any decisions, because so far everything is shifting and changing. Some stuff is starting to come up slowly, but there’s still no specific information. It’s quite depressing to be honest, and I’m really struggling for incentives to train, as I don’t really know what I’m getting ready for.

Today you are the most important member of the CST 7R team — the best cyclist, the head of this team, and sometimes even its trainer. Tell me how cooperation with CST happened, and how eventually a real cycling group was formed.

In the previous team we used CST tires, then I became the brand ambassador. With time, the idea of starting my own team emerged to me. It all started quite naively in 2017. At that time, the group had three cyclists — obviously, there was me, but also Michał Kucewicz and Karol Kucięba. It was then that I regained the title of Polish marathon champion, which I lost after switching to road cycling. This gave more inclination for the group to grow, then another partner joined, i.e. 7R. This allowed the team to be expanded, and the following year we registered it in UCI as a professional group. From just a cyclist, I became a manager, sporting director, and generally the organiser of this venture now known as CST 7R MTB Team. I am proud of what we managed to create together.

Is it really true that you met one of the CEOs of 7R while cycling? Allegedly just one thing led to another, and the rest is history as they say. Today 7R is, next to CST, the titular sponsor of the team.

Yes, it’s true. This is one of these coincidences I was talking about. During one of the UpHill editions organised in Ustroń, I asked Ryszard Gretkowski (Vice President of 7R SA) about his helmet, because he was cycling in the outfits of my previous team, Wibatech. We talked, we got in touch, and we arranged a meeting. This is how our cooperation began.

What do you think about everything that’s been going on in the Polish Cycling Federation in recent years? The constant turmoil and problems in the federation probably aren’t helping the Polish cyclists.

The situation in the federation is strenuous. I don’t think it was that severe ever. And you can complain about the lack of financing, or the debt rising, and so on, but that doesn’t help. And if you can’t help, don’t get in the way, I always say. I’d rather like to commend the ladies working in the federation, that despite such a difficult situation, didn’t abandon cycling matters, and try helping in every possible way. Let’s focus on the positive aspects. If we can’t help solving issues, let’s not complain, because nothing has been ever fixed by whining.

Do you think sometimes about what is there for you after your career? Cycling or something completely different? A few years ago, you had an offer to train the Polish MTB team. Do you want to go down this path, or do you have any other ideas unrelated to cycling or sport at all?

I received the proposal to train the national MTB team more than once, but due to the development of my team, I didn’t decide to take it up at that time, as it’d mean taking on another job. It’d probably lead to the end of my cycling career, and it wasn’t time for that yet. We have a good trainer, Kornel Osicki, with whom I had the opportunity to cycle in the same team. And what will come afterwards? I don’t know. I’d like to stay in the field in which I spent over 20 years of my life. I think a lot of people can benefit from my knowledge and experience.

We’re talking basically only about cycling, and yet Darek Batek is not only a great sportsman. As we conclude this interview, tell us what fascinates you apart from bikes.

Hmm... I’m interested in a lot of things, but currently especially in construction and various innovative building solutions. I’m currently building a house and, apart from cycling, spend a lot of time on a project called my dream home.

Recently, you have certainly proven yourself to be a teacher, because you have a school-aged daughter, and schools have not functioned as usual for three months.

The school year has almost ended, but I must honestly admit that it was my wife who was dealing with lessons with my daughter, Zosia. I only helped with English, D&T, and computer science. In addition, Zosia approached the whole thing quite responsibly, so there was no problem.